Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, consisted of various main and supporting character to deliver an effective array of personalities and expression. Each character’s actions defines their individual personalities and belief systems. The main character of Native Son, Bigger Thomas has personality traits spanning various aspect of human nature including actions motivated by fear, quick temper, and a high degree of intelligence. Bigger, whom the novel revolves around, portrays various personality elements through his actions.
Many of his action suggest an overriding response to fear, which stems from his exposure to a harsh social climate in which a clear line between acceptable behavior for white’s and black’s exists. His swift anger and his destructive impulses stem from that fear and becomes apparent in the opening scene when he fiercely attacks a huge rat. The same murderous impulse appears when his secret dread of the delicatessen robbery impels him to commit a vicious assault on his friend Gus. Bigger commits both of the brutal murders not in rage or anger, but as a reaction to fear.
His typical fear stems from being caught in the act of doing something socially unacceptable and being the subject of punishment. Although he later admits to Max that Mary Dalton’s behavior toward him made him hate her, it is not that hate which causes him to smother her to death, but a feeble attempt to evade the detection of her mother. The fear of being caught with a white woman overwhelmed his common sense and dictated his actions. When he attempted to murder Bessie, his motivation came from intense fear of the consequences of “letting” her live.
Bigger realized that he could not take Bessie with him or leave her behind and concluded that killing her could provide her only “merciful” end. The emotional forces that drive Bigger are conveyed by means other than his words. Besides reactions to fear, his actions demonstrate an extremely quick temper and destructive impulse as an integral part of his nature. Rage plays a key part in his basic nature, but does not directly motivate the murders he commits. Rage does not affect Bigger’s intelligence and quick thinking and it becomes evident during the interview with Briton.
The detective makes Bigger so angry that the interrogation becomes a game to Bigger, a game of logic and wills, of playing the stupid negro, and telling the man exactly what he wants to hear. The game Bigger plays during the interrogation shows his great intelligence and ability to think quickly on his feet. Bigger also displayed his intelligence in the creation of the ransom note. Using the situation to his advantage, Bigger wrote a ransom note to extort Mary’s parents for money. To make the note even more convincing and to dissuade blame from himself, Bigger signs the note with the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle.
Although the book revolves around Bigger he possesses few good qualities, which get his horrendous actions negate, making him an anti-hero. He possess the violent tendencies to commit rape, extortion of the dead girls parents, robbing, and killing innocent people. These traits do not portray a simple victim of circumstance, but a habitual criminal acting out against a society. While Bigger dominates the story, his appalling actions make him a man that the reader can not look upon as a hero. In fact the author punishes the anti-hero character by condemning him to death for his crimes.
One of the two most sympathetic characterizations of white persons in the novel comes from the character of Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s friend. He exhibits an enthusiastic personality and represents an idealistic young organizer for the Communist party. Mary’s parents and their servant Peggy distrust his motives. Bigger initially expresses a distaste for “reds” when responding to Jan’s friendly advances during their first meeting. While receiving distrust from those around him, Jan retains a simple belief in the equality for all men, regardless of social class or race.
Throughout Jan’s first meeting with Bigger, he regards Bigger with the utmost respect. During the course of the night, Jan sits in the front of the car with Bigger, eats with him, drinks with him, and speaks to him as an equal. Those actions of equality portray more than a decent man, it shows that Jan’s character possesses a strong sense of morality and honesty. Jan is also characterized by other heroic traits, forgiveness and understanding. As an interesting twist of fate, Jan gets Bigger an attorney, and demonstrates that he could forgive Bigger for implicating him for Mary’s “kidnapping”.
The second sympathetic white character, Boris A. Max, portrays the Communist lawyer whom Jan brings to help Bigger. Max’s legal knowledge and his mastery of tactics are constantly in evidence. By taking Bigger’s case pro-bono, Max shows two aspects of his nature, charity and a need to defend the oppressed. By accepting the task of Bigger’s defense, he makes it painfully clear that his true intent originates from a desire to protect the image of the communist party. That passion does not adversely affect his skill and he diligently works to protect his client from injustice.
The moment Bigger accepts Max’s offer to represent him, Max protects his client’s interests and insists upon his rights. Max constantly demonstrates his intelligence, in his pursuit of justice and a fair trial for his client Bigger Thomas. The members of the Dalton family represent the naivete of whites to the realities of social oppression. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton attempt to correct their wrongs by donating to various black charities. They create a boy’s club, donating ping pong tables and various other impractical items. In doing so, they do not make any personal sacrifices and basically give only minimal personal involvement to the cause.
They have not developed a genuine understanding of the economic and social conditions of the black people. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are naive about their lack of impact on the social and economic situations of the blacks that they attempt to help. The author does not make them callous or bigoted. Their daughter, the wild twenty-one year old Mary Dalton, lacks the refinement of her parents. She wants to treat others as equals, but her actions make Bigger uncomfortable and he grows to resent her for her actions. Bigger’s family and Bessie Mears represent, the “beaten” negros.
They have all accepted the that their lives will never have the possibility for improvement. They feel doomed to remain in the pits of the slums. A lost outlook on life represents Bessie’s most outstanding personality trait. Through her self-awareness she reiterates in multiple references that she exists as a “lost” soul. Bessie circumstances prevent her from going any farther in her life. She briefly escapes with the use of alcohol which Bigger provides her in exchange for “love”. An aura of death surrounds her even before Bigger murders her. Like Bessie, Bigger’s mother appears trapped on a one way street going nowhere.
Conflicts An interesting aspect of Native Son develops from the many levels of conflict occurring simultaneously in the book. On a superficial level personal conflicts arise, but deeper conflicts about race, social status, and political view points drive these superficial conflicts. When the book opens Bigger has an argument with his mother, and then his sister, about getting a job. Confrontations like these happen constantly throughout this novel, but neither Bigger nor the other characters grow from these conflicts. The characters act out in rage due to stress caused by social circumstances.
Bigger’s violent temper gets him into various conflicts with his gang, a man on the roof whom he attacks, and the fellow who owns the pool hall. Although these actions demonstrate acts of rage, they do not portray the true motivation for Bigger’s actions. The cause of Bigger personal conflicts stem his fear of repercussion for his actions as a black in a white dominated society. His fear of the consequences of being discovered with a drunk white woman, drive Bigger Thomas to smother Mary Dalton. This fear arose because of the non physical barriers, set up by society, between white and black people.
This tension made Bigger angry while he was forced to secretly drive Jan and Mary around in the car and finally made him snap. Like Bigger, the entire city demonstrates conflicts based upon fear brought about by racial segregation. During the progress of the man hunt, blacks and whites go at each others throats. These various conflicts all stem from fear and racial hatred. Although Richard Wright portrays the segregation of the blacks, he does not omit the segregation of various social groups such as the communists. In contrast, Jan and Max’s efforts to save Bigger stem from a struggle for equality.
They too feel the constraints of oppression, but have a philosophy and social position with which to rebel. Themes Frustration and hopelessness develop as major themes of the story. When Bigger and his friend Gus watch a sky writing plane, Bigger expresses frustration in his statement “I could fly one of them things if I had a chance. ” Discussing the impossibility of accomplishment in the white-controlled world, Bigger expresses hopelessness, saying, “They don’t let us do nothing. ” When Gus reminds Bigger that they have always known this, Bigger agrees, but insists that he cannot accustom himself to it.
Every time I think about it,” he says, “I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. ” Today a good example of the same type of frustration can be seen on the various music videos done by black artists. These video portray, poor education and a lack of opportunities afforded to blacks. Oppression, hate, and the separatism between whites and blacks also arises as a main theme. Bigger represents the oppressed but rebellious black, in contrast the Dalton’s represent naive whites, and Jan and Max represent the oppressed communists. These various characters hate each other without comprehend the underlying social cause.
Only the oppressed groups come to help and forgive each other by the end of the novel, while the oppressors still asking for bitter vengeance. The separatism become obvious while Bigger when sits in the car with Mary and Jan. He feels afraid and uncomfortable being treated like an equal and being allowed to sit near them. This separatism also made his oppressors blindly ignorant of the realities of social oppression. Separatism affects both sides of the color line. The characters consider each other as separate entities, never interacting on an equal basis.
Social ignorance allows the scapegoating of Bigger, to vent the anger and rage built up from by many years of tension between the races. A good example of separatism and oppression in our area shows up in the conflicts between Whites and Cubans. Arguments about English as the official language as the official language of the US represent the manifestations of this conflict. A notable theme that the author portrays through Bigger’s actions come from the true meaning of freedom to the oppressed. Bigger’s discovered “freedom” came to him in two instances, in both cases while committing murder.
With the death of Mary Dalton, Bigger starts to realize that for the first time he has gone against the law. Breaking the proverbial barrier and the proper limits of what a black man can do in society he is no longer controlled or restrained by another mans rules. This idea expands to note that when Bigger himself defines the rules, he makes himself free. Interestingly serial killers in our society have multiplied, a common trait that they all possess is abuse in their early lifetime. Perhaps they act out of the same misguided need for freedom that Bigger found when committing murder.
Author’s Beliefs Bigger, his family, and Bessie all feel the affects of separatism and oppression. Richard Wright believes in the immorality of oppression. He uses his book as a tool to vent his frustration, at the world that segregates negros. His characters, themes and conflicts probably originate from his own experience of separatism. By using such a wide range of characters, he gives the readers who are not black an insight into the horrifically desperate situations many poor blacks experience. Bigger’s actions toward Jan and Mary portray his resignation to the social inequity of the color barrier. He acts simply, as a subservient “yessah”.
It appears the author believes the true wall of separation between whites and blacks is an almost impassable division. Jan and Max base their decisions on the equality of man. Having a moral basis for action leads them to have a means to deal with oppression and the ability to hope. In contrast, Bigger accepts separatism as an immutable condition, and rebels against it by committing crimes. Bigger receives punishment for his actions. The author would appears to support socialist concepts as the proper rebellion against oppression. He seems to believe in the equality of men and the value of demonstrating it in everyday actions.