Book Two (part three)
From Peggy asking Bigger to clean the furnace through Bigger’s capture at the end of Book Two
In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him.
As the reporters stand around in the basement discussing the story, Peggy asks Bigger to clean the ashes out of the furnace. Bigger sifts some of the ashes into the lower bin and adds more coal, hoping that he will not have to take the ashes out until the reporters leave. However, the ashes still block the airflow, causing thick smoke to fill the basement. A reporter grabs a shovel and clears the ashes. When the smoke dissipates, several pieces of bone and an earring are visible on the floor. As Bigger looks at these remnants of his gruesome killing, all of his old feelings return: he is black and he has done wrong. He once again longs for a weapon so he can strike out at someone. While the reporters marvel over the glowing hatchet head in the furnace, Bigger sneaks up to his room and jumps out the window. It is snowing heavily and he lands hard, the snow filling his mouth, eyes, and ears.
Bigger rushes to Bessie’s house to keep her from going to the drop-off site for the money. When Bigger explains that he accidentally killed Mary, Bessie tells him the authorities will think he has raped Mary and has murdered her to cover up the evidence. Bigger thinks back to the shame, anger, and hatred he felt that night. He thinks that he has committed rape, but to him, “rape” means feeling as if his back is against a wall and being forced to strike out to protect himself, whether he wants to or not. Bigger thinks that he commits a form of “rape” every time he looks at a white face.
Bessie packs some clothes and blankets before she and Bigger flee to an empty building to hide. She tells Bigger that she sees her life clearly and resents how much trouble he has caused her. After they make a bed out of the blankets, Bigger rapes Bessie. He realizes he cannot take her with him but cannot leave her behind either. After she falls asleep, he kneels over her with a brick. He hesitates for a moment, but, seeing images of Mrs. Dalton, of Mary burning, of Britten, and of the law chasing him, he brings the brick down on Bessie’s skull. He realizes that Bessie, with her crying and her insistence for liquor, would only slow him down in his flight. Bigger then dumps her body down an airshaft, realizing too late that he has forgotten to remove the big wad of money from her clothing.
Bigger sleeps uneasily during the night. Though he senses his impending doom, he still feels powerful. Like Mary’s death, Bessie’s death gives Bigger a newfound vigor, and he feels a sense of wholeness he has never felt before. In the morning, he awakes to a city covered in snow. He slips out to a street corner to steal a newspaper and reads the front-page news about his escape. The press reports that Bigger probably sexually assaulted Mary before killing her. The authorities have a warrant to search any and every building on the South Side, including private homes. Not believing that a black man could have formulated such a complex plan, they are also searching for a communist accomplice. White anger is turning on blacks and there are reports of smashed windows and beatings throughout the city.
Fighting hunger and cold, Bigger looks for a vacant apartment in which to hide. Due to the overcrowding caused by an alleged housing shortage on the South Side, he has to search for a long while before he finally finds a suitable place. From a window, Bigger marvels at the dilapidated buildings where black tenants live. He thinks back on his own life as he sees three naked black children watching their parents have sex in a bed nearby. He remembers how his family was once driven out of an apartment just two days before the building collapsed. Next door, Bigger hears two people debating his situation. One man declares that he would turn Bigger in to the police, while the other argues that Bigger may not be guilty, since whites automatically view all black men with suspicion when a white girl is killed. Still, the first man blames people like Bigger for bringing white wrath down on the whole black community.
The next morning, Bigger uses his last few pennies to purchase a newspaper. The police have searched over 1,000 black homes. Only a tiny square on the map—the place Bigger is hiding—remains untouched. The police have questioned or arrested numerous communists. A siren shrieks as the police arrive. Bigger escapes to the roof just as they burst into the building. A dramatic shoot-out ensues and the authorities finally capture Bigger, who is half-frozen from the cold and snow. The men carry Bigger down as a crowd of furious whites demands that they kill “that black ape.”
[N]ever in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together. . . .
As Bigger goes on the run, fear and guilt continue to torment him. Though Mary’s murder is an accident, Bessie’s is not. Bigger is tormented by his consciousness of how wrong this second killing is, even at the moment he is committing it. In order to go through with the terrible act, he has to imagine the white blur he feels hovering near him on the night he kills Mary. Bigger forces himself to remember the horror of Mary’s burning corpse, Britten’s racist hatred, and the police who are closing in on him. While Bigger has already allowed his previously repressed fear and anger to come to the surface, he now must contend with his repressed feelings of guilt. He cannot bear to look at Bessie’s face, fearing that she will look at him accusingly even in death, just as Jan does when confronting Bigger in the street. Bigger fears the onslaught of an unstoppable feeling of guilt that would destroy him just as fear and anger have threatened to in the past. Bigger feels such a great need to repress his guilt that he prefers to leave all his money with Bessie’s body rather than face her again.
To some degree, Bigger is able to distract himself from his guilt by concentrating on the new sense of power he feels after doing something significant for the first time in his life. The murders give Bigger a chance to “live out the consequences of his actions,” freeing him from the image of blackness that white America has imposed upon him and giving him a chance to control his own fate. Ironically, Bigger has had to murder in order to gain that control, and he only feels freedom at a time when he is trapped in the city with the police closing in on him.
Bigger’s flight from the police during the blizzard can be interpreted as a metaphor for his entire life. He is literally corralled by the relentless manhunt, as the forces of “whiteness” pursue him in an intense building-by-building search of the entire South Side. Like a cornered rat, Bigger is trapped within the ever shrinking square of space that the police have not yet searched. The snowstorm is a literal symbol of the metaphorical “whiteness” that Bigger fears. The snow encompasses and impedes Bigger, shutting down the city and preventing his escape from the white manhunt. Like the waves of white men searching for him, the snow falls relentlessly around Bigger, locking him in place. Literally and symbolically, “whiteness” falls on Bigger’s head with the power of a natural disaster.
During his flight into the black South Side, Bigger takes time to look at the conditions in which he has lived, and realizations dawn on him as if he is seeing these conditions for the first time. The image of the naked children watching as their parents have sex is a reminder of the shame Bigger felt growing up. He sees that real estate owners like Mr. Dalton have forced black tenants to crowd into one small section of the city, creating an artificial housing shortage that drives rents up. Though Bigger’s social consciousness has clearly grown throughout the novel, he is only beginning to understand the broader picture of the complex racial conflict in American society.
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