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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
FROM MARY'S DEATH TO BESSIE'S DEATH (continued)
As Bigger heads back to the Daltons', he is confident. At last his life has a purpose. The Daltons have found that Mary never arrived in Detroit. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton question Bigger, and he tells them that he left Jan and Mary together last night. The Daltons now suspect Jan of having played a role in Mary's disappearance.
A little later, Bigger is in the basement looking at the furnace. Mr. Dalton enters with a private investigator, Britten. Britten is a hard, cold man, and Bigger feels his hostility. The investigator questions Bigger closely, and Bigger now reveals that Mary did not go to her class. Bigger tells the truth about the evening except when he says that Jan and Mary came home together and that Jan had told him to leave the car outside and to take the trunk downstairs. Then Britten flusters Bigger by accusing him of being a Communist. Though Britten is an overt racist, both he and Mr. Dalton finally agree that Bigger is being honest.
While napping, Bigger has a dream. He is carrying a heavy package. When he opens it, he discovers that it is his own bloody head.
Bigger kills the rat by crushing its head, and he cuts off Mary's head. Later, you will see him batter Bessie's head as well. Does this dream suggest that Bigger's assaults are really directed at the psychic demons that inhabit his own head? Remember that his violence has often been a way of coping with his own hate, fear, and shame. The dream may suggest that, despite his violence, Bigger's head (and the feelings within it) are still a heavy burden to him.
Bigger is awakened for another confrontation with Britten and Mr. Dalton,
who now have Jan with them. Bigger maintains his lies even in Jan's presence.
Afterward, Bigger thinks about clearing the accumulated ashes out of the furnace. But he is afraid to do so for fear of finding pieces of Mary among them.
Bigger goes outside, and Jan confronts him in the street. Bigger refuses to talk to Jan and pulls a gun on him. Jan is making Bigger feel quite guilty.
Now Bigger looks for an abandoned building to use as a drop-off point for the ransom money. He finds one and returns to Bessie's where he writes a ransom note, which he signs with the word "red" and decorates with a hammer and sickle, the Communist emblem. Bessie is extremely upset. She accuses Bigger of killing Mary, and he confesses. Now that Bessie knows about Mary's death, Bigger thinks of killing Bessie to keep her quiet. He threatens Bessie until she tearfully agrees to go along with his plans.
As Bigger works out his ransom plan, Wright supplies you with some broader social background. You learn that Mr. Dalton's real estate company rents apartments to blacks only in the most run-down area of the city. And you learn that when blacks first moved into that neighborhood, whites tried to chase them away by bombing their houses. Now whites have fled the neighborhood, and many of the buildings are abandoned. Note how Native Son mixes sociological description, a psychological portrait of Bigger's inner conflicts, and dreamlike symbolism. Look for all three, and see how well Wright blends them into a unified whole.
Bigger returns to the Daltons' and excitedly slips the ransom note under the door. His dinner is waiting for him in the kitchen, but despite all his bold crimes, he hesitates to eat without permission. The old, timid Bigger seems to coexist with the braver new one. When Mr. Dalton receives the ransom note, the family panics. Britten returns and questions Peggy. She says Bigger is "'just like all the other colored boys.'" You could argue that Wright is continuing to expose his white characters' racism. If you take this line of thought, you could contrast Britten's blatant racism with Peggy's unconscious prejudice. Remember also that the racial stereotypes held by whites are helping Bigger turn suspicion away from himself. No one seems to believe that a black could have either the intelligence or the boldness to carry out such a crime.
Now Bigger is no longer alone in his basement furnace room. Britten and his men set up their headquarters there, and the press soon arrives as well. Bigger is aware that, while everyone is talking about Mary, her body is burning in the fiery furnace right next to them. He thinks events resemble a "tortured dream." Mr. Dalton reads the ransom note to the excited newspapermen. The Daltons' cat jumps on Bigger's shoulder, and the photographers snap a picture.
Wright was an admirer of the American poet and storywriter Edgar Allan Poe (1809- 1849). In one of Poe's stories, "The Black Cat," a cat becomes a symbol of a murderer's guilt. Wright uses a similar device here. Bigger often feels that the Daltons' cat is looking at him accusingly. In an appropriate twist, Wright makes the cat white instead of black. Some readers also see the Daltons' cat as a parallel to the rat in the Thomases' apartment. Bigger hunts and kills the rat but thinks that the cat is helping hunt him.
Bigger reads a newspaper. The story about the Daltons has a strongly anti-Communist tone. Remember the distortions in the movies that Bigger saw in Book One. Now, in Book Two, Wright seems to portray similar distortions in the press. He continues with this theme as the reporters question Bigger and try to slant their story so it portrays a "primitive Negro who doesn't want to be disturbed by white civilization." The reporters also look for anti-foreign, anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist angles.
Meanwhile, the fire in the furnace is dying because Bigger has not cleaned out the ashes. Peggy asks him to clean them out, but he is afraid Mary's remains will appear in front of Britten and the reporters. Instead of cleaning the ashes, which are blocking the fire's air supply, Bigger simply adds more coal. The stifling fire begins to smoke, choking everyone. One of the reporters grabs Bigger's shovel and cleans out the ashes. He notices that they contain some of Mary's bones and an earring.
The smoke clears, but Bigger's fear has returned, and it is choking him. He goes to his room and jumps from the window to the snow below. Bigger's effort at liberation seems to have failed.
You may now find the title of Book Two ironic. In Book One, Bigger wanted to fly. In Book Two, his killing of Mary gave him the feeling of freedom that he had previously associated with flying. But now he may be worse off than before killing Mary. He is now in flight in a different sense; he is fleeing. Do you think Wright is showing the futility of Bigger's violence here? Or has Bigger gained some personal strength from his violence?
NOTE: FIRE AND SNOW
Throughout Book Two, Bigger has been walking back and forth between the cold and snow of the blizzard and the heat of the basement with its burning furnace. Some readers think the icy, white blizzard represents the white world that Bigger has always seen as a natural force. If so, it adds an element of irony and fatalism, for its cold surrounds Bigger even while he is confidently planning his ransom scheme. Some readers also feel the furnace represents the fires raging within Bigger. Shortly after the fire chokes on its ashes, Bigger chokes on his own fear. Some readers point to the fire and the snow as evidence that Wright's main purpose in writing Native Son was not to present a realistic social analysis but to create a symbolic tale with a dreamlike atmosphere. Do you think he could be doing both?
Bigger heads for Bessie's. He reads the newspapers, which have reported the ransom note. For the first time, he tells Bessie the details of Mary's death. She says he will be accused of rape, and he believes she is right. But he also thinks he has committed rape many times in his mind, not just against white women but against all whites. Rape, he thinks, is what one does when backed into a corner and forced to strike out.
Bessie is distraught, and Bigger tells her that they will have to flee together. They hide in an abandoned building, where Bigger has sex with Bessie despite her protests. He is afraid she will give him away to the police, so, when she is asleep, he kills her by beating her head in with a brick. Then he dumps her body down an air shaft. Later, he realizes his money was in her dress.
You may have noticed how Bessie's murder seems to replay Mary's death, but much more brutally. In both cases, Bigger and his victim have been drinking, but Mary plied Bigger with liquor in fun, whereas now Bigger bitterly forces Bessie to drink. In both cases, some sexual contact precedes the killing, but in the second instance the sexual encounter is rape. And, of course, Bessie's death is premeditated, not accidental. Have Bigger's recent experiences made him more brutal? Regardless, the differences between these two acts of violence further heighten the contrast between the glamorous world of rich whites like the Daltons and the harsh world of the black ghetto. Note that despite all his fantasies about striking out at whites Bigger's most brutal act is against a black.
As Bigger tries to sleep, he reflects on what has happened. In reading this passage, try to form some judgment about Bigger's character. He feels that his murders have been the most meaningful actions of his life because he has finally acted on the hatred he has always felt. So despite the failure of Bigger's ransom scheme, you have evidence here that his acts of violence have given him a new sense of self-respect. On the other hand, some readers use this same reasoning of Bigger's to condemn him for not feeling sufficient remorse for his crimes. Bigger's reverie continues: He condemns his mother for using religion as an escape, and he condemns Bessie for escaping with whiskey. But then Bigger has what seems to be a new thought. He wishes he could merge with the rest of humanity and not be set apart from others just for being black. His earlier fantasies were of a purely solitary liberation. Where does this new aspiration come from? Could it be a result of his experiences of the last two days?