Book One (part four)
From driving Mary to meet Jan through Mary’s death and the end of Book One
He saw a hatchet. Yes! That would do it.
Stepping into the car, Mary informs Bigger that she is not going to the university, but instead has other plans that she does not want to reveal to her parents. Bigger agrees to keep Mary’s activities a secret and guesses correctly that she plans to meet with some communists. Bigger grows increasingly anxious. He senses that Mary speaks to him as a human, an attitude he has never before encountered from a white person. Despite the freedom he feels with her, Bigger cannot forget that she is part of the world of people who tell him what he can and cannot do.
Mary introduces Bigger to her friend and lover, Jan Erlone, whom Bigger also recognizes from the newsreel. Jan confounds Bigger by shaking his hand and insisting that Bigger call him by his first name. Bigger thinks Mary and Jan are secretly making fun of him. He becomes infuriated because Mary and Jan make him intensely aware of his black skin—something he feels is a “badge of shame.” Their attention makes him feel naked and ashamed, and he feels a “dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate” for them.
Jan insists on driving. Mary squeezes into the front seat beside Bigger, who feels surrounded by “two vast white looming walls.” Bigger also intensely feels his physical proximity to a rich white girl, the smell of her hair, and the pressure of her thigh against his. Jan looks out at the city skyline and declares that “we” will own everything one day and that eventually there will be no black or white. Mary and Jan insist on eating at a black restaurant on the South Side. When pressed for a suggestion, Bigger offers Ernie’s Kitchen Shack. As they drive to the restaurant, Mary looks at the apartment buildings in the black district and wistfully tells Bigger that she wants to know how black people live. She has never been inside a black household, but thinks their lives must not be so different—after all, “[t]hey’re human. . . . They live in our country . . . [i]n the same city with us. . . .”
Mary and Jan insist that Bigger eat with them—a gesture that horrifies Bigger. They persist, however, so he angrily agrees. Mary begins to cry, sensing that she and Jan have made Bigger feel bad. Bigger feels trapped. He tries to think of what he would say to Mr. Dalton or the welfare agency if he were to walk off the job, but knows he cannot explain it. Jan comforts Mary and her tears are quickly forgotten as they go into the restaurant. Inside, Bigger encounters his girlfriend, Bessie, and his friend, Jack. When Bessie tries to talk to him, Bigger responds gruffly.
Jan, Mary, and Bigger eat dinner and then drink rum together. After a few drinks, Jan and Mary question Bigger about his history. He tells them that he grew up in Mississippi and that his father died in a riot. When Jan asks how he feels about his father’s death, Bigger tells him that he does not know. Jan tells Bigger that the communists are fighting against this kind of injustice. Mary insists that she and Jan want to be Bigger’s friends, and that he will get used to them. Bigger does not reply. Before they leave the restaurant, Mary tells Bigger she is going to Detroit at nine o’clock the next morning and that he should bring her small trunk to the station at eight-thirty.
Bigger drives Jan and Mary around the park while they make out in the back seat. The two have become thoroughly drunk by the time Bigger drops Jan off. Before he leaves, Jan gives Bigger some communist pamphlets to read. Mary, riding in the front seat next to Bigger, tries to engage in a conversation with him. She leans her head on his shoulder and asks him if he does not mind. She laughs, and again Bigger feels she is making fun of him. He again feels overcome by fear and hatred.
When Mary and Bigger arrive back at the Daltons’, Mary is too drunk to walk unaided. Terrified, Bigger helps her into the house and up the stairs to her bedroom, leaving the car in the driveway. In the bedroom, Bigger becomes sexually aroused and kisses Mary. He lays Mary down on the bed and is groping her breasts when Mrs. Dalton suddenly enters the room. Bigger is seized by hysterical terror. He knows that Mrs. Dalton is blind, but he worries that Mary may say something that unwittingly reveals his presence. Mary starts to rise in response to her mother’s voice, so Bigger places a pillow over Mary’s face to prevent her from speaking. In his panic, he accidentally smothers Mary to death. Mrs. Dalton kneels by the bed and smells the alcohol on her daughter. She prays and returns to her bedroom.
Bigger realizes that Mary is dead and tries frantically to devise a plan. He stuffs her body into her trunk and carries it down to the basement. He stops in front of the furnace and decides to burn the body. He forces her body through the door, but her head will not fit, so he cuts it off with a hatchet and stuffs the rest of her remains into the furnace. Bigger decides that he will act as though nothing has happened and that he will take Mary’s trunk to the station in the morning. When the Daltons realize their daughter is missing, Bigger will tell them that he accompanied her and Jan to her room to get her trunk. Bigger knows that the Daltons see Jan as a dangerous communist, and hopes that they will thus hold him responsible for Mary’s disappearance. Bigger takes Mary’s purse, which contains a wad of money, and hurries to his family’s apartment on the South Side.
In this section we see that Mary Dalton is dangerously oblivious to the social codes that draw a strict boundary between white women and black men. She behaves as if social codes are merely silly prejudices to ignore, and does not realize that her actions could have serious consequences for Bigger. Jan likewise ignores these social codes, and inadvertently provokes terror, anger, and shame in Bigger. On the whole, Mary and Jan’s attempts to treat Bigger as an equal only make him more conscious and ashamed of his black skin. Although Mary and Jan have good intentions in ignoring rules of conduct that they see as racist, Bigger nonetheless has good reason to fear and distrust their gestures. Though Jan requests that Bigger shake his hand and call him by his first name, Bigger knows that such actions would anger most white people, who would see them as disrespectful. Likewise, he knows that most other white people would be furious to see Bigger sitting in the front seat with Mary. Thus, as Mary and Jan treat Bigger as an equal, they confuse him and unconsciously expose him to a frenzy.
Mary uses the same language as Peggy to describe black Americans. When talking to Bigger, she uses the phrase “your people.” She refers to black Americans as “they” and “them,” implying that blacks constitute a separate, essentially different class of human beings. Her phrase “our country” indicates that she views America as a nation dominated by white people. When Mary exclaims, “They’re human,” she implies that a psychological division exists between white and black Americans. She does not have the sensitivity to say “we’re human” because she cannot include blacks and whites in the same collective. To her, the idea of being “human” means living like the white “us.” We see, then, that though Mary has the best intentions and considers herself socially progressive, on an unconscious level she still sees blacks as separate or different.
Indeed, we see that Mary and Jan prove just as condescending as Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, even though they ascribe to radical political and social views and make a genuine effort to understand racial problems in America. Mary and Jan enjoy an odd yet titillating satisfaction from the act of eating at a black restaurant with Bigger. We get the sense that breaking social barriers is a sort of game to them. Though Mary and Jan want to experience black life, they do not even come close to an understanding of its most horrific aspects—the frustration and hopelessness Bigger feels every day. Like the Daltons, Mary and Jan remain blind to the social reality of what it means to be black. For a moment, it seems that Mary may recognize her blindness to Bigger’s feelings. She weeps because she is ashamed that she has pushed Bigger against his will. Jan, however, lacks the sensitivity to recognize that he and Mary have placed Bigger in an awkward position, so this small window of understanding is quickly closed.
When Bigger finds himself in Mary’s room, he knows he has breached the most explosive racial rule—the sexual separation between black men and white women. As Bigger puts Mary to bed, he becomes excited and aroused. This excitement comes not so much from the fact that Mary is physically attractive, but from his knowledge that she is forbidden to him. When Bigger feels Mrs. Dalton’s ghostly presence in the room, he is reminded of the whiteness that controls his life, and is overcome by the magnitude of his transgression. Should Mrs. Dalton discover him, the horrible fate he has always expected for himself would surely be sealed forever. Bigger once again finds his skin color trapping him in a situation in which the only option proves to be fatal.
Bigger’s disposal of Mary’s body is brutal, and Wright spares none of the gruesome details. Wright does not want Bigger to be seen as a traditional hero, but instead wants to emphasize the extreme pain and rage Bigger feels, which make him capable of such a terrible act. By explicitly describing Bigger’s act of decapitating Mary’s body, Wright shows that his protagonist is not a moral innocent. Racism has destroyed Bigger’s innocence, awakening within him the capability to murder.
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