Native Son: Book Three
At Chicago's 11th Street Police Station, Bigger listlessly lies on a cot and drifts in and out of consciousness. Completely despondent, he remains unwilling even to eat. He does not feel any fear, because he knows fear is useless. He only wishes to die. Indeed, he feels "black, unequal despised" (255). He finds the will to kill again, but this time it is directed inwards.
A mob awaits the inquest chanting derogatory remarks animalistic in nature: "jungle beast," and such. After he sees the young communist, Jan Erlone, he is filled with shame and guilty anger and he faints. He awakes in a cell to a guard giving him milk and dejectedly wishes he could just go to the electric chair at that moment.
His mother's minister, Reverend Hammond, visits him and urges him to embrace Christianity. The preacher places a wooden cross around Bigger's neck before he leaves. Jan Erlone arrives next and to Bigger's enormous surprise, talks kindly and apologizes. He explains that he had been blind in his familiar treatment of Bigger and understands fully that Bigger's actions were in response to his social conditioning. He implores Bigger to allow his communist lawyer friend, Max Boris, to help. Max enters and attempts to comfort Bigger, assuring him of his presence with him at the inquest.
Next, the flamboyant State's Attorney, Buckley, arrives with Mr. and Mrs. Dalton in tow to see Bigger in his cell. Buckley attempts to get Bigger to confess: "we got evidence so you might as well talk" (272). Mr. Dalton advises Bigger to name his accomplices. Jan attempts to get them all to understand that Bigger's crime came about as a result of American's racist attitudes.
Then, Ma, Bigger's siblings Vera and Buddy and his friends Gus, GH and Jack arrive. Wright does not give the dimensions of the jail cell but by now it holds at least twelve people. Bigger is unable to look at his crying mother; Buddy says he will also get a gun; Vera, Bigger learns, can no longer go to school, and the burden of guilt he feels is staggering. Bigger pathetically attempts to reassure his mother, and when she pleads with him to pray, he tells her she should forget him. Then Ma turns to Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, kneels and begs for her son's life. They promise her the family will not be evicted from their overpriced one-room apartment. Bigger feels deeply ashamed of her and feels relieved when his family leaves. Bigger remains alone with Buckley.
Buckley tries to persuade Bigger to confess. He has broken his mother's heart and a mob waits outside ready to tear him limb from limb. Buckley informs him that they have found the body of Bessie. They also know he raped her. Bigger must confess, Buckley argues, and suggests that if he names his accomplices he, Buckley, will attempt to get him life in a mental hospital. Bigger confesses but denies he is insane and that he acted with accomplices. Bigger overhears Buckley and the guard outside joking at his expense about how easy it was to get him to sign a confession. Bigger breaks down after he acknowledges that he has indeed sold his soul.
Outside the following morning, before the inquest begins, Bigger is hit on the head. When the inquest begins, the first to take the stand is Mrs. Dalton who begins to cry. She states that over the years her family has given $5 million to charity. As the next witness, Jan tries not to succumb to Buckley's confrontational attitude, and Bigger's lawyer, Max, points out that Buckley, the State's Attorney, has no business indicting the communist Party and the entire African-American population. Buckley denounces Jan's moral character by accusing him of sexually offering Mary Dalton to Bigger in payment for joining the Communist Party and argues, furthermore, that the content of the communist pamphlets induced Bigger to commit the crime.
Bigger's attorney, Max, whose only weapons are words, attacks when Mr. Dalton takes the stand by highlighting how the South Side Real Estate Company charges more to African-American families for rent because they are segregated. Dalton maintains that this population enjoys living in their own neighborhoods and although he helps them in terms of charity, he admits his company has never hired an educated African-American.
Next, Buckley shows the court Bessie's horrific corpse in evidence and this infuriates the mob even more. Bigger is, hardly surprisingly, charged with murder and returned to custody in the Cook County Jail as the mob chants "burn that black ape," and "give 'em what he gave that girl" (309).
Afterwards, Bigger is taken to the Dalton house where he is expected to demonstrate how the crime was committed. Feeling somewhat empowered, Bigger says "you can't make me do nothing but die" (312).
On the way back to jail, Bigger sees a burning cross and thinks for a moment that it is some Christian gathering before he chillingly realizes it is the Ku Klux Klan. He becomes angry and throws Reverend Hammond's cross through his cell door despite the prison guard's entreaties that it was his last hope. Soon, the guard brings another young African-American into Bigger's cell. A former university student, the young man had gone "balmy," or insane, and spends the night screaming.
Next, Max returns to find Bigger entirely dejected and defeated, and the two talk. Max attempts to instill in him some degree of hope and asks Bigger at least to have faith in him. Max must gather material with which to address the judge. He asks him if he raped Mary and hesitates to believe Bigger when he answers that although he hated Mary, "hated her before he even knew her," he didn't rape her (326). Then Bigger explains that he never loved anyone. Bessie was simply a girlfriend for whom he felt neither positive nor negative. He has always hated whites who prevented him from having a good life. He was not allowed to attend the aviation school.
Bigger also shares that after committing the murders, he felt a sort of freedom that he had not anticipated. For the first time he felt empowered. He killed Mary Dalton, he explains, because metaphorically she was killing him. When the subject of Jan comes up, Bigger experiences a pang of consciousness.
Max tells Bigger of his intention to have him plead guilty and then to plead for mercy in hopes of a sentence of life in prison rather than death by the electric chair.
The next day, Bigger finds that the governor has ordered the presence of troops to escort him to the courthouse, where much to his chagrin he views his heartbroken mother. After Bigger pleads guilty, Buckley becomes angry and insists that Max is inadvertently entering a plea of insanity. Max denies this. Buckley threatens to bring in sixty witnesses to attest to Bigger's sanity. He opens a window so the judge can hear the chanting mob outside. Besides a dozen newspapermen, Buckley calls Bigger's friends, and several police officers. There is little doubt that Bigger was sane.
Max calls no witnesses but gives an impassioned speech, which is really a plea for clemency. Hoping to sway the judge toward leniency, he points out the consistent racism in American society and the resultant non-abating fear that has haunted Bigger all his life and brought about the death of Mary Dalton: "in a certain sense, every Negro in American is on trial today" (340).
Buckley attacks Max's impassioned speech by citing it as communist propaganda. Bigger needs to die, he maintains, for the "holy" fabric of American law to remain intact. Any sympathy for Bigger must go instead to the victims. And, even if it was possible to think racism was the root cause of Mary's death, how then explain the murder of Bessie?
Max accompanies Bigger to his cell where he tries to give the young man hope. Soon, they are summoned to the courtroom where judgment is passed: death.
The mob cheers. An appeal seems unlikely. Max cannot convince the governor to grant Bigger a stay or execution. Bigger recognizes that he is doomed. He struggles in his last hours on earth to arrive at some sort of understanding-what's it all about?-before he faces his death. Dejected and helpless, Max remains by his side and it is Bigger now who attempts to comfort his lawyer. He tells him that he is glad that he came to know Max, and Max points out that because of his own politics and his personal ethnicity-he is Jewish-he and Bigger share certain commonalities. Bigger at all costs wants to bond with Max, since he feels he has never experienced this form of engagement with another human being. After all, no one had ever before asked Bigger what it is he would have liked to do. For once, he feels like a man.
Bigger finds he now wants desperately to live. However, Max becomes frightened that Bigger is deluded when he states that killing Mary and Bessie must have been good, because after all, men have to kill for something, some purpose. Finally, Bigger requests that Max comfort his mother.
In Book III, Fate, Wright turns away from Greek myth (although the mob certainly is reminiscent of the Greek dramatic chorus) and turns instead to Christian mythology to illuminate Native Son. Here, the lawyer Max represents good, or God, the State's Attorney Buckley represents the evil Satan, and Bigger Thomas takes the form of, albeit a weak one, the Messiah figure.
Max, who some scholars view as a failed Messiah figure, is the only father Bigger has ever known. Perhaps with the exception of his mother, no one ever before cared for Bigger or demonstrated any concern about his well being, his desires, and his future. But, without any hope of remuneration, Max stands up for Bigger and makes a ten-thousand-word passionate soliloquy in his behalf. Max is the only person with whom Bigger ever makes a warm human connection.
Buckley, on the other hand, represents Satan, the evil force reminiscent of racism in American society. It is he who incites the mob toward hatred and tempts and ultimately browbeats Bigger into signing a confession (i.e. selling is soul to the devil) and ultimately is the agent who brings about his death.
Bigger represents a Messiah figure who offers America salvation. There are many representations illustrating this premise. At the beginning of Book III Reverend Hammond places a wooden cross around Bigger's neck. The military escort him to the cries of the mob ""Kill that black ape," as the Roman guards escorted Jesus to the cries of "crucify him." As Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion, when in great distress he called out to the Father, so too does Bigger in psychological agony call upon the father-figure Max for aid. His finger "nails" are ripped out and he receives a wound. Ultimately, Bigger is executed on Friday-as the crucifixion occurred on Good Friday-near Easter time on March 3rd. As Max maintains in his lengthy soliloquy, America itself is guilty and on trial; it is racism that brought about the deaths of the two girls, and leniency toward Bigger offers the soul of the nation a chance to be saved.
Native Son Study GuideChoose to Continue
- Native Son
- Book One
- Novel Summary
- Book 1, Chapters 1-2
- Book 1, Chapters 3-4
- Book 1, Chapters 5-6
- Book 1, Chapters 7-9
- Book 1, Chapters 10-11
- Book Two
- Book 2 Chapters 1-4
- Book 2 Chapter 8
- Book 2 Chapters 5-7
- Book Three
- Book 3 Chapters 1-3
- Book 3 Chapters 4-6
- Book 3 Chapters 7-8
- Book 4 Chapters 1-3
- Book 4 Chapters 4-6
- Book 4 Chapters 7-8
- Book 5 Chapters 1-3
- Book 5 Chapters 4-6
- Book 5 Chapters 7-9
- Book 6 Chapters 1-4
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- Richard Wright
- Essay Q&A