Book Three (part four)
From the beginning of Max’s speech through the end of the novel
In the courtroom, Max presents his case. He argues that Bigger is a “test symbol” who embodies and exposes the ills of American society. Max explains that his intent is not to argue whether an injustice has been committed, but to make the court understand Bigger and the conditions that have created him. Max points out that the authorities have deliberately inflamed public opinion against Bigger, using his case as an excuse to terrorize the black community, labor groups, and the Communist Party into submission.
Max goes on to say that the rage directed at Bigger stems from a mix of guilt and fear. Those who clamor for Bigger’s swift execution secretly know that their own privileges have been gained through historical wrongs committed against people like Bigger, and that their wealth has been accumulated through the oppression of others. Bigger’s options have been so limited, and his life so controlled, that he has been unable to do anything but hate those who have profited from his misery. Stunted and deformed by this oppression, Bigger was unable to view Mary and Jan as human beings. Max argues that the Daltons, despite their philanthropy, are blind to the world that has created Bigger and have themselves created the conditions that led to their daughter’s murder.
Max warns that killing Bigger quickly will not restrain others like him. Rather, these other blacks will only become angrier that the powerful, rich, white majority limits their opportunities. Popular culture dangles happiness and wealth before the oppressed, but such goals are always kept out of reach in reality. Max argues that this smoldering anger born out of restricted opportunities—though now tempered by the effects of religion, alcohol, and sex—will eventually burst forth and destroy all law and order in American society. By limiting the education of blacks, segregating them, and oppressing them, white society itself is implicated in Mary’s murder. Max claims that white society “planned the murder of Mary Dalton” but now denies it. He says that his job is to show how foolish it is to try to seek revenge on Bigger.
Max argues that Bigger murdered Mary accidentally, without a plan, but that he accepted his crime, which gave him the opportunities of choice and action, and the sense that his actions finally meant something. Bigger’s killing was thus not an act against an individual, but a defense against the world in which Bigger has lived. Mary died because she did not understand that she alone could not undo hundreds of years of oppression. Max points to the gallery, where blacks and whites are seated in separate sections. Blacks, he says, live in a separate “captive” nation within America, unable to determine the course of their own lives. He argues that such a lack of self-realization is just as smothering and stunting as physical starvation. Bigger sought a new life, Max says, and found it accidentally when he murdered Mary. Max argues that Bigger had no motive for the crimes and that the murders were “as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes.” The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living.
Max says that there are millions more like Bigger and that, if change does not come, these conditions could lead to another civil war. He says he knows the court does not have the power to rectify hundreds of years of wrongs in one day, but that it can at least show that it recognizes that there is a problem. Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there. Finally, Max argues that the court cannot kill Bigger because it has never actually recognized that he exists. He urges the court to give Bigger life. Bigger does not entirely understand Max’s speech, but is proud that Max has worked so hard to save him.
After Max’s arguments, Buckley declares that Bigger does in fact have a motive for Mary’s murder. Buckley claims that since Bigger and Jack masturbated while watching a newsreel about Mary the same day she was killed, Bigger must have been sexually interested in her. Buckley tells the courtroom that Bigger was a “maddened ape” who raped Mary, killed her, and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley concludes his argument by saying that Bigger was sullen and resentful from the start, not even grateful when he was referred to Mr. Dalton for a job. Buckley calls Bigger a “demented savage” who deserves to die, and whose execution will prove that “jungle law” does not prevail in Chicago. The court adjourns. After a brief deliberation, the judge returns and sentences Bigger to death.
Max visits Bigger again after a failed attempt to obtain a pardon from the governor. Bigger tries to explain how much Max’s questions about his life meant to him, as these questions acknowledged Bigger’s existence as a human being, even as a murderer. Max tries to comfort Bigger, but Bigger wants understanding, not pity. He continues, saying that sometimes he wishes Max had not asked the questions, because they have made him think and this thinking has scared him. The questions have made Bigger consider himself and other people in a new way, and have caused him to realize that his motivation for hurting people was simply that they were always crowding him. He did not mean to hurt others, but it just happened. When Bigger committed the murders, he was not trying to kill anyone, but rather to make his life mean something that he could claim for himself. Bigger asks Max if this sense of meaning is the same reason that the authorities want to kill him. Max urges his client to die free, believing in himself. He tells Bigger that only his own mind stands in the way of believing in himself. The rich majority dehumanizes people like Bigger for the same reason Bigger could not see the majority as human—they each just want to justify their own lives.
Bigger tells Max he does believe in himself. He did not want to kill, but there was something in him that has made him kill and that something must be good. He tells Max that he feels all right when he looks at it this way. Max is horrified at Bigger’s words, but Bigger assures him that he is all right. Max bids him good-bye and as he leaves, Bigger asks him, “Tell . . . Tell Mister . . . Tell Jan hello.”
In his long courtroom speech, Max articulates much of what Bigger has already seen and felt throughout the novel. He reiterates the Daltons’ blindness and Bigger’s blindness toward Mary and Jan. He tells the court how the murders gave Bigger the identity he lacked and how the hate and fear that Bigger’s living conditions bred into him made the murders almost inevitable. While much of Max’s speech simply restates what we have seen before, it does clarify the warning Wright implies with the ringing of the alarm clock at the novel’s opening. Max worries that the same doom Bigger dreads in Book One is the fate of the entire country. Max appeals to the court—as Wright appeals to his readers in 1930s America—to recognize Bigger Thomas, to understand the conditions that have created him, and to comprehend the disastrous consequences of allowing these conditions to continue.
Many critics have argued that Wright uses Max’s speech merely to expose his own communist propaganda. Others, however, have pointed out that Max, though a lawyer for the Communist Party, is never identified as a member of the Party himself. Also, Max’s argument does not follow the party line exactly. Max does make clear that blacks have been oppressed for hundreds of years, and details the conditions under which they are forced to live in 1930s Chicago. His argument does not, however, appear to be a call for revolution or an attack on capitalism. Instead, Max makes an appeal to the rich and powerful simply to understand that they are sowing the seeds for a new civil war in continuing their oppression of blacks. In the end, Max, as a representative of the Communist Party, cannot save Bigger. Bigger learns that salvation can come only from within, through his own effort.
In a novel filled with characters who are blind both literally and metaphorically, Max sees the most clearly. He is able to understand and articulate much of Bigger’s life after only one long conversation with him. Max sees that Bigger views whites not as individuals, but as a great natural force. He understands Bigger’s split consciousness and sees how Bigger was forced to retreat from reality. He also understands how Mary’s murder gave Bigger the chance to control his own life for the first time. For all his perceptiveness, however, Max is still unable to see Bigger completely. At the trial, he refers to Bigger as a symbol and talks of the millions more who are like him. In this statement, we see that Max understands Bigger, but that he cannot see Bigger beyond his own conception of who Bigger must be. When Bigger tells Max that he is pleased with what he has done, Max is unable to accept this assertion and gropes for his hat “like a blind man.” Even Max is unable, ultimately, to see Bigger fully for the individual he is.
Critics, such as James Baldwin in Everybody’s Protest Novel, have argued that Bigger goes to his death fearful and desperate, just like the rat in the first pages of the novel. Others contend that Bigger finally gives himself over to hatred. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Bigger does change in jail, accepting that the acts he has committed are part of who he is, but also that hate for one’s oppressors is a natural feeling. It is the repression of these feelings—a repression Bigger has forced upon himself in order to survive—that leads to his violent acts. By the end of the novel, he has shed his hate and fear, and longs only to understand his place in the world and his relation to other people. Bigger tells Max again and again that he is all right. Finally, as Max is leaving, Bigger asks him to “[t]ell Jan hello.” As Jan requests in the beginning of the novel, Bigger finally calls him by his first name, signifying that he finally sees whites as individuals, rather than a looming force. Even more important, Bigger sees himself as the whites’ equal. Max exhorts Bigger to believe in himself, and we have every indication at this point to believe that he already does.
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