Is Bigger's dream of flying planes symbolic in Native Son?

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Richard Wright’s novel Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African American young man born into extreme poverty in Chicago’s South Side. The narrative occurs in the 1930s, which allows Wright to present the de facto inequality that is so prevalent in Bigger’s life and in American society as a whole.

Bigger dreams of becoming a pilot and flying the planes he observes cruising the sky above Chicago. During one of Bigger’s reveries about becoming a pilot, his friend Gus responds:

If you wasn't black and if you had some money and if they'd let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane.

In this single response, Gus identifies multiple ways in which Bigger will not realize his dream: the color of his skin and the discrimination associated with getting jobs and matriculation as well as his lack of money to pay for school. At this point, flying becomes a metaphor and symbol for freedom.

In 1930s America, there was de jure racial equality but de facto racial inequality. The plane is a tangible object, which can be seen by all people on the ground. When a white young man looks at the plane above, he can envision himself one day flying it. When a black young man looks at the same plane, he cannot envision himself one day flying it, regardless of his passion and intellect for flight.

The overall point of this symbolism is to depict the lack of opportunities afforded to African Americans while those opportunities exist everywhere for white Americans.

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Author Richard Wright uses Bigger's dream of flying an airplane as a symbol of freedom. Bigger watches an airplane in the sky with childlike wonder. His friend Gus mentions white men "sure can fly." Bigger responds, "They get a chance to do everything."

This could only be a symbol of and metaphor for freedom. Bigger is a poor young black man, and his life has always been predetermined. Since birth, his fate has been decided by others, specifically the "free" white class. Bigger can, and does, have dreams, but he knows his choices will forever be limited because of the color of his skin.

In addition, when Bigger mentions he wishes he could fly a plane, Gus is quick to acknowledge the obvious answer. He tells his friend, "If you wasn't black and if you had some money and if they'd let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane." While they are mentioning the act of flying an airplane, the two men are really talking and dreaming about freedom.

Essentially, Bigger will never realize his dreams, because he does not have freedom. But if he could achieve freedom, one could only imagine the life-changing opportunities he could explore.

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This wish and dream are partly symbolic of Bigger's desire to be free, to escape the restriction imposed by a racial society, and to leave the constricted atmosphere of his home and a mother he views as domineering. But the more concrete point is his observation that piloting a plane is something he, as a black man, would not be allowed to do, even if he were to enter the military. He ruefully comments that the white boys get to do everything. Bigger's objective awareness of the reasons racial discrimination is so prevalent increases as the story moves on. The scene where he and his friends are watching the planes occurs early in the plot, before events have spun out of control. It's one element that foreshadows his attempt to break free of the chains that have bound him. It is also an indication that, despite what later occurs in the story, he is interested in doing productive work, including work that's beyond the ordinary tasks any working-class person of his time, white or black, would be expected to do. The tragedy that informs Wright's novel is one of both racial and economic discrimination.

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Good question. The act of flying has been used for centuries as a symbol for freedom. Since humans cannot fly under their own power, the symbolism of flight is associated with superheros, angelic beings and other methods of overcoming the physical laws of the universe. One of the most memorable stories of flying dates back to Greek times in the tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus invented wings to help he and his son escape from a tyrant, only to be sent into grief and remorse when Icaraus, his son, flies too close to the sun. In "Native Son" Bigger is prevented from even learning how to fly because he is African-American. As he watches a plane fly over Chicago, he is reminded this is just another thing he cannot do simply because of the color of his skin. Bigger cannot be a pilot and lead people into the sky in the same way he cannot escape the ghettos of Chicago. His dreams of flying and freedom are denied him because of his race. Like Daedalus, his attempt at flight will only lead to grief and remorse.

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Is Wright using Bigger's dream of flying planes in a symbolic way?

A recurring theme in African American literature is one of flight or escape.  African folk tales often chronicle this flight theme with characters turning into birds to escape their plight.  Flight means freedom, and for the African American who has been enslaved and discriminated against, it is seen as a symbolic theme in their literature. Bigger’s desire to leave his circumstances and to escape is symbolized by the plane he dreams about.

Bigger Thomas has lived a horrible life without opportunity and feels powerless as a black man.  Wright tells us about Bigger’s feelings when he writes,

"Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God..." he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. "They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." 

The lack of opportunity and the feeling that he can never achieve because of the oppression he feels, Bigger Thomas dreams of escaping where he will have control over his own life.  The plane symbolizes Bigger’s desire to control his own destiny. 

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