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The Wright Stuff

Understanding the radical vision of ‘Native Son.’

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By JAMES SEATON
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Bigger, the reader learns, is “intimidated to the core” by Mrs. Dalton’s appearance; he takes it for granted that any white parent, even the seemingly sympathetic Mrs. Dalton, would be outraged to discover a black man in a daughter’s bedroom. Certain that “if Mary spoke [Mrs. Dalton] would come to the side of the bed and discover him,” he covers Mary’s face with a pillow to prevent her from speaking. All Bigger cares about is that Mary Dalton “not move or make any sound that would betray him.” 

It is only after Mrs. Dalton leaves that he turns to Mary and discovers that she is dead. Bigger has killed Mary Dalton because of his fear that it would be disastrous for a black man to be found in the bedroom of a white woman, no matter how innocent or plausible his reason for being there. 

So far, the reader remains sympathetic to Bigger, well aware that the killing was entirely accidental. After he realizes Mary Dalton is dead, however, the first thing Bigger does is put her body in the furnace and burn it. Unfortunately, the corpse does not fit and he tries to cut off Mary’s head with his knife but fails, as Wright takes care to inform the reader: “He whacked harder, but the head would not come off.” Finally Bigger finds a way, and again Wright does not spare the reader any details: 

He got the hatchet, held the head at a slanting angle with his left hand and, after pausing in an attitude of prayer, sent the blade of the hatchet into the bone of the throat with all the strength of his body. The head rolled off.

Even at this point it might be possible for readers determined to sympathize with a black protagonist to convince themselves that their horror at the mutilation of Mary Dalton’s body is merely an instinctive reaction. Wright, however, takes the reader inside Bigger’s mind to find him telling himself that it was really Mary’s own fault that she was killed: “Hell, she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, goddammit!” 

Bigger actually takes pride in the killing and refuses to think of it as an accident. 

Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. .  .  . And in a certain sense he knew that the girl’s death had not been accidental. He had killed many times before, only on those other times there had been no handy victim or circumstances to make visible or dramatic his will to kill. 

Bigger is, in fact, elated by the killing: “Now who on earth would think that he, a black timid Negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for his breakfast like this? Elation filled him.” He is only unhappy that all the money he got out of the accidental killing was the cash Mary had in her purse:

But of the whole business there was one angle that bothered him; he should have gotten more money out of it; he should have planned it. He had acted too hastily and accidentally. Next time things would be much different; he would plan and arrange so that he would have money enough to keep him a long time. 

Bigger Thomas does, indeed, kill one more time, but his next victim is not a rich white girl but his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears. 

On the run, he kills her on purpose and in cold blood, having reflected that it would be easier to escape from the police without her than with her. While the reader knows that Bigger did not rape Mary Dalton (though he will be accused of doing so), Bigger does, in fact, rape Bessie Mears just before he kills her. And while Mary seemingly felt no pain when she was smothered in a drunken stupor, Bessie has no such luck. Bigger strikes her head repeatedly with a brick and then throws her body down an airshaft. The reader later learns that her suffering did not end immediately. 

At Bigger’s trial, the prosecutor, saying that he represents “the families of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears,” points to medical testimony indicating that Bessie “was not dead when she hit the bottom of that shaft; she froze to death later, trying to climb out!” For Bigger himself, the two killings had seemed morally equivalent: “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes.” 

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