Book One: “Fear “ (pp. 1-108)
Saturday Morning in the Thomas’ South Side Apartment (3-12)
On the Street
The Pool Hall
At The Movies
Mary, Peggy and the Blind Woman
The Night Ride with Mary and Jan
Bigger and Mary Stumble Towards Bed
epigram from Job:
today is my complaint rebellious,
My stroke is heavier than my groaning.
Morning in the Thomas’ South Side Apartment
is the situation of poverty as we encounter it in the Thomas’
do poverty and racism shape Bigger’s identity on a
exposing him to shame, anger, stress, and the threat of violence
humiliation of living in overcrowded housing
horror of living with vermin: "the rat's belly pulsed with fear; “the rat emitted a long thin song” (6)
thrill and release of violence
constant tension which exacerbates problems in the natural
relationships between family members:
sometimes I wonder why I birthed you.” (8)
is perverted into aggression, compassion into toughness: (8-9)
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)
response: “Stop prophesying about me!” (9)
this family has not collapsed under the pressure:
is in a YMCA sewing course.
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.
his friends, Bigger has a way out! Yet how does he respond to this
of the relief job, Bigger feels that he is being tricked into “cheap
surrender" READ (12).
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)
he dreams of taking down Blum’s Delicatessen. (14)
NOVEL’S KEY QUESTION:
Bigger trapped just like the black rat he kills in the action’s opening
How does a literary tragedy work?
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.)
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
mother tells him it would have been better if she had never birthed him.
When might that ever be true?
mother says: “Some of these days you are gonna
sit down and cry." (9)
tells his mother “Stop prophesying on me!” (8) (9)
terrible forces in Bigger’s environment is
shaping his fate?
is not just trapped by poverty; he is also trapped within a web of
ugly, irrational social attitudes which seek to shape his identity:
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.
Wright the most debilitating aspect of the situation of Black Americans
in the first half of the 20th century was white racism.
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.
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?)
Bigger Achieve Perspective on his Situation and Take Control of the
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)
that true? What other options exist for him? Could Bigger Thomas achieve what
Richard Wright accomplished? How?
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?
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
- Wright, too, evokes the uncanny of
tragedy in modern forms to indicate that Bigger’s
fatal struggle has commenced:
mother declares: “Some of these days you are gonna
sit down and cry." (9)
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
- 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)
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
- 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)
to the skywriter, Bigger engages in ‘pensive, brooding
amusement’ as he contemplates the riddle of his existence
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)
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
- 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
I feel like something awful is going to happen to me,” Bigger spoke with
a tinge of pride in his voice. (20)
“Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts.” (21) (20)
Bigger can’t stop thinking about it and he shouldn’t acquiesce! He is
resolved to do something about it.
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)
only idea, though, which comes to him is robbing Blum’s
Delicatessen. What does he believe he can accomplish through this
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)
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
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..
primary obstacle must Bigger overcome to achieve perspective on his
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?
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
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.
Pool Hall (22- 29)
At The Movies (29-34)
Terrorizing Gus (34-41)
of taking the normal path to adulthood, what
course of action does Bigger choose? What primary obstacle to
- Answer: The psychological effects of racism: FEAR of what
he may be turning into.
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?
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.
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)
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
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.]
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?
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?
do we judge his behavior at this moment? [Face saving violence
momentarily copes with the fear and self-hatred bred by racism.]
distance must Bigger travel in order to grasp an authentic
understanding of the emotions that
possess him at these moments?
this leap of understanding possible? How
could that be accomplished?
society intervene before he does something worse?
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)
far from Bigger’s home was the white
section of Chicago in 1940?
does Bigger carry a gun with him to the interview? (48) (43)
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)
role does Bigger play in the interview? (54)
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)
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)
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?
Bigger were able to choke down his disgust and fear and hold this job,
would it solve his central problem?
is Mr. Dalton? (48-49) What
does he do for a living?
does he want to help Bigger this way?
doesn’t he instead stop sub-dividing apartments, jacking up rents and
allowing his property to become dilapidated and infested with vermin?
Peggy and the Blind Woman (51-62)
is uncanny about the moment when Bigger sees Mary for the first time? (51)
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?
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?
does Bigger react to seeing Mrs. Dalton in the kitchen? (60) What are Mrs. Dalton’s plans for
She offers him an amazing deal: a job and the finance for night
school! What is her ideology?
Bigger want to continue his education? (61-62)
Do you hold him responsible for thinking this way?
Night Ride with Mary and Jan (62-80)
is so desperately wrong about Jan and Mary’s attempt to befriend Bigger?
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
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)
is it humiliating for Bigger to be seen with Jan and Mary in Ernie’s
Kitchen shack? (72-73)
do Mary and Jan ask Bigger to do after the dinner? How is it
demeaning for Bigger to chauffeur them around the park? (78)
do you make of Wright’s choice to represent Communist ideology in this
do you think Wright’s Communist associates thought of this choice?
and Mary Stumble Towards Bed (80-87)
conflicting feelings possess Bigger as he helps Mary to her bed? (82) (87)
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
"Mary? Is that you?"
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)
Bigger have done anything differently, or was his reaction determined
by the situation?
The Furnace (87-93)
is Bigger’s first reaction when he
realizes that Mary is dead? (87-88)
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
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.
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
- 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
"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.
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)