Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Why does Bessie run away with Bigger in Native Son, Book 2?

As Bessie explains, her entire life has felt like a long journey of suffering and pain. She seems resigned to the hopelessness at this point, saying things will never get better for her anyway. In some ways Bigger has provided her with an escape from the drudgery of her life through their physical relationship and through the money he has given her to continue to purchase alcohol. As bad as things are, she is not ready to give up her dependence on Bigger. Even though she knows they are part of the same social class and will most likely never rise above it, Bigger is a source of comfort in difficult times.

Why it is significant that the only actual rape that occurs in Native Son is Bigger's rape of Bessie in Book 2?

The fear of black men raping white women is so pronounced in the world of Native Son that a large chunk of the justice system and the structure of segregation are devoted to preventing this crime and protecting white women. At the same time, nobody is protecting women like Bessie, African American women who suffer rape and abuse on a regular basis. This reveals how corrupt both segregation and the justice system are, going to great lengths to protect wealthy white women from largely imaginary crimes while doing little or nothing to protect other women, poor or black or both, from actual violations.

In Native Son, Book 2, Bigger kills Bessie in a brutal way and feels almost happy when it is done. What has influenced his response to the murder?

Shortly before he kills Bessie, Bigger rapes her in an attempt to escape from the fear of being on the run and being punished for his crimes. His actions are also driven by his anger and feeling of helplessness. Having sexual control over Bessie allows him to feel powerful again and to release his anger, but the feeling of power does not continue after he has completed the act. The rape provides escape for Bigger only while it is happening. Instead, after she falls asleep, he continues to worry about how Bessie will drag him down in his escape from the police. Killing her is a practical matter on the surface, but the murder also allows him complete control and power over Bessie, which allows Bigger to drive away his fear for a longer period of time.

In Native Son, Book 2, Bigger knows the police have him cornered, yet he continues to try to escape. Why does he keep fleeing even after escape becomes impossible?

Bigger's entire life has been about him trying to escape from things that are inescapable. He tries to escape from poverty by robbing his neighbors and then by taking the job with the Daltons. Allowed no opportunities to set goals or work toward advancement in a job, he tries to escape from the boredom of his life through movies, women, drinking, and fighting. He tries to escape his own feelings of fear and guilt by assaulting, killing, and raping. For Bigger the meaning seems to be in the attempt to escape, even if the escape is impossible, and the attempt has become instinctive for him. That instinct drives him up the water tower on the roof of the apartment building as the police and crowds gather below.

In Native Son, Book 3, why does Bigger collapse when he is brought to the inquest?

At the inquest Bigger faces the world as a murderer for the first time, and all the triggers of his emotions are together in one room. He sees the Daltons and may still feel rage toward Mr. Dalton, whom Bigger knows has made his fortune by charging poor black families higher rents for terrible conditions. He sees Jan, and his last interaction with Jan was laced with Bigger's guilt about framing him for Mary's murder. He sees the faces of the prosecutors, grand jury, and judge who will hold him accountable for his crimes, which plays on his fear of punishment. Bigger's typical reaction to feeling emotion is to lash out in violence, but he is unable to do that here, so he collapses instead.

In Native Son, Book 3, what role do the newspapers play in Bigger's trial?

The newspapers use lurid details to speculate about Bigger's crimes, and they never refer to Bigger by name. In the articles Bigger reads he is simply "the Negro," and he is often compared to an ape or a jungle beast. One article quotes an editorial from a news editor in Jackson, Mississippi, who talks at length about Bigger's inferiority as a black man. The newspapers also jump directly into calling for the death penalty for Bigger, arguing that making Bigger an example and extending segregation even more will prevent crimes like his in the future. All of this coverage encourages the mob scenes at the jail and courthouse because news coverage sways public opinion. As it happens, the prosecuting attorney for the state, Buckley, is also concerned with public opinion as he is running for reelection. The opinions expressed by the newspapers and absorbed by the public will influence his approach to the case.

During questioning in Native Son, Book 3, the Daltons and the authorities remain convinced that Bigger had help with his crimes. How does racism influence this belief?

After Bigger kills Mary, he decides he can get away with it because nobody would believe a poor, black man would pull off such a heinous crime. It turns out he was half right. He does not get away with his crime, of course, but neither the Daltons nor Buckley believe Bigger has the brains or the capability to carry out Mary's murder and cover it up the way he has done. This reinforces the popular notion among white people of the time: that African Americas were primitive, mentally inferior, and simply incapable of intelligent thought or foresight.

When he visits Bigger in jail in Native Son, Book 3, why does Jan forgive Bigger for what happened to Mary and offer to help him?

Jan's understanding about racism has expanded considerably since his night out with Bigger and Mary. He tells Bigger he knows Bigger hates him, and he tells Bigger he has a right to hate him because of the way all white men have treated Bigger in his life. Here he seems to understand the line he crossed when trying to suddenly befriend Bigger only moments after meeting him. Even though he is grieving for Mary, Jan places his grief into the context of all the black people who have suffered as well, thinking that his grief is no worse or more important than theirs. He decides to put aside his feelings of anger toward Bigger to try, in his way, to stop the cycle of violence between races. He decides to help Bigger instead.

When Buckley interviews Bigger in Native Son, Book 3, what evidence indicates that justice is not Buckley's top priority?

To begin with, Buckley questions Bigger and gets him to confess without his attorney present, even though Max has already declared, directly to Buckley, that he will represent Bigger and protect his rights. Buckley ignores Bigger's right to an attorney—although Bigger does not ask for one. Buckley also pretends to be working in Bigger's best interests, showing him the crowd outside that would like to lynch him. He says he can protect Bigger from this crowd, even though he plans to ask for the death penalty at trial. He also accuses Bigger of involvement in two other cases, involving a Mrs. Clinton, whose sister was killed months before, and a Miss Ashton, who was raped in her bedroom the previous summer. Perhaps Mrs. Clinton, Miss Ashton, and Buckley accuse Bigger of these extra crimes because their own racism makes all black men look alike. At the same time, these added accusations could be an attempt on Buckley's part to close some open cases and make himself look more effective. Because Bigger confesses to the crimes he did commit, he has little reason to lie about other crimes at this point, and Buckley knows this.

When Max questions Mr. Dalton at the inquest in Native Son, Book 3, how do Mr. Dalton's answers reveal his blindness about racism in Chicago?

Mr. Dalton attempts to distance himself at first from the connection between his business and the high-rent, low-quality apartments one of his company's subsidiaries rents to black families. This indicates that on some level he knows this practice looks bad. Still he falls back on citing his charitable contributions and his hiring of black chauffeurs to give them a chance to complete their education. When Max points out that his company charges black families more than white families for similar apartments, and that his company refuses to rent to black families outside the South Side, Mr. Dalton only replies that this is the way things have always been done. He wants to give individuals a chance, but he has given little thought to how his practices have affected large numbers of people.

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