Spotlight on Tragedy:
Bigger Thomas as America's Native Son
Richard Wright's Native Son is a powerful novel. I think this is largely due to Wright's skillful merging of his narrative voice with Bigger's which allows the reader to feel he is also inside Bigger's skin. I don't think there is any question that Bigger is a tragic figure, even an archetypical one, as he represents the African American experience of oppression in America. Wright states in the introduction, however, that there are Biggers among every oppressed people throughout the world, arguing that many of the rapidly changing and uncertain conditions of the modern world, a modern world largely founded on imperialism and exploitation, have created people like Bigger, restless and adrift, searching for a place for themselves in a world that, for them, has lost many of its cultural and spiritual centers. Because Wright chose to deal with the experience he knew best, Native Son is an exploration of how the pressure and racism of the American cultural environment affects black people, their feelings, thoughts, self-images, in fact, their entire lives, for one learns from Native Son that oppression permeates every aspect of life for both the oppressed and oppressor, though for one it is more overt than the other. Though this paper deals with Bigger's character and how the last scene of the novel reflects an evolution and realization in his character in terms of Arthur Miller's definition of tragedy, the issue of mass oppression of one people by another embodies the dimensions of a larger tragedy that is painfully embedded within human history.
Many of Native Son's earlier scenes serve Wright's purposes in showing how America's white rascism affects Bigger's behavior, his thinking and his feelings. His sense of constriction, of confinement, in this world is palpable. A more articulate character voices the practical conditions that promote Bigger's feeling. An anonymous black cell-mate, a university student jailed by his professor for working on a book about black oppression in America, shouts to the white guards, "You make us live in such crowded conditions...that one out of every ten of us is insane...you dump all the stale foods into the Black Belt and sell them for more than you can get anywhere else...you tax us, but you won't build hospitals...the schools are so crowded that they breed perverts... you hire us last and fire us first..." (pg. 318). Though this itemized listing is impressive, nowhere is this sense of constriction more telling than in Bigger's action of the accidental murder of Mary Dalton. The unfocused, yet all-encompassing, fear that the white world has bred in Bigger takes over when he is in Mary's room and in danger of being discovered by Mrs. Dalton. This internalized social oppression literally forces his hand when he holds the pillow over Mary's face, for he knows no white person would believe he was not trying to rape Mary. As Bigger tells Max, "They believe that. ...when folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born." In this same conversation, Bigger's sense of lifelong hopelessness is plain when he says, "I don't have to do nothing for 'em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I'm a goner, see?" (pg. 325). Yet Bigger says elsewhere that he always felt he would come to a violent end, that something like this would happen to him. At first, these two feelings might seem a contradiction, yet the former actually gives rise to the latter. When a person finds all avenues of expression and development either closed or severely constrained, as Bigger's are, violence is often the instinctive reaction to oppression. Violence is Bigger's only outlet of expression, the only way he can rebel against the society that attempts to squash him at every turn.
Bigger's rebellion fulfills Miller's first requirement of a tragic character in that Bigger reacts "...against the scheme of things that degrades..." him. In trying to find a place for himself in the world, Bigger assails the world around him in the only way he can, and though this way is violent and negative, Bigger's unwitting act of murder begins the process of personal learning that comes about when one questions what has previously been unquestioned.
Bigger's exhileration in the first hours and days following Mary's murder is understandable in these terms. Bigger finds that rebellion is liberating. Though he is later caught and faces death, he accepts responsibility for his crime. "...I ain't asking nobody to be sorry for me. ... They don't give black people a chance, so I took a chance and lost." (pg. 330). This acceptance enhances Bigger's desire, or need, to learn something about himself and his life. He is compelled to seek some ultimate meaning in his experiences. As such, Bigger's tragedy, as Miller would say, "enlightens (him)...in that it points the...finger at the enemy of man's (Bigger's) freedom," because his attempt at freedom eventually destroys him. He begins a search for his own moral law, which Miller contends is a consequence when one is destroyed by one's compulsion to evaluate oneself justly. Bigger has rejected his mother's traditional religious views, (perhaps signalling Wright's own concordance with Marx's belief that religion is the opiate of the masses), yet he finds there is still a deep yearning within him to understand his own existence, to find meaning in his life, even as he is facing the last days of it. In rebelling, and accepting the consequences for his rebellion, Bigger opens in himself a place of questioning and a desire to understand that did not exist before where he tries transcend his suffering in search of a deeper interpretation of his life.
Bigger articulates his need for this understanding in the last scene of the novel. His last conversation with Max indicates Bigger has risen above the fear and hate that has hunted him all his life and led him blindly to his present situation. No longer is he a prisoner of reaction for in his acceptance of his crime he breaks the cycle and moves beyond it. He tells Max, "Mr. Max, I didn't mean to do what I did. I was trying to do something else. But it seems like I never could. I was always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it." (pg. 388). As this conversation with Max unfolds, Bigger comes to realize that what he wanted was what all people want, a chance to live and grow, free to develop to the fullest of their capacities, and that his oppression was a result of the greed of some that is founded on the denial of this liberty to others. It is in this realization that Bigger regains his humanity, by seeing his desires and needs as common to humanity and thus finding a place (albiet conceptually) in the world at last. This is Bigger's victory within tragedy that Miller maintains must be present to be true tragedy.
Bigger exclaims, "...what I killed for, I am!" (pg. 392). In understanding the impulses that drove him to rebel, and the reasons why violence was the only outlet for him to do this, Bigger arrives at an understanding that is all too uncommon in ordinary life. This drive to extract meaning from one's experiences is an intricate and signature part of what Miller calls Man's impulse to perfection. In this last scene of Native Son, Bigger is able to find some meaning in his life, he sees his experiences from a larger perspective, and has something to claim for himself that he didn't have before. As for Hamlet, though the attainment of this new knowledge brings about his own destruction, Bigger is able to extract some victory from his tragic circumstances. Surprisingly, it seems to me that the understanding Bigger gains is, in a way, more exalted and poignant than Hamlet's formal and high-blown phrases because Bigger's route to discovery is direct and immediate.
Native Son is a powerful chronicle of oppression and triumph. It is a personal journey for Richard Wright in which he works through the humiliation and rage that is part of the modern African American heritage. It is an ardent, yet rational, attempt to wring understanding from adversity. Native Son is a classic American tragedy.
© 1993 Shirley Galloway
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