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Native Son

Richard Wright

Book Two (part one)

Book One (part four)

Book Two (part two)

From the opening of Book Two through Bigger leaving Mary’s money with Bessie

Summary

Bigger wakes up earlier than the rest of his family, and he is in a panic. He realizes he must get rid of Mary’s purse as well as his own knife, which still has blood on the blade. Bigger finds the communist pamphlets Jan gave him and plans to use them as evidence against Jan if the police come around asking questions. When his mother wakes and asks why he did not get home until four o’clock in the morning, Bigger insists that he returned at two, because that time fits better with the story he has constructed. Bigger stares silently around him, infuriated and bewildered that his family has to live in such griminess. Vera accuses Bigger of staring at her and begins to sob as he tries to keep his composure.

Bigger contemplates his crime and becomes filled with a sense of invincibility. In murdering Mary, he feels he has created a new life for himself. He convinces himself that Mary’s death is not accidental, but is actually something to which his whole life has been leading. Bigger feels a kind of pride in thinking that one day he will publicly accept what he has done. He decides that Jan, Mary, and the Daltons are blind, and, staring at his family, he realizes that they too are blind. Buddy longs to have a job like Bigger’s, and Vera already shows the beginnings of the same weariness that marks his mother’s face, exhibiting a profound fear of life in her every gesture.

As Bigger bounds down the stairs, Buddy calls after him, handing him a large wad of bills that has fallen out of Bigger’s pocket. Bigger tells Buddy not to tell anyone about the money. Bigger then showily purchases cigarettes for Jack, G. H., and Gus before getting on a streetcar to go to the Daltons’ home. Bigger begins to see that the white people around him are all blind. They see him as one who might steal, get drunk, or even rape, but they would never guess that he could be capable of murdering a white girl. Bigger marvels that he can act just as others expect him to, yet still do what he wants.

Bigger thinks of Mary and begins to believe that her murder is justified by the shame and fear that whites have caused him. White people, he thinks, are not really people, but a “great natural force.” He wishes he could have a sense of solidarity with other black people to battle against this white force, but he knows such solidarity would only be achieved if blacks were forced into it out of desperation. Bigger thinks of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, and wishes for some black leader to come along and whip black people into a group that would act together to “end fear and shame.”

Bigger arrives at the Daltons’ and finds Peggy peering into the furnace. For a moment he fears he may have to kill her, as the furnace is where he hid the body, but she sees nothing suspicious. Bigger adds coal to the furnace and leaves the unread communist pamphlets that Jan gave him in his room. Peggy sees that the car has been left outside all night, and Bigger tells her that Mary instructed him to leave it in the driveway. Peggy is skeptical, but Bigger mentions that a “gentleman” came to the Daltons’ house the night before, and Peggy does not question him further. Bigger feigns surprise when Mary does not come down from her room, and Peggy suggests that perhaps Mary has already gone to the train station. Bigger delivers Mary’s trunk to the station at 8:30. When Bigger returns, Jan calls looking for Mary.

Bigger is eager to watch the drama unfold. He eavesdrops on Peggy and Mrs. Dalton’s worried conversation. Peggy mentions that Jan called to speak to Mary, and believes that Mary might have asked Jan to make the call in an attempt to cover something up. Mrs. Dalton becomes worried when Peggy says that it looks like Mary did not pack all her things. Bigger realizes that he did not think of this detail, and for the first time he feels nervous. Mrs. Dalton questions him, and he repeats his story, adding that Jan accompanied him to Mary’s room. Mrs. Dalton gives Bigger the rest of the day off.

Bigger berates himself for somehow failing to acquire more money during the murder and cover-up, feeling that he should have planned things more carefully. He visits Bessie and shows her the money. Bessie tells Bigger that his employers live in the same section of town as the Loeb family. They discuss a recent case in which Richard Loeb and his friend Nathan Leopold kidnapped a neighborhood boy, killed him, and tried to collect ransom money from the family. Bigger remembers the case and begins to concoct his own ransom plan.

Bigger sees that Bessie is as blind as his family, as she uses liquor to blot out the pain of her life. He struggles over whether or not to trust her, but tells her that he has a big plan to obtain more money. Bigger tells Bessie that the Daltons’ daughter ran away with a “Red,” and that he took the money from Mary’s room after she disappeared. He says he wants to write a ransom note and collect more. He assures Bessie that Mary has disappeared for good, but Bessie is suspicious of how he knows for certain. When Bessie asks Bigger if he is involved with Mary’s disappearance, he threatens to beat her. He tells Bessie to retrieve the ransom money at a planned drop-off site, assuring her that he will be able to warn her if the money is marked or if the police are watching, as he works for the Daltons and will be privy to their plans. Bessie hesitantly agrees to help, so he gives her Mary’s money for safekeeping.

Analysis

Structurally, the opening of Book Two inaugurates a new phase of Native Son that corresponds with a turn in the novel’s events. Mary’s death represents a key turning point in the plot, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of Bigger’s development as a character. In Book One, “Fear,” Bigger is unable to analyze his behavior, aside from a few instances when he rationalizes his actions enough to forget them. In Book Two, “Flight,” he begins to actively contemplate his identity and consciousness. At the beginning of the novel, Bigger writhes under the yoke of white authority, resentful of the line drawn between himself and white America. However, he does not cross this line until terror drives him to kill Mary by accident. Though this action threatens Bigger’s life, it also, ironically, gives him a tangible goal: to get away with the murder. Bigger now feels the sense of clear purpose he lacks prior to killing Mary.

Bigger clearly still suffers from self-deception. Mary’s death is an accident, but he convinces himself that it was a deliberate action on his part. To Bigger, the deliberate murder of a white woman represents the ultimate rebellion against the crushing authority of “whiteness.” While he has in fact killed a white girl, Bigger convinces himself that he did not do so accidentally, but rather he consciously challenged and defeated the unfair social order imposed upon him. Given that Bigger does not have the ability to determine life and death, he feels that he now possesses a power that white America has used against him since his birth. In Bigger’s fantasy, his alleged victory is an act of creation: he believes that killing Mary gives him a new life, one that he himself controls. Bigger sees framing Jan as merely the first step in constructing and protecting his new life. Through these actions, Bigger claims equality with whites on his own terms, and feels that he has become more human because his life now holds purpose. A bitter irony pervades this entire idea of life-affirming transformation, as the transformation occurs only after a brutal, irrational act of violence.

Bigger believes that blacks who simply accept the social order defined by white America are blinding themselves to the truth. His mother is blind because she depends on religion to cope with her disadvantaged position in life, and because she accepts the role she has been assigned despite the suffering it causes. Buddy views Bigger’s menial job as an honorable position. In Bigger’s eyes, Buddy’s attitude means that Buddy accepts the subservient role white America has assigned him. Vera spends every minute of her life in fear, but accepts this fear as an inevitable part of her existence as a poor black girl. Additionally, Bigger sees Mary, Jan, and the Daltons as blind because he senses that they arrogantly assume that their knowledge of “blackness” can protect them.

Bigger’s longing for a leader who can bring solidarity to the black community represents a warning on Wright’s part. When Bigger looks to the fascist leaders of Italy and Germany, he finds much that he admires. He does not care whether these leaders are morally right or wrong, but only that they point to a possible avenue of escape from the white force that oppresses Bigger and the black community. Through the character of Bigger, Wright shows us that the conditions in 1930s America are ripe for fascism to flourish and that millions of oppressed people are waiting to unite behind a powerful and charismatic leader, regardless of that leader’s moral character.

To disguise his identity as an unrepentant black murderer of a white woman, Bigger plays the expected role of the humble, ignorant, subservient black boy. In this sense, he is beginning to manipulate his identity to his advantage. The Daltons’ racism blinds them to Bigger’s role in Mary’s death, as they are unable to imagine Bigger taking any action beyond the role that they have already assigned him. Bigger thus subverts racial stereotypes, using them as a form of resistance and protection against white authority.

Now that Bigger has broken the ultimate social barrier by killing a white woman, he no longer feels afraid to commit robbery against whites. Bigger’s plan to collect a ransom from the Daltons is inspired by the real-life Leopold and Loeb case. In the 1920s, two bored, wealthy students from prominent Chicago families decided to commit what they considered the perfect crime. For months, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb planned to kidnap the child of a wealthy family. They killed the child to cover up their crime, and then planned to collect $10,000 in ransom money from the family. Leopold, however, accidentally dropped his glasses when disposing of the child’s body, and this evidence led to his and Loeb’s arrests, trials, convictions, and sentences to life imprisonment. Clarence Darrow, the defending attorney in the famous Scopes monkey trial, defended Leopold and Loeb. He argued that World War I had led to a cheapening of human life and that his clients had grown up in a world that learned to glorify violence. Darrow thus argued that Leopold and Loeb’s environment had influenced their callous attitude toward human life. In legal terms, Leopold and Loeb’s crime is more serious that Bigger’s, as it was completely premeditated rather than accidental. However, Wright reminds us that it is unlikely that anyone in the 1930s would accept the possibility that a black man such as Bigger accidentally killed a white woman such as Mary.

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