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Native Son

Richard Wright

Book Three (part three)

Book Three (part two)

Book Three (part four)

From Bigger struggling with his feelings after his meeting with Max through the completion of the prosecution’s testimony in court

Summary

Bigger is seized with nervous energy, filled with both hope and doubt. Max’s questions have made Bigger feel that Max acknowledges his life and feelings. Bigger wonders if people on the other side of the “line” suffer from the same hatred and fear that have gripped him all of his life. He realizes that individual people, just like himself and Jan, comprise both sides of the color line. Bigger suddenly wishes to know more about life. He wants to touch the hands of people locked in other cells, both in prison and out in the world. He wants to feel the pain of others who suffer like him.

However, Bigger knows that he faces the death penalty, and therefore believes that it is too late to learn the meaning of his existence. He wishes he could retreat back into his mental stupor. He has a newfound feeling of hope for a new world and a new way of viewing himself in relation to other people, but this hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him. The voice of hatred he has read in the newspapers seems so much louder and stronger than the voice of understanding he has heard in Max and Jan. Bigger despairs that this hatred will endure long after he is dead.

Bigger’s family, friends, and teachers are in the courtroom for the trial. He wonders why the authorities do not just shoot him instead of forcing him to go through this long, public process. Max enters a guilty plea and explains that the law allows him to enter mitigating evidence for his defendant. Buckley claims that Max wants to plead guilty and then try to prove that Bigger is insane, which is not allowed under the law. Max denies this claim and says that he merely wants to demonstrate why Bigger has committed murder. Max accuses Buckley of rushing the trial to gain political advantage for the upcoming elections and claims that Buckley is merely a stooge who is doing the bidding of the mob that has gathered outside the courtroom. Max claims that Buckley wants to avoid the matter of motive because it would mitigate Bigger’s punishment. The judge allows Max to do as he has planned, and the sentencing hearing begins.

Buckley calls Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, Peggy, and Britten to testify that Bigger behaved like a sane man. Next on the stand are the reporters who discovered Mary’s bones in the furnace, followed by a parade of people who knew Bigger in the South Side. The theater manager testifies that Bigger and other boys had masturbated in the theater. Buckley even brings the Daltons’ furnace into the courtroom. He presents his case over the course of two days.

Analysis

Native Son is filled with dramatic action—there are two murders, a police chase, a shoot-out, and a murder trial—yet the most dramatic turmoil occurs inside Bigger’s mind. In perhaps the most important moment in the novel, Bigger is suddenly able to see himself in relation to other people. Thanks to his discussion with Max, he now feels free from the tensions of his life. He no longer sees whites as just a “looming mountain of hate,” but rather as individuals. Bigger has already seen Jan in this manner, but he now reaches the important realization that even those whites who hate him are human. In fact, if Bigger were in their place, he realizes he would likely hate in the same way that they do. This revelation has required Bigger to accept two important things: not only must he realize that whites are human beings, but he must also recognize that he himself is their equal. Previously, Bigger has been afraid even to think of himself in these terms. Now, however, the burdens of fear, hate, and shame have been lifted from him, and he is able to see that the problems of his life are not his alone. He imagines everyone—white and black, rich and poor—trapped alone in his or her own jail cell, longing for connection.

Bigger finally begins to realize that he has been just as blind as everyone else. Just as racist whites are blind to his humanity, he has been blind to the fact that Jan and Mary are human beings as well. He makes the crucial realization that the hatred and fear that drive people on the other side of the “line” to make a spectacle of him and wish him dead are the same kind of hatred and fear that he has felt himself. Bigger longs to overcome his alienation and become involved in the lives of others.

Bigger’s awakening to the possibility of a connection with others represents a new source of hope. He has left religion behind because it only offers hope in the afterlife, but now he has found beliefs that enable him to see hope in this world. He imagines being able to reach out and touch the hearts of others around him. He feels that in his recognition of others, and their recognition of him, he can gain the identity and wholeness for which he has longed. Earlier, Bigger thinks that he has found this identity in his new status as a murderer, but that status leaves him tormented by guilt. This new identity brings Bigger an image of himself standing in a crowd of men in a blinding sun that has burned away all differences—not only differences of race, but of class as well.

Bigger struggles with the inner conflict produced by this new hope, and knows he must reconcile his new hope with the certainty that he will be sentenced to death. In the face of death, such hope is a torment. Bigger now longs for more time to examine and understand his relation to others. His new fear is that he will die before he has time to reach this understanding fully. He also feels defenseless in the face of ongoing hatred, despairing that the voices of hate will drown everything else out and continue long after he is dead. The mobs and the newspapers continue to call Bigger a monster, and he wonders if it is not better to hide again behind his wall of hate. Fighting this battle within himself, he realizes that to win the battle for his life on the outside he must first win it on the inside. This realization represents the end of the split consciousness from which Bigger has suffered throughout the novel. His newfound wholeness, although something he only barely understands, gives him the power to achieve victory in a sense, regardless of the outcome of his trial.

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