Was what he had heard about rich white people really true? Was he going to work for people like you saw in the movies . . . ? He looked at Trader Horn unfold and saw pictures of naked black men and women whirling in wild dances . . . .
This passage from Book One appears as Bigger sits in the movie theater, thinking about the possibilities for his new job as the Daltons’ chauffeur. He has just seen the newsreel about Mary and has decided that he might find more to like about the job than he initially suspects. Here we see just how little contact Bigger has had with white people and therefore how impossible it is for him to conceive of them in realistic terms. We also see the importance of popular culture in determining societal attitudes, as Bigger is only able to imagine the Daltons’ lives by drawing upon movies that portray rich white people. The movie screen shows a scene of black savages dancing in a jungle, which Bigger covers up in his mind with an imagined scene of an elegant white cocktail party. Wright juxtaposes these sharply contrasting images to indicate the extent to which Bigger’s—and America’s—attitudes about whites and blacks are determined by popular culture. This popular culture inundates the America of Wright’s time with imagery that depicts blacks as savages and whites as cultured and sophisticated millionaires.
The head hung limply on the newspapers, the curly black hair dragging about in blood. He whacked harder, but the head would not come off. . . . He saw a hatchet. Yes! That would do it. . . .
This extremely disturbing passage from the end of Book One describes Bigger’s brutal disposal of Mary’s body after he accidentally smothers her to death. He tries to stuff the body in the furnace, but the head will not fit, so he is forced to decapitate Mary in order to fit her corpse into the fire. The grisliness of this passage is intentional, and important to the novel: Wright does not want to portray Bigger as a passive victim of a situation beyond his control. He spares no gruesome detail, depicting Bigger’s excited, racing mind and the gory work of dismembering Mary. Though there are extenuating social and personal circumstances surrounding Mary’s death, Wright does not want to portray Bigger as heroic for having killed her. Furthermore, he wants to emphasize that Bigger’s mindset is one of such pain and rage that he is more than capable of committing such brutality. Bigger is a victim of racism, and the worst part of his victimization is not that he is forced to kill Mary but that he has been transformed into a person capable of furious violence, one who even craves such violence. Showing Bigger hacking apart Mary’s corpse, Wright indelibly reminds us that Bigger is not morally pure. Rather, racism has destroyed Bigger’s innocence by awakening terrible capabilities within him—capabilities that later enable him to kill Bessie as well.
“Listen, Bigger,” said Britten. “Did you see this guy [Jan] act in any way out of the ordinary? I mean, sort of nervous, say? Just what did he talk about?
“He talked about Communists. . . .”
“Did he ask you to join?”
“He gave me that stuff to read.”
“Come on. Tell us some of the things he said.”
Bigger knew the things that white folks hated to hear Negroes ask for; and he knew that these were the things the Reds were always asking for.
In this passage from Book Two, in which Britten questions Bigger about Mary’s disappearance, we see Bigger’s astute ability to deflect suspicion away from himself by playing upon white prejudice against blacks and communists. Bigger assumes a slow-witted, subservient attitude that completely conceals his sharp intellect and capability for drastic action, and then uses this attitude to cast subtle suspicion upon the innocent Jan. Bigger utterly outsmarts the whites by telling them exactly what they want to hear, saying that, on the night of Mary’s disappearance, Jan was talking about these “things the Reds were always asking for.” Bigger knows that simply associating Jan with communist rhetoric will make Jan appear guilty in the minds of his white listeners, even though they already know Jan to be an avowed communist. Bigger uses his long experience with racial prejudice shrewdly, manipulating the prejudices of his white questioners. This passage suggests that, had Mary’s bones not been discovered in the furnace, Bigger may have gotten away with his crime completely.
He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him.
This quotation from Book Two is the first expression of an idea that Max later echoes in his courtroom defense of Bigger—that Bigger’s murders make him as exultant as they make him guilty, as they provide his life with a new sense of purpose and expression. Bigger’s possibilities have always been stunted by racism, but after these murderous acts, he is “free” to act—and to live with the consequences of these actions—for the first time. Even though these consequences ultimately mean flight and imprisonment, this feeling of self-assertion and personal control nonetheless remains liberating and intoxicating for Bigger.
There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had. . . . [N]ever in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.
Early on in Native Son, Wright describes how Bigger retreats behind a “wall” to keep the reality of his situation from overwhelming him. This passage from Book Two elucidates the destructive effects of Bigger’s retreat. He is isolated not only from his friends and family, but from himself as well. The African-American author W. E. B. DuBois, in The Souls of Black Folk, describes the effect of racism on the black psyche: “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Indeed, though Bigger’s body is still in one piece, his mind is split in two, leaving him unable to interact with others and unable to understand himself. It is this quest for wholeness that dominates Bigger’s life. Tragically, it is not until he has murdered two women and is soon to be executed that he is able to understand and grasp this wholeness. He is exhilarated by his new realization, yet tormented by the fact that it comes too late, when he has precious little time left to live.