Native Son

Blindness.  What does it mean to be blind?  In Native Son, Bigger is obsessed with the notion of blindness, and the idea that after killing Mary, he now can finally see.  “He sat at the table watching the snow fall past the window and many things became plain.  No he did not have to hide behind a wall or a curtain now; he had a safer way of being safe, and easier way.  What he had done last night proved that.  Jan was blind.  Mary had been blind.  Mr. Dalton was blind.  And Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, blind in more ways than one.  Bigger smiled slightly” (107).  The Daltons believe they are helping Bigger by employing him, donating money to Negroes, and encouraging him to attend school, but they are completely blind to what it truly means to live on the other side of the color line.  Mr. Dalton justifies charging exorbitant rent by donating ping-pong tables to the youth center.  Mrs. Dalton pushes Bigger to attend college rather than getting to know him and finding out what can truly make a difference in his life.  They are blind to what life is really like outside the safety of their own home.

Mary and Jan are also blind in their attempts to show Bigger kindness.  They try to treat him like their equal, without even noticing how uncomfortable they are making him.  Mary and Jan are blind to the fact that they are making Bigger more aware of the color of his skin than he ever was before.  “She… It was… Hell, I don’t know.  She asked me a lot of questions.  She acted and talked in a way that made me hate her.  She made me feel like a dog.  I was so mad I wanted to cry…” (350).

This notion of blindness extends to Bigger’s family, as Bigger sees them for the first time, living in their one room apartment, going about their lives, lives Bigger now sees as pathetic.  Killing Mary allowed Bigger to feel, for the first time in his life, that he was capable of doing something no one expected him to do.  He is elated at the thought of being able to “see” in a world that is blind.  It isn’t until Bigger ends up in prison, facing death row that he truly sees for the first time.  “I know I’m going to get it.  I’m going to die.  Well, that’s all right now.  But really I never wanted to hurt nobody.  That’s the truth, Mr. Max.  I hurt folks ‘cause I felt I had to; that’s all” (425).  Finally, at the end of the novel, Bigger sees himself for who he really is.  He accepts his fate, he explains to Max: “I didn’t want to kill!… But what I killed for, I am!  It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em” (429).  This realization of who he is allows Bigger to die in peace, but at the same time causes Max to pull back in horror.  Is he horrified that Bigger truly has no other place in the world than to be a murderer on death row?  Or is he horrified that the current system has led a young black man to think this is his only option?  Is Max, for the first time, able to see?



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7 responses to “Native Son

  1. Marianna

    The idea of blindness is an important one in this novel, I think, especially when dealing outside the character of Bigger.

    America’s blindness towards the Negro community is similar to her thoughts towards the Reds. Blind ignorance, or what have you, leads to assumptions, which in turn leads to fear. Bigger is smart enough to connect the pieces when he kills Mary and blames it on Jan and the Communist Party.

    When it comes to Bigger’s blindness, I don’t know if I can agree that he was able to finally see once he killed Mary. Bigger was a smart character who knew exactly what he was doing when he was doing it. Yes, he acted out in a spontaneous manner, but the outcome was usually something which he calculated beforehand. IE: When he beat up on Gus and his friends because he knew that if one of the guys was out, they could not rob Blume’s store; or when he decided to blame Jan on the “disappearance” of Mary when he knew the public would associate a Red with such an activity.

    Though I do feel sorry for Bigger in some aspects, I find it hard to sympathize with the character. His motives and actions are, of course, shaped by the society in which he lives, but the deliberate murder of Bessie made it impossible for me to associate Bigger with any sympathy.

  2. Jonathan

    That is a great analysis of the blindness that pervades this novel. What I find interesting is the source of the blindness seems to be different for each character.

    In the beginning of the novel Bigger is blinded by his fear. Jan and Mary are blinded by their inability to understand another’s emotions. Bigger’s family is blinded by oppression.

    Also the effect of the blindness. This novel has made me very agitated throughout the week. I feel uncomfortable and angry at the same time as the effects of the blindness unfolds. The headlines throughout the book make me cringe. The overwhelming hate of the mob feels me with unease. Bigger’s fear is striking and then the fact that he can only “see” after his violent crimes and taking control of something for the first time is also staggering emotionally. My week has been tumultous, both because of the emotion stirred up by the novel and the way that these emotions affected my own vision in the world.

  3. Though blindness is a major theme in the novel, fear seems to creep onto every page as we continue from start to finish. Bigger fears the rat he fights in the first few pages of the novel, though he dangles it, dead, over his sister. He fears being known as a coward, though he tries to call out his friend Gus as “yellow”. He fears not having control of his life. He fears the idea of robbing a white man, and lastly he fears success.
    Many of his actions beginning from the time we meet Bigger are catalyzed by fear.
    He admonishes his sister for talking to him about staying out of trouble because he fears that she will believe his mother’s stories about him. He picks a fight with Gus just before they go and rob Blum’s shop because he’s afraid of actually going through with a plan he’s scared his friends into agreeing to. He’s rough with his mother in an effort to seem strong and not the frightened young adult that he is…the list goes on until we get to the middle and end of the novel where he accidentally smothers Mary because he’s afraid of being discovered by her mother, and then he burns her body in the furnace and so on and so on.
    Bigger’s fear leads him to a sort of self destruction because he reacts based on his fears and ends up killing 2 people and being sentenced to death as a result. Though Wright seems to want us to blame the society that seems to produce Bigger, I wonder if his own choices didn’t make his downfall. Didn’t his mother warn him to stay out of trouble? Wasn’t he admonished for his recklessness by Doc? How then can we blame society when he’s made the wrong choice time and time again? Is it the fearful hopeless existence? No. Bigger was given an opportunity to better himself and his mind remained entrapped. He continued to dwell on events of the past, and told himself that he could never get his slice of the pie unless he stole it. And in doing so he killed himself with his reckless fear.

    Aubria R

  4. darise15

    Wright forces the reader to contemplate the issue of nurture versus nature. Was Bigger a product of racist society or was he an inherently murderous criminal? I think the pressures of racist 1940s Chicago played a huge role on the person Bigger turned out to be. He lived fear every single day and it drove him to the point where he could not trust another human being. He feared the way white people viewed him; he believed that he was always to be perceived as doing wrong. Bigger “passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared.” (42).

    Wright does something very clever in this novel. He portrays Bigger as an insecure, irresponsible young adult, who struggles to understand his emotions. By taking us into Bigger’s consciousness, Wright makes it very difficult for the reader to sympathize with Bigger. How could you sympathize with a murderer? Before you answer, consider that Bigger is crippled by his fear of whites. Every move he makes is dictated by how white society will judge it. Of course Bigger can make better choices, but his fear has disabled his thinking, his senses.

  5. Sabrina

    In addition to Bigger being “blind,” he is also voiceless. The disjuncture between Bigger’s interior life, and inner monologue, and his exterior voice is striking. When Bigger spends his first evening at the Dalton’s the interior reaction to Mr. Dalton, Mary and Jan’s comments are inadequately voiced by his “Yessum”s. Of course the historical context of the novel explains his deference, but one wonders, if he were able or comfortable in sharing his inner thoughts, would the Dalton’s be willing to listen? Or would Jan and Mary’s romanticized image of Negro’s be irreparably broken?

    Bigger’s court trial exemplifies this well. The court scene is very similar to Janie’s. Bigger’s voice is obscured by the dozens of experts and lengthy opening and closing statements. The few short questions posed to Bigger do not reveal anything because the jury does not want to hear him. He is only able to open up to Max at the end of the novel when his fate is already sealed and his words no longer matter to society, but they allow Bigger to finally merge his interior and exterior voices.

  6. josephtruscello

    Marianna made a great point in her post. That is, that the blindness that exists in characters other than Bigger are of the utmost importance. Bigger’s character is formed by these exterior influences, by the blindness of others. Yes, throughout the novel, Bigger struggles to truly “see,” but at least he is struggling, at least he is aware that something is occluding his vision. Although he errs in believing murder has lead him to “see,” his pattern of thought is correct: he knows there is a blinding force.

    And that force has many arms in legs, it reaches in every direction, surrounds Bigger on all sides. The fear located within the attitudes of his family and other members of the black community creates a paralyzing paranoia. To do anything besides submit to the hardships of life is impossible because of this looming fear.

    The cause of this fear is the attitudes of those who live outside of the black community. The Daulton’s are a microcosm of this attitude. They exhibit a concern for Bigger’s hardships that is synthetic and, therefore, ostracizing. Similarly, Jan and Mary, despite their attempts to commiserate with Bigger, display nothing but ignorance towards the sociocultural aspects of Bigger’s character. The result of this forced commiseration is Bigger’s confusion and resentment.

  7. I have to comment on this book again now that I’ve read it fully. As I read the first two books I noticed that Wright created a pesty monster of a character who just wouldn’t go away. And when I got to the section on FATE I was incredibly disappointed. How does one create a monster, who makes conscious decisions in the first 2/3 of the book, and seemingly take it all back and blame society for his failure to rise above the issues he is allegedly faced with. The question was raised in the last class as to whether or not Bigger Thomas is a sympathetic and believable character. Bigger is not a sympathetic character because he fails to regret his actions and instead convinces himself that he had absolutely no choice. All of the blame it on society dialogue comes in when Jan decides he wants to help bigger. This is Jan’s way of dealing with Mary’s death, as well as, promote his own agenda for a positive public view of the communist party. He doesn’t really want to help Bigger, he just sees it as a way to make communists look good to the society they live in. I move for a debate on agency and agenda in Native Son, because there is much to discuss.

    Aubria R.

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