Themes and Meanings
Bigger Thomas, as his name suggests, is the stereotypical “nigger.” As such, he is destined to end up in jail, and Bigger knows it. Very early in the novel, he admits “that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” Living on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930’s, Bigger is trapped in a hostile environment. His every action is predicated on his obsessive fear of the white world.
His accidental killing of Mary and his murder of Bessie are both motivated by fear. It is because he is panic-stricken at the thought of Mrs. Dalton finding him in Mary’s room that he suffocates Mary. Similarly, he murders Bessie because he is afraid she will give him away to the police.
After Mary’s death, Bigger experiences feelings of power, equality, and freedom. In fact, he might even be said to have acquired an identity. So powerful is he that he no longer needs his knife and his gun. Also, he believes himself the equal of whites because he has destroyed their most prized possession. He can decide how much to tell the police about Mary’s disappearance; for a while, the “dumb nigger” is in charge, and Bigger toys with the police. For the first time in his life, he is somebody—a murderer. The word “murderer” is appropriate, since Bigger convinces himself after Mary’s accidental killing that he really intended to kill her.
Bessie is part of his limited environment, and he kills her because he feels he must. After he murders Bessie, Bigger’s feelings of power, equality, and freedom, and his sense of an identity are all heightened.
In jail, Bigger is listless and apathetic. His lawyer becomes his confidant, and Bigger tries to sort out his feelings. His dubious epiphany seems to be that his only viable option is violence. The alternative, as he sees it, is dehumanizing submission to white society.
In Bigger’s view, all the other African Americans in the novel opt for submission to whites. His mother finds solace in religion; his brother unquestioningly accepts the status quo; his sister is excessively timid and believes in the tenets of the “Y”; Bessie, his girlfriend, turns to alcohol and ultimately does not even find sex satisfying. Bigger’s friends, Gus, G. H., and Jack, are not willing to go all the way to rid themselves of white oppression.
The reader sees these characters through Bigger’s eyes, and they seem like stereotypes; critics have commented adversely on this aspect of the novel. To some, stereotypical character portrayal is inherently faulty, and these critics find even the portrayal of Bigger unsatisfactory. Others, however, contend that Bigger’s character, though stereotypical, is convincingly developed, whereas the other characters are mere stick figures.
Among these stick figures are the whites in the novel. Bigger’s blanket response to all whites is fear, hate, rage, and shame, with two exceptions. In the case of Jan, Mary’s boyfriend, Bigger’s standard response gives way to bewilderment and later reluctant trust. As for Max, Bigger trusts him almost immediately; as a result, some commentators view the Bigger-Max relationship as contrived.
If the theme of trust comes late in the novel and causes skepticism, the same cannot be said of the major theme—fear. Not only do the killing of the rat and the fight with Gus foreshadow Mary’s death, but they are also motivated by fear. Bigger fights with Gus to cover up his fear of robbing Blum’s store. He and his friends are used to preying on other African Americans, but to rob a white man’s store is taboo. Thus, the killing of Mary demonstrates how Bigger’s fear and its concomitant emotions of hate, rage, and shame culminate in increasing violence.
On a much larger scale, Richard Wright seems to be saying that the fate of African Americans is determined by a hostile white environment. Determinism, then, is an important theme in Native Son. For the Bigger Thomases growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s, there is no escape; they will end up in jail. The only question is, what crime will justify their detention.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? For most of the novel, Wright seems to be insisting that it is white society that is at fault. As the novel approaches its end, however, readers may get the sense that Bigger Thomas is the “native son” of all Americans, black and white. By killing, Bigger has carved out an identity for himself; by destroying, he has created. Despite his meager choices, he has chosen violence over submission. Even Bigger recognizes this: “But what I killed for, I am!”
At the end of the novel, readers are still trying to understand Bigger. The point of view is sympathetic. Wright manages to convince readers that this black youth who has killed twice and begins to feel only after he has murdered is worthy of understanding and compassion.
Some critics insist that in the book’s concluding section, the pace of the novel slows to a crawl. These critics regard the final section as a major flaw in the novel, viewing it as contrived. Others concede that, although perhaps too didactic in tone, the concluding section is necessary to show the extent to which Bigger’s life is fated. Still others argue that this material should have been integrated into the rest of the novel.
If critics are divided about the effectiveness of Wright’s narrative structure, his symbolism is less controversial. The snowfalls and blizzards that occur throughout the novel represent a hostile white society. Similarly, Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness is indicative of the psychological blindness of the other characters. Time, too, has symbolic significance in the novel. Whether it be the cacophonous sound of the alarm clock in the opening line of the novel or the clock ticking at the head of Mary’s bed, the references seem to represent Bigger’s meaningless existence. Most critics grant a measure of effectiveness to these symbols. The wooden cross, however, does not fare so well. This is the cross that the Reverend Hammond, Bigger’s mother’s minister, gives Bigger when he visits him in prison. Those who bother to mention it regard it as too obvious. Bigger throws the cross away after seeing the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan; he cannot absorb the differences between the two symbols. In discarding the wooden cross, however, he is rejecting his mother’s religion and, ultimately, his mother.