Wright's Motivations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In 1940, when Native Son was published, African Americans already had an impressive tradition of poetry and essay writing, but Richard Wright’s work was the first critically significant novel by a black author in the United States. The subject of Native Son was quite a shock for many critics and writers. Some black critics protested because, according to them, the book was doing exactly what should not be done: showing white people that their prejudices against black men were true. Those critics believed black writers should only write about cultured, refined black people, so as to show the white world that blacks could be trusted, that they were capable of achieving the same things white middle class people could achieve. Wright wanted to do just the opposite: he wanted to show white America what black life was about, and that most black persons in America were not middle class. As he wrote in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright was interested in the lives of people who told him: “I wish I didn’t have to live this way, I feel like I want to burst.”

Now, if we say Native Son was written to prove or show something, we are talking about a very special class of literature: “literature engage” or “politically committed literature.” Literature has many definitions. To consider literature as a means to change the world around us is one way to define it. Richard Wright defined literature this way; therefore he wanted his ideas to be clear to his audience. He devised a form that would allow him to explain himself. The reader should try to understand that form before he or she passes on to the details of the novel.

The novel is divided into three sections: “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate.” The first two sections tell the story of Bigger Thomas’s crime and his arrest. If the novel were a thriller (and it has some elements of a thriller: the crime and the investigation are only two of them), this would be the end of the story. But for Richard Wright’s purpose, the most important part of the novel is still missing. In “Fate” Wright introduces a lawyer named Max. Max’s role is to explain the meaning of “Fear” and “Flight,” not only to the reader but also to Bigger himself. A critic who despises politically committed literature would say that such explanations should be left to the mind of the reader. But if one wants to transmit certain ideas to the world in a novel, sometimes it is necessary to put those ideas into words.

The presentation of ideas makes this part of the novel very essay-like, but Wright manages to make it fiction through two devices. The first one is the use of the trial itself. Trials are important in American fiction: they impose a form of narration. They can be used as a means of manipulating the reader’s emotions. One goes on reading because one wants to know whether the jury will say “guilty” or “not guilty.” A writer can also use a lawyer as his spokesman. In the story the lawyer explains and analyzes his client’s actions. He is required to do so within what we call a “realistic” presentation of fiction (that is, a narrative in which the writer tries to convince the reader that the actions taking place could really happen). The lawyer’s analysis and explanations are, as we say, “justified.” Richard Wright wanted to explain Bigger Thomas’ actions from his point of view, and a lawyer was a good device to voice those explanations.

The second device has to do...

(This entire section contains 1818 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

with the “psychological” presentation of fiction. In “Fate,” Wright is interested in the mental changes undergone by Bigger. Max’s explanations help Bigger understand himself. In the first two parts of the novel, Bigger does not know who he is. At the end of “Fate,” he still does not know, but he has begun to think deeply about it. He is beginning to understand himself, and the explanations are part of this change; they are “justified” also in that sense.

When he wrote the novel, Wright was a communist. He thus analyzes Bigger’s case and the role of society in it from a Marxist point of view. Yet he adds an ethnical dimension to Marxist ideas; that is why the Communist Party did not like the book, in spite of the fact that the communists (Jan and Max) play a very positive role in the novel.

Before leaving aside the general form of the novel, the character of Max should be looked at once more. In general, important characters are at least mentioned in the first pages of a novel. Yet Wright introduces Max only in the last third of his book. Max’s character is what the Greeks called a deus ex machina. In Greek comedy, if situations became complicated, the author introduced a magical character who could solve everything at the end. The device of the deus ex machina has been rejected by the novel as genre, especially in the twentieth century. That is why Max’s role in the novel may seem awkward to contemporary readers.

In “Fear” and “Flight,” the story is told by an omniscient narrator. That is essential here because if Bigger Thomas does not understand himself, he cannot tell his story. Bigger is dominated by two forces: one is fear and the other is flight, the impulse to avoid problems. Before he kills, Bigger is a cornered animal, and as a cornered animal, he is violent and cruel. That is why the novel’s opening scene (Bigger killing a rat in his apartment) is so important. As Wright himself says in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”, he wrote that first scene after he had finished the rest of the novel because he felt he needed a strong, powerful introduction to the story. The scene is a symbolic summary of the rest of the novel: the rat is a cornered animal, as Bigger and his family are. The rat and Bigger are violent with each other, as white and black people are. Psychologically, the scene shows Bigger’s tendency toward violence.

Bigger kills out of fear. After putting a drunken Mary Dalton to bed, he is about to be discovered in a very bad situation: alone with a helpless white girl in her bedroom. One of the stereotypes applied to black men is that they are attracted to white women and want to rape them. Bigger is so afraid of this image and its consequences that he kills Mary. But after the murder, he discovers he has finally accomplished something. He is in a way proud of the murder. This is an important point: society has forbidden Bigger to do almost everything. Now the horrid thing he has done gives meaning to his life because it is the only thing he could do. As he tells Max in the last book: “For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right … I killed ’em ’cause I was scared and mad but I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while.”

Wright shows the reaction of several black characters to the pressure of white society. Like Bigger, these characters do not know what they want out of life. The most dramatic expression of this lack of dreams appears in “Fate.” When Max asks Bigger what happiness would have been for him, Bigger answers: “I don’t know. It wouldn’t be like this.” Bigger, his family, Bessie, and the men at the poolroom want something different from life, but they cannot imagine what it would be. Society does not even allow them to dream. They deal with this situation in different ways: Bigger, Gus, and Doc through violence; Bigger’s mother through religion; Bessie through alcohol. There seem to be no good choices for black people (religion is not shown as a positive force in this book). This is what makes Max cry in the last scene. Before he is sentenced, Bigger does not have time to learn how to dream something for himself. In that sense, the novel is deeply pessimistic.

If Wright wanted to show the conditions of blacks in the United States, he also had to describe whites’ ideas and attitudes towards the blacks. He presents a whole catalog of white people’s reactions to black reality. Britten, the racist, is the most predictable character, but the most interesting are the liberals, the Daltons and Jan.

There is one important metaphor of the condition of white people in Native Son: blindness. Whites are blind, literally (Mrs. Dalton) and symbolically (Mr. Dalton and Jan are blind because they do not understand blacks, much less their own reactions to them). Blindness here means not seeing another person, or seeing only what you yourself want to see in another. Mrs. Dalton wants Bigger to go to school. School is not Bigger’s goal; it is Mrs. Dalton’s goal for Bigger. Mr. Dalton thinks he helps blacks, but he charges outrageous rents for rat-infested rooms. Mary and Jan believe they are kind to Bigger, but in “Fate,” when Max tells Bigger that Mary was being kind to him, Bigger answers: “What you say is kind ain’t kind at all…. Maybe she was trying to be kind but she didn’t act like it.” For black people like Bigger, whites are like the blind wall Bigger sees in his future: something that crushes them. Kindness does not change that.

Now, what is Wright’s diagnosis of this situation? As I said before, the ending seems pessimistic: “He (Bigger) heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.” The sound symbolizes Bigger’s lost life. He will not have the opportunity to finish the process of selfunderstanding he has started. Yet there is a ray of hope, an indication of the difference between the early Bigger, the one who kills the rat, and the later one. In the last scene, Bigger says something important to Max: “Tell…. Tell Mister…. Tell Jan hello….” Jan has tried to make Bigger call him by his first name from Bigger’s first day at the Dalton’s. Bigger hated him for that. The fact that now he can call a white man “Jan” is a big step, from Wright’s point of view. That does not mean society recognizes this change and profits from it. On the contrary, society sentences Bigger to death. When one reads Native Son, one must reflect on these contradictions: they are part of the depth of a great novel about the black experience in America.

Source: Margara Averbach, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Native Son Fifty Years Later

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Richard Wright’s novel appeared in 1940, just over half a century ago. One of his greatest problems at that time was akin to that of the other more recent black writers [Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin] I have mentioned: how to address both black and white readers while remaining true to his vision and hoping to effect a moral and social change. The faith of any serious writer (or teacher) must be that the emotional-intellectual wallop that follows upon seeing will shove readers out of ignorance and complacency, a little closer to union with other human beings.

Any artist in any medium wants to communicate with some audience, of course. My point at the moment is that black writers have had special difficulty in this regard. In order to touch on the enormity of an audience problem that was much graver in 1940 than it is today, one has only to imagine Wright’s straining for a way to attack and appeal to white America, through a white publishing house, even as he sought to attract a potentially much smaller black readership. My own conviction is that his success has contributed a great deal to the gradual evolution of an American readership that now takes minority writers both seriously and in relative stride. He has made his mark, moreover, despite the fact that his reading of American culture was communist. In short, he could hardly have found a tougher task. How did he set about doing it?

For one thing, he focused on Bigger Thomas as his point-of-view character. As a comparatively uneducated eighteen-year-old black on Chicago’s South Side in the late nineteen-thirties, Bigger is not up to narrating the story Wright wants to tell. Wright can, however, tell us what Bigger sees, feels, and wants, even if Bigger cannot, and Wright can thereby enable us to see Bigger as emblematic of the racial situation. In short, Bigger’s name implies his extension to cover black status in this nation in 1940. We must eventually decide whether things have changed today.

Narrative point of view is not resolved, however, by Wright’s showing and telling us Bigger’s thoughts and feelings. Wright obviously wanted to put into his book, in addition, a white spokesman for Wright’s own views. To this end he created Max, a Jewish communist lawyer affected by the viciousness of Bigger’s behavior even as he believes his own communist reading of our society explains such behavior and ought to induce us to overhaul that society. In other words, Wright strives to make this a novel of and for both races by rooting it in a moral, economic, and political ground that the eloquent white, Jewish, communist lawyer—another outsider—tries to explain to an enraged judge and jury as well as to his friend, Bigger Thomas.

Max’s effort is not to deny Bigger has killed a white woman and then a black woman, and that he has dismembered the white woman’s body to stuff it into a furnace and be rid of it, but is instead to elucidate his own vision of how Bigger became who he is and of how he therefore did what he did. Max is Bigger’s white lawyer and Wright’s as well. Max tries to explain to whites—judge, jury, read- ers—what Wright’s narrator has tried to show us in the character of Bigger. Max gives intellectual shape to what Bigger has experienced and what we know to be the truth of Bigger’s life. We buy Max’s rationale because we co-readers know he reads Bigger accurately.

Inevitably, in this heavily naturalistic fiction, the jury will have no part of Max’s argument and decides to execute Bigger rather than imprison him. This sentence is virtually anticlimactic in its predictability. Indeed, it serves merely to reinforce Bigger’s awareness of the black-white split and Max’s explanation of that split. Neither the book nor the reader’s experience ends with Bigger’s being sentenced to death. However, before discussing the ending, I think it profitable to detail something of Bigger’s history, to rehearse the experience Max summarizes in vain for the jury. Some such particularizing seems essential if we hope to convey an idea of Richard Wright’s America, as well as to reflect on our own national situation more than fifty years later.

Early on, Bigger and his friend Gus speak:

“You know where the white folks live?”

“Yeah,” Gus said, pointing eastward. “Over across the ‘line’ over there on Cottage Grove Avenue.”

“Naw; they don’t,” Bigger said.

“What you mean?” Gus asked, puzzled. “Then, where do they live?”

Bigger doubled his fist and struck his Solar plexus.

“Right down here in my stomach,” he said.

While it is true that Cottage Grove Avenue separates black and white neighborhoods in this novel, Bigger’s point is Wright’s larger one. Bigger—who represents frustrated, aspiring American blacks in Wright’s view—feels white values and expectations right were he lives. He would like to fly an airplane, go to college, have a good job, but is conditioned to see things literally in black and white. In fact the book’s symbols reinforce Bigger’s view. In the Thomas tenement rooms, Bigger corners an enormous black rat and crushes it to death—a useful sign not only of the way Bigger himself sees a black maniac, but also of the way black turns against black, and of the fate that lies in store for the eventually cornered Bigger.

Fighting breaks out among the black youths. They are afraid to rob a white merchant but not necessarily a black one. Night and coal and darkness figure prominently, especially in contrast to the prosperous white Dalton family “across the ‘line,’” who are associated with sun, snow, white hair and clothing, and even a white cat. Nearly everyone is unable to see the world they live in, and Mrs. Dalton, for all her philanthropic spirit, is literally blind. Max, Jan Erlone (another communist), and Bigger feel and know accurately. The rest operate in the dark and foster the refusal to perceive.

As I have mentioned, the terms of this book are basically naturalistic, meaning that any struggle to change things by appealing to people’s freedom to choose must conquer what comes across as a decidedly deterministic culture. The whites own the property and know how to keep and augment it. They rent slums to blacks at absurd rates and resist making such dwellings livable. To ease their consciences, in those instances where consciences act up, the whites behave philanthropically by being kind to their black domestics and contributing generously to beneficent societies or scholarship funds for aspiring blacks they regard as deserving of a boost.

But no basic change is contemplated, and any suggestion of genuine human proximity between the races is shunned and feared. The city-wide search for Bigger is presented as a struggle between this escaped “nigger” and “ape” who has dared to violate a white woman and the collectively outraged white social forces—police, courts, press— determined to blot out this intruder and preserve white territorial claims. The hunters care about white values, not about the value of human life. The press plays up Bigger’s fatal encounter with Mary Dalton, which we know to have been accidental homicide, but never expresses interest in Bigger’s having murdered Bessie, his black girlfriend. Obviously, Bessie does not interest the whites. As long as blacks stay in their psychological place, carry out their chores, and go back across Cottage Grove Avenue after a day’s work, all is well. But any alteration of this pattern is threatening.

As for the blacks, they are acutely conscious of the need to maintain an undeclared apartheid. Bigger’s mother prays for heavenly consolation in the next life and pleads with her children to show respect to the whites, who own everything, and for whom blacks work. Her son Bigger’s psychology, the basis for Wright’s novel, shows him torn between hatred and envy felt for whites, on one hand, and contempt for himself for being the black man whom he sees the whites judging and putting in his place. When Jan and Mary attempt to befriend him and enter into his world by asking him to join them in a restaurant on his side of Cottage Grove Avenue, Bigger knows the humiliation of being laughed at by his friends for presuming to bring these white folks on a slumming tour. As a result he hates both himself and these whites even more intensely. He is conditioned to want what whites have, but because he is acutely aware of how he is evaluated by them, he is ashamed of wanting a “white” life and loathes himself even more profoundly.

This psychology emerges with an almost wrenching irony when Bigger and his friend Jack attend a neighborhood double feature. The first movie, called The Gay Woman, portrays a rich young white woman abandoning a career of adventurous infidelity with her lover in order to return contritely to her business-driven, mill-owning husband when she realizes his life is threatened by a bomb-throwing communist. Bigger is so smitten with the woman’s beauty, with the glamour and ornate trappings of her existence, that he is thoroughly sympathetic to what he supposes her life to offer and is accordingly opposed to the young communist. All he sees is that if he takes the Dalton job he may meet some such beautiful white woman and come in for sexual adventure and economic opportunity. He is swayed completely by this Hollywood version of good white capitalism and bad “red” communism.

So involved is he in his daydreaming, in fact, that he misses out on Trader Horn, the second feature, which of course is at least marginally about black African “roots,” as distinct from black history, the development of the slave trade. The narrator of the novel describes men and women freely and happily dancing in Africa, and the movie shows Horn’s belatedly coming to love Africa and its people. What happened after that we know because we are reading Wright’s novel—even if we somehow failed to notice the American black’s condition before we read this book.

The point is that Bigger misses this second film completely because he is so blinded by the Hollywood propaganda of the first movie. Instinctively, he accepts the white producer’s simple-minded political and social reading of good and evil, a version imbibed as automatically by this black man as by the mass audience of whites. Wright is obviously interested in having us think about why the communist might want to kill the capitalist, but all Bigger sees is the silk-and-satin erotic fantasy conjured by capitalistic white society.

When Bigger subsequently picks a fight with Gus, he does so because he is afraid of failing if the black group goes through with their plan to rob a white merchant, but also because he feels robbery and other violence are just that behavior of which whites always accuse blacks, and because he doesn’t want to ruin his chances of winning the Dalton job now that The Gay Woman has infatuated him with the possibilities that might flow from his involvement with whites. Thus, Wright does a grimly beautiful job of showing that the only values to be seen as worthwhile and good are white values.

Not to want what whites have renders one unworthy and subhuman (a “gorilla” is Jack’s word). Yet to dare to reach across that “line” is tantamount to suicide. This is the psychological bind Bigger experiences. It is demonstrated vividly by his surrealistic dream, in which he sees himself trapped by his pursuers. To repel them he decapitates himself and throws his head at them. Bigger has no words for this nightmare, but Wright is making manifest Bigger’s impossible simultaneous needs to fight off the whites and to express his selfloathing death wish.

Let us return to the courtroom at this point, to Max’s appeal before the jury, now that we have briefly examined Bigger’s psychology. What this white lawyer tells the white jury is that Bigger is the creature of white America, that he represented a whole category of human beings nurtured from literal slavery to virtual slavery, that he is one of us, the native son of Wright’s title. Max works to persuade the courtroom that Bigger and his fellow blacks cannot be expected to live by the code now being broadcast, printed, and ambiguously touted as virtuous, civilized, decent American. Rather, Max asserts, Bigger has been so conditioned to regard himself and his race as inferior and subservient that it took his acts of violence to instill in him a feeling of life, creativity, and freedom—as if for the first time he had taken control of his actions and done something on his own, irrespective of what the dominant whites might expect or condone.

Max’s argument we know to be true, for we are privy to that feeling of exhilaration he is talking about. Bigger does experience a sense of release and personal worthiness after taking Mary’s life—however unintentionally—and disposing of her body. Max is perfectly ready to agree that according to white values such an attitude is perverse, but he wants his listeners (and Wright’s readers) to understand that such an attitude is quite under- standable in the kind of native son white society has shaped. Max emphasizes that a careful reading of black and white psychologies will clarify Bigger’s behavior and should lead to a sentence of imprisonment rather that execution.

In developing his argument Max hangs psychology on the terms of guilt, fear, and hate. He points out that the Daltons, for all their goodheartedness, and indeed because of it, typify white guilt at the way whites keep blacks down and build fortunes by employing blacks and shunting them off to white-owned slums at the end of the working day. By corollary, his thesis holds that whites therefore hate themselves for this behavior and likewise hate and fear the oppressed persons whose existence sustains white guilt and who may sometime rebel against such treatment and thereby overturn the social arrangement that both supports and punishes whites.

Looking to the blacks, Max then argues that guilt fills them because they are trained to see themselves as inherently less than white, which means less than human. Guilt intensifies, then, when they contemplate improving their lot by approaching whiteness. Yet they are simultaneously conditioned to believe whiteness holds all worth, at least on earth. Blacks are accordingly filled with hatred for their unworthy selves and for their white enemy. Finally, blacks fear whites but also fear their own potential for turning violent.

Such are the American scene and psyche as Max reads things. As readers, we must accept his argument as valid for Bigger, whom we have lived with throughout the narrative. The very condition Max describes obviously assures a white jury’s refusal to attend to his words, and guarantees Bigger’s execution. He cannot be imprisoned as a permanent reminder of white involvement in creating him and the racial schema Max outlines. Bigger must be obliterated to prove Max is wrong and white authority is right and good.

However, the book does not end in the courtroom. Rather, it ends with discussion between Max and Bigger in a jail cell on the eve of Bigger’s execution. Bigger, who has not understood Max’s public presentation, asks him to put the matter more clearly. Bigger wants to know himself before he dies. Max at first dodges this appeal, seeing it as futile, and would prefer simply to carry any last messages Bigger may want to convey. But when Bigger persists, Max takes him to the window and points to the buildings in the Loop. Max explains that the people who own the buildings may have doubts about the rightness of the dream that impelled them to build those properties, but they will do whatever is necessary to retain their property and acquire more. Max’s meaning is that the capitalistic system created Bigger and will kill him for threatening it.

Bigger, however, thinks Max is assuring him that whites kill to get and create what they want, just as he killed to protect himself and create for himself the only experience of freedom he had ever known. For Bigger, then, his communist friend’s parting lesson has the effect of making Bigger think he is just like the whites, at least in possessing an acquisitive drive and the determination to protect his gains from all competition. Thus Max fails to reach the jury and likewise fails to reach his client and friend. Bigger dies with a smile having felt that in the end he, too, is in some sense white and that all humans are one in following the capitalistic spirit. Max is crushed; Bigger is as happy as such a situation enables him to be.…

My modest advice is to read Native Son, make political decisions based not exclusively on the “me” principle, think about what makes for a good life, as distinct from a fat one, for all people.… Readers who derive sane conclusions from a study of Richard Wright will have taken a large human stride and will indirectly honor a powerful book after half a century and millions of lifetimes.

Source: Joseph Hynes, “Native Son Fifty Years Later,” in Cimarron Review, January, 1993, pp. 91-97.

Native Son's Guilty Man

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Boris Max’s speech defending Bigger Thomas in Native Son has been called [by James Baldwin in “Many Thousands Gone,” Notes of a Native Son, Dial, 1963] “one of the most desperate performances in American fiction.” By the time Max arrives on the scene late in Richard Wright’s novel, Bigger has already been sentenced to death by the white mobs who hate and fear him for killing Mary Dalton. We have little reason to expect that Max’s oratory will reverse Bigger’s apparent fate. Max, however, seems to feel otherwise. Brought into the case by Jan Erlone, Mary’s fantastically forgiving boyfriend, Max sees Bigger not as the brutal, apelike murderer portrayed by the prosecutor but as a living symbol of black oppression. His closing speech is a long, impassioned appeal to the judge. But it is not a sound argument. Not only is the speech “desperate”; it is riddled with flaws. Max, in effect, is verbally propelling Bigger toward the electric chair.

Though critics [such as John Reilly in his “Afterword” to Native Son, 1966] often see Max as Wright’s two-dimensional attempt to “assimilate the dogma” of the Communist Party into his novel, I view him differently. He is not simply, as Keneth Kinnamon believes [in his book The Emergence of Richard Wright, 1972] an “authorial mouthpiece” espousing communist ideology. Nor can we say definitively [as Dorothy Redden does in her essay “Richard Wright and Native Son: Not Guilty,” Bigger Thomas, edited by Harold Bloom, 1990] that he is “clearly intended to be the most intelligent and humane person in the book.” On close inspection, Max emerges as a troubling character, more complex than a cardboard communist but much less heroic than the exalted tone of his speech suggests.

Max is suspect from the beginning. Wright describes him in almost the same terms he uses to describe Mary Dalton’s father, who is “a tall, lean, white-haired man.” Similarly, Max has “a head strange and white, with silver hair and a lean white face,” and he, too, is tall. Max’s whiteness does not bode well: White-haired white men, blind white women in white clothes, white cats, white buildings, and white snow invariably presage discomfiture and desperation for Bigger. Max’s name, furthermore, implies that he may not be Bigger’s best advocate. His last name is one letter removed from “Marx,” and, as Max tells the prosecutor, Buckley, “If you had not dragged the name of the Communist Party into this murder, I’d not be here.” He comes to the case, then, as an ideologue. He embodies a doctrine disliked and rejected by most of his courtroom audience, and he is Jewish. The prejudices the audience feels toward Max will not aid Bigger’s cause.

Max’s first name provides another clue to his personality:“Boris Max” may be recast as “Bore is Max.” He is almost always referred to as Max or Mr. Max, but his full name, with its punning revelation, often seems more apt during his seventeenpage speech, which is part secular sermon and part filibuster. If the pun seems unlikely, consider the wordplay in the other characters’ names. “Bigger Thomas” harks back to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom and Wright’s own Big Boy in “Big Boy Leaves Home”; it also [remarks Kinnamon] evokes “nigger” and “big nigger.” And when Bigger says he is not worth the effort being put into his trial. Max brings him up short: “Well, this thing’s bigger than you, son.” Max himself is “bigger” or more powerful than his client if his name is read as an abbreviation for “maximum.” “Dalton” also has ironic resonance; Daltonism is a form of color blindness [as noted by Kinnamon]. Suffice it to say that Wright probably did not select the name “Boris” at random.

The prosecutor, however, far from boring his audience, knows just how to fuel the fires of outrage. He has rounded up sixty witnesses, including fifteen newspaper reporters and virtually all of Bigger’s acquaintances. Because the Dalton murder case centers around the ghastly fate of a beautiful young woman, the trial cannot be drawn out long enough for the perversely fascinated spectators and newspaper readers. Buckley gives the people exactly what they crave: all the key players in a horrifying spectacle. Max, for his part, would do well to bolster his defense by bringing in psychiatrists, social workers, and character witnesses. But he complains that the time he had to prepare his case was “pitifully brief ” and declines to call any witnesses. Without reliable authorities to back him up, he must depend on his own rhetorical skills to carry his argument. These skills are not good enough.

Max’s speech is often evasive. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about himself, perhaps because he feels the need to justify the guilty plea he has entered on Bigger’s behalf. Sometimes his argument sounds like a sleepless man’s late-night soliloquy. After stating that he is “not insensible” to the burden the guilty plea places on the judge, Max pontificates:

But, under the circumstances, what else could I have done? Night after night, I have lain without sleep, trying to think of a way to picture to you and to the world the causes and reasons why this Negro boy sits here a self-confessed murderer. How can I, I asked myself, make the picture of what has happened to this boy show plain and powerful upon a screen of sober reason, when a thousand newspaper and magazine artists have already drawn it in lurid ink upon a million sheets of public print? Dare I, deeply mindful of this boy’s background and race, put his fate in the hands of a jury (not of his peers, but of an alien and hostile race!) whose minds are already conditioned by the press of the nation; a press which has already reached a decision as to his guilt, and in countless editorials suggested the measure of his punishment?

Far from garnering sympathy for Bigger or Max, this aside suggests, first of all, that Max has deep-seated doubts about his ability to defend Bigger. He feels that the odds are against him, and he does not expect to win the case. This excerpt also reveals Max’s condescending attitude toward his audience. The judge, a member of the “alien and hostile race,” may not take kindly to Max’s characterization. Since Max, too, is white, the slur on white people implies that Max believes he alone is a superior specimen, capable of rising above racial prejudice. But his own repeated references to the twenty-year-old Bigger as a “boy” contain a hint of racism: While the word might portray Bigger as a youth incapable of comprehending murder, the rest of Max’s defense hinges on Bigger’s adult reactions to a life and heritage of racial oppression. Finally, the excerpt is one of many examples of Max’s overblown rhetoric. He says in many words what could be said in a few; he says things that probably should not be said at all. Whatever else he is, Max is a ham who enjoys being in the spotlight.

Furthermore, Max is so intent on generalizing about black oppression that he barely mentions the most convincing—and accurate—defense available to him. Instead of arguing that Bigger smothered Mary solely by accident, he portrays his client as “a self-confessed murderer” and the perpetrator of “one of the darkest crimes in our memory.” As if these descriptions were not damning enough, he later rages nonsensically: “The truth is, this boy did not kill! Oh, yes; Mary Dalton is dead. Bigger Thomas smothered her to death. Bessie Mears is dead. Bigger Thomas battered her with a brick in an abandoned building. But did he murder? Did he kill?” It seems as if Max is inciting his opposition to riot, but he appears oblivious to the incendiary possibilities of his rhetoric. He reminds the judge and everyone else that Bigger not only killed Mary but savagely murdered Bessie as well. And then he expects his appalled audience to agree that Bigger’s behavior “was an act of creation!” Furthermore, “[h]e was impelled toward murder as much through the thirst for excitement, exultation, and elation as he was through fear! It was his way of living!” If Max is indeed “one of the best lawyers” working for the Communist Party in Chicago, as Jan Erlone has said, then the party is in trouble. Buckley’s outraged response is inevitable: “And the defense would have us believe that this was an act of creation! It is a wonder that God in heaven did not drown out his lying voice with a thunderous ‘NO!’” Max, however, seems blind to the ways in which he is destroying his own case. Although he puts on a show of passionate commitment to Bigger, his faulty argument undercuts his purpose.

Although Max appears to believe that philosophizing is his strong suit, he does not flesh out his philosophical claims well enough to make them convincing. For example, his assertion that Bigger’s crimes were creative acts reflects a Nietzschean ideology. In Nietzsche’s essay “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” in On the Genealogy of Morals, the discussion of the relationship between oppressors and oppressed supports Max’s seemingly outlandish claim. The powerless members of society, Nietzsche writes, define themselves by striking out against those who wield power. Their defining, or “creative,” acts enable them to label themselves “good” in contrast to their oppressors, whom they perceive as an omnipotent “evil.” This kind of creation is reactionary, springing from a deeply ingrained hatred of the ruling class. Such a paradigm may apply to Bigger and his situation, but Max does not prepare his audience for a Nietzschean revelation. Out of context, his claim that Bigger murdered others to create himself hardly inspires sympathy. The judge, unless he has a Nietzschean bent of his own, is unlikely to fill in the gaps Max leaves in his argument. Whatever logic underpins his claim, it does little good if it remains unarticulated.

Max’s argument is further weakened by a series of logical fallacies. Several examples will illustrate the point. First, in assuming that Bigger’s crimes followed naturally from his perceptions of a hostile world (“This is the case of a man’s mistaking a whole race of men as a part of the natural structure of the universe and of his acting toward them accordingly.”), Max is guilty of a post hoc, or “doubtful cause,” fallacy. He is unable to prove that coming of age in a racist society caused Bigger to act as he did. Without defense witnesses or testimony from Bigger himself, the judge has nothing to go on but Max’s word in this instance. And, as in his allusions to Nietzsche, Max omits the crucial connections in his argument. He admits that he speaks “in general terms”—but these terms do not substantiate his claim.

Max also uses the fallacy known as “two wrongs make a right.” Instead of focusing his discussion on Bigger, he lashes out at other people whom he considers wrongdoers. This, of course, does not lessen Bigger’s crimes. Having rhetorically asked who is responsible for the mob raging outside, he answers:

The State’s Attorney knows, for he promised the Loop bankers that if he were re-elected demonstrations for relief would be stopped! The Governor of the state knows, for he has pledged the Manufactur- ers’ Association that he would use troops against workers who went out on strike! The Mayor knows, for he told the merchants of the city that the budget would be cut down, that no new taxes would be imposed to satisfy the clamor of the masses of the needy!

The prosecutor, the governor, and the mayor may well be scheming—even crooked—politicians, but they are not on trial. Since he is speaking in a court of law, Max’s unsubstantiated accusations are dangerously disrespectful as well as illogical. The attack, which occurs early in his speech, does not strengthen his defense of Bigger, nor is it likely to endear him to the judge, who also holds political office.

But Max makes an even greater mistake in lashing out at the Daltons, the object of sympathy in the courtroom and throughout the city. He does not seem to realize that his attack on Mary’s parents is obtuse to the point of being cruel:

The Thomas family got poor and the Dalton family got rich. And Mr. Dalton, a decent man, tried to salve his feelings by giving money. But, my friend, gold was not enough! Corpses cannot be bribed! Say to yourself, Mr. Dalton, “I offered my daughter as a burnt sacrifice and it was not enough to push back into its grave this thing that haunts me.”

And to Mrs. Dalton, I say: “Your philanthropy was as tragically blind as your sightless eyes!”

These comments are another example of the “two-wrongs-make-a-right” fallacy. Max does not stand to gain anything by accusing the Daltons of complicity in Bigger’s crimes. While they may not be as well-intentioned toward blacks as they say they are, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are no more on trial than the mayor of Chicago is. Further, they are in mourning, and it is unrealistic of Max to expect the judge or any of his listeners to see the aging couple as guilt-ridden schemers.

The “slippery slope” fallacy is at the crux of Max’s argument. He insists that sentencing Bigger to death is tantamount to starting an open war between the races:

The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control.

But Bigger’s death will not necessarily lead to more violence in Chicago’s Black Belt or elsewhere. In fact, Bigger’s death in the electric chair may come as something of a relief, even to those who don’t despise him. Bessie Mears’s friends and family, though they do not appear in the novel, would probably be glad to see Bigger die. He has murdered one of his own race, after all. Blacks have as much reason as whites do to fear him.

At the close of his speech, Max declares: “With every atom of my being, I beg this in order that not only may this black boy live, but that we ourselves may not die!” The statement implies that all of American society will collapse if Bigger is put to death. Though personally convinced that Bigger’s fate is momentous enough to rock civilization, Max has no sound basis for this claim. In Max’s eyes, Bigger is a symbol of all the oppression blacks have suffered since they first arrived in America, but in most other people’s eyes, Bigger is a self-confessed murderer, an object of terror. And it is the judge’s responsibility to decide the man’s fate, not a symbol’s. Max’s illogical hyperbole does not effectively further his case. His inability—or refusal— to make sound connections between his generalizations and Bigger’s own experience ultimately undermines his argument.

In spite of his generalizations, self-doubts, long-winded tangents, and logical fallacies, Max might still win his case if he could characterize Bigger Thomas as a flesh-and-blood man, not a symbol to be inflated like a balloon and floated over white people’s heads. He makes a start on this late in his speech when he suggests that life in prison “would be the first recognition of his personality [Bigger] has ever had.” But overall, Max’s defense amounts to little more than an extended exercise in convoluted philosophizing and moralistic fingerpointing. His patronizing air does not help his case, either. We can imagine the judge gritting his teeth as Max informs him: “There are times, Your Honor, when reality bears features of such an impellingly moral complexion that it is impossible to follow the hewn path of expediency.” Max is so caught up in his own windy rhetoric, in fact, that he ignores two glaringly obvious means of winning the case: pleading not guilty or pleading insane. The former plea would place the burden of proof on the prosecution, and the latter would at least give him the opportunity to recast Bigger’s crimes in a different light.

By making Bigger plead guilty, Max puts himself center-stage, and his own hubris takes over. The length of his speech and its rambling content suggest that Max has wanted to tell off the world for a long time. He picks the wrong occasion to do so. The judge cannot be faulted for sentencing Big- ger to death: One man’s diatribe does not blot out two dead women, sixty witnesses for the prosecution, and a city full of outraged citizens.

Buckley, despite being an almost absurdly abrasive, racist figure, knows how to play the legal game much better than his opponent does. In his opening statement, Buckley announces, long before Max’s speech, “There is no room here for evasive, theoretical, or fanciful interpretations of the law.” He is right. And Max, [as Dorothy Redden suggests] hardly “the author’s spokesman for the truth,” is wrong to assume the role of an angry prophet when his client desperately needs a levelheaded lawyer.

The question remains: How does this interpretation of Max alter our reading of Native Son? Put briefly, when we view Max as a subversive presence destroying whatever slim chance Bigger has to survive, book three becomes an even darker denouement to the action in books one and two. Max, like the Daltons, attempts to assuage his own conscience by championing Bigger. In the end, he fails himself as well as his client. Perhaps in Bigger’s final facial expression, “a faint, wry, bitter smile,” we see his recognition of this failure. Max, too, is guilty, but only Bigger will die.

Source: Hilary Holladay, “Native Son’s Guilty Man,” in The CEA Critic, Winter, 1992, pp. 30-36.

Previous

Critical Overview