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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BIGGER AT THE DALTONS' (continued)
Peggy brings Bigger into the kitchen and gives him food. She comments that Mr. Dalton gives money to "colored" schools, and she mentions that, though his wife had millions when he married her, he also made a great deal of money in real estate after the marriage. You have already been told that Mr. Dalton may be the owner of the real estate company that rents the Thomases their apartment. Do you find it ironic that a man makes money renting blacks rat-infested apartments and then donates some of that money to black schools? Do these donations make you think better of him or worse? Peggy says that she understands "colored people." You will have to decide later whether she understands Bigger any better than Mr. Dalton does. Does she assume that all blacks are alike?
Peggy shows Bigger the basement furnace he will be in charge of stoking. Then she takes him to his room, which is decorated with the previous chauffeur's pictures of black boxers and white female movie stars. Wright's use of white stereotypes of blacks has sparked controversy. One such stereotype is that black men are especially attracted to white women and vice versa. Wright seems to be suggesting that Bigger's predecessor, Green, was fascinated by white women. Do you think he is suggesting this? Some readers have criticized Wright for seeming to affirm racist stereotypes. Do you agree or disagree with this criticism?
Bigger feels enthusiastic about his job. His first assignment is to drive
Mary to her university class. But on the way there, Mary orders Bigger
to change directions. She does not plan to go to her class at all and
wants Bigger to keep her true destination a secret. You may find Mary
quite appealing. But note how she orders Bigger around. Though she seems
to be trying to treat him as an equal, she doesn't hesitate to order him
to light her cigarette, for example.
Bigger has mixed feelings about Mary. Like all rich whites, she scares him, and her unpredictability makes her seem even more dangerous. But she treats him as a human being and thus gives him an unfamiliar feeling of freedom. Bigger is even more confused when they pick up Mary's Communist boyfriend, Jan. Jan and Mary violate the unspoken rules that, in Bigger's experience, have always governed black-white social contact. Jan insists on shaking hands with Bigger, and he wants Bigger to call him Jan instead of "sir." Jan insists on driving the car himself, and he has Bigger sit between him and Mary. Then both Jan and Mary demand that Bigger take them to a restaurant in the black ghetto. They make Bigger feel even worse by asking him to eat with them.
Bigger thinks Mary is laughing at his confusion. He feels self-conscious and ashamed, and then angry as a result. He believes people are looking at him, and he wishes he could take a heavy object and "blot out" the car with the three of them in it.
Do Jan and Mary deserve Bigger's hate? They are the first white people to treat him as an equal, and you may well regard Bigger's feelings toward them as a tragic misunderstanding. But you could also argue that Jan and Mary do act in a racist manner toward Bigger. According to this line of thought, they tell him what to do without considering his feelings, and instead of trying to win his trust, they simply order him to be their friend. Is their insisting that he take them to his neighborhood a sign of friendship or of arrogance?
Perhaps some sign of racism is also implicit in their frequent references to Negro spirituals, one of which Mary even sings in black dialect. Had they gotten to know Bigger as an individual, they might have found that, while his mother sings spirituals, Bigger has no use for them. They offer Bigger fried chicken. Later, driving back from the restaurant, they compliment blacks on having so much "emotion," another stereotype. You may also want to refer to this section of the novel when considering whether Wright was uncritical of Communists. Do Jan and Mary behave like people capable of uniting blacks and whites in a political struggle for social change?
At the restaurant, Mary, Jan, and Bigger drink beer and rum. The three continue drinking as Bigger drives Mary and Jan around the park. By the time Jan gets out to catch his streetcar, Mary is extremely drunk. Bigger has to carry her to her room, and, as he does, he worries about what the Daltons would think if they found him with their drunken daughter in his arms. But Bigger also feels excited by the physical contact with Mary. He has never been so close to a white woman. As he carries her into her bedroom, he begins to kiss and caress her. Then he sees a white blur in the doorway. It is Mrs. Dalton.
Wright emphasizes that Mrs. Dalton appears to Bigger as a "white blur." Earlier, he described Mary and Jan as two "looming white walls." Is Wright suggesting that to Bigger the whiteness of these people is more important than their characteristics as individuals? On one level, Bigger may see the advancing figure of Mrs. Dalton as the impending vengeance of the white world for his having come close to violating one of the major taboos of white society.
Bigger feels as though he is falling from a great height. He is terrified. Although Mrs. Dalton cannot see, she can hear. As she enters the room, he holds a pillow over Mary's head to prevent her from speaking. When Mrs. Dalton leaves the room, Bigger realizes that Mary is dead. He has suffocated her.
NOTE: SEXUAL IMAGERY AND VIOLENCE
A scene that began with a sexual encounter has ended in violence, not love. Nonetheless, the language may suggest sexuality. While suffocating under the pillow, Mary's body "surges" toward Bigger. Her "body heaves" with increasing intensity as she digs her fingernails into his arms. Finally, she sighs, and her body relaxes. Some readers have found sexual imagery in the next scene, in which Bigger burns Mary's body on what Wright refers to several times as the "red bed of coals." Though Bigger has killed only by accident, you could argue that Wright is deliberately conjuring up the feared image of sexual violence committed by black men against white women.
Bigger now has to figure out how to cover up what he has done. He remembers that Mary had been planning to go to Detroit the next morning. He puts her body in her trunk and carries it to the basement. Then he decides to burn the corpse in the furnace. The head will not fit, however, so he cuts it off. First he tries gently with a knife, then he uses a hatchet. He sees Kate, the Daltons' white cat, watching him and almost decides to burn Kate too. When Mary's body is finally burning in the furnace, Bigger decides to turn suspicion toward Jan. After all, Jan is a Communist, and people will be ready to believe him capable of any evil.
Why does Wright make this scene so gruesome? Bigger himself thinks of the incident as "unreal, like a nightmare." Though from the rest of Book One you can consider Bigger an innocent victim of racism and bad luck, this scene may make you see him as the villain of a gory horror story, perhaps one in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, one of Wright's favorite writers. Some readers think Wright revels in creating a scene that could be a white racist's worst nightmare. What do you think?