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Bigger begins in poverty and ignorance, anger and shame. He has been taught that white people are better than African American people and that rich people are better than poor people. He has been prohibited from all contact with white women, but has also been incited to lust after them. When he encounters a friendly and kind white family, he feels shame at his skin color, his inarticulateness, and his lack of social manners. When two whites treat him as a friend instead of as a scorned, but pitied servant, he hates them.
When he is called upon to help a white woman, he kills her in fear of being seen to confirm the stereotype that says he lusts after her uncontrollably. He tries to play the authority figures of his life against each other, but inevitably fails. He acts out the violence with which he is said to threaten white women on his African American girlfriend. He is put on trial where he is said to confirm the stereotype of the black rapist by the prosecutor and is defended as the inevitable result of an oppressive environment by his attorney.
He is sentenced to death and ends with an imperfect conception of himself and his crimes. Bigger Thomas desires the oneness of humanity. He catches brief glimpses of it with the help of his newly acquired allies Jan and Max. He comes to see that the white people who hate him have been as conditioned to that hate as he has in his hatred of them. He does not come to see the extent of his wrong against the two women he kills. When he sees Bessie Mears's body rolled out for the public view of a sensationalist press, he pities her, but he pities her as a victim of white oppression, not as a victim of his own oppressive actions as a man towards her as a woman.
Mary Dalton has a small part to play in this novel, but structurally and ideologically, she is pivotal. In reality, Mary Dalton seems to have been a very naive, sheltered woman who had a good heart, but poor judgment. As Max pointed out, Mary was kept separate from African Americans all her life. When she recognized that that separation was wrong, she set about trying to find ways to heal the hurt of that false divide. She understood that her parents' charity was ineffectual to stop the suffering of the masses of people, but could only pick out one or two exceptional members of the pitied group to be tokens of their charity.
She understood that even while acting with great charity toward African Americans, her father maintained his place in an economic system that created the poverty of the people he subsequently pitied. In her affiliation with the communists and in her desire to work with African American people, Mary went against a everything her training and upbringing had taught her. Her efforts were dismissed by her parents as childish pranks. She treated Bigger Thomas as if he were a representative of his entire ethnic group. Unwittingly, she presumed upon his physical space and his dignity as a separate human being. She wanted Bigger to give her all the contact that years of institutionalized separation of the two ethnic groups had denied her. She died having thought that she was on her way to getting that wish.
Bessie Mears also plays a very small part in the novel, even smaller than the part played by Mary Dalton. However, she plays a large symbolic role in her absence and silence. It would take writers of a later generation to put women like Bessie Mears at the center of their works. For Wright's novel, Bessie Mears represents the downtrodden. She is a domestic servant for white families who do not care about her welfare. She is an alcoholic who bargains with her body for drinks. It is unclear why she chose Bigger Thomas as her boyfriend. He does not believe she loves him. He thinks she uses him only for alcohol. Such a theory seems false when the reader considers Bigger's lack of steady work. Perhaps he stood apart from the others in his determination to achieve something better. We do know she wanted to marry Bigger.
We also know that she feared not only the white power structure, but the power of Bigger Thomas to force her into an impossible position in relation to that power structure. Her own power was apparently nil.
Henry Dalton is an extremely wealthy man, who makes his money in part from exploiting the poorest of the poor. He has a clear conscience, however, because he donates huge sums of money to the same group of people. He cannot understand any social analysis that does not support his right to do this.
Max is a strong believer in communism as a solution to the social and economic problems caused by capitalism. He believes that the United States will not heal the hurts of injustice without an economic solution, one that would re-distribute the wealth of the country so that there is no longer rich and poor.
Jan Erlone is a youthful radical of the Communist Party who sees the future as full of the certainties of a successful communist revolution in the United States. He believes that the class inequalities of capitalism rest in large part of the ideology of racism. After his lover is killed by an African American man, he does not lose his faith in this cause, but he does recognize the depth of the hurt that has been caused by racism and poverty. He does not abandon his ideals, but owns up to his part in causing Bigger's murder of Mary. He understands that he presumed too much, asked too much familiarity with Bigger, and simplistically believed that no repercussion would ensue from violating the taboo against contact between European-and African Americans.