Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Bigger in Native Son, Book 2, demonstrate his idea that the secret to life is to act how people expect but to do what you want?

For the most part, Bigger has always acted as the white people around him expected a black man to act. He engages in criminal activity but tries to hide the robberies and petty thefts from society and from his family. He doesn't do exactly what his mother wants him to do, but he comes close enough to what he expects that she does not intervene in his life too much. With his friends he has done the same thing. He wants to take the job with the Daltons, but he has to do what his friends expect—be a tough guy—so he gives Gus a beating. Again, this is not exactly what his friends want, but it is close enough to their expectations that he is able to get away with doing what he wants.

How does Mary compare to Bigger in Native Son in her ability to conform to others' expectations?

Like Bigger, Mary complies with her parents' expectations by acting appropriately when her parents are watching. She gives them no reason to question her behavior when she informs them she is going to attend a lecture at the university. However, this is simply an excuse to spend a night on the town with Jan instead. She even tells Jan that she has to go to Detroit on a short trip to make up for seeing him in Florida. Mary drinks heavily, has sex, and talks about unions to the servants, but she is able to do so because she does just enough to meet her parents' expectations without drawing suspicion.

In Book 2 of Native Son, why is Bigger interested in Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler?

Bigger does not really have feelings or ideas about the specifics of totalitarian rule or fascism. He is not concerned with what Hitler and Mussolini actually believe, but he thinks the change they are creating is interesting. To Bigger, Hitler and Mussolini represent power, and the power they possess is to create change at their will. Bigger's world is so narrow and inflexible because of racism that he thinks any change would be good change. He also thinks that, if black people were to unite under a single leader, they might be able to create some real change for themselves. While unity toward a common goal is a way to create change, obviously Hitler and Mussolini are not good models for positive change, nor are they good role models for a black leader. Bigger's interest in these figures speaks to his level of desperation for something to be different in his world and for some kind of leader to offer him hope.

In Native Son, Book 2, what is Peggy's relationship with Bigger and with the Dalton family?

Peggy is cordial toward Bigger, always offering to feed him, but she is also distant in her relations to him. Her conversations with Mrs. Dalton reflect much more warmth and familiarity with the family. She makes observations about Mary's life and activities that imply concern for Mary and intimate knowledge of the family's dynamics. This difference could be the result of her years with the family, while Bigger is relatively new. She speaks of the previous driver with similar warmth. However, Peggy's familiarity with Mrs. Dalton, her seniority in the household, and her whiteness also give her a sense of superiority over Bigger that comes across in her cool demeanor toward him.

In Native Son, Book 2, Mrs. Dalton talks with Peggy about Mary and Bigger. How does this conversation reveal that Mrs. Dalton's blindness is more than just physical?

Mrs. Dalton seems surprised to learn that Mary was with Jan. Even though she knows her daughter does not always follow the rules she and Mr. Dalton set, she may not know the full extent of Mary's forbidden activities. When Mrs. Dalton talks to Bigger about what happened to Mary, the racial divide keeps her from talking to him in much detail about Mary. It also keeps her from asking more probing questions that might help her uncover the truth sooner. She feels socially awkward about sharing her family's business with a black man, and she feels even more awkward about asking for his help—or asking questions that might embarrass him and uncover his true nature. Ironically, Mrs. Dalton's desire to appear open-minded and fair to Bigger, and underestimating what he is capable of doing, prevent her from getting closer to the truth.

Reflect on Bigger and Bessie's relationship in Native Son. What purpose does this relationship serve for each of them, even though it seems destructive?

Bigger and Bessie's relationship seems to be mainly driven by material and physical needs. When Bigger arrives at Bessie's apartment, he shows her the roll of cash he got from Mary's purse, which he hopes will impress her and convince her to "be sweet" to him. For Bigger, Bessie being sweet means she will have sex with him, so their relationship seems to be based more on an exchange that serves each of their needs—Bessie's for money to buy alcohol and Bigger's for sexual release—more than communication or caring. Bessie is worried about where Bigger got this money, but he dodges her questions.

In Native Son, Book 2, Bigger's plan hinges on his belief that whites hate communists like they hate black people. How do the interviews with Britten disprove this belief?

Britten is brutal with Bigger in his first round of questioning, calling him "boy," a standard term white men of the time used to emphasize black men's inferiority regardless of their age. When he talks to Mr. Dalton, Britten says black men "don't need a chance. ... They get in enough trouble without it." When Britten questions Jan, his tone is much more respectful. Even though he asks about Jan giving Bigger the communist pamphlets, he doesn't resort to the name-calling he uses with Bigger. Most shocking for Bigger is Britten's attempt to paint him as a communist when they first speak. He asks if they sent him to Russia and says, "You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch!" Even though the interview with Jan leads to his brief arrest, Bigger did not expect Britten's racism and hate would move him to try to paint Bigger as both black and a communist. Britten only backs off and looks at Jan as a suspect when Mr. Dalton intervenes.

When Jan confronts Bigger in Native Son, Book 2, Bigger waves his gun at Jan. What does this say about Bigger's sense of power?

Bigger has been planning to pin Mary's murder on Jan since it happened, but he feels differently after seeing Jan face to face. Seeing Jan's panic at Britten's accusations firsthand is very different from directing suspicion toward Jan from afar. Bigger is rattled when feeling these emotions about Jan as well as by Britten's vicious questioning. Gone is the feeling of confidence, power, and control he carried with him on the streetcar early in the morning. Instead, these fleeting feelings have been replaced by a panicked scramble to feel power again, so Bigger runs with that impulse when Jan confronts him. Just as he carried a gun to his interview with Mr. Dalton to feel safe around a white person, Bigger carries the gun when Jan is around as a way to display his power, even if he has difficulty controlling his own emotions.

The ransom note in Native Son is a huge risk that turns out badly for Bigger. Why does he send it?

Once Jan is arrested, Bigger might have had a good chance of getting away with his original plan to frame Jan. The ransom note raises the profile of Mary's case, which causes the situation to spin quickly out of Bigger's control. Bigger does not seem to know how to quit when he's ahead, based on a life spent always wanting more than he has. He wants the $10,000 payday of the ransom. He wants to use that money to escape from that life of always wanting more. More than that Bigger figures out how Mr. Dalton has made the money that he will use to pay that ransom: his company owns the building where Bigger and his family live in squalor. Mr. Dalton owns crumbling buildings all over the Black Belt. When Bigger realizes how Mr. Dalton has taken advantage of black families, he decides to send the note to "jar them out of their senses."

Even after Mary's ashes are discovered in Native Son, Book 2, reporters don't immediately look to Bigger as a suspect. Why does Bigger abandon his story and run now?

On some level Bigger understands that, once the reporters know the furnace is his household duty, he will be accused. This may therefore be his last chance to escape the accusation he has feared since the moment he helped Mary to her bedroom. Furthermore, in the previous scenes, Bigger has been through several experiences that have made him feel emotions he wants to escape. Britten's brutal questioning brought back the fear Bigger thought he had lost. Jan's confrontation makes him feel guilty about framing an innocent man. The reporters milling around in the basement, with the heat and the smoke, have made him anxious. With all of these feelings swirling, Bigger's instinct is to run and escape.

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