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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BIGGER TALKS TO MAX

Max interviews Bigger. For the first time, Bigger puts his deepest feelings into words.

* * *

As he sits in jail, Bigger notices that even there blacks and whites are segregated. Wright seems to be continuing his indictment of racism and of the criminal justice system. One prisoner refers to Bigger as the guy "they got for that Dalton job." Even among his fellow criminals, Bigger seems unlikely to find understanding. Then a stranger is dragged into Bigger's cell. He is foaming at the mouth and screaming that someone has taken his papers. Another prisoner tells Bigger that the newcomer went insane from studying too much. The maniac claims that someone stole a book he wrote and that the book explained the racist conditions under which blacks live.

You may find this brief incident rather odd. Some readers feel the man is a middle-class parallel to Bigger in that the only way he can protest racism is to go wild and crazy. And people notice only his craziness, not his message.

After the strange prisoner is removed from Bigger's cell, Max enters.

NOTE:

In the real-life Nixon case, the defendant was initially represented by the International Labor Defense (ILD), on which Max's organization, the Labor Defenders, appears to have been modeled. But the ILD's role was small, and the National Negro Congress soon replaced it. Wright has deliberately magnified the role of white radicals here. The bulk of Nixon's support came from the leaders of Chicago's black community. This change may have enabled Wright to emphasize his radical political views. But it also helped him explore Bigger's changing attitudes toward whites.


Max encourages Bigger not to give up. He points out that the same people who hate blacks also hate unions, Communists, and Jews. Then he asks Bigger more about his crimes, and Bigger finds that he wants to communicate his reasons for killing. He tells Max that he hated Mary, and while talking about Mary, whose looking at him made him feel shame, he remembers how his younger sister Vera had felt ashamed when he looked at her. Saying that he wanted to rape Mary because white men blame such behavior on blacks whether they commit it or not, Bigger tells Max more about his feelings of unhappiness and hatred, and Max expresses surprise that Bigger never trusted black leaders and that he had no interest in voting.

The feelings Bigger expresses to Max are ones you have been aware of all along. But this moment is the first time Bigger has spoken of these feelings to anyone. After Max leaves, Bigger imagines a world divided into tiny isolated cells. He wonders what would happen if people reached out of their cells and touched each other. Would there be electricity between them? Bigger wishes he could live to find out. Ironically, he will be killed by the quite different electricity of the electric chair.

Many readers have sensed a conflict between the message that seems to be emerging from Book Three and the impact of the first two books of the novel. Book Three appears to be developing an appeal for interracial cooperation. Most of the first two Books pointed up the unlikeliness of such cooperation, given the depths of both white racism and black anger. Some readers reconcile the two points of view by suggesting that Wright uses the character of Bigger to warn whites about what will happen if social conditions do not change. Other readers think the impact of Bigger's character is so strong that the appeal for interracial solidarity seems sentimental by comparison. Do you think the balance between the two messages would be different if Wright were completing Native Son today?

NOTE:

Through much of American history since the Civil War, two competing political tendencies have vied for the loyalty of blacks. One calls for blacks to gain access to housing, schools, jobs, and other American social and political institutions. People advocating these goals usually want blacks and whites to work together in achieving black integration into American society. The other tendency calls for blacks to gain control over their own housing, schools, jobs and other separate black social and political institutions. Advocates of these goals often want blacks to organize separately from whites. Certainly the views of Max and Jan emphasize the former opinion. And at this point in the novel, Bigger himself is moving in that direction. Some readers, however, have seen a separatist thrust in much of Native Son, especially where it emphasizes the depth of the gap between the races. Do you feel the novel emphasizes one perspective over the other?

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