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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
BOOK 1 - "Fear"
The alarm clock rings. Mrs. Thomas calls for Bigger to turn it off. She calls to her other children, Buddy and Vera to get up and out of the apartment. She has a lot of laundry to do and needs the space. Bigger's mother and sister make Bigger and his brother, Buddy, turn their heads while they dress to keep from being ashamed. They do the same when the boys dress.
Suddenly, they see a rat. Bigger, the oldest son, chases it with a skillet and finally kills it, and dangles it before his sister, Vera, who faints. His mother fusses at him and tells him she wonders sometimes why she "birthed" him. He tells her maybe she should not have done so, but instead left him where he was. She accuses him of not having any manhood in him. If he did, they would not be living in "a garbage dump." Vera recovers and asks her mother why Bigger behaves as he does. Her mother tells her Bigger is "just plain dumb black crazy."
She tells Bigger the government relief is threatening to cut them off from support payments if he does not work. She tells him he must stop spending all his time with his gang of friends. He tells her he has heard her tell him these things a thousand times. Mrs. Thomas begins to despair and tells Vera, the only one that understands her situation and troubles, that she sometimes wants to lie down and quit life.
Bigger listens to his sister trying to calm his mother and tries to not hear them. He hates "his family because he knew they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them." He keeps an attitude of "iron reserve" toward them so he will not be overwhelmed with shame and fear at their predicament. He fears that if he truly let himself feel their desperation, he would kill someone or himself.
His mother prepares breakfast and sings a spiritual hymn. Bigger is bothered by the song. They all discuss Bigger's appointment for a job interview that day with Mr. Dalton. Bigger and Buddy ward off the complaints and demands of Vera and Mrs. Thomas at the breakfast table. Bigger thinks of a job as a "trick into a cheap surrender."
Outside, he sees two white men putting up a poster with the white face of Buckley on it, a man who is running for another terms as State's Attorney. He imagines that Buckley makes at least a million dollars a year on graft and Bigger envies him for that. The poster reads, "If you Break the Law You Can't Win." He laughs and thinks that Buckley lets anyone who pays him off win.
Bigger counts his money. He has twenty-five cents his mother gave him for cab fare to get to the Dalton's house and another penny. He needs fourteen cents to get to the Dalton's, but swears angrily when he realizes he does not have enough money to buy a magazine and go to the movies. While watching a movie, he knows he could daydream to escape his reality. He goes to look for his gang. He thinks of robbing Blum's Delicatessen, which is owned by a white man. Robbing from a white man means breaking the ultimate taboo. Robbing from African Americans was safer because the police don't diligently investigate black-on-black crimes in the same manner. He and his friends feel that if they robbed Blum, they would face the whole force of "an alien white world."
While he is standing and thinking, his sister Vera passes him on her way to school. She begs him not to meet with his friends today. He knows his mother has been talking to Vera and Buddy about him, telling them he will be sent to prison next time instead of to reform school where he was sent last time he got into trouble with the police.
He goes to the pool hall and meets his friend Gus. They stand outside and smoke a cigarette together. It is winter, but the sun warms them outside. They discuss the inadequacy of the heating radiators the white landlords supply them with at home. They see an airplane overhead. It is writing a message in the sky. The words are "use," then "speed," then "gasoline." The boys revel at the plane. Gus exclaims, "white boys sure can fly." Bigger responds, "They get a chance to do everything."
After a moment, they become bored again and Bigger feels anxious to do something to avoid looking at the problem. He says, "let's play white." Gus reluctantly joins in. They imitate a white general who is giving orders, using the language of war movies. They imitate J.P. Morgan and then the president. After they finish the game, they sigh and Bigger says, "They do not let us do nothing." He tells Gus that he knows he should not think about it but that he cannot get used to this reality. He adds, "It's just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I'm on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence." He predicts that something awful is going to happen to him. Gus advises him not to think about it. Gus tells him he is "black and white folks make the laws." Bigger asks why they make African Americans live in one corner of the city, and will not let African Americans fly planes or run ships. Bigger sees a pigeon land and then fly away. He wishes he too could fly away. Gus tells him the only thing to do if he cannot stop thinking about it is to get drunk. Bigger tells Gus that white folks live down in his stomach. Gus feels the same way. "Every time I think of 'em, I feel 'em," says Bigger. Gus agrees, "Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too." They both discuss a feeling of impending doom.
They go inside the pool hall and greet Doc who stands behind the counter. As they play pool, they talk about Blum fearfully. G.H. and Jack enter. Bigger pushes them to join him in robbing Blum's delicatessen. Gus holds back. Bigger gets angry. He is afraid Gus will say yes. Gus protests against Bigger's verbal abuse and tells Bigger he knows Bigger is afraid he will say yes. Gus finally consents to the robbery, but complains of Bigger's offensiveness in cursing him. Bigger feels enraged at Gus and imagines how he could beat up on Gus for making him feel that way. Gus and G.H. leave the pool hall. Before they leave, the boys decide to meet back at Doc's at three o'clock for the robbery.
Bigger and Jack remain in the pool hall. Bigger feels hysteria rising in him. He decides he needs a strong stimulus to push the hysteria down. He recognizes his life works in a rhythm of "indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger." He and Jack go for a walk. They decide to go to the theater to a double-feature movie. One is called "The Gay Woman", whose posters advertise rich, white kids, and another film is called "Trader Horn", whose posters show African people "dancing against a wild background of barbaric jungle." The first movie, "The Gay Woman", features a rich white woman who keeps a lover while being married to another man. Bigger and Jack discuss all the sexual things that they have heard rich white women will do. Bigger wonders if his prospective job will put him in contact with any women like the one featured in the movie.
The movie also features a bomb-toting communist who tries to blow up the woman, but is foiled by the woman's lover. Bigger and Jack discuss the little they know about communists. They think it might be a "race of folks who live in Russia." Jack guesses communists must not like rich people.
In the movie, the woman is filled with remorse after the bomb attack and returns to her husband to live happily ever after. The boys wonder if people actually live like that and decide they must since they are rich. Bigger begins to feel more willing to take the job for the Daltons.
The second feature, Trader Horn, shows naked African men and women dancing wildly. While he watches the screen, Bigger decides rich white people are really not so bad. He decides it is only the poor whites who hate African Americans because they cannot get their share of the money. He remembers hearing his mother say rich white people "liked negroes better than they did poor whites." He decides that if poor white people cannot make money, they deserve to be taken advantage of. "It was the rich white people who were smart and knew how to treat people." He remembers a story of a marriage between an African American chauffeur and a rich white woman. Bigger decides he would be foolish to rob Blum's just before getting such a good job.
The boys leave the theatre and Bigger goes home to get his gun. At home, he hears his mother singing, "Lord, I want to be a Christian." He goes to Doc's to meet the others. His body hungers for action. Gus has not come. Bigger knows Gus will not show up. When he does arrive, Bigger brutally beats Gus, then holds a knife on him and threatens to kill him, all to avoid the robbery. The movies made him want the Dalton's job and further contact with the rich white people. He humiliates and tortures Gus.