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.

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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.”