Book Two (part two)
From Bigger returning to the Daltons’ through his being questioned by the press
Bigger knew the things that white folks hated to hear Negroes ask for; and he knew that these were the things the Reds were always asking for.
As Bigger leaves Bessie, he feels confident because he has taken his life into his own hands for once. His secret knowledge that he murdered Mary wipes out his fear and relieves him from the invisible force that has been burdening him. Upon reaching the Daltons’ home, Bigger checks the furnace. Seeing nothing of Mary’s body, he adds more coal to the fire. Peggy informs him that Mr. Dalton wants him to pick up Mary’s trunk at the station because she has not claimed it. The Daltons have also discovered that Mary has not arrived in Detroit. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton question Bigger again and he repeats his story.
When Bigger returns from the station, the Daltons introduce him to Britten, a private investigator they have hired. Britten doggedly questions Bigger, who remains timid and subservient and sticks to his story. Bigger is excited that, for the first time, he is in control, getting to “draw the picture for them” in the same manner that white people have always defined the situation for him.
Bigger tells Britten that he had not driven Mary to the university. He says that he performed the job Mary instructed him to do and that he kept it a secret because Mary told him to do so. Continuing in this self-deprecating vein, Bigger describes the events at the restaurant. When Britten asks whether Jan discussed communism at dinner, Bigger plays the role of the befuddled, simpleminded black boy. Bigger says that Jan, not Mary, told him to take the trunk downstairs and leave the car in the driveway. Again, Bigger says that he has not mentioned this detail before because Mary had instructed him to keep the events a secret.
Britten produces the pamphlets Bigger left in his room and accuses him of being a communist. Bigger is surprised that he, as a black man, would be accused of being Jan’s partner. He convinces Mr. Dalton that he took the pamphlets because Jan, a white man, had insisted that he take them. Mr. Dalton tells Britten that they cannot hold Bigger responsible for Mary’s disappearance. Britten is not so sure, and Bigger can see that the investigator thinks he must be guilty simply because he is black. Bigger offers to leave his job, but Mr. Dalton apologizes and asks him to stay on. Bigger goes to his room and eavesdrops on Mr. Dalton and Britten as they discuss him. Mr. Dalton says that Bigger is not a bad boy, but Britten claims that “a nigger’s a nigger” and that they are all trouble. Bigger feels he has seen a thousand people just like Britten and believes that he knows how to deal with him.
Dalton and Britten bring Jan to the house for questioning, and he denies seeing Mary the night before. He changes his story when Britten confronts him with the pamphlets he gave Bigger. When Mr. Dalton offers him money to reveal Mary’s whereabouts, Jan stalks out of the house. Bigger checks the furnace again and then hurries to tell Bessie about the new developments. Jan confronts him in the street, but Bigger pulls out his gun and chases Jan off. Jan’s innocence fills Bigger with terrible anger, and it takes a few minutes for him to regain his composure.
Bigger chooses a building managed by Mr. Dalton’s company as the drop-off site for the ransom money. At Bessie’s, he writes a ransom note demanding $10,000. He signs it “Red” and includes a drawing of a hammer and sickle. Bessie no longer wants to assist Bigger. She accuses Bigger of killing Mary, and Bigger admits it, saying it is okay because “[t]hey done killed plenty of us.” Bessie is terrified and begs Bigger not to involve her. Bigger tells her menacingly that he will not leave her behind and allow her to turn him in. Bessie then feels resigned to her fate. Bigger shows her the drop-off site and instructs her to return to the site at midnight the following night.
Bigger slips the ransom note under the Daltons’ front door and checks the furnace again. Mr. Dalton reads the letter and calls Britten. Bigger eavesdrops while Peggy assures Britten that Bigger acts just like most “colored boys.” Britten questions Bigger again, asking questions about his feelings for white women. Bigger is careful to continue his timid and ignorant act.
The press arrives at the Daltons’. The newspapers have already printed a story about Jan’s arrest in connection with Mary’s disappearance, and the reporters snap photographs as Mr. Dalton explains that he has received a ransom note for $10,000. Mr. Dalton orders Jan to be released, but admits to the press that the ransom note is signed “Red” and that it contains the emblem of the Communist Party. Jan, meanwhile, refuses to leave jail and declares that he has witnesses to contradict Bigger’s story, so the reporters take an even greater interest in Bigger. They appear delighted to hear that Bigger did not want to eat with Jan and Mary at Ernie’s. They want to print an article using Bigger to “prove” that the “primitive Negro” does not want to be “disturbed by white civilization.”
Bigger’s calculated manipulation of the prejudices of others reveals his cleverness and allows him a new opportunity to create something of his own. Thinking that racist whites would never consider a black man bold and intelligent enough to commit such a crime, he deliberately plays into these racial stereotypes to keep them off his tracks. The ease with which Bigger accomplishes this goal implies the severity of racial prejudices in America at the time. By merely playing the role of the ignorant black servant to a tee, Bigger fools Mr. Dalton, Britten, and even the reporters. He carefully directs suspicion at Jan by manipulating the wealthy whites’ anticommunist prejudices as well. Bigger relishes the chance to control the narrative for the whites, shaping their reality as he wants, just as they have shaped it for him all of his life.
Though the blindness of the white characters is again evident in this section, we also begin to see more clearly that Bigger is largely blind as well. While Britten clearly stereotypes Bigger, Bigger also stereotypes Britten as merely one of thousands of white authority figures he has seen in his life. Indeed, Bigger is clearly still prone to self-deception. Just as he earlier hides behind his “wall” to endure fear and shame, he now does the same to avoid his guilt. Bigger attempts to blame Mary for bringing about her own death. When he finally does admit the murder to Bessie, he tries to convince himself that the murder is justified because whites have killed so many blacks in the past. When Jan confronts him, Bigger is overwhelmed by such guilt that he nearly shoots Jan and falls into a stupor for a few minutes before getting a hold of himself.
As Bigger’s plan unfolds, morality becomes increasingly ambiguous and complex. Wright’s depiction of Bigger’s scheme suggests that, in a world complicated by racial hatred, it is not simple to identify right and wrong, even in the case of murder. Though Bigger kills Mary and then criminally plots against her family, it can be argued that neither of these events represents a moral action, as Bigger’s accidental homicide is prompted by his fear that the Daltons’ prejudice would lead them to assume that he intends to rape Mary. Considering the Daltons’ reactions to Bigger’s scheming following the murder, he may well have been right. Though Bigger has clearly committed a crime, Wright implies that he is not fully to blame for his actions following the murder. Bigger makes a conscious choice to lie and plots to injure the Daltons, but the mindset in which he makes those choices has been shaped by the social structure the Daltons and other whites help to perpetuate.
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