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CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
BOOK 3 -"Fate"
He recounts how the country's founders came to the land and subdued it and that they used others to attain their ends. He says it was the "imperial dream of the feudal age that made men enslave others." He says if people responded to Bigger with sympathy, they would be swamped by guilt. He says that what is happening the courtroom is not injustice, but oppression. Bigger only represents a small part of the problem. He asks, "How can the law contradict the lives of millions of people and hope to be administered successfully?" The sudden and accidental nature of his crime represents the "the sudden and violent rent in the veil behind which he lived." That rent in the veil allowed his feelings of resentment and estrangement out.
He accedes that the Daltons each tried to help Bigger and when they reached out a helping hand, death struck. He feels sympathy for these parents, but he reminds the court that Mr. Dalton forces people to rent only in the African American section of town. He "kept the man who murdered your daughter a stranger to her and kept her a stranger to him."
He says "this is a white man's country." He asks the judge to consider the allure of advertisements, radios, newspapers, and movies. He asks the judge to remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. He asserts that European Americans planned the murder of Mary Dalton. He adds that every school teacher is aware of the restrictions that have been placed on African American education. He adds that authorities, real estate operators, and other powerful people know how African --Americans are kept within narrow limits. He tells the judge that Bigger expects far less of the court than the judge could ever know. He adds that "this is a case of a man's mistaking a whole race as part of the natural structure of the universe." He adds that it was only after he murdered that he accepted the crime, and that it was the first full act of his life, the most meaningful. He says Bigger accepted the crime because it made him free in the sense that it gave him the possibility of choice and to feel his actions carried weight. He says, Bigger feels no sorrow for it, but compares him to men who do not feel regret when they kill in war.
He tells the judge to multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times and he will understand the "psychology of Negro people." They are a separate nation, stunted, and held captive within this nation, devoid of all rights. He urges that killing one of them is not an answer to the problem. He adds that African Americans do not have access the forms of expression that European Americans do. He tells the judge to remember that people can starve from a lack of self-realization and they can murder for it, too. He asks what was Bigger's motive in murdering.
He says in actuality, Bigger did not kill. What he did when he killed Mary and Bessie was living only as he knew how. "It was an act of creation." He says Bigger's entire attitude toward life is a crime. Every time he is in contact with a European American, he kills.
He reminds the court that Bigger is not truly on trial for the murder of Bessie Mears, since the life of a poor African American woman is not as important to the state as the life of a wealthy white woman.
He asks the court to send Bigger to jail for life because it would for the first time bring him "within the orbit of our civilization." He argues that the nation is built on the two basic concepts of personality and security, the conviction that the person is inviolate and that what sustains the person is also inviolate. Max concludes his plea by arguing that when wealthy men asks for a quick show of force, they are trying to protect their private security against the resentment of millions of people who hope for security.
Bigger feels suddenly that his life is not worth the effort Max has expended to save it. Nevertheless, he is proud that Max has made such a speech for him. The judge calls a recess and Bigger refuses food. He is not concerned whether Max's speech saved his life, only proud that Max spoke for him.
Back in court, Buckley asks for the death penalty. He charges Max with assailing the sacred customs of the country and says he has a diseased mind. He adds that "Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the wooly head of this black lizard." He calls Bigger a "hardened black thing." He recounts Bigger's day when he woke up and went to the Daltons. He draws a picture of bestiality in describing Bigger's rape of Mary "That treacherous beast must have known that if the marks of his teeth were ever seen on the innocent white flesh of her breast," he would suffer under the law. He adds that since Bigger burned Mary's body, he must have planned the murder. He says the court has the "bare word of this worthless ape to go on." He calls Max a "Godless Communist."
When Buckley concludes, the judge gives the jury only one hour to deliberate. Bigger is taken to back to the side-room to wait out the verdict. He is paralyzed with dread. He is called back into court and the judge announces the death penalty, to be carried out on March third.
Back in his cell, Max tells Bigger he will see the governor for an appeal. Bigger tells him to go away. To get through the pain, Bigger shuts out night and day. He tells his family to stay away. He decides that he does want to talk to Max. He wants Max to help him to know what his living and dying meant. On the day of the execution, he gets a telegram from Max saying the appeal to the governor failed and that he will visit him soon. He only has six hours before midnight, when the execution is planned.
Max finally comes. Bigger sees this talk as his last chance. He finds it difficult to speak because he has been denied the means of expression. He tells Max he is glad he got to know him before he goes. He tells him he remembers all the questions Max asked him the night he asked him to talk about himself. He says Max had asked questions nobody had ever asked him before. He treated Bigger like a man. He says he sometimes wishes Max had not asked him those questions because they made him think and that has made him scared. He wants Max to tell him about life.
He tells Max he saw himself after that night of murdering Mary and he saw other people differently, too. He sees amazement and horror on Max's face. He tells Max he hurt Mary and Bessie because they would not give him any room. He says he did not mean to do what he did, that he had meant to do something else. He says he is not hard. He tells about how Max made him feel that others were like him.
Max takes Bigger to the window and shows him the buildings of the city. He says those buildings were made by the belief of men who were kept hungry and needing and desiring, just like Bigger, who had told him that he wanted something more. He says that now those buildings are not growing anymore because a few men are squeezing them tightly in their hands and that the men inside the buildings have begun to doubt, just like Bigger has. The men who own the buildings are afraid and want to keep what they own. In order to keep them, they push other men down and call them beasts. Bigger mumbles that he had always wanted to do something.
Max urges Bigger to die free. He says Bigger is trying believe in himself but is having trouble because others have said he was bad. He adds that the people who hate Bigger feel like he does, only they are on the other side of the fence. They have things arranged so they can hurt other people and the other people cannot fight back. They say all workers are inferior. He adds that the side that wins will be the side that feels life most, has the most humanity, and the most men. He tells Bigger he must believe in himself. Bigger laughs and says he believes in himself, that he has nothing else.
He tells Max to go home and that he will be all right. He adds that when he thinks about what Max says, he feels he was "kind of right." Max backs away. He says, he did not want to kill, but what he killed for, he is. Max pleads with Bigger, saying "no, not that." Bigger says what he killed for must have been good because he did not know he was alive until he felt things hard enough to kill for them. Max is terrified. He leaves. On his way out, Bigger calls out to him to tell Jan hello. Bigger smiles a "faint, wry, bitter smile. He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut."
Several times in the novel, Wright explores a parallel of the situation in the modern United States to the situation of Christ of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Book II ends with Bigger on the ground in the posture of the crucified Christ. Both of his arms are spread apart and pinned to the ground. In Book III, Jan acts as a Christ-figure when he goes into Bigger's jail cell and forgives him of his lie which threatened Jan's life. Jan says he wishes he could die for Bigger, that he feels responsible for the sufferings of millions of African Americans. When Mr. Dalton comes into the interview room where Bigger is held, he tells Max and Jan that he cannot understand what they want of him. He asks them surely they do not want him to die and atone for the injustices of others who came before him. When Bigger sees his family, he thinks for a moment that they should feel relieved and contented because he has stood in for them and taken away the blame from them. However, when he finds out that Vera has lost her chance at her sewing school because of his actions, he realizes that he had never been alone, that he had always been a part of a family.
The reader wonders what to make of all these scattered references to Christ's life and suffering on the cross as an atonement for the sins of humanity. In light of Wright's critique of religion as an irrelevant and even dangerous method for dealing with the oppression of African American people and poor people, these references must be read broadly. Wright seems to be adapting the story of Christ to the present-day circumstances of racist oppression in the United States. Anyone who stands up to the scorn of the masses is acting Christ-like. Anyone who takes on her or his shoulders the weight of other people's mistakes is Christ-like. Wright seems to be calling for the kind of love of others and the sacrifice of self that the Christ figure embodies.
In Max's plea for Bigger's life, Wright places all the dominant themes of the novel. Max speaks for Bigger. He describes the overall system of race and class oppression in the United States. In combining a critique of race and class oppression, Wright complicates the issue of racism to something much larger and deeper than individual prejudice. Max describes all the institutions of power in the country, the press, the courts, the legal system, the psychiatric profession, the housing market, the entertainment industry, and other institutions as colluding in keeping people poor. For Max, race is used in the service of class oppression. The ideology of racism is useful to capitalism in Wright's theory. In order to exploit workers to the fullest extent, capitalism divides them up into racial groups and pays one group less than the other. In order to keep the workers from uniting against the owners of industry, the workers are convinced that their true enemies are other workers. In order that they never find out the contrary, they are kept strictly separate in housing, in work, and even in prison. Through the voice of the communist attorney Max, Wright critiques the larger system of oppression that he sees as having acted on people like Bigger to make them do the seemingly insane things they do.
Bigger is an inarticulate protagonist. Wright uses Max in the novel to speak for Bigger. Bigger barely conceives of his position in society. His imprisonment and trail take him a long way in understanding himself in relation to his larger society, but even at the end, Bigger has not reached full self-realization. In the last conversation he has with Max, he tries to tell Max how important Max's words have been to him. Bigger has been denied a voice in this society. He has not been given the education or even the basic language of self-determination, self-assertion, and self-pride. He certainly has not been given the kind of education Max has which would allow him to distinguish the truth of the society from the ideology that hides that truth. Nevertheless, he speaks in the end and he speaks a truth that Max cannot fully know. Max is utterly disturbed by Bigger's continuing to claim that the murders were worth all the cost. In depicting this split in perception between Max and Bigger in the end, Wright does something very important. He avoids casting the white as the one masterfully speaking for the brutish and transparent African American. In the end, the European American cannot know the perception of the African American because he has not had his experience. Even so, self-realization is denied Bigger at the end, the final tragedy of his life.