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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK THREE: FATE
BIGGER'S JAILHOUSE VISITS
Many people visit Bigger in jail. Bigger signs a confession.
* * *
Bigger has been in a stupor. He refuses to eat, talk, or move. Like the first two books, this one begins with Bigger struggling between sleep and wakefulness, but this struggle is more profound.
Bigger seems to be on the verge of giving up entirely, but he still has a spark of hope. He wishes he could find a new way of living. Taken to the inquest into Mary's death, he sees many faces looking at him from the audience. Thinking they are making sport of him, he feels as though he is falling; then he faints.
Bigger wakes up back in his cell and asks for a newspaper. The story in the paper is violently racist, referring to Bigger as a beast incapable of fitting into civilization.
NOTE: ROBERT NIXON
This newspaper story is so extreme that you may think Wright was
exaggerating. In fact, the story is an only slightly fictionalized adaptation
of a piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 5, 1938. When
Wright was about halfway finished with his first draft of Native Son,
a young black man named Robert Nixon was accused of raping a white woman
and beating her to death with a brick. He was convicted and executed in
the electric chair. Wright used many details of the Nixon case in his
novel, and this racist news story was among them. Here is one more instance
of Wright's use of realistic detail.
Now a series of visitors enter Bigger's cell. Some readers think Book Three centers on whether Bigger will be executed. Others feel the major conflict of the book is not about what will happen to Bigger but about what attitude he will take toward a fate that seems certain. If you agree with the second view, you may think that the people who visit Bigger are in a sense struggling for his soul.
One of the major protagonists in the struggle enters first. Reverend Hammond is Mrs. Thomas's preacher, and he urges Bigger to turn to Jesus. Bigger hates Hammond's religious message because it makes him feel as guilty as does the hatred of the whites. In this regard, do you think there is irony in Hammond's talk about washing Bigger's sins as "white as snow"? Remember how snow has already come to represent the hateful power of the whites.
Then Jan comes in. He says that he had been blind before, that he had wanted to kill Bigger for a while, but that he now understands Bigger's hatred and wants to help him. Jan urges Bigger to defend himself in court. He has a major effect on Bigger, and Wright expresses this effect with the same images he has used before in the novel. Bigger feels as though "someone had performed an operation on his eyes"; he feels as though a "curtain" has been opened; he feels as though a rock has detached itself from the "looming mountain of white hate." Jan urges Bigger to believe in himself and reminds Bigger that he believed enough to kill. Jan brings a lawyer named Boris Max. But perhaps even more important than Jan's offer of legal defense is his penetration of Bigger's wall of isolation.
The State's Attorney, Buckley, enters next. If Hammond's message is to turn to religion and Jan's is to fight back, then Buckley's seems to be to give up, He tells Bigger that they already have enough evidence to convict him, so he may as well confess.
The Daltons arrive, followed by Bigger's friends and family. Bigger is aware of his family's shame under the eyes of the white people, and he again is proud of his murder, which, he feels, has washed away his shame. With his family around him, Bigger believes for the first time that he has not been alone, that his family is part of him. To make his mother happy, Bigger agrees to pray. All the visitors leave except Buckley.
Bigger has experienced many different emotions in this section. But two may be especially significant. At times, he seems to want to trust other people, including some white people. At other times, he seems to want to return to his proud isolation and anger. Which of these two attitudes do you think Wright approves of? Some readers think his political views suggest the former. What evidence can you draw from the novel to support your interpretation?
Buckley asks Bigger to confess to many rapes and murders and to implicate Jan in his crimes. Bigger is so discouraged and so in need of someone to talk to that he confesses to what he has done, but not to the other things Buckley asks him to confess to.