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THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST AND ANALYSIS (continued)
Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton's lover, is a Communist thoroughly committed to the cause of racial justice and social change. (Some readers think Jan was modeled on Jan Wittenber, a white Communist acquaintance of Wright's.) But Jan knows almost as little as Mary about how black people think and feel. You get the impression that he treats all blacks alike rather than as individuals. As a result, Jan makes Bigger ashamed and angry, although he is trying only to treat Bigger as an equal. For example, he thinks that shaking Bigger's hand is a friendly gesture, but Bigger finds such unaccustomed familiarity from a white man confusing and suspects that Jan is mocking him.
Jan's attitude changes in the course of Native Son. When he visits Bigger in jail, he admits he was wrong to have expected Bigger to accept his offer of instant friendship. Jan even forgives Bigger for having killed Mary. Do you find Jan's forgiveness believable? Certainly, selfless people like Jan exist, but does Wright make this particular selfless character convincing? You might find Jan easier to accept if you saw him wrestling with his conflict about whether to forgive or to condemn the man who killed his girlfriend. But the novel's focus on Bigger and on Bigger's experience would have made such a portrayal difficult.
Boris Max is a lawyer who specializes in defending blacks, members of labor unions, Communists, and others he believes are victims of persecution and discrimination. He doesn't appear until the third part of Native Son, but there he becomes one of the novel's major characters. Max wants to help Bigger; he defends him in court and takes Bigger's case to the governor.
Max also befriends Bigger. Although he puts much more effort into his legal work for Bigger than into his human relationship with him, Max ultimately helps more as a friend than as a lawyer. Through talking to Max, Bigger seems to learn to define his own attitude toward his crime, even though that attitude shocks Max.
Max may not be a fully drawn human being, but he is an important vehicle for the statement of a political position. He believes that an oppressive society is responsible for Bigger's crimes and that, instead of lashing out blindly, Bigger should have united with others in political action demanding racial equality and social and economic justice. Max may be speaking for Richard Wright because at the time he wrote Native Son, Wright's political views were similar to those expressed by Max. While working on the novel, Wright told a friend that he needed the character of Max as a vehicle for his own ideas.
Bigger's younger brother, Buddy, looks up to him and admires Bigger's toughness. But Buddy shows no signs of becoming as angry, aggressive, or rebellious as Bigger. To Buddy, Bigger's life seems exciting, but Buddy is not aware of how fearful and confused Bigger feels. After Bigger kills Mary, he sees Buddy's life as blind and meaningless.
Bigger's younger sister, Vera, is a gentle adolescent who wishes Bigger would stop causing so much trouble. She attends sewing classes, a sign of her desire to acquire a skill and to earn a living but also perhaps an indication of how limited her ambitions are. She obviously loves Bigger, but she feels he is mean to her. In particular, she objects to his looking at her. She thinks he stares at her, and his gaze upsets her and makes her self-conscious. Note that later in the novel, Bigger himself feels ashamed when Mary and Jan look at him. Like Bigger, too, Vera lives in fear, but while his response to fear is to strike out, hers is to shrink back. Wright establishes this difference in the opening scene: when a rat menaces the household, Bigger kills it, and Vera faints.
Reverend Hammond is a black preacher and the spiritual guide of Bigger's mother. He appears briefly twice, when he visits Bigger in jail. Wright may be using Reverend Hammond to represent the black church. Hammond believes that the proper response to suffering is to turn to God and religion. When Jan urges that Bigger fight the fate that awaits him, Hammond opposes this course. In the end, Bigger angrily rejects Hammond's ideas. Do you find Hammond a sympathetic character? Is Wright criticizing the path that Hammond urges blacks to take?
GUS, JACK, AND G. H.
Gus, Jack, and G. H. are Bigger's buddies and his partners in petty robberies. Like Bigger, they have no jobs and little prospect of bettering their lives. They shoot pool with Bigger, joke with him, and rob small black businesses. But they are not as daring as Bigger, for when he suggests robbing a white man, they hesitate. They seem more willing than Bigger to accept their limited lives. They also seem calmer and less intense. Bigger seems friendliest to Jack, but his relationship with Gus is the most complex.
Despite their friendship, Bigger almost kills Gus in a fight. Gus seems to describe Bigger accurately when he says that Bigger's toughness is only a way of hiding his fear. Perhaps Bigger's anger at Gus is partly a result of Gus's accurate perception of him.
Doc runs the pool hall where Bigger and his gang hang out. He tolerates them even when they talk of robberies they want to commit and only intervenes when Bigger becomes violent.
MR. AND MRS. DALTON
The Daltons are an elderly, rich white couple who sincerely desire to help blacks. Mr. Dalton donates money to put ping-pong tables into recreation centers for black youth. He hires young blacks like Bigger as chauffeurs. His wife encourages these employees to return to school and helps them to do so. But Mr. Dalton owns the real estate company that operates the building in which Bigger and his family rent a ratinfested room. His company charges blacks more than whites and does not allow blacks to rent in white neighborhoods. Thus, Mr. Dalton is partly responsible for the plight of Chicago's blacks. And despite their good intentions, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Dalton ever relates to Bigger as a human being. To them he is not an individual, but only one more poor black whom they are generously trying to help. Nor do the Daltons understand or sympathize with their daughter's radical politics.
Mrs. Dalton, who usually dresses in white, is blind. Her literal blindness may be symbolic of the blindness of all white people to the reality of black life. (The family name may refer to Daltonism, a form of color blindness.)
Peggy is the Daltons' loyal Irish maid. She is kind to Bigger, but she identifies with the Dalton household rather than with her fellow servant, Bigger. When she speaks of the Dalton household, she uses the word "us," not "them." Like the Daltons, she sees Bigger as a timid black boy, no different from any other. She cannot imagine that he would have either the intelligence or the daring to commit a murder and to send a ransom note.
Britten is a private investigator employed by Mr. Dalton. Unlike Mr. Dalton, he is an overt racist. He doesn't think blacks are worth helping, is initially suspicious of Bigger, and calls him a Communist. But he doesn't believe that Bigger was able to commit the crime on his own, without Communist help. Thus, Britten's racism helps Bigger avoid detection.
Buckley, the State's Attorney (prosecutor) of Illinois, is bent on advancing his own career by seeing Bigger condemned to the electric chair. When Bigger first sees Buckley's picture on a campaign poster calling for obedience to the law, he thinks of him as a hypocrite because he assumes that politicians are crooks. But Buckley does not appear in person until Bigger is in jail. Then Buckley tries to portray Bigger as a sex criminal, mass murderer, and Communist. He badgers Bigger into signing a confession and insists that he receive the death penalty. To Bigger, Buckley seems typical of the powerful whites bent on his destruction.