Wright was far from sympathetic to the black church. With characters like Bigger’s God-fearing mother, he treats religion as a narcotic that allays black suffering without challenging it, but for 12 Million Black Voices he deploys the hypnotic rhythms of the pulpit to evoke the bare, exposed lives of black people. In a powerful passage on “kitchenettes”—the squalid one-room flats in which families like Bigger’s live—Wright punctuates the stomach-churning photos with a series of staccato paragraphs that continue for seven pages:
The kitchenette blights the personalities of our growing children, disorganizes them, blinds them to hope, creates problems whose effects can be traced in the characters of its child victims for years afterward.
The kitchenette jams our farm girls, while still in their teens, into rooms with men who are restless and stimulated by the noise and lights of the city; and more of our girls have bastard babies than the girls in any other sections of the city.
The kitchenette fills our black boys with longing and restlessness, urging them to run off from home, to join together with other restless black boys in gangs, that brutal form of city courage. (110–11)
This is almost a commentary on the beginning of Native Son, which unfolds in a room exactly like the ones pictured here, with a similar impact on Bigger and his peers.
Wright hit upon the opening scene only after he had written more than half the novel, but it struck exactly the right note. As a piece of urban realism and social criticism, it introduces us not just to the family’s poverty and pinched living conditions but also to Bigger’s violence, rebelliousness, and offhand cruelty. The scene could be described as a rude awakening. It opens with the crude, disruptive sound of an alarm clock; this stands in for the book itself, which Wright hopes will serve as a wake-up call to his genteel readers. The slum building is rat-infested, and the rat that scurries around the room highlights the vulnerability of the family and the squalor in which it is forced to live. But when Bigger chases and kills it we sympathize with the rat, for its trapped situation points us toward the family stuck in this room, the black community locked into the segregated world of the ghetto, and Bigger himself in his later flight from the law. When he is surrounded and hunted down, he will envy the freedom of a rat that can slip easily through a hole in the wall.
But even this scene and the poolroom scenes that follow, all typical of ghetto sociology, introduce touches that will make this novel different. The Bigger who corners and kills the rat, who is surly toward his mother and teases his sister with the rodent’s carcass, is fearless, mischievous, and uncontrollable, a disaster waiting to happen. But he is also a caged animal with few options and a large potential for trouble. “We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you,” his mother tells him.7 With a spell of reform school already behind him, he is taking a job reluctantly as a chauffeur for the Daltons; if he doesn’t look for work, his family will be thrown off relief. In a limited way, he understands his predicament: “Yes, he could take a job at the Daltons and be miserable, or he could refuse it and starve. It maddened him to think that he did not have a wider choice of action” (456).
But Wright is not content with what Bigger thinks about it; he wants us to understand it in a larger way. So he begins a chorus of explanation that will punctuate the novel, introducing a reflective voice in which the insight of the author, articulate and analytical, fuses with the partial awareness of the character, which pulses through his nerves and muscles rather than his conscious thoughts. Violating a cardinal rule of modern fiction, one he himself underscored as the need “to render, depict, not merely to tell the story” (878), Wright set out to explain and explain and explain, elaborating on Bigger’s point of view in ways Bigger himself could never do. The first of these commentaries comes a few pages after the book begins:
He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough. (453)
At first Wright seems too analytical, providing the meaning along with the scene. His initial commentaries are slightly clumsy, but eventually they set a tone for the novel, a meditative air of the tragic and the inexorable. For all of Wright’s suspicion of the black church, they owe a great debt to the way preachers preach, the way their sermons dilate upon texts. As Native Son proceeds, these reflections merge more convincingly with Bigger’s point of view. Later he will structure Black Boy as a series of scenes and lessons, with each vignette brought home by interpretive comments. In Tolstoy’s comparison of the fox and the hedgehog—the fox who knows many things (like Wright’s fluent, versatile rival, Langston Hughes) and the hedgehog who knows one big thing—Wright is the hedgehog. With Bigger he found his one real subject, the extreme psychological stress of being black in America, and the rest of his work became a commentary on it, beginning within the novel itself.
Eventually Wright overreached himself. The “choral” passages in the first two-thirds of the book are very effective, but the last part, especially the courtroom speeches of Bigger’s “progressive” lawyer, Boris Max, breaks down into an expository coda, a series of awkwardly dramatized perspectives on the preceding action. As if this were not enough, Wright went on to write “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” then 12 Million Black Voices, and ultimately Black Boy (American Hunger), in which, as the critic Robert Stepto has observed, he set out to “authenticate” Native Son (just as the selective reminiscences in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” served to authenticate the climate of terror in Uncle Tom’s Children).
Younger black writers, from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to David Bradley, found Bigger Thomas a burden, an albatross around their necks, since this was not a black man they could identify with. Bradley shuddered at the thought of a Bigger Thomas living in his neighborhood. Ellison and Baldwin wondered why their mentor, who had opened a door for them to a large reading public, had not invested himself in a character as complex and subtle as Richard Wright. But even in his autobiographical writings, Wright aimed at something more elemental. Earlier black writers like James Weldon Johnson in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Nella Larsen in Quicksand and Passing, and Langston Hughes in The Ways of White Folks had written about exceptional blacks—some light-skinned enough to pass, others educated and ambitious enough to belong to a cultural elite—who still come to grief on the shoals of prejudice, blind hatred, and their own conflicts of identity. Wright had little interest in the conundrums of W. E. B. Du Bois’s talented tenth or the disappointments of the black middle class. “Well-to-do Negroes lived in a world that was almost as alien to me as the world inhabited by whites,” he wrote in Black Boy.8 Nor would he rest with documenting the miserable lot of the black poor, made worse by the Depression. Only after coming north, he recalls, could he begin to understand Negro life in America “not in terms of external events, lynchings, Jim Crowism, and the endless brutalities, but in terms of crossed-up feeling, of psychic pain.”9 Gaining distance from the world he had grown up in, he found something seething in himself that he was sure every black man shared, something incendiary from which genteel literature and white society had averted their eyes. This was not rage so much as an unspeakable inner tension more explosive than rage.
Bigger experiences whites not as individuals but as a completely alien entity. “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark” (550). Here the dire flood that enveloped everyone in “Down by the Riverside” becomes a metaphor for undifferentiated danger, an alien force that threatens to engulf him. He needs to keep away from it, or shield himself when he comes too close. But even at a distance it instills a “tight morass of fear and shame that sapped at the base of his life” (551).
This becomes clear in the poolroom scenes, which give us an early intimation of how Bigger’s fear and self-hatred flash out into murderous violence. No whites are nearby, only the idea of robbing a white man, just a plan, but this builds up a physical tension in Bigger, a tight knot in the muscles of his stomach. Pulling a knife and pressing it to his friend Gus’s throat, he projects his own terror onto his friend, reducing him to a whimper. Unable to admit his fear, he comes within an inch of killing Gus, just to create a nasty scene that will ensure that the job doesn’t come off. “Confidence could only come to him now through action so violent that it would make him forget.”
Bigger becomes someone else when he half-knowingly murders Mary Dalton, who has toyed with him and inflamed him without really seeing him. He has worn a mask of indifference with the well-meaning Daltons and remained sullen and uncommunicative with Mary and her Communist boyfriend, Jan, when they tried to befriend him. Their clumsy attempts to put him at ease only make him more miserable. This token egalitarianism, a luxury of the rich and radical, heightens the shame of his poverty. His sexual attraction to Mary, which was largely suppressed in the original edition of 1940, seems so futile that he feels effaced in her presence. “He felt he had no physical existence at all, right then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin” (508).
Mary and Jan make love in the back seat of the car as he drives them around, nullifying his humanity as if he simply were not there, or not a real person. When Bigger takes the drunken girl home and puts her to bed, he is nearly overcome by the sheer physical proximity to her—it violates a deep racial taboo. Faced by the “white blur” of her blind mother in the doorway, he smothers Mary out of fear of being found in her room. He will be convicted of rape without having raped her and convicted of murder without having intended to kill her. In a paradoxical twist that makes the novel so original, he accepts responsibility for his deeper wishes as if they were symbolic acts, and feels strangely liberated by his crimes. Native Son becomes a novel about a man who is reborn.
Bigger’s tension is dispelled by his terrible crimes; they become his armor against the world but also his mark on the world. He is now the subject of lurid newspaper stories, the object of a vast manhunt, a figure of fear and the centerpiece of a stagy trial. Bigger’s violence resolves the conflict between who he is and how he is seen, “that constant sense of wanting without having, of being hated without reason,” as Wright describes it in American Hunger (254). Bigger “had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him. He felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this. The hidden meaning of his life—a meaning which others did not see and which he had always tried to hide—had spilled out.” (542) The novel is less about Bigger’s deeds than about the meaning of his life, which his deeds are meant to convey. It is intended to shock and frighten readers just as Bigger’s actions frighten the community.
“Love” is scarcely the right word for what Bigger does to Bessie. If Bigger embodies the unbearable tension of the black male, Bessie stands for the pathos and vulnerability of the black woman he needs yet victimizes. Her world is a round of hard work and misery, alleviated only by drink. To Bigger, newly empowered by having killed, she is merely blind and limited, like his own benighted family. “He felt the narrow orbit of her life: from her room to the kitchen of the white folks was the farthest she ever moved.” On Sunday afternoons, her only day off, she looks for fun, “something to make her feel she was making up for the starved life she led.” For Bigger she is a target of opportunity, someone he uses to release his tension and supply moments of warmth: “She wanted liquor and he wanted her. So he would give her liquor and she would give him herself” (573–74). As Wright sees it, through the lens of his residual Marxism, liquor and fun to Bessie are what religion is to Bigger’s mother, sheer palliatives, the opiates of the downtrodden.
Though the prosecution cares little about the murder of a black woman except to paint Bigger as a monster, Wright makes every effort to link the two crimes. Mary leads Bigger around against his will; he intimidates Bessie into doing his bidding. Bigger neither rapes Mary nor kills her deliberately, but he forces himself on Bessie and then kills her out of fear that she might give him away. Mary is in a drunken stupor when she dies; Bessie drinks to find oblivion, but also because Bigger plays on her weakness. For the prosecutor Mary’s death is all that matters; for Wright, Bessie’s death matters more. If the whole meaning of Bigger’s life spills out in his acts of violence, the whole meaning of Bessie’s life—her passivity, her lack of power over the circumstances of her life—spills out in her death.
One axis of the novel can be seen in pervasive images of fire and snow, heat and cold. Mary’s body burns in the Daltons’ own blazing furnace, which represents their social power and Bigger’s inner turbulence. As the snow covers the city with a white blanket, Bessie freezes to death in the air shaft of an abandoned building, where Bigger has left her for dead after smashing her head in with a brick. As an actual person, now gravely wounded, she simply “did not figure in what was before him” (665). Dying under a symbolic blanket of snow, she is as much the victim of white domination as of black violence; both have rendered her helpless and hopeless. Nothing is more poignant in the book than her token resistance, her passive acceptance of her fate: as Bigger moves to enter her, “he heard her sigh, a sigh he knew, for he had heard it many times before; but this time he heard in it a sigh deep down beneath the familiar one, a sigh of resignation, a giving up, a surrender of something more than her body. [N]ot a word, but a sound that gave forth a meaning of horror accepted” (663–64).
Bessie’s pointless death makes Bigger a reprobate and gives him his only touch of remorse. Yet in the scheme of the novel, she died helpless while he will die free. This is the subject of the third part, “Fate.” Beginning with Wright’s friends and editors who saw Native Son in manuscript, readers have balked at this denouement. There is almost no action. A good deal of what does happen—scenes in Bigger’s cell where the novel’s whole cast of characters improbably assembles, the inquest in which Bessie’s battered body is wheeled in, the speeches at the trial, contrasting the defense attorney’s “progressive” rhetoric with the prosecutor’s lurid demagoguery—fails to meet even the minimum standard of verisimilitude (as Wright himself tacitly acknowledged in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”). Some of this, especially the prosecutor’s vile speech, is a regression to the agitprop writing of Uncle Tom’s Children, and it shows how hard it was for Wright to create a convincing white character.
This material not only feels stagy but indicates to what extent Wright must have conceived the novel as a three-act play. Soon afterward he worked unhappily with the playwright Paul Green to adapt it for the stage, and years later, when he was far too old, he played Bigger in a cheaply produced film version shot in Buenos Aires. If nothing else, this shows Wright’s identification with Bigger, including the Bigger who comes to understand the meaning of his life, as Wright himself thought he did in going north and becoming a writer. Separating himself from his well-meaning lawyer, who sees Bigger simply as a product of his environment, he says, “I didn’t mean to kill! But what I killed for, I am!” (849). The lawyer—whose name, Max, associates him with Marx—recoils from Bigger’s frank confrontation with death, for he is more at ease with Bigger as a symbol of his race and class than as an individual man. Wright’s intuitive existentialism trumps his Marxism: Bigger’s new sense of freedom empowers him to look death in the face.
What Bigger cannot convincingly express, his Jewish lawyer Boris Max and the author try to say for him. Max’s arguments were drastically cut for the first edition (then restored in 1991), but he sounds notes that Wright deemed vital to the novel. “Your Honor,” says Max addressing the court, “remember that men can starve from lack of self-realization as much as they can from lack of bread! And they can murder for it, too!” (820). Murder, like rape, can be symbolic as well as literal. “He has murdered many times, but there are no corpses. Every time he comes in contact with us, he kills! His very existence is a crime against the state!” (821). This reflects something we have already seen: the dawning of Bigger’s sense that he had somehow actually raped Mary, for “every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. [I]t was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day” (658). This was not the rape for which he will be condemned.
Wright’s reading of Bigger’s mind is imprinted on the novel long before Max’s interminable speeches. Bigger “had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the last two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing” (670). Strangely, he felt empowered by this, though he knew it would destroy him. “He had done this. He had brought all this about.” Never before had he felt this sense of agency, or felt so fully alive. Even in desperate flight “he was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions” (669–70). Earlier his life had been “a strange labyrinth” to him, “a chaos,” divided between what he daily confronted and what he felt. “Only under the stress of hate was the conflict resolved” (670).
The alternative to this hate, the alternative to rape and murder as Wright sees it, is Bigger’s thwarted longing for a fully human life, for “that sense of fulness he had so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies” (583). It confronts Bigger in the comfort and security of the Daltons’ home, a state of mind he has never known. In his dreams of escape Bigger feels “a certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live” (598). Wright lends Bigger what must be his own “deep yearning for a sense of wholeness,” which he feels even in the black religion and church music he despises. The last part of Native Son is Wright’s attempt to take Bigger beyond hatred and violence, beyond race and poverty, “beyond category” (as Duke Ellington liked to put it), and to allow him to become, just before his death, a human being. Bigger’s deepest regret at the end, foreshadowing Ellison’s Invisible Man, is in the thought of going to his death “feeling and thinking that they didn’t see me and I didn’t see them” (845).
Wright had first created a Bigger who could shock the world into a visceral awareness of black pain and black rage. Combining introspection with social reportage, he turned him into a dire warning, an apocalyptic prophecy. Bigger is a great character but a generic one like “Mann” or “Black Boy,” not exactly a flesh and blood human being. James Baldwin later complained that “we know as little about him when this journey is ended as we did when it began.”10 But he is more a vehicle than an individual: his rage and fear, his inner conflicts, his frustration and capacity for violence, are meant to plumb the black male psyche. Wright provides Bigger not only with his own racial awareness but with his literary ambition of assaulting his readers, getting under their skin. Before he is captured, Bigger imagines the impact of his crimes on the white public: he relishes “the keen thrill of startling them.” “He wished that he could be an idea in their minds,” that his gory deeds “could hover before their eyes as a terrible picture of reality which they could see and feel and yet not destroy” (565). This was the picture presented by Native Son itself, which so startled American readers in 1940.
But in a striking if not entirely believable turnabout, Wright ends with Bigger at peace with himself, beyond rage. “He was not stoop-shouldered now, nor were his muscles taut. He breathed softly, wondering about the cool breath of peace that hovered in his body. It was as though he were trying to listen to the beat of his own heart” (781). Facing execution “he had to weave his feelings into a hard shield of either hope or hate.” This redeemed Bigger chooses hope, which Wright thinks could take him beyond race onto the terrain of a common humanity. Does this surprising turn stem from the remains of Wright’s Marxism? Is he substituting his own dream of moving beyond race for the thinking of a character less articulate, less self-conscious than he is? “For the first time in his life he had gained a pinnacle of feeling upon which he could stand and see vague relations that he had never dreamed of.” Bigger wonders: what if “that white looming mountain of hate were not a mountain at all, but people, people like himself, and like Jan”? Many readers have found this scarcely credible. In a review of Chester Himes’s Lonely Crusade, Baldwin described Bigger as a man “gone to his death cell, inarticulate and destroyed by his need for identification and for revenge, and with only the faintest intimation in that twilight of what had destroyed him and of what his life might have been.”11 This may be an unlikely turn for the brutish Bigger, but it is just the self-knowledge Wright has in mind. Wright fuses a Marxist universalism that looks beyond race with a nascent existentialism of his own making, leading toward self-realization. Together they point Native Son, an otherwise dark and violent book, toward a surprisingly hopeful recognition of common humanity.