Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
1. Where and during what time in American history does the novel take place?
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2. Who are the Thomases, and where and how do they live?
3. Who are the Daltons, and where and how do they live?
4. What job does Mr. Dalton offer Bigger?
5. What is one of the sources of Mr. Dalton’s wealth?
6. What views toward African Americans does Mr. Dalton profess to hold?
7. Why does Mary Dalton make Bigger so uncomfortable?
8. Who is Jan Erlone, and what is his political affiliation and philosophy?
9. Why do Jan and Mary try so hard to befriend Bigger, and why is Bigger reluctant to accept their friendship?
10. Why does Bigger plan to implicate Jan in Mary’s death?
1. The novel is set in Chicago, in the late 1930s, during the Great Depression. It is a time of great poverty in America, and much social unrest.
2. The Thomases are an African-American family. Mrs. Thomas lives with her sons Bigger and Buddy, and her daughter Vera, in a one-room tenement apartment in Chicago’s South Side ghetto. The family is very poor, and is on relief (welfare).
3. The Daltons are a rich white family; Henry and Mrs. Dalton live in a mansion in the wealthy part of town, with Mary, their only child, and several servants.
4. Bigger is offered and accepts the job of Dalton family chauffeur. He is also to tend the mansion’s furnace.
5. Bigger has heard that Mr. Dalton is the owner of the South Side Real Estate Company, to which the Thomases and many other African-American families in the ghetto must pay rent.
6. Mr. Dalton is professedly liberal toward African Americans. He is a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and has donated five million dollars to Negro education.
7. In her own naive way, Mary tries to treat Bigger as an equal. Bigger fears that her overtures to him might cause him to lose his job, because such behavior challenges the strict rules of racist society, which he must obey in order to live. Her actions are especially threatening because she is a white girl, and Bigger knows that African-American men are often killed for associating with white women.
8. Jan Erlone is Mary’s boyfriend. He is a young white member of the Chicago branch of the American Communist Party. As a Communist, Jan believes that the system of private ownership known as capitalism is responsible for both poverty and racism. Communists believe that to rid society of these ills, capitalism itself must be overthrown and replaced by a system of public ownership, known as socialism.
9. Jan and Mary, each in their own way, seek to break down the barriers between the races. Although Bigger has never met white people who behave as they do, he remains suspicious because he knows that whites can be very dangerous—his father, after all, was murdered in the South by white men.
10. Bigger knows from reading the newspapers that many white people hate Communists, and since Jan is a Communist, their suspicions might be easily directed against Jan, and away from Bigger himself.