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Native Son

Richard Wright

Book One (part three)

Book One (part two)

Book One (part four)

From Bigger’s arrival at the Daltons’ to meeting Mary with the car

Summary

Bigger watches the sunset from his apartment window as he waits for his appointment with Mr. Dalton. He feels his gun inside his shirt and considers leaving it at the apartment, but ultimately decides to bring it with him. Bigger does not fear the Daltons, but he knows that blacks are often harassed in white neighborhoods and believes the gun will help make him equal to the whites.

Upon arriving at the Daltons’, Bigger is unsure whether he should enter at the front or the back of the house. He stands outside the imposing iron fence of the Daltons’ mansion and is filled with a mixture of fear and hate, feeling foolish for having thought he might like this job. He summons the courage to go to the front door, which the Daltons’ white maid, Peggy, answers. Though Peggy is polite to Bigger, he senses that she is looking down on him even though she, like him, is only hired help. While Bigger waits for Mr. Dalton, he gawks at the splendor of the home, with its elegant furnishings and paintings. He feels intimidated by the vast difference between this world and his own. Assailed by insecurity, tension, and fear, he becomes awkward and clumsy.

Mr. Dalton, a tall, white-haired man, appears and leads Bigger toward his office. Mr. Dalton is the owner of the real estate company that owns the building in which Bigger and his family live. In a hallway, they pass Mrs. Dalton, whose face and hair are so white she seems like a ghost to Bigger. From the way Mrs. Dalton touches the walls as she passes, Bigger can see that she is blind. Once inside the office, Mr. Dalton interviews Bigger. Bigger answers the questions timidly, with few words apart from “yessuh” and “nawsuh.” He hates himself for acting in such a subservient manner, but he cannot control himself and becomes extremely uncomfortable.

As Mr. Dalton continues to question Bigger, Mary Dalton—Mr. Dalton’s daughter and the girl from the newsreel—breezes into the room. The two are introduced, and Mary immediately asks Bigger if he belongs to a union. Bigger knows nothing about unions except that they are supposed to be bad, and he begins to hate Mary for endangering his chance at the job. Mary asks Mr. Dalton if she can be driven to the university for a lecture that evening. She then leaves the room. Despite Bigger’s worries, Mr. Dalton hires him as a chauffeur. Mr. Dalton tells Bigger that he is a great supporter of the NAACP—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—and that he is hiring Bigger because of this support for blacks. Bigger’s first assignment, Mr. Dalton says, is to drive Mary to the university that evening.

Peggy cooks dinner for Bigger, but he is suspicious of her kindness and thinks she may be trying to pass off some of her work onto him. Peggy tells Bigger how nice the Daltons are and how much they do for “your people,” meaning blacks. Peggy also tells Bigger that the last chauffeur, a black man named Green, was with the Daltons for ten years. Green attended night school at Mrs. Dalton’s urging and went on to a government job. After Bigger finishes dinner, Peggy instructs him in the operation of the furnace, then shows him to his room. Bigger excitedly contemplates the luxuries he will enjoy with the Daltons. Nonetheless, Mary still worries him. Every rich white woman he has met in the past has treated him in a cold and reserved manner, but Mary does not. Bigger therefore does not know what to make of her.

Before driving Mary out to the university, Bigger enters the kitchen and finds Mrs. Dalton sitting there alone. She asks him several questions about his education. Bigger feels that Mrs. Dalton judges him in the same way his mother does. However, Bigger does note a difference between the manners in which the two women treat him: whereas Bigger’s mother tries to impose her own desires on him, Mrs. Dalton wants him to do “the things she felt that he should have wanted to do.” Bigger thinks to himself that he does not want to go to school. He feels he has “other plans,” but he is unable to articulate them, even to himself. He pulls the Daltons’ car out of the garage and picks Mary up at the side door.

Analysis

In Bigger’s first visit to the Daltons’, we see the extreme discomfort he experiences when he is surrounded by white society. Bigger sees white people not as individuals, but rather as an undifferentiated “whiteness,” a powerful, threatening, and hateful authority that denies him control over his own life and identity. The structure of American society and Bigger’s own limited, restricted experiences prevent him from relating to white people in any other way. Though Bigger feels that wrong is being done to him, he has so deeply internalized the rules of race relations that he finds himself acting out the role he has always seen blacks assume around rich, powerful whites.

The Daltons demonstrate similarly conflicting racial attitudes. As a real estate baron, Mr. Dalton is a major player in the production of the “whiteness” that terrifies, oppresses, and enrages Bigger. Despite Bigger’s criminal record, Mr. Dalton gives him a job because he thinks that blacks deserve a chance. Nonetheless, there is condescension in Mr. Dalton’s manner and charity. He simultaneously profits from keeping blacks like Bigger’s family in terrible housing, and expresses alleged benevolence by giving Bigger a menial job. We sense similar condescension in Mrs. Dalton’s charity as well. Her charity is not unconditional, as she wants Bigger to do what she thinks he should want to do. The Daltons may give money to black schools, but they do not acknowledge that Bigger ultimately should have the freedom and opportunity to determine the course of his own life, without their interference.

Mrs. Dalton’s blindness is important symbolically. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Native Son includes many metaphors for race relations that relate to the concepts of vision and sight. Mrs. Dalton is literally blind, but also metaphorically blind: she and her husband are blind to Bigger’s social reality. Bigger himself is similarly blinded by his hatred and fear. This blindness erects a dense wall of racial stereotypes between Bigger and the Daltons that prevents them from seeing each other as individual human beings. In Bigger’s eyes, the Daltons represent “whiteness”—the overwhelming, hostile, and controlling force that imprisons him in a world of few choices, none of which appeals to him. To the Daltons, Bigger represents the mass of needy black Americans who can be exploited but can also be used as convenient targets of charitable giving. Though Mr. Dalton effectively robs Bigger and his family through artificially high rents, he alleviates any conscious or unconscious guilt about such robbery by making charitable donations toward black causes.

Indeed, the social divisions in Native Son are more clearly delineated along such lines of race than along lines of class. Though Peggy is a servant—and thus ostensibly Bigger’s equal in terms of social class—she is just as patronizing to him as the Daltons are. Peggy’s remark about “your people” demonstrates her belief that black Americans are foreigners or outsiders of some sort. Conversely, when Peggy refers to the Dalton household, she says “us.” Though she is of a lower class than the Daltons, she clearly includes herself as one of “us,” whereas she does not include Bigger and the previous black chauffeur. Although Peggy seems kind, she still considers herself superior to Bigger because she is white.

Bigger feels extremely uncomfortable when racial boundaries are crossed, as such situations represent unfamiliar territory. He reacts to Mary with hostility because she crosses the tense social boundary between white women and black men. In Bigger’s limited experience, white women speak to him only from afar, with coldness and reserve. Mary, however, speaks to Bigger directly, which greatly confuses him. He thinks perhaps Mary might be trying to keep him from getting the job with the Daltons, as he is unable to comprehend the possibility that she might genuinely be interested in what he has to say. Complicating the situation is the fact that white women are utterly forbidden to black men. Though Mary is reaching out to Bigger, and not vice versa, Bigger knows that he would be the one to bear the blame should something go wrong. Mary thus terrifies and shames Bigger on many levels. He does not know how to behave in her presence because she breaks the only social rules he knows.

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