Reading Richard Wright and „Native Son“ – Is Bigger Thomas an animal?

Dear students from the USA, if you found this essay while doing research for your homework, thesis or essay on „Native Son“, you should know that English is not my first language and unfortunately I tend to use a German sentence structure. In case you want copy/paste parts of my text: your teacher will notice!  😉

Zur Abwechslung gibt es heute mal einen Eintrag auf Englisch. Das werde ich in Zukunft öfters machen, damit ich ein wenig in Übung bleibe. Solche Beiträge werde ich immer mit einer kleinen amerikanischen Flagge kennzeichnen, da ich in der Regel in American English schreibe. Man kann sie aber auch daran erkennen, dass sie eben auf Englisch geschrieben sind. 🙂

I study American Studies at the JFK-Institut at the Free University of Berlin. This entry is an essay that I wrote in a class called „The African-American Novel at Mid-Century”. It will only be interesting for those of you, who read “Native Son” by Richard Wright (but feel free to read it anyway).  The initial point for this essay is question that relates to an essay by Christoph Peterson. Nevertheless, you can read my essay without knowing the one by Peterson.

The question our teacher gave us:

Christopher Peterson begins his essay „The Aping Apes of Poe and Wright“ (2010) with a question: „Can an animal be held accountable for its actions?“ While you do not necessarily have to take up the very complicated argument that Peterson constructs, please use his introductory question to consider if and how Wright constructs Bigger as animal-like and how this depiction impacts the question of accountability.

Reading Richard Wright and Native Son

In this Essay I will answer the question, if and how Richard Wright constructs Bigger Thomas as an animal, in his novel “Native Son”. I am going to show how Wright plays with this picture of being an animal right from the beginning with the battle scene between Bigger and a rat. However, I am also going to show that Biggers actions and reactions are more complex than the panicked reactions of a trapped animal. I will show that he is able to plot, even if it happens on a very simple level. Finally, I am going to show how dangerous it would be, if we perceive Bigger as an animal that is not accountable for his actions.

Richard Wright begins his novel with an epic battle between Bigger Thomas and a rat. The scene opens in the decrepit apartment of Bigger’s family. It is a tiny room that he has to share with his mother, his sister, his brother and the so afore mentioned rat. Bigger is the big boy of the family, so he has to battle the beast (with a skillet). The rat just follows its nature. It has no sense of ownership or trespassing. It does not know that the big people in the apartment are not willing to share the space with it.

Because of its nature and the consequential ignorance of the reactions to be expected by the humans in the apartment, the rat finds itself in a situation that it does not understand. Suddenly it stands in the spotlight and is attacked. The rat’s belly pulsed with fear (Wright, 6).

It has no other choice than react instinctively. In this situation, it has no possibility to act, it can only react. The rat is driven by fear and instinct.
This opening scene foreshadows Bigger’s destiny. Like the rat, he finds himself in situations where he can only react instinctively, where he is only driven by fear – like an animal, like a rat trapped in desperate situation.  The important question is not “Is he a trapped animal?” but “Is he accountable for his actions respectively his reactions?” Moreover, does it make a difference for his judicial treatment?

First of all Bigger Thomas is a human being. He is a son, a brother, a friend and a “wild” teenager. He is a Negro who grew up in times where Negros where “separate but equal”. He grew up under poor conditions. He dropped out of school and started criminal activities with his friends. They had always robbed Negros (Wright, 14).
He lives in the belief that the Whites had everything and the Negros nothing.

“They don’t let us do nothing.”

“Who?”“The white folks.”

“We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. (Wright, 19,20)

This is his view of the world. When this view is challenged by Dalton’s daughter Mary and her boyfriend Jan, Bigger is overextended. He does not know how to react. The fear takes over and leads his actions.

Bigger does feel trapped from the beginning. He feels himself trapped in this small room with his family, trapped in the Ghetto, trapped in his color. And this feeling continues. He feels trapped when Mary and Jan try to be friendly. He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused (Wright,67).

And he feels especially trapped when he has to bring the drunken Mary into the house. What starts as an act of kindness ends in a tragedy, because Bigger is not able to handle against his fears and his instincts.

He should have left the room after he dropped Mary on the bed, but he did not. When Mary’s mother entered the room all his fears, all the prejudices he had to face in his life came to his mind and he panicked.

He turned and a hysterical terror seized him, as though he were falling from a great height in a dream (87).

He had almost managed this delicate situation. But then he became aware that he had accidently killed Mary.

The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. (Wright, 87)

His next reaction could also be interpreted as the reaction of a trapped animal. He tries to get rid of the body; he decapitates Mary’s body and burns it in the fireplace. Nevertheless, I do not interpret this as the reaction of an animal. An animal does not try to hide its evidences. Bigger was aware of his situation. He was at least able to thing one step ahead. Otherwise, he would not have tried to blame Jan for the murder. He just would have fled.

Biggers actions were not the plot of a criminal genius, but in his own bounded logic, it was something like a plan. He acts on a very thin line between the terrorized reactions of a trapped animal and the actions of somebody who is aware of his situation and knows to what end it will lead when will be captured.

His very thin plan turns out to be a failure and he once again finds himself in a situation in which he is trapped like an animal. When he is finally debunked as the murder of Mary, he is hunted down like an animal. In the eyes of his pursuers, he is an animal. Like Bigger hunted the rat in the beginning now they are hunting him. They closed of the Negro neighborhood and systematically looked in every “hole”. In the end, their skillet was too big for Bigger.

Richard Wright plays with this picture of a trapped animal. The battle against the rat is not the only comparison. In addition, the reappearing cat draws the picture of Bigger as a trapped rat. Society is the cat that plays its cruel game with Bigger.  But it is dangerous to define Bigger as an animal, even if his actions seem to be animalistic. It is even more dangerous to make the circumstances Bigger grew up in (alone) responsible, like Max does it in the trial.

“Do we think that the laws of human nature stopped operating after we had got our feet upon our road? Have we had to struggle so hard for our right to happiness that we have all but destroyed the conditions under which we and others can still be happy? This Negro Boy, Bigger Thomas, is part of a furious blazing in our land. He is a hot jet of life that spattered itself in futility against a cold wall. (Wright, 399)

First of all, constructing Bigger animal-like was a decision to step away from the typical Negro-novels of this time. In these novels, the authors tried to present a positive image of Negros in America. They were written to show the white readers that the black people are not as bad as the majority thought. These novels were public relation for the black cause. However, Richard Wright did not want to write PR-novels anymore. For him it was time to take the next step; to describe the African-Americans as they really were, not as wild animals, not as noble savages, and not as role models as well.

He tried to paint a realistic picture in the tradition of naturalistic literature.  But to be able to leave the “role-model literature” behind he needed to take radical step – he needed an “anti-hero”. Only with this radical change, he was able to startle the readers. To show that the life of Negros was in many ways the same as the life of white people, he needed an ambivalent character.

Of course, Bigger is complaining about all this terrible racial discrimination.  And to a certain point he is right, as well as Max is right in his final plea. Nevertheless, many white criminals are like Bigger. By making Bigger equal to them Wright was taking a step away from separation. Away from the rituals, black protesters were conducting for decades.

Wright also needed an anti-hero for max final plea, this monumental prayer against the social circumstances, the discrimination of the poor and the discrimination of the Negros. He needed a character that is guilty of his crimes. Only with a protagonist like Bigger Max is able to show to what end the current course of society leads. In Max’s opinion society turned Bigger into an animal.

But what message would it send, if the court would follow this argumentation? For the publicity, it would mean that every male Negro (all the “Boyz n the Hood”) who grows up under the same circumstances than Bigger would be a possible threat, a menace to society. This conclusion would follow the negative idiom “the leopard does not change its spots”. And it will lead to tragic events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was possibly shot because he was young and black. Right-wing commentators will justify such killings by explaining that the victim should not have worn a hoodie sweater.

Not every male Negro who grew up under comparable circumstances will turn out as a Bigger Thomas. Most of them turn out as integrated, hard working and good willing members of society. Nevertheless, they will be stigmatized by prejudices against poor, black males.

In his book “Being and Nothingness” Jean Paul Satre wrote that we are doomed to freedom. In his opinion, there are no circumstances that determinate a person in his actions so strong that he is not longer responsible for his actions. Neuroscientist might object but I am certain that mental healthy person should be accountable for his actions. Otherwise, the whole coexistence of our society is threatened.

In the end, when he sits in his cell and speaks with Max, Bigger says that he admires the Nazis because they are doing something. He tries to justify his actions with the argument that he had to do something. That is not something an animal would to. Bigger says: “What I killed for must’ve been good!” … Max’s Eyes were full of terror (Wright, 429).

After Biggers words Max realizes how wrong he was with his plea. How he has helped Bigger to justify his cruel actions. The terror in his eyes is the reaction to his own argumentation. By giving Bigger an argumentation to justify his action, Max also gave it to every other criminal like Bigger.

Richard Wright has constructed Bigger animal-like. He has done it by comparing him to a rat and by bringing him into situations in which he is trapped like an animal, in which he can only react in panic. He needed an animal-like character to deliver his message about the situation of society effectively. However, Biggers actions were more than just like the panicked reactions of an animal. He also showed that he was able to plot against other people, for example by blaming Jan for the murder.

I understand why Wright constructed his novel in this way, but I think it is dangerous to follow this argumentation, because it would stigmatize every young black male who grew up under poor conditions. In the end, it would just amplify the prejudices against the blacks in America.

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