Discuss the oppressive social environment of Chicago in the 1930s that leads Bigger to commit murder in "Native Son." 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The conditions in which Bigger lives are a reminder that social neglect and blight can only lead to worse consequences.  Wright is committed to showing how the current configuration of life in America for people of color, specifically African- Americans, creates more individuals like Bigger Thomas.  The opening with the rat scurrying across the floor reflects many of these realities.  The fact the Bigger has to use a kitchen utensil to kill the rat and the fact that Bigger and his family live in a home where rats seem to be a daily occurrence both are natural events that reflect the sense of despair that surrounds him.  Bigger's exploitation of the rat's death also is a statement that in the ghetto, life, as one knows it, does not hold the same meaning and that the glorification of death is part of this condition.  If Naturalism is the idea that individuals must choose based on their surroundings, Wright is giving the impression that there are not many opportunties for choice in this condition.  Bigger's mother reveals that the family is living off of government aid and that Bigger "has" to take the job that is offered.  Here again is another Naturalist idea that while people might have "choice," it is a type of illusion because their choice is motivated by their conditions and surroundings, actually revealing little, if any, choice present.   Finally, I think that Wright is also suggesting that Bigger's embrace of violence is not something that one could say was simply "his choice."  Sexuality and violence become the only ways that Bigger is able to articulate his condition in a setting where his condition has largely been defined by him.  Sexuality and violence are the only instances where he actually has power.  Whether it is masturbating in the movie theatre, the silencing of Mary, or the rape of Bessie, these are the only moments where he has power.  Wright is suggesting that while rape and murder are horrific, they are the natural consequences of a condition where there is so little in way of actual choice, and of being able to experience power and autonomy.  I don't think that Wright is excusing these actions, but rather suggesting that there is an examination of these settings in order to better understand the conditions that end up confronting individuals who have to use violence and sexuality as the only way to articulate what they are feeling about their world and their place in it.

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