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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK TWO: FLIGHT
FROM MARY'S DEATH TO BESSIE'S DEATH
In this part of Book Two, Bigger finds that having killed Mary makes him feel freer than ever before. Acting with a new sense of power, Bigger sends the Daltons a ransom note in which he claims that Mary has been kidnapped. But Bigger's plans go awry, and he flees with Bessie, whom he kills.
* * *
As Book Two begins, Bigger is waking up on Sunday morning. Wright says that he wakes "like an electric switch being clicked on," perhaps foreshadowing Bigger's death in the electric chair. He is back in his family's one-room apartment. Compare this opening to the start of Book One. Once more, you see Bigger struggling between sleep and wakefulness, then bickering with his family. But this morning is different from the previous one. The first difference is Bigger's fearful memory that he has killed Mary, cut her head off, and burned her body. He must protect himself. He throws his bloody knife and Mary's purse into a garbage can outside.
Over breakfast, however, Bigger's attitude changes dramatically. At the beginning of Book One, he was afraid. Now his fear is gone. Though he had killed by accident, he no longer thinks of her death as an accident. After all, he had felt like killing many times before. Now that he has actually killed, he feels proud and fulfilled because he has been more daring than anyone would have believed possible. He looks at his family and their apartment as if seeing them for the first time. Scanning his brother, mother, and sister, he compares them to whites he has seen. The Thomases now appear to him as blind creatures of habit, incapable of bold actions. But he also realizes that the Daltons, too, are blind; after all, they had underestimated him. Remember that Bigger had felt ashamed when the Daltons and Jan looked at him. Now he shames each member of his family with his own unrelenting stare.
NOTE: JAMES BALDWIN'S CRITIQUE
Some readers have criticized Richard Wright's portrayal of the black community. Probably the most famous attack came from the novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Himself an important black writer influenced and helped by Wright, Baldwin claimed that "Bigger has no discernible relationship... to his own people," that by comparison to Bigger himself, the blacks around him would have been "far richer and far more subtle and accurate illustrations of black life," and that the "shared [black] experience which creates a way of life" is missing in Wright's work. Baldwin's criticisms have sparked much controversy. Do you think that Wright necessarily shares Bigger's negative impression of his fellow blacks?
As Bigger leaves for work, his brother Buddy confronts him. Bigger had
taken Mary's money from her purse, but in his hurry, he has accidentally
dropped it on the floor. Buddy hands the money back to Bigger and asks
him if anything is wrong. For a moment Bigger even thinks of killing his
little brother but then decides to trust that Buddy won't tell anyone
about the money.
Before returning to the Daltons', Bigger stops to see his old gang. He feels like a man who has awakened after a long illness. He treats Gus, Jack, and G. H. kindly because he no longer fears them. As he continues to the Daltons', Bigger realizes that he has always looked at whites as "a great natural force," a threatening one, like a storm. Remember this metaphor during the blizzard that begins later in this section. Bigger wonders if blacks could ever get together and stand up against whites. He thinks maybe they could unite if they had a ruler to tell them what to do. He's heard good things about the German dictator Adolf Hitler and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Perhaps some day the blacks will have such a leader, he thinks.
Shortly after the publication of Native Son, Richard Wright wrote an essay in which he said that Bigger Thomas could easily have become either a Communist or a Fascist. And he claimed that his research into the rise of Nazism in Germany helped him in his formulation of Bigger's personality. In "How 'Bigger' was Born," Wright says that both Fascists and Communists recruit from the "dispossessed and disinherited" of "a dislocated society." From what you know of Bigger up to this point, do you think he would be a potential recruit to any mass movement? What evidence can you offer in support of your opinion?
Throughout much of this section, Bigger's thoughts travel in two different directions. On the one hand, he feels free and powerful, and he sees his killing of Mary as a "supreme and meaningful act." On the other hand, his mind keeps returning guiltily to images like Mary's bloody head and the outstretched arms of her blind mother. Readers have interpreted Bigger's personality in several different ways. Some focus on the degree to which he is a victim. After all, the killing was an accident, and afterward he was only trying to protect himself. Others emphasize the ways in which Bigger may be a heroic rebel. At this point in the novel, this image seems to be developing into Bigger's self-image, and he certainly makes you aware of his justified anger toward whites. Still other readers see Bigger as cold and brutal. Which interpretation do you favor? What evidence do you have for your opinion?
Wright may have deliberately created a character who would evoke conflicting emotions. He doesn't let you slip into easy pity (Bigger, after all, is proud of what he has done) or easy identification (Bigger, after all, keeps reminding you of the horror of his actions) or easy condemnation (Bigger, after all, had little choice in what he did).
Back at the Daltons', Bigger finds the household increasingly worried about Mary. First, Peggy notices that the car was left out all night. Then, when Bigger pretends to be ready to drive Mary to the train station for her trip to Detroit, Peggy and Mrs. Dalton are surprised to find that Mary is not home. They assume that she left for Detroit early, and they send Bigger to the station with her trunk. But Mrs. Dalton feels around in Mary's room and notices that Mary has left some of her traveling clothes behind. She decides to question Bigger, but she is hesitant to push her interrogation too far, apparently because, as a rich white, she would be embarrassed to let a poor black servant know anything is wrong. Note how the subtle racism of Bigger's well-meaning employers helps him avoid detection.
Bigger decides to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. On his way there, he wishes he had gotten more money from killing Mary and resolves that "next time" he will do better. He wants to brag about his crime to the white faces around him, but he knows he can't. So he wishes that "he could be an idea in their minds." He wants a picture of the killing and the burning of Mary to hover before their eyes.
NOTE: "BIGGER THOMAS... IN [THE] SKULL"
This comment of Bigger's may suggest something about Wright as well. In one of his critical essays on Wright, James Baldwin said, "No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull." Some readers believe that Wright's purpose in writing Native Son was to make the Bigger Thomas in his own skull "an idea" in the "minds" of whites. In other words, he wanted to hold before whites an image of the black rage they refused to acknowledge, just as Bigger wants to hold before whites an image of the bold actions they would never expect from him. Remember that before Wright, even much black American literature portrayed Afro-Americans as the good-humored, gentle people many whites wanted them to be.
Bigger arrives at Bessie's. She is upset and jealous that he has been away so long, but when he shows her the roll of money that he took from Mary's purse, she warms up to him. They make love, and afterward she mentions that the Daltons live in the same section of town as the murderers Loeb and Leopold. She reminds him that Loeb and Leopold killed a boy and then tried to get ransom money by pretending that the boy had been kidnapped.
Bessie has given Bigger the idea that he can do what Loeb and Leopold did. He wonders if he can use Bessie in his plot and hopes she will act with him "blindly." Bigger thinks that Bessie, like his family, is blind. She works long hours in a white woman's kitchen, then sleeps with him because he will buy her liquor. Bigger wants Bessie to collect the ransom money from the Daltons. He doesn't tell her that he killed Mary but says that Mary has eloped with Jan. Bessie is afraid to participate in this plot, but Bigger insists. He gives her the money he took from Mary's purse.
You may see Bessie as a passive woman who uses whiskey as an escape, and you could argue that all she wants from Bigger is money. Some readers have suggested that Wright is especially critical of his female characters. They point to Mrs. Thomas's religious escapism and Mary's naivete. But you may also feel that Wright paints Bessie's plight quite sympathetically. And Bigger's calculating coldness toward her may increase your sympathy. Perhaps Wright felt compassion for both Bigger and Bessie without feeling that either responded correctly to the oppressive conditions of their lives. If Bigger hadn't committed his crime, would his relationship with Bessie have been able to blossom?
Bessie feels quite free to steal from her white employers. But Bigger's ransom scheme frightens her. If you read Black Boy, you will notice that Wright claims that Southern whites didn't mind their black employees stealing from them. A little petty theft enabled the whites to confirm their stereotypes of blacks and to justify their racist attitudes, Wright says. Perhaps Wright had this thought in mind in contrasting Bigger and Bessie. Bessie's small crimes don't challenge or defy the whites the way Bigger's offenses do.