Native Son Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Native Son: Book Two

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When Bigger wakes up the Sunday morning following Mary Dalton's death, he remembers he must take her trunk to the train station. He still has her purse, the bloody knife and the communist pamphlets given him by Jan Erlone. He begins to devise a plan whereby "he can blame the thing upon Jan "(95). He leaves the apartment and in the street, where it is snowing, he pushes the purse containing the bloody knife into a garbage can.
The next morning, his mother asks him why he got home so late. He claims he came in at 2:00 a.m. but she insists it was after 4:00 a.m. Ma tells him that he now has a chance in life, but he feels removed from his family and friends by a wall that he erected in his mind after he committed the crime. He realizes that if he is caught he will never receive a fair hearing because he is black. And yet he realizes that all his life had been leading to that one moment: "his crime seemed natural" (101). He experiences a sense of elation-a form of rebirth, as it were-when he recognizes that no one would ever think he had been brave enough, or would have had the wherewithal, to commit such a crime.
Everyone, he realizes, is blind. He feels in absolute control but to his family he seems nervous and distracted. As he goes down the stairs Buddy follows him and gives Bigger the money he dropped after taking it from Mary's purse. Then, at the drug store, Bigger runs into his friends G.H. and Jack where in a grandiose gesture he buys them all cigarettes and beer.
Back at the Daltons, Bigger feels tempted to flee but checks the furnace to make sure the body has burned thoroughly. He adds more coal and then places the communist pamphlets in his bedroom bureau. The housekeeper Peggy wonders why the car was left outside. Bigger lies, saying that Mary and her boyfriend asked him to leave it there. Peggy tells Bigger that Mary was always cooking up pranks to upset her parents and that Jan was "a no-good one" (116).
Bigger takes the trunk to the depot after Peggy says Mary will probably pick it up there herself. Mrs. Dalton voices concern to Peggy when she hears Mary has left and Bigger overhears as she confides in Peggy that Mary was drunk the night before. Mrs. Dalton tells him he can take the day off. As he leaves he begins to think about sending a ransom note so he can get far more money.
Bigger visits his girlfriend Bessie so he can have sex. He finds her unreceptive because he spurned her at Ernie's Kitchen Shack the night before. Bigger shows her the roll of money, about $120, and urges her to buy something for herself. However this makes her realize that he is involved in something. He tells her that Mary and Jan plan on eloping and that he plans to deliver a ransom note to gain a fortune. Bessie wants to leave town with the $120 because Mary might return but Bigger repeatedly assures her that it's impossible. She begins to panic but agrees to help Bigger in the kidnapping plot out of fear of losing him.
Back at the Dalton house, Bigger gets instructions to go back to the depot and pick up the trunk because Mary never arrived in Detroit. He elaborates on his earlier story and says Jan was with Mary the evening before in her room and that Jan, in fact, instructed Bigger to take the trunk downstairs.
In the basement, Mr. Dalton and his company's private investigator, Mr. Britten, confront Bigger. Bigger tells them that Mary did not go to the university but met Jan instead. Britten shows him the pamphlets and accuses Bigger of being a communist. Bigger tells them that Jan gave him the pamphlets, and Mr. Dalton stands up for Bigger, informing Britten that Mary had earlier asked Bigger about unions.
Jan comes down to the basement and Bigger sticks with his story despite his shameful feelings. At first Jan lies about the night before-he doesn't want to get Mary in trouble for not attending her class-but then admits he was with her and leaves in anger.
Bigger leaves the Dalton house and goes to Bessie's apartment where he writes the ransom note. He signs the note "Red" and draws a hammer and sickle to identify himself erroneously to the police as a communist. Bessie, who is drunk, asks Bigger if he killed Mary. He denies her charge at first but Bessie manages to get at the truth. He warns her to stay quiet and tells her she must help him. He threatens to kill her if she doesn't calm down.
Back at the Daltons' house, Bigger pushes the ransom note under the front door. He remembers the need to clean the ashes out of the furnace but puts the chore off until morning. Peggy brings the note to the panicked Mr. Dalton. Britten suggests communists have kidnapped Mary and tells them Jan has been arrested. Bigger tells them Mary was crying in the back seat of the car the previous evening and that she got drunk with Jan.
Suddenly, reporters arrive. Mr. Dalton acknowledges the ransom note to them and, after apologizing for Jan's arrest, assures them he will pay the ransom. He is convinced Jan is involved and wants him out to prison in hopes that he will release Mary.
Meanwhile, Bigger begins cleaning out the ashes after Peggy tells him the temperature upstairs is too cold. Bigger has a difficult time with the accumulated ashes and finds it impossible to contain the fire. Smoke fills the basement and the coughing reporters take over at the furnace. Bigger cannot move. The reporters find the remains of Mary's body and then an earring, and finally Bigger runs away.
At Bessie's apartment, Bigger explains that killing Mary was an accident. She sobs helplessly, knowing full well that once Bigger is caught he will first be accused of rape and then executed. When Bigger mentions the furnace, Bessie becomes frantic and at this point the magnitude of his crime begins to dawn on him.
After they leave Bessie's apartment, they find an abandoned building wherein to hide and Bigger insists she stay with him so she cannot turn him in to the police. By now, a blizzard rages outside. Bigger rapes Bessie, smashes her head with a brick and throws her body down an airshaft. He experiences no remorse and just feels foolish when he realizes Bessie still had Mary's cash in her pocket.
Bigger soon comes to realize that he has, indeed, committed murder but fails to acknowledge that he has also committed rape. He realizes that he is now a "new man," one who has to survive.
After leaving the building, he walks through the blowing snow and snatches a newspaper where he finds out that all the Chicago police are searching for Mary's killer in the Chicago South Side area known as the Black Belt. However, the police find it difficult to believe an African-American could have the wherewithal to devise such a crime. Jan, he reads, was freed after an examination failed to show his fingerprints in Mary's bedroom.
Although he has managed to buy an overpriced loaf of bread, Bigger is starving by now. He moves from one empty overpriced apartment to the next, where he overhears various conversations. Some African-Americans say they would protect Bigger from the police while others claim they would turn him in immediately.
It doesn't take long for the police to catch up with Bigger whom they chase over the rooftops of old buildings. They beat him and stretch "his arms as though to crucify him," as the hastily gathered mob chants: "kill that black ape (253)."
In Book I, "Fear," Bigger looks up at the sky and sees a plane advertising "speed gasoline," and wishes with all his heart to become an pilot. Gasoline would be the fuel it would take to transport him quickly him out of his trap. In this regard, Wright portrays Bigger as the mythical figure, Icarus. Icarus proudly flew too close to the sun on wooden wings of wax and feathers despite dire warnings from his father Daedelus not to do so when they attempted to escape the labyrinth of King Minos of Crete. In Book Two, "Flight," Bigger, who is also ensnared within the physical labyrinth of Black Belt Chicago, attempts to fly free-but hardly in the style of Icarus or an airplane (the present- day incarnation of waxed wings) for that matter. But without the guidance and help of a father, Bigger never gets off the ground. Indeed, the highest he gets, when he "flies" from the police, is the rooftops of Chicago's South Side. The mirrored image of fallen flight is also presented in the form of Bessie tumbling down the airshaft.
The Icarus myth isn't the only one alluded to by Wright in Native Son. In fact, the author draws heavily on Ancient Greek drama, utilizing in particular, Sophocles' play Oedipus and the motifs of prophesy, hubris (excessive pride) and the blindness of the tragic hero.
Earlier, Ma, in the manner of the ancient Oracle, warned Bigger that if he didn't mend his ways, he would surely die on the gallows. He fails to heed her. His younger sister Vera also warns him not to see his gang friends and Bessie similarly counsels him to give up the idea of the ransom attempt and foretells his death. But he fails to heed either them or his own inner recurring warning system which urges him time after time to escape. After all, he is a chauffeur, but he never thinks of taking the car, or the train at the train depot, for that matter. Bessie prophesizes that Bigger will be condemned as both a murderer and a rapist, a prophecy that ironically comes about because of his rape and murder of her in the abandoned building.
It is hubris, defined as the excessive pride of the tragic hero, that ultimately causes Bigger's death. Filled with the exuberance of committing the seemingly ultimate crime of killing and decapitating a white woman, he puts aside his doubts and his instinctual desire to flee and returns again and again to the scene of the crime, the Dalton house. Emboldened by killing Mary he blindly believes he can overcome his fate. With an air of grandiosity, he buys cigarettes and beer for his buddies with his victim's money. Then he goes to Bessie for sex and proudly placates her with Mary's money. Tempted by the taste of money, he desires more and decides to write a ransom note.
He defies those in control like Mr. Dalton whom earlier he viewed as someone so high up that he seemed like a god. Indeed, time and time again, Bigger dampens down his own warning system, even when the reporters find the basement filling up with smoke and discovery is imminent. Ultimately, it is his pride that traps Bigger like the rat at the opening of the novel.
Oedipus is also a blind literary figure who, convinced he could overcome the Oracle's predication-he would unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother- violently blinds himself in a fit of fury after he finds the prophecy has come to pass. No doubt the Daltons are blinded by their wealth (and of course Mrs. Dalton is, after all, physically blind) and, certainly the courtroom mob is blinded by racism in America, his mother is blinded by religion, Britten by fear, Jan by ignorance: "he did not look at them; they were simply blind people, blind like his mother, his brother, his sister, Peggy, Britten, Jan, Mr. Dalton, and the sightless Mrs. Dalton"(164). But Bigger remains unaware of his own blindness which prevents him from taking advantage of the opportunities that are offered him in the form of jobs that will support his family and schooling and will enhance his life and increase his employment opportunities. In Book III, Bigger is finally forced to confront his own blindness, and just when he finally gains insight, he is put to death.


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