Native Son (1940)


Book One: “Fear “ (pp. 1-108)

Saturday Morning in the Thomas’ South Side Apartment    (3-12)
On the Street                                                                           (12-22)
The Pool Hall                                                                           (22- 29)

At The Movies                                                                         (29-34)
Terrorizing Gus                                                                        (34-41)
The Interview                                                                           (42-51)
Mary, Peggy and the Blind Woman                                        (51-62)
The Night Ride with Mary and Jan                                         (62-80)
Bigger and Mary Stumble Towards Bed                                 (80-87)
The Furnace                                                                              (87-93)

 

 The epigram from Job:

Even today is my complaint rebellious,
My stroke is heavier than my groaning.

 

Saturday Morning in the Thomas’ South Side Apartment (3-12)

-         What is the situation of poverty as we encounter it in the Thomas’ kitchenette apartment?

-         How do poverty and racism shape Bigger’s identity on a daily basis? READ (4-8)  

           Psychological Trauma

  • by exposing him to shame, anger, stress, and the threat of violence
  • the humiliation of living in overcrowded housing
  • the horror of living with vermin: "the rat's belly pulsed with fear; “the rat emitted a long thin song” (6)
  • the thrill and release of violence
  •  the constant tension which exacerbates problems in the natural relationships between family members:
    • “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you.” (8) 
    • Love is perverted into aggression, compassion into toughness: (8-9)
    • “We wouldn’t have to live in this dump if you had any manhood in you.” (8)        
    • “He’s just crazy. Just plain dumb black crazy.." (8) 
    • “ the most no-countest man I ever seen...”  (9)
    • Bigger’s response: “Stop prophesying about me!” (9)

-         Yet this family has not collapsed under the pressure:

  • Vera is in a YMCA sewing course.  
  • Buddy is in school and worships his older brother. 
  • Bigger’s Mom has work, taking in laundry.
  • Bigger’s Mom has connections: she has gotten him an interview for a good job through the relief agency.
  •  Bigger’s Mom is deeply religious.
  • Unlike his friends, Bigger has a way out! Yet how does he respond to this opportunity?
    • Thinking of the relief job, Bigger feels that he is being tricked into “cheap surrender" READ (12).
    • He went down the steps into the vestibule and stood looking out into the street through the plate glass of the front door. Now and then a street car rattled past over steel tracks. He was sick of his life at home. Day in and day out there was nothing but shouts and bickering. But what could he do Each time he asked himself that question his mind hit a blank wall and he stopped thinking. Across the street directly in front of him, he saw a truck pull to a stop at the curb and two white men in overalls got out with pails and brushes. Yes, he could take the job at Dalton's 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. Well, he could not stand 

       here all day like this. What was he to do with himself?  (12)

    • Instead, he dreams of taking down Blum’s Delicatessen. (14)

 - THE NOVEL’S KEY QUESTION:

  • Is Bigger trapped just like the black rat he kills in the action’s opening moments?

How does a literary tragedy work?

  • Fate is entwined with a Tragic Flaw (or Tragic Virtue) to destroy a person who possesses some of humanity's very best qualities. With terrible irony, our best qualities are turned against us, and we use them to destroy ourselves. (Oedipus’ reason; Macbeth’s moral conscience; Othello’s love; Hamlet’s brilliance.)   
  •  Oedipus discovers the truth about his fate, but he could not have done a thing to change it; Hamlet, despite his phenomenal intellect, discovers that there are forces in his nature beyond his capacity to comprehend or change.
  • Bigger’s mother tells him it would have been better if she had never birthed him. When might that ever be true? 
    • His mother says: “Some of these days you are gonna sit down and cry." (9)
    • Bigger tells his mother “Stop prophesying on me!” (8) (9)
    • What terrible forces in Bigger’s environment is shaping his fate?
    • Bigger is not just trapped by poverty; he is also trapped within a web of ugly, irrational social attitudes which seek to shape his identity: racism.
  • Racism as Fate:
    • What is it like to have your character prejudged for physical characteristics over which you have no control? (How insane!) That doesn’t cover it entirely. Does it? Can you conceive of a more terrible nightmare: not only do you have no control over who you are, but the “you” people foist upon you is an amalgamation of the most repulsive characteristics that can be dredged from the depths of the unconscious. People engage in racist thinking in an irrational attempt to exorcize their deepest and most disturbing fears by projecting them on another.  And if you ever start to accept that stereotype, what do you come to believe: the ugly things the racist says are all true and the terrible situation in which you live is totally deserved.
    • For Wright the most debilitating aspect of the situation of Black Americans in the first half of the 20th century was white racism.
    • The most frequently voiced criticism of Native Son by black writers is that Bigger Thomas does not even exist as a real person. He is a wholly determined object: a projection of American racist ideas about young black men.
  • But the action of the novel turns on the question of whether or not Bigger can seize control of Fate. (Is he any different than Crane’s Maggie?)
  • Can Bigger Achieve Perspective on his Situation and Take Control of the Action?
    • “He hated his family because he knew that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness 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.” (10)   
    • Is that true? What other options exist for him? Could Bigger Thomas achieve what Richard Wright accomplished? How?

On the Street (12-23)

  • How does Wright continue to weave in references to Fate in the scene between him and his friend Gus on the street?   
    • Just as at the ouset of a classical tragedy, soothsayers read signs and make auguries. In Julius Caesar, a soothsayer calls out to Caesar in the street, "Beware the Ides of March!" in Macbeth three witches accost Macbeth on the heath and call out, "All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be King hereafter!"
    • Wright, too, evokes the uncanny of tragedy in modern forms to indicate that Bigger’s fatal struggle has commenced:    
    • His mother declares: “Some of these days you are gonna sit down and cry." (9)
    • Bigger tells his mother “Stop prophesying on me!” (8) (9)
    • On the street a political poster reads, “You Can’t Win!” (13) (13)
    • When Bigger looks into the sky, he sees a skywriter writing a message, and Bigger dreams of being a pilot someday. The skywriter’s message says,“Use Speed Gasoline.” (16-17) (16-17) i.e.  “Black boys don’t fly!”   
    • He tells his friend Gus,  “Sometimes I feel like something awful is going to happen to me,” Bigger spoke with a tinge of pride in his voice." (22)
    • The unrelenting pace of the novel’s forward moving action includes bizarre, surreal details: the newsreel of Jan and Mary, the white cat, the self-feeding furnace, and the blind woman who watches and listens as Bigger kill Mary.
  • Can Bigger achieve perspective on his situation? Or are the forces shaping him stronger than human will? Look at the way Wright characterizes him. What is going on in his head?  (15-23)
    • Responding to the skywriter, Bigger engages in ‘pensive, brooding amusement’ as he contemplates the riddle of his existence 
    • "They laughed again, reclining against the wall, smoking, the lids of their eyes drooped softly against the sun. Cars whizzed past on rubber tires. Bigger's face was metallically black in the strong sunlight. There was in his eyes a pensive, brooding amusement, as of a man who had been long confronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed always just on the verge of escaping him, but prodding him irresistibly on to seek its solution. The silence irked Bigger; he was anxious to do something to evade looking so squarely at this problem.." (17)
    • To relieve the tension in his gut, Bigger and Gus play ‘white’, and they both engage in Crane’s hard laughter:“partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them.”  (18)
    • But the laughter does not ease Bigger's pain. He cries out, “I just can’t get used to it! I swear to God I can’t! … Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat.”  (20)
    • “Sometimes I feel like something awful is going to happen to me,” Bigger spoke with a tinge of pride in his voice. (20)
    • Gus: “Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts.” (21) (20)
    •  But Bigger can’t stop thinking about it and he shouldn’t acquiesce! He is resolved to do something about it.
    • When he thinks about where the white folk live (22-23): He strikes his gut and declares, “Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em.” (21) He can’t breathe, yet he reflects on this deeply felt anger and declares, “It ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s…It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help...” (22) 
    • The only idea, though, which comes to him is robbing Blum’s Delicatessen. What does he believe he can accomplish through this transgression? 
    • "For months they had talked of robbing Blum's, but had not been able to bring themselves to do it. They had the feeling that the robbing of Blum's would be a violation of ultimate taboo; it would be a trespassing into territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them; in short, it would be a symbolic challenge of the white world's rule over them; a challenge which they yearned to make, but were afraid to. Yes, if they could rob Blum's, it would be a real hold-up, in more senses than one. In comparison, all of their other jobs had been play." (14)
    •  [It’s not for the money, but for psychological vengeance: to violate taboo by committing a crime against a white person.]
    •  Is this the pathway to recognition? Is any other option available for Bigger beyond taking the job or taking down Blum’s? 
    • The hard laughter that Bigger and Gus share when they talk about the situation of young blacks demonstrates not only intelligence but an ability to see the world with tough irony. Unlike Maggie, Bigger has glimmers of self-awareness all the time. Can Bigger learn how to fly? Can he get the white people out of his gut?
    • To do so, he must learn to see himself in a new way. He needs to summon the courage to reject the false identity being foisted on him by his racist environment and begin to discover who he is.. 
  • What primary obstacle must Bigger overcome to achieve perspective on his situation? 
    • How do any of us make the passage from youth to adulthood? What is the key moment in this transition? When do we decide to get serious and take control of our lives? When do we realize that there are more important things in life than worrying about what strangers think of us? 
    • What has gotten in the way of Bigger participating in this initiation?
    • FEAR: The psychological effects of racism.
    • FEAR:  of what he may be turning into.

The Existential Thesis: The action of the novel describes the perverse methods Bigger uses to try to assert himself against the shaping forces of poverty and racism. He makes terrible choices, and the consequences are fatal, but Native Son need not end in tragedy. Bigger’s end is not fated: an authentic path exists for Bigger to discover who he really is, but Bigger may only be able to discover this path by impaling himself against the social realities of Chicago. And he is responsible for that choice!

OR

The Marxist Thesis: Bigger has no chance of making this kind of mental leap. Furthermore, he cannot be blamed for what he will do. He is too damaged by his environment to develop normally. Instead, he is destined to erupt into violence, sooner or later.


The Pool Hall (22- 29)
At The Movies (29-34)
Terrorizing Gus (34-41)

  • Instead of taking the normal path to adulthood, what course of action does Bigger choose? What primary obstacle to recognition exists? 
  • Answer: The psychological effects of racism: FEAR of what he may be turning into.
    • Once he and Gus meet up with the other members of his gang at the pool hall, the talk turns to the charged issue of whether or not to rob Blum’s Delicatessen. Bigger is obsessed with this idea. (24) What happens next?  
    •  Describe the vicious cycle of fear, shame, self-hatred and anger that possesses Bigger when he thinks of standing up to the white world. (26-27) (25-26) Secretly, he is afraid of following through, and he realizes that Gus knows him so well that he just might call him on it. That is a  humiliation Bigger can not live with. 
    • What is one of the ways that Bigger has found to achieve temporary release from these terrible emotions?  
    • Violence against his best friend, the brother who knows him best: Bigger’s stomach burned and a hazy black cloud hovered before his eyes, and left. Mixed images of violence ran like sand through his mind, dry and fast, vanishing. He could stab Gus with his knife; he could slap him; he could kick him…he could do a lot of things to Gus for making him feel this way.” (27)
    • Note that Bigger prides himself on the unpredictability of his mood swings and his potential for violence.  “Confidence would only come again now through action so violent that it would make him forget. These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger- like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far away invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating… He was bitterly proud of his swiftly changing moods.” (27-28) (29)
  • Bigger and Jack at the Movies  
    • Can we genuinely expect Bigger to overcome these intense feelings of self-loathing alone? Can he get a grip on reality at all? 
    • What sense of the reality of white America does Bigger get from the Newsreel? (29-34) [Compare to Maggie at the melodrama show.]
    •  How else has Bigger learned about the larger middle class world outside of the ghetto? How do the kids who live in the ghetto today learn about the outside world? 
    • Wright introduces us to Jan and Mary by creating a newsreel segment about them? Why this surreal choice? What will Bigger think when he meets them in the flesh? [HE IS NOT TOO SURPRISED! The white world to him exists in the movies.]
    • Bigger even fantasizes about being the chauffeur who sleeps with the beautiful debutante.  Is this fantasy healthy? Why isn’t it? 
    • What do you make of Wright’s decision to place Bigger in precisely this scenario later that very day? (Fate?)
    • What movie do he and Jack watch? 
  • Bigger Terrorizes Gus: What is the relationship between racism and black on black violence?
    • How do we judge his behavior at this moment? [Face saving violence momentarily copes with the fear and self-hatred bred by racism.]
    • What distance must Bigger travel in order to grasp an authentic understanding of  the emotions that possess him at these moments?  
    • Is this leap of understanding possible? How could that be accomplished?
    • Can society intervene before he does something worse?
    • Look at the moment after the violence when Bigger walks away from the Pool Hall: Read (41) “He began to laugh, softly, tensely; he stopped still in his tracks and felt something warm roll down his cheek as he brushed it away.” (46) (41)    
 

The Interview (42-51)

  • How far from Bigger’s home was the white section of Chicago in 1940?
  • Why does Bigger carry a gun with him to the interview? (48) (43)
    • What does it feel like for Bigger to be in a white family’s home for the first time? (45-46) Note the marvelous way that Wright captures this feeling: the spectral appearance of Mrs. Dalton and her white cat:  “Bigger paused, bewildered; then he saw coming slowly toward him a tall, thin, white woman, walking silently, her hands lifted delicately in the air and touching the walls to either side of her. Bigger stepped back to let her pass. Her face and hair were completely white; she seemed to him like a ghost…”  (46)
  • What role does Bigger play in the interview? (54) 
    • What physical posture does he assume? Why? Why can’t he just behave differently? Bigger is aware of what he is doing and hates it. Read ( 45; 47-48)
    • "He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton's face once since he had been in the house. He stood with his knees slightly bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that went only to the surface of things. There was an organic conviction in him that  this was the way white folks wanted him to be when in their presence; none had ever told him that in so many words, but their manner had made him feel that they did. He laid the cap down, noticing that Mr. Dalton was watching him closely. Maybe he was not acting right? Goddamn! Clumsily, he searched for the paper. " (48)
    • He hates most the inevitable moment in the interview when the man is going to ask him about his record.(50) Why would Bigger prefer prison to this job? Do you agree?
    • If Bigger were able to choke down his disgust and fear and hold this job, would it solve his central problem?
  •  Who is Mr. Dalton? (48-49) What does he do for a living?
    • Why does he want to help Bigger this way?
    • Why doesn’t he instead stop sub-dividing apartments, jacking up rents and allowing his property to become dilapidated and infested with vermin?

Mary, Peggy and the Blind Woman (51-62)

  • What is uncanny about the moment when Bigger sees Mary for the first time? (51)
    •  How does he respond to being in the presence of this ‘very slender’ young woman? (What had he been fantasizing about during the newsreel?) What kind of questions does she ask him? Why about Mary makes him angry? (52)  (59)
  • Why did Wright choose to represent socialist ideology in such an eerie and uncanny manner?
    • What is the extent of Bigger’s experiences with white women? (59) This is it!
  • Why did Wright choose to dramatize liberal ideology in such an eerie and uncanny manner?
    • How does Bigger react to seeing Mrs. Dalton in the kitchen? (60) What are Mrs. Dalton’s plans for Bigger? (61)  She offers him an amazing deal: a job and the finance for night school! What is her ideology? 
    • Does Bigger want to continue his education? (61-62) Do you hold him responsible for thinking this way?

 

The Night Ride with Mary and Jan (62-80)

  • What is so desperately wrong about Jan and Mary’s attempt to befriend Bigger?
    • How does he react to their gestures of friendship, particularly when Mary crowds into the front seat with them?  Handshake (66) Front Seat (67) Ernie's (69-70)
    • "He flushed warm with anger. Goddamn her soul to hell! Was she laughing at him? Were they makingfun of him? What was it that they wanted? Why didn't they leave him alone? He was not bothering them. Yes, anything could happen with people like these. His entire mind and body were painfully concentrated into a single sharp point of attention. He was trying desperately to understand. He felt foolish sitting behind the steering wheel like this and letting a white man hold his hand. What would people passing along the street think? He was very conscious of his black skin and there was in him a prodding conviction that Jan and men like him had made it so that he would be  conscious of that  black skin. Did not white people despise a black skin? Then why was Jan doing this? Why was Mary standing there so eagerly, with shining eyes? What could they I get out of this? Maybe they did not despise him? But they made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. 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. It was a shadowy region, a No Man's Land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon. He felt naked, transpar­ent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate. " (67)
    • Why is it humiliating for Bigger to be seen with Jan and Mary in Ernie’s Kitchen shack? (72-73)
    • What do Mary and Jan ask Bigger to do after the dinner?  How is it demeaning for Bigger to chauffeur them around the park? (78)
  • What do you make of Wright’s choice to represent Communist ideology in this way? What do you think Wright’s Communist associates thought of this choice?

 

Bigger and Mary Stumble Towards Bed (80-87)

  • What conflicting feelings possess Bigger as he helps Mary to her bed? (82) (87)
    • Look at the moment when Bigger reacts to Mrs. Dalton’s presence in the room.  (84-87) What would have been the right thing for him to do? 
    • "Frenzy domi­nated him. He held his hand over her mouth and his head was cocked at an angle that enabled him to see Mary and Mrs. Dalton by merely shifting his eyes. Mary mumbled and tried to rise again. Frantically, he caught a corner of the pillow and brought it to her lips. He had to stop her from mumbling, or he would be caught. Mrs. Dalton was moving slowly toward him and he grew tight and full, as though about to explode. Mary's fingernails tore at his hands and he caught the pillow and covered her entire face with it, firmly. Mary's body surged upward and he pushed downward upon the pillow with all of his weight, determined that she must not move or make any sound that would betray him. His eyes were filled with the white blur moving toward him in the shadows of the room. Again Mary's body heaved and he held the pillow in a grip that took all of his strength. For a long time he felt the sharp pain of her fingernails biting into his wrists. The white blur was still.

       

      "Mary? Is that you?"

       

      He clenched his teeth and held his breath, intimidated to the core by the awesome white blur floating toward him. His muscles flexed taut as steel and he pressed the pillow, feeling the bed give slowly, evenly, but silently. Then suddenly her fingernails did not bite into his wrists. Mary's fingers loosened. He did not feel her surging and heaving against him. Her body was still. (84-85)

    • Could Bigger have done anything differently, or was his reaction determined by the situation?


The Furnace (87-93)

  • What is Bigger’s first reaction when he realizes that Mary is dead? (87-88)
    • Note the clarity with which he thinks as he struggles with the body, the trunk, and his own terror? Could he have devised a better plan? What is ironic about this sudden depiction of Bigger’s improvisational skills?
    • "The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black mur­derer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here. Mrs. Dalton had been in the room while he was there, but she had not known it. But, had she? No! Yes! Maybe she had gone for help? No. If she had known she would have screamed. She didn't know. He had to slip out of the house. Yes. He could go home to bed and tomorrow he could tell them that he had driven Mary home and had left her at the side door.

       

      "In the darkness his fear made live in him an element which he reckoned with as "them." He had to construct a case for "them." But, Jan! Oh. . . . Jan would give him away. When it was found that she was dead Jan would say that he had left them together in the car at Forty-sixth Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. But he would tell them that that was not true. And, after all, was not Jan a Red? Was not his word as good as Jan's? He would say that Jan had come home with them. No one must know that he was the last per­ son who had been with her. "(87-88)

  • Why does Wright imbue this scene with such horrifying detail:
    • the self-feeding furnace, the decapitation of Mary, the white cat’s sudden appearance? Is this just grisly sensationalism, or is there symbolic meaning to this climax?
    • "A noise made him whirl; two green burning  pools-- pools of accusation and guilt-stared at him from a white blur that sat perched upon the edge of the trunk. His mouth opened in a silent scream and his body became hotly paralyzed. It was the white cat and its round green eyes gazed past him at the white face hanging limply from the fiery furnace door. God! He closed his mouth and swallowed. Should he catch the cat and kill it and put it in the furnace, too? He made a move. The cat stood up; its white fur bristled; its back arched. He tried to grab it and it bounded past him with a long wail of fear and scampered up the steps and through the door and out of sight. Oh! He had left the kitchen door open. That was it. He closed the door and stood again before the furnace, thinking, Cats can't talk. . . .

      "He got his knife from his pocket and opened it and stood by the furnace, looking at Mary's white throat. Could he do it? He had to. Would there be blood? Oh, Lord! He looked round with a haunted and pleading look in his eyes. He saw a pile of old newspapers stacked carefully in a corner. He got a thick wad of them and held them under the head. He touched the sharp blade  to  the throat, just touched it, as if expecting the knife to  cut  the white flesh of itself, as if he did not have to put pressure behind it. Wistfully, he gazed at the edge of the blade resting on the white skin; the gleaming metal reflected the tremulous fury of the coals. Yes; he had to. Gently, he sawed the blade into the flesh and struck a bone. He gritted his teeth and cut harder. As yet there was no blood anywhere but on the knife. But the bone made it difficult. Sweat crawled down his back. Then blood crept outward in widening circles of pink on the newspapers, spreading quickly now. He whacked at the bone with the knife. The head hung limply on the newspapers, the curly black hair dragging about in blood.  He whacked harder, but the head would not come off.

       

      "He paused, hysterical. He wanted to run from the basement and go as far as possible from the sight of this bloody throat. But he could not. He must not. He had to burn this girl. With eyes glazed, with nerves tingling with excitement, he looked about the basement. He saw a hatchet. Yes! That would do it. He spread a neat layer of newspapers beneath the head, so that the blood would not drip on the floor. He got the hatchet, held the head at a slanting angle with his left hand and, after pausing in an attitude of prayer, sent the blade of the hatchet into the bone of the throat with all the strength of his body. The head rolled off.

       

      "He was not crying, but his lips were trembling and his chest was heaving. He wanted to lie down upon the floor and sleep off the horror of this thing. But he had to get out of here. Quickly, he wrapped the head in the newspapers and used the wad to push the bloody trunk of the body deeper into the furnace. Then he shoved the head in.

      The hatchet went next.

       

      Would there be coal enough to burn the body? No one would come down here before ten o'clock in the morning, maybe. He looked at his watch. It was four o'clock. He got another piece of paper and wiped his knife with it. He put the paper into the furnace and the knife into his pocket. He pulled the lever and coal rattled against the sides of the tin chute and he saw the whole furnace blaze and the draft roared still louder. When the body was covered with coal, he pushed the lever back. Now!" (94-95)