Native Son


Book Three: “Fate”


Bigger’s Cell (271- 310)

The Inquest (310-340)

Interview with Max (341- 363)

The Trial (363- 418)

Max’s Speech (382-415)       

Bigger Achieves Consciousness (418)



Summarize the action of Books One and Two, and then describe Bigger’s situation at the beginning of Book Three:

Define “Fate”


a)   Hard Determinist (Marxist): An individual’s situation in life determines his character and destiny; all you can do is recognize it. In situations of poverty exacerbated by racism, most individuals are so beaten down by the surround and twisted by self-hatred that they lash out at one another rather than discover their power as a collective. Even if an individual achieves insight into the real causes of oppression, alone he cannot alter his situation or transform the behavior that results from it. Alone, you are trapped. Only a massive, class movement, which imposes socialism and thus transforms the environment can accomplish that change.  

b)  Soft Determinist (Liberal): Environmental forces can be powerful, but the individual still possesses the necessary autonomy to exercise free will and thus assume moral responsibility for his actions. Escape from the shaping forces of poverty and racism, though, requires consciousness: a perspective on reality which permits the rational application of will. Fate, in this understanding of the human situation, describes that moment when we come to grips with the facts of life and take responsibility for our actions. In this conception of “Fate”, we may not be in complete control of our actions but we begin to contest fate only when we take responsibility for our actions..

c)  What is Wright’s conception of Fate? Remember that Oedipus chooses to accept responsibility for his deeds. Even though every act he took led inexplicably to the fulfillment of the prophecy, Oedipus chooses to search for the murderer until the truth is uncovered, and finally he accepts responsibility for what he has done. For Sophocles, this is the mighty first step we all must take in achieving insight into the moral dilemmas we all must face.


Can Bigger achieve insight into the truth of his situation?

What kind of punishment does Bigger deserve?

Can we both fated and responsible?

The Action of Book Three:


Again, just as in Books One and Two, the action takes place on a psychological level. Can Bigger grasp the meaning and significance of his actions and thereby come to an understanding of who he is and what he has done? What obstacles must he overcome to gain a true understanding of what it means to be a black man in a racist society? As death looms closer and closer, Bigger gradually learns to articulate his thoughts and feelings rationally through the help of his lawyer, Max. In so doing, Bigger not only rejects the different masks which people from various ideological perspectives try to foist upon him, but he also embraces the persona which he has created for himself.


            1. The Right: the beast

            2. The Left: the victim

            3. The Center: a character chosen in action


Wright argues that Bigger and the white society that has created him must undergo the same rational processing of fear, shame and guilt to dispel racism.


Bigger’s Cell: (pp. 271- 310)

In another surreal scene, it seems like all of Chicago crowds into Bigger’s jail cell, and everyone tries to explain to him how he should think about what he has done and what he should do now. (Buckley, Jan, Max, the Daltons, and, finally, his whole family all crowd into his tiny cell.)


Wright’s purpose? Each person attempts to impose on Bigger his or her own ideological understanding of Bigger’s actions.


At first he is alone. What thoughts bring Bigger back to life?

- The fear of death (274)

- The old struggle against the white racist’s conception of him. He still wants to find another way to perceive himself without dreading his blackness. (QUOTE 275)

And, under and above it all, there was the fear of death before which he was naked and without defense; he had to go forward and meet his end like any other living thing upon the earth. And regulating his attitude toward death was the fact that he was black, unequal, and despised. Passively, he hungered for another orbit between two poles that would let him live again; for a new mode of life that would catch him up with the tension of hate and love. There would have to hover above him, like the stars. in a full sky, a vast configuration of images and symbols whose magic and power could lift him up and make him live so intensely that the dread of being black and unequal would be forgotten; that even  death would not matter, that it would be a victory. This would have to happen before he could look them in the face again: a new pride and a new humility would have to be born in him, a humility springing from a new identification with some part of the world in which he lived, and this identification forming the basis for a new hope that would function in him as pride and dignity. (275)

- His own pride: he wants to frustrate the white effort to make a spectacle of his trial. (278)

Unless he takes action, how will the white world define him at his trial?

- Racist Newspaper articles (279-281): a jungle beast

- How does Rev. Hammond understand what he has done?

- Can Bigger achieve self-understanding through religion?

- The mercy of Lawd Jesus: “the old voice of his mother telling of suffering, hope and love beyond this world.” (282)

- Bigger is “a po’ sinner boy who stan’s in deep need of [mercy]” (283)

- Bigger’s response? “He had killed within himself the preacher’s haunting picture of life even before he had killed Mary.” (284)


Why does Jan excuse what Bigger has done to him and to Mary?

- What view of Bigger’s crime should a Communist take?

- Jan excuses what Bigger has done and wants to help him.

- Jan apologizes for his ignorant and condescending good will. For the first time he recognizes the depth of the chasm between white and black and the force of social stereotype. (288)

- Bigger’s reaction: For the first time in his life, a white man had become human for him. (289

-     Why does Max (the Communist from the Labor Defenders' organization) want to defend him?

“I’m convinced that men like [Buckley] made him what he is.” (292)

-    What does Max say about the Dalton’s liberal philanthropic efforts to help the poor?

“My God, man, will ping-pong tables keep men from murdering?" (294-95)

-    How does Bigger react when he sees the shame of his family?

- At first, he acutely senses their shame and then he feels this wild outlandish surge of pride in what he has done: “They ought to be glad!” (296)

- How does he respond to his mother’s plea that he seek repentance? First, he says, “Forget me, Mom”, and then he gives in and tells her, “I’ll pray.” (300)

-    How does Buckley coerce Bigger into giving his confession?

- By telling him of Bessie’s death through freezing, and then threatening to charge him with other crimes that he has not committed.

- Bigger’s Response?  Bigger thinks about how badly he wants to tell his story. He wishes that he could describe the deep choking hatred that had consumed his life, how he had felt when Jan shook his hand, how Mary had made him feel…. But he cannot find the words for it. (310-11)


The Inquest (pp. 310-343)


What does Buckley turn the coroner’s inquest into?

- An inquest is supposed to be a legal inquiry into whether a crime has been committed which should proceed by determining the cause and manner of death, but this inquest becomes the opportunity for the prosecutors to incite mob violence.

-     How can we explain the mob’s virulent hatred?

- Max will say (385) that they hate because deep down they feel responsible.

-     How does Bigger respond when the coroner unveils Bessie’s ruined body? (330-31)

- He feels compassion for Bessie as her corpse is subjected to its humiliating designation as evidence. Bessie, his lover, no longer exists. She has been utterly defined by the whites.

The black girl was merely evidence. And under it all he knew that the white people did not really care about Bessie’s being killed. …He knew that Bessie, too, though dead, though killed by him, would resent her dead body being used in this way. (330-31)

-   Why does the press return Bigger to the scene of the crime?

- How does Bigger frustrate their hopes? “You can’t make me do nothin’ but die.”(336)

-    What does Bigger throw away the cross that his mother gave him?

-After seeing the burning cross lit in the Dalton’s neighborhood, Bigger declares, “I ain’t got no soul.” (338)

-     How does the madman placed in Bigger’s cell explain their situation?

-  Insanity is the natural result of crowded housing, bad food, exorbitant prices, poor schools and hospitals. This man has gone mad because he believes that he has discovered the key to why colored folk are treated badly—but he has lost the key! (342-43)


Interview with Max (pp. 344- 363)


-    Towards what understanding of his crime does Max try to lead Bigger?

-  For the first time, someone encourages Bigger to talk through what happened, to explain how he felt on the night of the murders, and Bigger has to work hard to put his feelings into words.

-    Max wants Bigger to reach the conclusion that he defied the whites in this act of violence. Is that true? (351)

- But the truth is more complicated than that. Bigger acknowledges that he felt physically attracted to Mary, yet he simultaneously hated her and feels no remorse for having killed her because “She made me feel like a dog.” (351) She came on to him, and Bigger felt like she was attracted by his blackness, not him, so when he felt attracted to her, it seemed like he was conforming to racist fantasies about blacks desiring white women.

- Bigger also begins to describe the feelings of fear and hatred that had driven him to acts of violence in the past. (352)

- Bigger even is able to explain why he feels no remorse for either crime and even feels glad that he did it. (354)

I don't know. Maybe this sounds crazy. Maybe they going to burn me in the electric chair for feeling this way. But I ain't worried none about them women I killed. For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right. Maybe God'll get me for it. If He do, all right. But I ain't worried. I killed 'em 'cause I was scared and mad. But I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn't scared no more for a little while. (354)

- Finally, Bigger explains why he never found any solace in religion. Why was that? (355)

How does Bigger take his first steps towards understanding?

-  Processing the interview: (359) After Bigger speaks with Max, he feels for the first time in his life that there may be a way of seeing himself and his relation to the world in a manner which is not determined by racial stereotype.

He stood up in the middle of the cell floor and tried to see himself in relation to other men, a thing he had always feared to try to do, so deeply stained was his own mind with the hate of others for him. With this new sense of the value of himself gained from Max's talk, a sense fleeting and obscure, he tried to feel that if Max had been able to see the man in him beneath those wild and cruel acts of his, acts of fear and hate and murder and flight and despair, then he too would hate, if he were they, just as now he was hating them and they were hating him. For the first time in his life he felt ground beneatb his feet, and he wanted it to stay there. (361

What does Bigger decide that he must do before he dies?

- He starts to believe that simply talking about what he has done and why might help him find a way to face his death with dignity. (362)


The Trial (pp. 363- 418)

-  Remember Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics:

To convict someone of a crime, one must be able to say 'yes' to each of the following questions:

Intention: Did the accused intend to do the crime?
Knowledge: Did the accused understand that what he did was wrong?
Volition: Did the accused have the ability to do otherwise?

- How does Buckley make his case for Bigger’s execution? (372-375)

- He was responsible for his actions. He committed an unnatural, vile offense against God and man, an evil crime committed to satisfy bestial desires. If a man is sane enough to commit a crime, is he not sane enough to be punished for it? (374)


What is Max’s case for mercy (375-77)

- Bigger pleads guilty instead of pleading insanity so that Max can make his case for

.mitigating circumstances to reduce punishment. (371) Bigger’s youth and state of mind when he committed the killings must also be considered.

-  Follow carefully the logic of Max’s eloquent defense of Bigger.

- If you disagree with Max’s conclusions, can you point to the specific place in his argument which is flawed?  

- According to Max, what was his motive for killing?

- How accurate is his understanding of what really happened between Bigger and Mary and then between Bigger and Bessie?

There was no motive as motive is conventionally understood. Max argues that Bigger's crime was a reflex, a wholly determined result of a sequence of cause and effect far beyond his ability to understand or control.

What motive actuated Bigger Thomas? There was no motive as motive is understood under our laws today, Your Honor. I shall go deeper into this when I sum up. It is because of the almost instinctive nature of these crimes that I say that the mental and emotional life of this boy is important in deciding his punishment. (377)


Max’s Final Summation (382-415)   


How can Max argue that this murder case is ‘symbolic’?

-  He enlarges the context of this trial to national proportions:  (QUOTE: Peroration: 382-83)

-  This case is different: a symbol of a national problem. (383)

Your Honor, never in my life have I risen in court to make a plea with a firmer conviction in my heart. I know that what I have to say here today touches the destiny of an entire nation. My plea is for more than one man and one people. Perhaps it is in a manner fortunate that the defendant has committed one of the darkest crimes in our memory; for if we can encompass the life of this man and find out what has happened to him, if we can understand how subtly and yet strongly his life and fate are linked to ours-- if we can do this, perhaps we shall find the key to our future, that rare van­tage point upon which every man and woman in this nation can stand and view how inextricably our hopes and fears of today create the exultation and doom of tomorrow.

Your Honor, I have no desire to be disrespectful to this Court, but I must be honest. A man's life is at stake. And not only is this man a criminal, but he is a black criminal. And as such, he comes into this court under a handicap, notwithstanding our pre­tensions that all are equal before the law.

This man is different even though his crime differs from simi­lar crimes only in degree. The complex forces of society have isolated here for us a symbol, a test symbol. The prejudices of men have stained this symbol, like a germ stained for examination under the microscope. The unremitting hate of men has given us a psy­chological distance that will enable us to see this tiny social symbol in relation to our whole sick social organism.

I say, Your Honor, that the mere act of understanding Bigger Thomas will be a thawing out of icebound impulses, a dragging of the sprawling forms of dread out of the night of fear into the light of reason, an unveiling of the unconscious ritual of death in which we, like sleep-walkers, have participated so dreamlike and thought­lessly. (382-83)


-  What does Max argue is the real purpose of this trial?

- This trial is not a sober judgment of evidence but an act of irrational vengeance driven by mob rage. (384)… the racist, lynch mob atmosphere surrounding the case indicate that even more than revenge is being sought… It is an attack on Negro population and an attack on the Communist party (385)

-   Whose interest is served by the wild actions of the mob?

- The establishment seeks to exploit the crime for its own ends: re-election of the States Attorney will mean a crack down on demonstrations for relief, troops can be used against strikers, and social service budgets cut. (386)

-   What is the secret cause of such virulent racial hatred? THESIS

There is guilt in the rage that demands that this man's life be snuffed out quickly! There is fear in the hate and impatience which impels the action of the mob congregated upon the streets beyond that window! Each of them-- the mob  and the  mob-masters; the wire-pullers and the frightened; the leaders and their pet vassals­ know and feel that their lives are built upon a historical deed of wrong against many people, people from whose lives they have bled their leisure and their luxury! Their feeling of guilt is as deep as that of the boy who sits here on trial today. Fear and hate and guilt are the keynotes of this drama! (386)


-  To avoid a travesty of justice, the crime must be understood rationally; otherwise our emotions will be manipulated and used. The origins of racism can be found in this deep-seated guilt, and the mechanism of racism can only be understood by locating Bigger’s crime within its true historical context.


-  How was the mode of Bigger’s life originally created?


We must deal here with the raw stuff of life, emotions and impulses and attitudes as yet unconditioned by the strivings of sci­ence and civilization. We must deal here with a first wrong which, when committed by us, was understandable and inevitable; and then we must deal with the long trailing black sense of guilt stem­ming from that wrong, a sense of guilt which self-interest and fear would not let us atone. And we must deal here with the hot blasts of hate engendered in others by that first wrong, and then the monstrous and horrible crimes flowing from that hate, a hate which has seeped down into the hearts and molded the deepest and most delicate sensibilities of multitudes. (387)

- The first wrong was committed long ago in a situation which made that wrong understandable and from which all the force of racial hatred has developed: a dislocation of life involving millions: the slave trade..(388)

- Yet, Max will not appeal to emotions by recounting the long history of the brutal crimes committed to keep blacks in bondage and then in economic subservience. That would appeal to the feelings of guilt that are at the root of this social problem. Guilt produces evasive hatred and violence. People hate when they fear as well, when the deepest feelings of their lives are outraged. (390) But that is no way out!  Instead Max will appeal to our reason. (388)


Allow me, Your Honor, before I proceed to cast blame and ask for mercy, to state emphatically that I do not claim that this boy is a victim of injustice, nor do I ask that this Court be sympathetic with him. That is not my object in embracing his character and his cause. It is not to tell you only of suffering that I stand here today, even though there are frequent lynchings and floggings of Negroes throughout the country. If you react only to that part of what I say, then you, too, are caught as much as he in the mire of blind emo­tion, and this vicious game will roll on, like a bloody river to a bloodier sea. Let us banish from our minds the thought that this is an unfortunate victim of injustice. The very concept of injustice rests upon a premise of equal claims, and this boy here today makes no claim upon you. If you think or feel that he does, then you, too, are blinded by a feeling as terrible as that which you condemn in him, and without as much justification. The feeling of guilt which has caused all of the mob-fear and mob-hysteria is the counterpart of his own hate.


Rather, I plead with you to see a mode of life in our midst, a mode of life stunted and distorted, but possessing its own laws and claims, an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people. I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by all our hands. I ask you to recognize the laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them. If we do none of these, then we should not pretend horror or surprise when thwarted life expresses itself in fear and hate and crime.


-   Why does Max not condemn the original slavers? Why does he refer to slavery not as social injustice but as an accomplished fact of life?


Our forefathers came to these shores and faced a harsh and wild country. They came here with a stifled dream in their hearts, from lands where their personalities had been denied, as even we have denied the per­sonality of this boy. They came from cities of the old world where the means to sustain life were hard to get or own. They were colonists and they were faced with a difficult choice: they had either to subdue this wild land or be subdued by it. We need but turn our eyes upon the imposing sweep of streets and factories and buildings to see how completely they have conquered.  But in conquering they used others, used their lives. Like a miner using a pick or a car­penter using a saw, they bent the will of others to their own. Lives to them were tools and weapons to be wielded against  a hostile land and climate. (389)

- History is determined, according to the Marxist, by huge macro-economic forces. Max wants us to think of Bigger not as the victim of injustice; rather, he wants us to understand the mode of life history created for him. (388)

- The colonists needed to subdue a harsh land and had to use lives to do it. (389)

- No moral condemnation. Men do what they must in order to survive.  The enslavement of Africans extended throughout vast territories, involved millions of people, and lasted over a period of two hundred years: that is not an injustice, but rather an accomplished fact of history. (391)

- Slavery only ended with the invention of machinery (the mechanical cotton picker) which made slavery and sharecropping economically obsolete.(389)


-    What is the historical result of such long-term oppression?


- Resistance to oppression finds expression in crime.  

- To kill Bigger would ensure the perpetuation of similar crimes. Bigger’s crime existed long before he killed Mary. It was born of hatred bred from resentment and estrangement which finally found objective form


 -     How can Max argue that the execution of Bigger would make the problem worse?

Do you think that the white daughters in the homes of America will be any safer if you kill this boy? No! I tell you in all solemnity that they won't! The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control. (391)


But, Your Honor, I say: 'Stop! Let us look at what we are doing!' For the corpse is not dead! It still lives! It has made itself a home in the wild forest of our great cities, amid the rank and chok­ing vegetation of slums! It has forgotten our language! In order to live it has sharpened its claws! It has grown hard and calloused! It has developed a capacity for hate and fury which we cannot under­stand! Its movements are unpredictable! By night it creeps from its lair and steals toward the settlements of civilization! And at the sight of a kind face it does not lie down upon its back and kick up its heels playfully to be tickled and stroked. No; it leaps to kill!  (392)


-   Why do liberal efforts to address the problem of poverty make the problem even worse?

- The ghetto underclass (392-93) remains isolated.

- Liberals salve their guilt by arguing that they tried to help and their help has been ineffectual.

- And when Liberal efforts to salve guilt are met with violence, should we be shocked?


-    What is so peculiar about the situation of America’s blacks in 1940?


Consider, Your Honor, the peculiar  position  of this  boy.  He comes of a people who have lived under queer conditions of life, conditions thrust outside the normal circle of our civilization. But even in living outside of our lives, he has not had a full life of his own. We have seen to that. It was convenient to keep him close to us; it was nice and cheap. We told him what to do; where to live; how much schooling he could get; where he could eat; where and what kind of work he could do. We marked up the earth and said, 'Stay there!' But life is not stationary. (394)


1. We keep him close because we can use his unskilled labor, but we keep him in a segregated ghetto.

2. We educate him but restrict his opportunities.

3. We dangle the material rewards of civilization before him but deny him the opportunity to possess them.


-    How can Max argue that Bigger’s killing of Mary was not an action but a reflex?


This is the case of a man's mistaking a whole race of men as a part of the natural structure of the universe and of his acting toward them accordingly. He mur­dered Mary Dalton accidentally, without thinking, without plan, without conscious motive....We are dealing here with an impulse stemming from deep down. We are dealing here not with how man acts toward man, but with how a man acts when he feels that he must defend himself against, or adapt himself to, the total natural world in which he lives. The central fact to be understood here is not who wronged this boy, but what kind of a vision of the world did he have before his eyes, and where did he get such a vision as to make him, without premeditation, snatch the life of another person so quickly and instinctively that even though there was an element of accident in it, he was willing after the crime to say: 'Yes; I did it. I had to. (395-96)


- To Bigger, Mary was not human. His crime was not a retaliation against individuals, but an instinctive reflex based upon a mistaken belief that the white race is part of the natural structure of the universe.

- Bigger accepted his crime: the first full act of his life; he felt real; he feels no remorse; he killed because he felt he had to. A soldier’s motivation to kill. A normal response was impossible. Mary’s kindness was interpreted as mockery and hatred.

- Is Max right? Has he accurately described what happened?


-   Max argues that the problem of racism threatens the whole American experiment.

Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times....Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights.  Do you think that you can kill one of them-- even if you killed one every day in the year-- and make the others so full of fear that they would not kill? No! Such a foolish policy has never worked and never will. The more you kill, the more you deny and separate, the more will they seek another form and way of life, however blindly and unconsciously. (397) 


- Why? The Negro race = Bigger multiplied 12 million times, a separate nation stunted, stripped and held captive. (397)


-  What are the natural rights of man according to Max?

- Meaningful work, the capacity to be, to live, and to act; Self-realization.

- Deny humans this happiness, and we create wailing ghosts, uprooted trees, and murderers. (399)


-   Did Bigger murder? (399-400)


Oh, yes; Mary Dalton is dead. Bigger Thomas smothered her to death. Bessie Mears is dead. Bigger Thomas battered her with a brick in an abandoned building. But did he murder? Did he kill? Listen: what Bigger Thomas did early that Sunday morning in the Dalton home and what he did that Sunday night in that empty building was but a tiny aspect of what he had been doing all his life long! He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. The actions that resulted in the death of those two women were as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one's eyes. (400)

- No. He was living the only way he knew how, the way we have forced him to live. (400)

- An act of creation! His very existence is a crime against the state.


-  Was Bigger capable of loving Bessie? (401)


But, one might ask, did he not love Bessie? Was she not his girl? Yes; she was his girl. He had to have a girl, so he had Bessie. But he did not love her. Is love possible to the life of a man I've described to this Court? Let us see. Love is not based upon sex alone, and that is all he had with Bessie. He wanted more, but the circumstances of his life and her life would not allow it. And the temperament of both Bigger and Bessie kept it out. Love grows from stable relationships, shared experience, loyalty, devotion, trust. Neither Bigger nor Bessie had any of these....  Their brief moments together were for purposes of sex.... There existed between them fitful splurges of physical elation!; that's all. (401)


- Love is only possible from stable relationships, shared experiences, loyalty devotion and trust. Between Bigger and Bessie could only exist ‘fitful splurges of elation’ (402); “his whole life was one long craving for satisfaction with the objects of satisfaction denied.”

-  Is Max right? Has he described Bigger accurately?


-   Max’s Conclusion (402-405)

The consciousness of Bigger Thomas, and millions of others more or less like him, white and black, according to the weight of the pressure we have put upon them, form the quicksands upon which the foundations of our civilization rest. Who knows when some slight shock, dis­turbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspira­tion, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?  Does that sound fantastic? I assure you that it is no more fantastic than those troops and that waiting mob whose presence and guilty anger por­tend something which we dare not even think!.... Your Honor, another civil war in these states is not impossi­ble; and if the misunderstanding of what this boy's life means is an indication of how men of wealth and property are misreading the consciousness of the submerged millions today, one may truly come. (402)


-  Why should Bigger be sent to prison?

- The nation’s stability does not rest on firm foundations.

- Prison confers upon Bigger life and identity, purpose, structure, a better environment. If we kill him, we might as well kill all young blacks.


-   Mercy honors the two fundamental concepts of our civilization:


I say, Your Honor, give this boy his life. And in making this concession we uphold those two fundamental concepts of our civi­lization, those two basic concepts upon which we have built the mightiest nation in history-- personality and  security-- the conviction that the person is inviolate and that which sustains him is equally so. (405)


- The person is inviolate.

- That which sustains him is equally so.


-    Buckley’s Final Speech:

- Law embodies the will of the people.

- The death penalty deters crime and protects order.

- The sanctity of life and the order of society demand punishment.

- Civilization itself emerged from barbarity through obedience to the law.


Bigger Achieves Consciousness



When tired of mulling over his feelings, he would say to himself that it was he who was wrong, that he was no good. If he could have really made himself believe that, it would have been a solution. But he could not convince himself. His feelings clamored for an answer his mind could not give.

All his life he had been most alive, most himself when he had felt things hard enough to fight for them; and now here in this cell he felt more than ever the hard central core of what he had lived. 

As the white mountain had once loomed over him, so now the black wall of death loomed closer with each fleeting hour. But he could not strike out blindly now; death was a different and bigger adversary. (419)




There was silence. Max was at his side. The man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope was there. Well, why didn't he speak now? Here was his chance, his last chance. He lifted his eyes shyly to Max's; Max was looking at him. Bigger looked off. What he wanted to say was stronger in him when he was alone; and though he imputed to Max the feelings he wanted  to  grasp,  he could not talk of them to Max until he had forgotten  Max's presence. Then fear that he would not be able to talk about this con­suming fever made him panicky. He struggled for self-control; he did not want to lose this driving impulse; it was all he had. And in the next second he felt that it was all foolish, useless, vain. He stopped trying, and in the very moment he stopped, he heard him­ self talking with tight throat, in tense, involuntary whispers; he was trusting the sound of his voice rather than the sense of his words to carry his meaning. (421)



"I remembered all them questions you asked me. . . ."


"What questions?"  Max asked, coming  and  sitting again  on the cot.


"That night. . . ."


"What night, son?"


Max did not even know.  Bigger felt that he had been slapped. Oh, what a fool he had been to build hope upon such shifting sand! But he had to make him know!


"That night you asked me to tell all about myself," he whim­pered despairingly.




He saw Max look at the floor and frown. He knew that Max was puzzled.


"You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man. . . ." (423)



"Mr. Max, I sort of saw myself after that night. And I sort of saw other people, too." Bigger's voice died; he was listening to the echoes of his words in his own mind. He saw amazement and horror on Max's face. Bigger knew that Max would rather not have him talk like this; but he could not help it. He had to die and he had to talk. "Well, it's sort of funny, Mr. Max. I ain't try­ing to dodge what's coming to me." Bigger was growing hysteri­cal. "I know I'm going to get it. I'm going to die. Well, that's all right now. But really I never wanted to hurt nobody. That's the truth, Mr. Max. I hurt folks 'cause I felt I had to; that's all. They was crowding me too close; they wouldn't give me no room. Lots of times I tried to forget 'em, but I couldn't. They wouldn't let me. . . ." Bigger's eyes were wide and unseeing; his voice rushed on: "Mr. Max, I didn't mean to do what I did. I was trying to do something else. But it seems like I never could. I was always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it. So I fought 'em. I thought they was hard and I acted hard." He paused, then whimpered in confession, "But I ain't hard, Mr. Max. I ain't hard even a little bit . . . ." He rose to his feet. "But. . . . I-I won't be crying none when they take me to that chair. But I'll b-b-be feeling inside of me like I was cry­ing. . . . I'll be feeling and thinking that they didn't see me and I didn't see them. . .." He ran to the steel door and caught the bars in his hands and shook them, as though trying to tear the steel from its concrete moorings. Max went to him and grabbed his shoulders.


"Bigger," Max said helplessly.


Bigger grew still and leaned weakly against the door.


"Mr. Max, I know the folks who sent me here to die hated me; I know that. B-b-but you reckon th- they was like m-me, trying to g-get something like I was, and when I'm dead and gone they'll be saying  like I'm  saying  now  that  they  didn't  mean  to  hurt nobody . . . th-that they was t-trying to get something, too. . . .  " (425)




"Bigger, the people who hate you feel just as you feel, only they're on the other side of the fence. You're black, but that's only a part of it. Your being black, as I told you before, makes it easy for them to single you out. Why do they do that? They want the things of life, just as you did, and they're not particular about how they get them. They hire people and they don't pay them enough; they take what people own and build up power. They rule and regulate life. They have things arranged so that they can do those things and the people can't fight back. They do that to black people more than others because they say that black people are inferior. But, Bigger, they say that all people who work are inferior. And the rich people don't want to change things; they'll lose too much. But deep down in them they feel like you feel, Bigger, and in order to keep what they've got, they make themselves believe that men who work are not quite human. They do like you did, Bigger, when you refused to feel sorry for Mary. But on both sides men want to live; men are fighting for life. Who will win? Well, the side that feels life most, the side with the most humanity and the most men. That's why . . . y-you've got to b-believe in yourself, Bigger. . . ."


Max's head jerked up in surprise when Bigger laughed.


"Aw, I reckon I believe in myself. . . . I ain't  got nothing else. . . . I got to die . . . ."


He stepped over to Max. Max was leaning against the window.


 "Mr. Max, you go home. I'm all right. . . . Sounds funny, Mr. Max, but when I think about what you say I kind of feel what I wanted. It makes me feel I was kind of right. . . ."


Max opened his mouth to say something and Bigger drowned out his voice.


"I ain't trying to forgive nobody and I ain't asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain't going to cry. They wouldn't let me live and I killed. Maybe it ain't fair to kill, and I reckon I really didn't want to kill. But when I think of why all the killing was, I begin to feel what I wanted, what I am. . . ."


Bigger saw Max back away from him with compressed lips. But he felt he had to make Max understand how he saw things now.


"I didn't want to kill!" Bigger shouted. "But what I killed for, I am! It must've been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder. . . ."


Max lifted his hand to touch Bigger, but did not.


"No; no; no. . . . Bigger, not that. . . ." Max pleaded despair­ingly.


"What I killed for must've been good!" Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. "It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something. . . . I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em. . . . It's the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, 'cause I'm going to die. I know what I'm saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I'm all right. I feel all right when I look at it that way. . . "


Max's eyes were full of terror. Several times his body moved nervously, as though he were about to go to Bigger; but he stood still. (428-29)


Has Bigger found a way of seeing what he has done which will allow him to die with dignity?


By finding something good in what he has done, has Bigger embraced  moral relativism? 
Or has he finally achieved a realistic vision of his own responsibility for what he has done?

How does Wright define human responsibility? Is his vision still deterministic?

Not only does he reject the conception of himself as black beast, the nightmarish brute of white racist fantasy, but he has also refused to be defined by a struggle to resist that stereotype. 

Furthermore, he is not a representative case of the “Negro Problem”, a symbol of the problems of urban America. 

No, he is an individual who has acted under the influence of terrible forces brought to bear in extraordinary circumstances, yet he accepts responsibility for his choice: acknowledging the good and the bad of his violent response to his situation.

Summarize the action of Books One and Two, and then describe Bigger’s situation at the outset of Book Three:


Books One and Two of Native Son dramatize a perverse birth into consciousness in which Chicago's racist environment provokes destructive violence by Bigger as he struggles to avoid being defined as a 'nigger'. His acute psychological distress, a combination of fear, shame and guilt, finds relief only in anger, violence, and sex. The accidental killing of Mary confirms for Bigger the truth: he is a black beast, just as the whites imagined. The worst nightmare of racism occurs when the victim accepts this false stereotypical persona. At times Bigger senses that there must be some other way to conceive of himself, but he does not possess the experience to achieve perspective on his situation and so develop a moral self.


After killing Mary, Bigger ironically feels relieved: the struggle at least is over. And he relishes the new sensation of power that he feels while operating behind the mask of the racist stereotype. His new outlook gives him a new (but false) perspective on his situation. Others still struggle to resist the defining force of racism, and he looks at them as pathetic. While acting out his role, he finds room to manipulate others and feel 'free'. But this freedom is false too. Bigger remains in flight from reality, from his true nature as a man.  The simplest resolution to his dilemma is to destroy, and he winds up extinguishing the life of the person closest to him, Bessie, in preparation to destroying himself. 

At the outset of Book Three, Bigger no longer exists. He imagines himself behind a protective wall. There is no one who can touch him and he floats in the pool of eternity.