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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BIGGER AT THE DALTONS'
Bigger goes to the Daltons', where the unfamiliar surroundings intimidate him. He is excited about the new job, but he is extremely upset by the strange behavior of young Mary Dalton and her Communist boyfriend, Jan.
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As the second half of Book One begins, Bigger is leaving for his job interview. He brings his knife and gun with him, as if only by being armed could he cope with the frightening power of the white world. When he reaches the high, iron fence of the Daltons' mansion, he is nervous. Bigger doesn't know whether to go in the front or the back, and, as he wanders around, he fears that if a policeman sees him, he may be accused of robbery or rape. After you read further, you may want to reflect on Bigger's fear of being accused of rape. However exaggerated such a worry seems at the moment, later you will see Bigger's fear come nightmarishly true.
Bigger goes through the Daltons' fence and thinks that even if he is doing wrong, the Daltons can only deny him the job, not kill him. This thought may also be ironic, in view of later events. Peggy, the Daltons' maid, lets Bigger into the house. Bigger is uncomfortable as he feels her staring at him. Everything about the house seems strange, and Bigger feels intimidated by the dim lighting, the unusual paintings on the walls, the quiet music playing, and the large, soft armchair in which Peggy has him wait. Soon, Peggy takes Bigger into Mr. Dalton's office.
Mr. Dalton speaks kindly but, like Peggy, he gazes at Bigger, and his look makes Bigger feel self-conscious.
Images related to the eyes and to sight pervade Native Son. Here,
Peggy's "staring" and Mr. Dalton's "gazing" make Bigger
angry and uncomfortable. Later, the way Mary and Jan look at Bigger will
intensify those feelings. You should also note the guilt and fear Bigger
experiences under the gaze of the Daltons' cat, and the shame Bigger's
sister feels when he looks at her. Note, too, the emphasis put on blindness,
both Mrs. Dalton's literal blindness and the symbolic blindness that Bigger
discovers in his fellow blacks.
While Bigger and Mr. Dalton are talking, an elderly woman, Mrs. Dalton, enters the room. Her face and hair are so white that Bigger thinks she resembles a ghost. Later, she will also be dressed in white. Why do you think Wright emphasizes Mrs. Dalton's whiteness? Keep this emphasis on whiteness in mind, as it will become important later in Book One.
Though the Daltons are talking about him, Bigger cannot understand what they are saying. He feels as though there are hidden presences in the room; he feels blind. When Mrs. Dalton leaves, Mr. Dalton tells Bigger that she is blind. Bigger stands with his eyes lowered and shoulders stooped; he assumes that white people wish him to maintain this humble stance. Dalton asks Bigger for the note the welfare office gave him, and Bigger is so clumsy in trying to find it that he wishes he could wave his hand and "blot out" the man who is embarrassing him, or, failing that, blot out himself. Bigger's fear, shame, and self-consciousness as a poor black in a completely unfamiliar world of rich whites makes him feel humiliated. Regardless of your race or economic status, however, you can probably think of times when you have felt like Bigger feels during this interview.
Mr. Dalton tries to put Bigger at ease by saying that he was once a boy too, and he understands what Bigger is going through. You may take Mr. Dalton at his word, but you may instead think that he understands little indeed. Bigger's feelings do not derive from being a "boy"; rather they come from being poor and black. You may also want to question Mr. Dalton's calling twenty-year-old Bigger a "boy." Would Mr. Dalton have used this word to a white man the same age as Bigger? Could using a term traditionally applied by racists to black men show a lack of sensitivity on Dalton's part?
Then Mr. Dalton asks Bigger if he would steal on the job. The question appears to assume that Bigger would be naive and stupid enough to answer "yes," if he in fact would steal. In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright says he was once asked the same question by a racist Southerner.
Mr. Dalton hires Bigger as a chauffeur. He makes two comments that you may find ironic in view of later events. He says, "I don't think we'll have any trouble," and he tells Bigger to take Sunday mornings off "unless something unexpected happens."
Before Bigger and Mr. Dalton are finished, Mary Dalton comes into the room. She asks Bigger if he is a union member, and she calls her father a "capitalist." Bigger, who knows little about unions and who doesn't know what a capitalist is, finds Mary's behavior upsetting.
Bigger finds that Mary is not what he imagined her to be when he was watching the movie, The Gay Woman. Native Son frequently contrasts media images of the world with the realities these images distort. Bigger did not notice that one of the two movies he saw presented a false picture of blacks. And he believed the other movie's portrayal of both Communists and rich people. Wright will later show that the movie's depiction of Communists was false. But here he shows that the movie was unfair to rich people too. Keep this point in mind when you try to decide whether Wright was excessively influenced by radical political doctrine.
Bigger also has no idea what Mr. Dalton is talking about when he says that he supports the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois and a group of white progressives founded the NAACP in 1909. Its goal was complete racial equality, at that time a radical cause supported by few mainstream political leaders, black or white. By Richard Wright's time, the NAACP had become a moderate civil rights organization with strong roots in the black middle class and clergy. Wright strongly disliked the NAACP's refusal to support the more militant protest tactics of the Communist Party. But in 1941, the NAACP gave him its highest award, the Spingarn Medal, for Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son.