From the opening of Book Three through Bigger signing his confession
In jail, Bigger lives in a world with no day, no night, and no fear or hatred, as such emotions are useless to him now. He feels gripped by a deep resolution to react to nothing, and he says and eats nothing. He longs for death, but as a black man he does not want to die “unequal, and despised.” Bigger wonders if perhaps the whites are right that being black is the same as being an animal of some sort. Nonetheless, the hope that another way of life exists, one in which he would be able to forget his racial differences, keeps coming back to him.
The authorities drag Bigger to an inquest at the morgue. He senses from the white people around him that they plan not only to put him to death, but also to make him a symbol to terrorize and control the black community. A feeling of rebellion rises in him and he begins to come out of his stupor. In the morgue, Bigger sees Jan and the Daltons. As he gradually begins to snap out of his psychological stupor, he faints, overcome by hunger and exhaustion. When Bigger awakens in his cell, he believes he has “come out into the world again” in order to save his pride and keep the authorities from “making sport of him.”
Bigger asks to see a newspaper. The headline reads, “Negro Rapist Faints at Inquest.” The story compares Bigger to a “jungle beast” who lacks the harmless charm of the “grinning southern darky.” Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, advises total segregation and a curtailment of the education of the black population, which he claims will prevent men like Bigger from developing. Bigger contemplates returning to his protective stupor, but is not sure if he is still able to do so.
Reverend Hammond, the pastor of Mrs. Thomas’s church, visits Bigger in his cell. The Reverend talks to him about hope and love beyond life. Bigger feels a terrible guilt for having killed within himself the kind of world the preacher describes. He compares the murder of his faith to his murder of Mary. Hammond places a cross around Bigger’s neck just as Jan enters the cell. Jan says that he is not angry and that he wants to help Bigger. Jan says he was foolish to assume that Bigger could have related to him in a different way than he relates to other white men. Jan says that he loved Mary, but he also realizes that black families loved all the black men who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. As Jan speaks, Bigger notes that this moment is the first time in his life that he has seen a white person as an individual human being, rather than merely a part of the larger oppressive force of whiteness. This feeling deepens Bigger’s guilt, as he knows he has killed the woman Jan loved. Jan introduces Bigger to Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Labor Defenders. Max wants to defend Bigger free of charge.
Buckley, the State’s Attorney, suddenly enters Bigger’s cell. Though Max argues that white power is responsible for Bigger’s actions, Bigger feels his burgeoning friendship with Max and Jan quickly evaporate when he sees the self-assured Buckley. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell and ask that Bigger cooperate with Buckley and reveal the name of his accomplice. In response, Max asks that they not sentence Bigger to death. Dalton says that despite the crime he is not angry with all black Americans. He announces that he has even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club earlier in the day. Doubtful, Max questions whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.
Bigger’s family and his friends Jack, G. H., and Gus enter the now crowded cell. Bigger looks at them and thinks they should be glad that he has “taken fully upon himself the crime of being black,” and thus washed away their shame. He knows, however, that they still feel shame, and he asks his mother to forget him. Mrs. Thomas tearfully begs the Daltons to have mercy, but they only reply that they have no control over the matter. Mrs. Thomas also tells Mr. Dalton that his real estate company has been trying to evict her family, and he promises they will not be evicted.
All the visitors leave the cell except Buckley, who warns Bigger not to gamble with his life by trusting Max and Jan. Buckley shows Bigger the mob gathered outside, which is screaming for his blood and urging him to sign a confession that also implicates Jan. Adding that the authorities know Bigger raped and killed Bessie too, Buckley pressures him to confess to other unsolved rapes and murders. Bigger realizes he could never explain why he killed Mary and Bessie because it would mean explaining his whole life. Bigger confesses to the murders but writes nothing to explain them. He signs his confession, feeling that there is no alternative. As soon as Bigger signs, Buckley starts to brag about how easy it was to extract a confession from a “scared colored boy from Mississippi.” After Buckley leaves, Bigger, feeling empty and beaten, falls to the floor and sobs.
As Bigger retreats into himself, the white authorities and press take control over his identity once again, redefining him as a bestial Negro rapist and murderer. Wright’s influence for this treatment of Bigger’s character may have come from actual events. While writing the novel, Wright studied newspaper clippings from the 1938 Chicago murder trial of Robert Nixon, a young black man who killed a white woman with a brick during a robbery. Wright used many details from those articles, especially the descriptions of Nixon as an animal, in his writing of Native Son.
The whites attempt to reshape Bigger’s identity with these additional gruesome details not only to demonize Bigger, but also to whip up white violence and terrorize the black community into submission. Edward Robertson’s newspaper editorial blames northern whites for giving blacks too many opportunities, but also implicitly warns the black community to behave or risk a return to the kind of oppression many of them have left behind in the South. This awareness that whites are attempting to use him as a lesson to the black world angers Bigger and prevents him from staying in his insulated, catatonic state. Sensing that his back is once again up against the wall, he feels a renewed sense of rebellion and comes to be ready—though, as always, not completely willing—to fight.
In jail, we see Bigger grapple with conflicting and often unwanted visions of hope. Alone in his cell, he has visions of a new identification with the world, a way to merge with men and women around him and become part of a community. He tries to shake this image from his mind because, given his current situation, hope only makes him feel worse. Reverend Hammond confronts Bigger with another kind of hope, the same spiritual hope that his mother’s religion promises. The reverend tells Bigger tales of the world beyond life, but Bigger knows he has killed this faith in himself long ago. He does, however, take the cross to wear and seems to take some solace in the reverend’s words. He even thinks of himself as Christlike in the presence of his family and friends. Just as Christian tradition maintains that Jesus died to wash away the sins of the world, Bigger has “taken fully upon himself the crime of being black” and will die to wash away the shame blacks have experienced.
Jan’s arrival in the cell marks an important moment in the novel. In his initial encounter with Jan, on the night of Mary’s murder, Bigger senses that Jan and Mary are trying to speak to him as a man. Nonetheless, their blindness to Bigger’s feelings makes any connection between them impossible. Now, however, Jan understands what Bigger felt the night he murdered Mary. Jan tells Bigger that he realizes he acted blindly toward Bigger that night, and thus in a way is somewhat responsible for Mary’s murder. The terrible act has allowed Jan, just like Bigger, to see things more clearly. Jan becomes the first white man Bigger sees as an individual, rather than merely a representation of the whiteness that Bigger has felt pressing down on him.
The crowd that gathers in the jail cell requires us to suspend our disbelief. It seems unlikely that so many people would be allowed, let alone actually fit, inside an accused murderer’s cell. Wright tried to deflect this criticism by explaining that he was more interested in the emotional truth of the scene than he was in its physical reality. The crowd of individual visitors represents the collective voice of society as it reacts to and judges Bigger’s case. Mrs. Thomas’s voice cries for mercy, while Buddy is ready to take revenge. The Daltons speak with the voice of condescending liberalism, intent on revenge but unable to acknowledge the role they have played in creating Bigger’s frame of mind. Finally, Buckley represents the voice of white power and racism, convinced Bigger is less than human and eager to make him a symbol for other blacks who might dare to cross the line Bigger has crossed.