Book 3: Fate Summary

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Last Updated April 14, 2023.

So far in the novel, everything that has happened has occurred in under 48 hours, which is a shorter time period than it may initially seem. However, in Book Three: Fate, despite several weeks passing, time seems very limited because Bigger is under arrest and his fate is uncertain.

During the initial days of his confinement, Bigger appears to be in a daze, as if he is not fully conscious. Despite being provided with food, he doesn't eat it and even though he's subjected to intimidation and harassment, he remains silent. There seems to be a part of him that has surrendered, causing him to feel drained, submissive, and vanquished.

He is brought to his pretrial hearing in restraints. The hearing is conducted before a "grand jury" made up of six white men who will determine if Bigger should be prosecuted and for what crimes. Bigger recognizes Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and Jan Erlone among those present. He passes out, mostly due to hunger and thirst, and when he wakes up, he finds himself back in his cell.

Bigger is now showing a renewed interest in his own destiny, as he eats, drinks, and requests a newspaper. Unfortunately, he comes across another unpleasant and racially charged story about himself, full of descriptions that have consequences for all Black people and not just Bigger. After falling asleep, he is awoken by Reverend Hammond, the pastor of Mrs. Thomas' church. The reverend preaches to Bigger and reads a lengthy passage from Genesis in the Bible. He also places a wooden cross around Bigger's neck just as Jan, Mary's boyfriend, enters the cell. In a powerful speech, Jan shares that he initially had the desire to kill Bigger after learning that he had murdered his girlfriend.

Currently, Jan is filled with a strong desire to stop the hatred, comprehend Bigger's situation, and offer assistance if possible. Jan wants to break the cycle of violence and hatred. Although Jan's earnestness touches Bigger, he believes that his situation is beyond repair. Despite Reverend Hammond's objections that redemption can only be achieved in the afterlife, Jan invites Boris A. Max, a Jewish lawyer from Labor Defenders, to help Bigger.

In a short amount of time, Max convinces Bigger to heed his advice. Shortly after, David A. Buckley, the state's attorney, enters the room and is taken aback by Max's presence. He urges Max not to take on Bigger's case, stating that the state possesses sufficient evidence to execute Bigger, regardless of Max's defense. He reminds Max that Bigger tried to pin his crime on the Communist Party. However, Max remains resolute in his support of Bigger.

Buckley uses the testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton to reinforce his position. He argues that Max should aid the Daltons, who are known for their general support of "Negroes," instead of supporting someone like Bigger who committed a murder. Mr. Dalton questions Bigger, demanding the name of his partner, believing that Bigger could not have carried out the complex crime by himself.

Bigger's mother, brother, and sister, along with his friends Gus, G.H., and Jack, from the poolroom are all brought into the cell. Bigger is filled with shame for his family's fear and helplessness, and is also pained by their subservient position. He discovers that his three friends were arrested, but were later released from jail with the help of Jan and Boris Max. The whole scene is extraordinary with a total of thirteen individuals now in the cell. It reaches its climax when Mrs. Thomas breaks down in tears, falls to her knees, and pleads with the...

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Daltons to spare Bigger's life.

From her appeal, we find out that the Thomases have been forced to leave their rented apartment that is owned by the Daltons. While the Daltons permit the Thomases to continue living there, they refuse to help Bigger, saying there is nothing they can do for him now. This distressing situation leaves Bigger feeling embarrassed and unable to act.

Everyone else in the cell departs, with the exception of Buckley. Buckley proceeds to inform Bigger that the Communists are not genuinely interested in assisting him, but instead plan to utilize his situation for their own benefit. He warns Bigger that they will extend his suffering, and as the trial continues, it will become increasingly challenging for the state to prevent the angry mob from outside the prison from forcefully entering and murdering him.

Buckley makes a dramatic move by opening a window to allow Bigger to hear the white mob's hysterical taunts. He wants Bigger to sign a confession and also inquires about Jan's involvement in Mary's death. Buckley further discloses that the police have discovered Bessie's body and informs Bigger that she didn't die immediately but froze to death while attempting to escape from the airshaft.

Buckley is aware of Bigger's assault on Bessie. Afterward, Buckley accuses Bigger of various other unsolved crimes, primarily rape. He states that two women recognized Bigger as their attacker while he was unconscious in his cell. Bigger, who has remained quiet, refutes these untrue accusations and refuses to blame Jan, despite Buckley's insistence that Jan was the one who wrote the ransom note.

Buckley vigorously attacks Bigger, stating that his situation is hopeless and exposing that the authorities are well-informed about his recent actions. They are aware that he and his associates intended to steal from Blum's deli, and even that he and Jack engaged in self-stimulation at the cinema. Exhausted, Bigger admits to the allegations. A clerk transcribes his exact statements, and Bigger affixes his signature to the document. The lawyers congratulate themselves on getting a confession from Bigger, who they say is “just a scared colored boy from Mississippi”.

After a short period of time, Bigger is once again being escorted in restraints to the inquest. Along the way, he is confronted by an angry and threatening crowd. Upon arriving in the room, Bigger finds himself surrounded by a sea of white faces, with all the incriminating evidence - Mary's remains, his ransom note, and his signed confession - displayed on a table. Max is present and offers Bigger comfort, assuring him that he won't need to testify.

The deputy coroner conducted an interview with Mrs. Dalton in a courteous manner, but his line of questioning suggested that he suspected Mary had been subjected to sexual assault. However, when he spoke to Jan Erlone, he was confrontational and accused him of getting Mary intoxicated and then offering her to Bigger as a means of luring him to the Communist Party. He also fabricated unfounded allegations about Jan, including the notion that he was interested in having sexual relations with Bigger.

Bigger observes that the people who hate him also harbor similar feelings towards Jan, and he feels empathy for Jan's situation. Later, Mr. Dalton is summoned and questioned by Boris Max, who reveals how Dalton benefits from maintaining the segregation of African Americans into inadequate housing that he manages.  When it's Bigger's turn to testify, the deputy coroner calls on him, but Max objects, resulting in Bigger being excused from having to give testimony.

The inquiry comes to an end when the assistant coroner presents the badly beaten body of Bessie Mears to the grand jury for examination, much to Bigger's dismay and despite Max's loud protests. After the jury deliberates, they return with accusations of both murder and rape against Bigger.

Bigger is escorted past by a howling crowd of angry people to a police vehicle that transports him to the Dalton residence. After arriving, he taken to Mary's room, where the authorities insist that Bigger recreate his assault on Mary. reporters are present to capture the moment. Despite being petrified, Bigger resists their demand and declines to comply, saying that he did not rape Mary. Subsequently, he is pulled back outside, where a massive burning cross, representing the Ku Klux Klan's violence, is displayed, and another angry crowd is waiting.

Bigger is transferred to a different prison where he meets Reverend Hammond, who has come to visit him again. In a fit of anger, Bigger tosses his wooden cross to the ground and forcefully pushes open the cell door, causing the preacher to fall down. The guard blames the Communist ideology for Bigger's newfound resentment towards the cross and this unnerves Hammond, who leaves the scene.

Later on, Bigger comes across an article in a newspaper that predicts his execution, and it also mentions Buckley's accusation that the Communists are responsible for this and other crimes. A deranged African American man is briefly taken to Bigger's cell, and despite his erratic behavior, Bigger realizes there is some truth in his rants about racism in the United States. Bigger also observes that even the prisons are segregated based on race. Max pays Bigger another visit during this time.

Bigger now has the trust of Max since he is aware that Max defended him publicly and incurred the wrath of the racist whites who are screaming for Bigger's death. This has enabled Bigger to confide in someone for the first time in his life and express his private thoughts. Bigger finally shares his true version of the events, even admitting that he did not rape Mary, but there was an alcohol-induced mutual attraction between them. He explains to Max that he hated Mary because of how she got close to him, as being close to a white woman for a Black man could lead to danger, even death.

He describes to Max the futility of being a black person in a nation controlled by white racists. Despite his aspirations to become a pilot, he had no opportunity to pursue such specialized training due to racial restrictions. Instead, he is relegated to menial jobs like street sweeping and shoe shining, and on Sundays, he attends church where he's taught that things will only improve for him after he dies and goes to heaven.

He tells Max that he couldn't live the kind of life that he was expected to live, and that his rebellious nature may have led him to commit murder. He doesn't feel remorseful for his actions. Max suggests that there are some people, including both blacks and whites, who use their rebelliousness in a positive way to create a better world. Max leaves, and there is a newfound closeness between Bigger and his lawyer. Bigger, who had previously accepted his fate, now has a better understanding of himself and a sudden and intense desire to live.

Bigger is reading the newspapers and learns that the governor of Illinois has requested the National Guard's presence to maintain order during his trial, due to the size and furore of the mobs gathering outside the court. Additionally, he comes across articles that discuss the justifications offered by prominent psychologists for his behavior, which are both "scientific" and blatantly racist.

The trial is commencing at last. Bigger has been the target of intense hostility from the authorities and media, which has fueled a great deal of animosity towards him. Given that the jury would consist entirely of white individuals, Max has made the decision to have the judge preside over Bigger's case. While Max is not optimistic about the outcome and does not expect an acquittal, his main goal is to prevent Bigger from being sentenced to death and instead have him serve a life sentence in prison.

Buckley, who is in charge of the case, attempts to frighten the judge by once again opening a window, allowing the noise of the angry crowd outside to enter the room. After a while, Buckley announces that he has sixty witnesses, which Max argues against by stating that all of these witnesses are redundant since Bigger has already confessed his guilt.

Despite this, the judge permits all of them to be summoned. Buckley, who is seeking another term in office, presents his flamboyant and ostentatious argument. A total of fifteen journalists, sixteen police officers, and a group of medical professionals and fingerprint specialists make an appearance. Additionally, even the proprietor of the Regal Theater is brought in to give testimony that Jack and Bigger engaged in masturbation on the premises of his theater.

Twelve laborers transport the parts of the Daltons' furnace and put it back together inside the courtroom. Buckley instructs a young white girl who is the same size as Mary to climb into the furnace and demonstrate how Bigger decapitated Mary. Later on, when Buckley calls Jan Erlone to testify, he no longer attempts to connect Erlone to Bigger's offenses.

Max chooses not to question any of the witnesses presented by the state as he believes that Bigger will be found guilty of killing Mary and Bessie. Instead, he plans to focus on Bigger's defense during his closing statement, where he will plead for Bigger's life. However, Max's argument will not just be a legal defense, as it will be a comprehensive and intricate analysis of the underlying factors that led to Bigger's actions.

Max immediately places Bigger's offense within a broader framework. He brings up how the government exploited the pursuit of Bigger as a justification to intimidate the entire African-American community, to unlawfully enter the Communist Party's offices, and to search labor unions and other associations of workers. Max connects this wave of law enforcement brutality to Buckley's pledge to wealthy citizens of Chicago that he would put a stop to all strikes and large protests by poor laborers.

Max argues that the public's fury towards Bigger's wrongdoing has been artificially magnified, as he observes that violent criminals frequently perpetrate horrendous acts, receive little attention, and are released from prison only to offend again.

Max proceeds to depict the complete environment in which Bigger was born, lived, and acted. It is a world of abundance that stimulates the senses, yet excludes certain segments of its residents from achieving their aspirations. Despite Bigger's desire to succeed and better himself, all the avenues to attain greatness for African Americans are obstructed.

Bigger was trapped in the intense pressure of the ghetto with no way out, and he had to live the only way he knew how. Max observed that if the white authorities persisted in treating the twelve million African Americans (the population in the 1930s) like animals instead of human beings, it could lead to another civil war in the country.

Max does not defend Bigger's behavior, but he urges people to comprehend it in the broader context of racial injustice. He advocates for Bigger to receive a prison sentence rather than the death penalty.

Max believes that if the authorities show mercy towards Bigger despite the strong public demand for punishment, it could create an opportunity for Bigger and those who want him dead to learn and develop a better understanding of the situation, and perhaps prevent worse outcomes down the line.

Although Bigger doesn't fully comprehend Max's lengthy speech, he feels proud that Max put forth the effort to make it. Following a short break, prosecutor Buckley delivers his closing statements, which contain clichéd phrases regarding the law and maintaining order, but also shockingly racist remarks about Bigger, including calling him a "half-human black ape" and a "mad black dog." He goes on to express that every respectable white person in America should relish the chance to crush the wooly head of this black lizard with their heel.

Once more, the emphasis is placed on Bigger's primary offense being rape, specifically towards Mary, a white woman, rather than Bessie, who was black. Buckley reinforces this point and vehemently insists that Bigger pay for his actions. Shortly after, the judge returns with his verdict: Bigger is to be sentenced to death.

Bigger is now in his prison cell, where he will spend the remainder of his life. He spends a lot of time thinking about his terrible fate and doesn't want to see anyone, except his lawyer Max. Bigger is grateful to Max for the closing argument he made during his trial, and the long conversation they had before. Max has attempted to plead with the governor to show mercy, but unfortunately, his plea was rejected.

A few hours before Bigger is scheduled to be electrocuted, Max visits him in his cell. Although Bigger wishes to have a conversation with Max like they did before, he struggles to communicate effectively due to the limited time he has left. Despite his anxiety causing him to stutter, Bigger sincerely tells Max that he is grateful for all of his efforts to help him. During their conversation, Bigger is eager to gain a deeper level of understanding both of Max's motivation, and the way human beings can relate to each other in a world riven by racialized conflict.

In this passage, Max is talking to Bigger and affirming something that Bigger already knows: that he never wanted to kill. Initially, Max is scared of Bigger's intense demeanor while on death row, but he manages to gather the courage to encourage Bigger to die without feeling guilty for the crimes he committed. Max tells Bigger that he is not alone in his struggle, and that the capitalist class has also deprived countless others of their rightful future. Max also emphasizes that in the ongoing battle between the capitalists and those they oppress, the side that exhibits the most humanity is ultimately the one that will prevail.

The reason why Bigger must have faith in himself rather than the oppressive system that affects him and others like him can be understood in this way. When Bigger assures Max that he believes in himself, he is actually saying that he believes in the crimes he committed, which he considers to be the only meaningful actions of his life. Bigger argues that the murders were justifiable, and that they defined who he is. Max is horrified by Bigger's comments and withdraws, but Bigger remains resolute. He tells Max that he is fine and asks him to pass on his regards to his mother and Jan. Although Max is crying, Bigger doesn't show any emotion, and instead smiles a little as Max departs.

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