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Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


When Buckley questions Jan about Mary during the inquest in Native Son, Book 3, what does he reveal about how women are valued in his society?

Buckley implies that Jan might have offered Mary as "bait" to Bigger, a kind of bonus for joining the Communist Party. Then he implies that Jan was irresponsible to leave Mary alone with Bigger in his drunken condition because he had to know there was a risk of a black man raping a white woman if left alone with her. The first implication shows that Buckley and his society regard women as commodities to be traded for one thing or another. It also shows that Buckley and his society regard women as helpless creatures who must be protected from the world's dangers, both real and imagined.

When Bessie's body is displayed at the inquest in Native Son, it is used to create a story about what happened to Mary. How does this violate justice for Bessie?

Bessie dies in a far more brutal manner than Mary did: first raped, then bashed in the head with a brick, then thrown four stories down an air shaft to freeze to death. Mary was not raped but instead died of accidental suffocation in her own bed. She was already dead when Bigger put her body into the furnace, while Bessie lived for a while after being dumped down the air shaft. Even in death, as in life, Bessie ends up in the service of a white woman, her story becoming someone else's story so that woman may receive justice for her murder. Bessie's murder trial does not carry nearly the same weight as Mary's. The trial focuses on Mary, not only because she is white but also because she came from a wealthy family. To the court Bessie is of little consequence because, as a poor black woman, she represents the polar opposite of Mary. In a court ruled by white people, it is evident that justice favors the white victim.

When Max talks to Bigger in Native Son, Book 3, he says white society is angry because deep down they know they caused Bigger's crimes. What does he mean?

Max is commenting on a very basic human impulse to destroy or distance ourselves from the things that make us feel guilt or shame. This impulse within Bigger ruled his life, and this impulse in society is going to end it. Max is arguing that on some level white society knows that the segregation and oppression they have heaped on the black population caused Bigger to commit crimes. Rather than deal directly with the problem, society lashes out at Bigger because it is easier to destroy the immediate problem than to change the root cause.

After their conversation in Native Son, Book 3, Bigger feels a connection to Max. Why is Max the person with whom Bigger finally forms a connection?

Max is the only person who has ever asked Bigger questions about himself and his life and really encouraged him to talk about himself in detail. Mr. Dalton may have attempted to ask Bigger about his past during the job interview, but Bigger knew he was not free to speak with a potential employer about his thoughts and feelings. Max has nothing to hold over Bigger's head, and he keeps pursuing lines of questioning rather than just dropping the issue at Bigger's first reply. Of course, Max does this because it is his job to learn about Bigger in order to prepare a defense. To Bigger, isolated from others his whole life, this is an important connection on a human level. Although he is white, Max champions African American rights and understands the hardship black citizens face in a way few white people do. Max sees Bigger as the victim of an oppressive society and uses him as an example to show the rest of the world what pushed him, and so many others like him, to act as they did.

Max's strategy for Bigger's trial in Native Son, Book 3, is to plead guilty and make an argument for a reduced sentence. Why does Buckley want the full trial?

In an election cycle, Buckley is playing to the newspapers and to the mob outside. He does not want Bigger to get a reduced sentence because voters might object to anything less than death for Bigger. The newspapers have already established a strong preference for execution. By going to trial, he can show off the case he has prepared and appear harder on crime for not accepting a plea. He can also expose all the sensational details of the murders as well as Bigger's previous crimes and misdemeanors (including the "dirty trick" in the movie theater) to sway public opinion against Bigger. This will make Buckley appear heroic for getting Bigger off the streets and exacting revenge on him through the death penalty.

Why does Max in Native Son believe executing Bigger is a grave injustice that will do more harm than good for public safety?

Max's argument hinges on a statement he made to Buckley when he took Bigger's case: "Men like you made him what he is." Max argues that Bigger is a product of restrictive laws and harsh punishments that have created a climate of fear, hopelessness, and desperation for the black population. Bigger is the worst-case outcome of how that fear and desperation can shape an individual. Therefore, Max argues that executing Bigger will be another abuse of restrictive laws and harsh punishments. Bigger's execution will further demoralize and degrade the black population, feed the cycle of fear, and ultimately produce more men like Bigger, who will commit more murders.

In Native Son, Book 3, why does Buckley believe putting Bigger to death is the only way to ensure justice is served and the public is safe?

Buckley adheres to the public opinion that justice requires an eye for an eye. He believes the only way to prevent more men from doing what Bigger has done is to make an example of Bigger, which will deter other men from following this same path. It is important to note that Buckley's closing argument uses racist language and lurid imagery similar to the language found in sensational news reports about Bigger's crimes. This provides the reader with evidence that his case and public opinion are woven together. Buckley expresses what most whites are thinking: that black men are dangerous.

In Native Son, Book 3, what evidence from the plot indicates the death sentence was always going to be the outcome for Bigger?

The following plot points indicate that Bigger was destined to receive the death sentence: His case was rushed to trial before a proper defense could be prepared. He unknowingly signed a confession without his lawyer present. The judge did little to stop the angry mobs from gathering outside and influencing the court. Boris Max, Bigger's lawyer, lives outside mainstream white society as well, and because of this he also faces prejudice. The judge took very little time to deliberate or recess throughout the trial, especially at the end, suggesting he had already made his mind up as to the outcome. All these points reflect the fact that Bigger lives in a racist society dominated by white people who fear black men and want to think the worst of them.

How does Max's last conversation with Bigger at the end of Native Son, Book 3, reveal that even Max is a little blind to the true nature of racism?

Max's speech in the courtroom demonstrates that he has a full academic knowledge of the roots of racism, the injustices of history, and the cycle of fear and despair that have created Bigger and driven his criminal behavior. His conversation with Bigger just before the execution shows a similar understanding of racism as part of a larger structure that keeps the wealthy and powerful that way at the expense of other groups. What he does not fully comprehend is the personal extent of Bigger's isolation as a result of these larger forces, and he does not see that Bigger wants and needs a personal connection with another person at the end of his life. He understands the problems of racism in an abstract sense, but his reaction to Bigger as he seeks comfort and meaning at the end show that he does not fully understand it in a human, practical sense. Max's attempt to explain the way the world works is his way of trying to "comfort" Bigger, to help him understand that he is just the victim of his society, just a piece of the puzzle. However, in these last moments, Bigger is seeking empathy from Max, but all Max is able to give is sympathy because he has never been in Bigger's shoes.

As he is facing execution at the end of Native Son, Bigger expresses no remorse for his crimes. Does he experience any redemption at the end?

Bigger tries to interpret Max's talk about racism as part of a larger power structure in the United States and as a kind of justification for his crimes, as if they were a kind of revolutionary act. He does not understand the simple notion that two wrongs do not make a right. At the same time, he asks Max to tell Mrs. Thomas not to worry about him, that he was okay at the end, and he tells Max not to worry about him either. It is something of a big step for Bigger to express any concern about the feelings of others. His last line to Max, asking Max to tell Jan hello, indicates gratitude for Jan's help and forgiveness, and perhaps acknowledges a little of the guilt he felt earlier about trying to frame Jan. Bigger experiences redemption at the end by letting go of his anger, feeling grateful for the people in his life, and asking forgiveness for some of the things he had done. He accepts his fate not in anger, but peacefully, and seeks to comfort those who cared for him and will surely miss him.

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