Bigger Thomas is a paradox—a “bad nigger” sympathetically portrayed. Not only is his the only point of view in the novel, but he is also the axis around which the other characters revolve.
Bigger’s relationship with his family is fraught with tension. He regards them all as “blind” and willing to accept the dehumanizing lot white society proffers. His mother, sister, and brother all have ways of succumbing. Mrs. Thomas finds comfort in religion. Vera, Bigger’s sister, does what is expected. For her, sewing lessons at the “Y” provide a safe activity. Buddy, although he looks up to his older brother, is resolved to “stay in his place.”
Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, has her own way of succumbing to white society. She is an alcoholic who no longer finds even sex satisfying. Bigger gives her liquor in exchange for sex, and she allows him to steal from her employers. Eventually, Bigger must kill her because she knows too much. Bessie is a true victim.
Bigger and his gang—G. H., Jack, and Gus—are victims of their own fear, hate, and rage. They demonstrate these negative emotions toward both themselves and white society. They are too scared to carry out the planned robbery of Blum’s store. Each, however, recognizes that the others are afraid because Blum is white. To rob Blum is to violate the white establishment.
Because a black man killing a white woman is one of the culture’s major taboos, Bigger’s fate is sealed when he accidentally smothers Mary Dalton. However, since the ultimate taboo is sexual intercourse between a black man and white woman, the murder charge against Bigger is trumped up to rape—which justifies, then, the death penalty.
Mr. Dalton, Mary’s father, is a seeming contradiction. He gives generously to black charities while at the same time owning the rat-infested tenement in which Bigger and his family live. Similarly, he provides table tennis for African Americans but not decent housing.
Mrs. Dalton displays a kind of missionary zeal in her relationship with African Americans. Her physical and psychological blindness, however, belie her actions. On first meeting Bigger, she speaks about him in his presence as though he were a textbook case. She is intent on doing what is best for him, as she sees it.
Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s boyfriend, also wants to do what is best for Bigger. He tries to befriend him on their first meeting by shaking his hand and insisting that Bigger call him by his first name. The protagonist is understandably uncomfortable; he is not used to such behavior on the part of a white man. Later, when Bigger is in prison, Jan visits him and finds him a lawyer. It is perhaps to Jan’s credit that Bigger’s final request of his lawyer is that he “tell Jan hello.”
Boris Max, Bigger’s communist lawyer, is eloquent though ineffectual. As Max sees it, white society, not Bigger, is to be blamed for the protagonist’s actions. Contrived though such a defense may seem, Max succeeds in gaining Bigger’s trust.
All the characters, black and white, Bigger included, are, to a degree, stereotypes. Wright seems more interested in the message and less in the medium.
Bigger Thomas, a young African American, frustrated by poverty and race prejudice, who has a pathological hatred of white people. He is reluctantly drawn into alliance with his employer’s daughter Mary and her sweetheart, who are crusading with the communists to help blacks. After an evening of drinking, Bigger carries the drunken Mary to her room. To prevent her from making a sound that will alarm her blind mother, he puts a pillow over her face and accidentally smothers her. This act releases all of his pent-up emotions. He burns the body in the furnace, tries to get ransom money from his employer, and tries to frame the dead girl’s sweetheart. He confesses to his mistress, and after the discovery of the remains, he hides out with her. He fears that she will be found and questioned, however, and so he kills her. The police catch him, and under steady questioning by the prosecuting attorney, he admits his crime. Despite an eloquent plea by his attorney outlining the social structure that made him what he is, Bigger is sentenced to die. While awaiting death, he gets, from talking to his attorney, an understanding that his persecutors are themselves filled with fear and are not responsible for their social crimes.
Mr. Dalton, a wealthy white man for whom Bigger works as a chauffeur.
Mrs. Dalton, his blind wife.
Mary Dalton, their daughter, crusading with the communists against racial discrimination. Bigger accidentally smothers her.
Jan Erlone, Mary’s sweetheart and fellow crusader. Bigger succeeds so well in throwing suspicion on him for Mary’s disappearance that Jan is arrested. After Bigger is arrested, Jan comes to see him and promises help. Jan introduces to Bigger a lawyer from the communist-front organization for which Jan works.
Boris A. Max
Boris A. Max, Bigger’s lawyer, provided by a communist-front organization. He argues that society is to blame for Bigger’s crime, but he does not succeed in saving Bigger from death. He is able to show Bigger that his enemies are also driven by fear and must be forgiven.
Bessie Mears, Bigger’s mistress, to whom he confides his guilt and whom he kills.
Britten, a detective hired by Dalton to investigate Mary’s disappearance.
Buckley, the prosecuting attorney, under whose questioning Bigger breaks down and signs a confession. He makes full use of anticommunist feeling and race prejudice in prosecuting Bigger.