Native Son


Book Three (part two)

Summary Book Three (part two)

Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.

Bigger snorts at the idea that the Daltons think they have changed something by donating Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club, as he and his friends planned most of their robberies while hanging around the Club. Bigger says the church did not help him either, as it preached happiness only in the afterlife while he longed for happiness in this world. He also believes that once he is executed, there will be no afterlife. Bigger tells Max that he took a chance and lost, but that it is over now and he does not want anyone to feel sorry for him. Max decides to enter a plea of “not guilty” to buy some time to plead Bigger’s case.


The brief appearance of a crazed inmate in Bigger’s cell gives us another example of the narrow range of choices with which Bigger has grown up. We have seen some of these limited choices already: Bigger’s mother attempts to get by with religion and the hope for a better life beyond this world; Bessie relies on alcohol and dancing to ease her pain; and Bigger retreats behind his wall, lashing out violently when pushed too far. With the mad inmate, Wright shows us the danger of another option: attempting to tackle the problems of race relations using pure reason. The former student is driven mad by looking at the race problem closely and trying to understand the situation of blacks in America. Wright implies that approaching the situation rationally is as dangerous as lashing out with a gun—and, in some ways, less effective.

Though Bigger feels the injustice of his situation intensely, he is uneducated and inarticulate, and therefore sometimes unable to convey his feelings adequately. Although his understanding becomes clearer as the novel moves on, he still struggles—even within his own thoughts—for a way to describe his world. Wright sidesteps these limitations of Bigger’s character by creating the character of the mad student, who is intelligent enough to be able to voice his own philosophical perspectives on Bigger and the world that has created him. Furthermore, at the inquest, Max is able to make explicit the hypocrisy of the Daltons and their charity, something Bigger has sensed but has not expressed outright. As a white man, Max is also able to attack Dalton directly, something a black man in Wright’s Chicago would not have done. Max mocks Dalton’s pathetic gesture of benevolence—his gift of Ping-Pong tables to the Boys’ Club—and makes clear that Dalton is a major part of a system that corrals black tenants into the ghetto, creating the social conditions that have produced Bigger. Dalton is blind to these allegations, just as he is to Max’s assertion that his role in creating these conditions makes him complicit in Mary’s murder.

It is clear that the authorities do not consider Bessie’s rape and murder to be as important as the murder of Mary Dalton. They use Bessie’s battered body merely as evidence to establish the larger crime, which, in the eyes of the public, is the outrageousness of Bigger’s act against white society. We get the impression that Bigger’s trial is only a sensational spectacle for the public, and not an attempt to serve justice. The authorities’ attempts to force Bigger to reenact his crime in Mary’s bedroom reinforce this interpretation of the trial. We see that such ostensible evidence gathering is largely pointless, as Bigger’s guilt has been decided before he is ever arrested. Instead, the reenactment serves only to provide sensational photographs to print in the next racist news article about the trial.

Max’s acknowledgement of Bigger as a human being allows Bigger to talk—and even think—about himself in ways he never has before. Throughout Native Son, Wright focuses on this idea that physical oppression leads to psychological repression. Bigger has spent his entire life trying to hide behind a wall, attempting to shut out the realities of life and his feelings about these grim realities. Such repression has left him with violence as his only outlet. Max, however, by simply recognizing Bigger’s life and feelings, allows Bigger to shed this burden of repression that he has carried for so long. Bigger can now, at least tentatively, emerge from behind his wall and start to examine his world for what it really is.