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The main theme of the novel is an argument that social conditions of deprivation motivate people to act in anti-social ways. Wright paints a clear picture of the impossible lives led by African Americans in 1930s Chicago. They are forced into overcrowded, overpriced, and substandard housing, they are given such low-paying and transient employment that they cannot maintain a secure living, they are cut off from education, they are the victims of racist media misrepresentations that reduce their humanity and justify their further exploitation and deprivation, and they are blamed for all of their problems. When Bigger acts in an unfeeling way, killing and then disposing of the bodies of his victims, Wright argues that these are conditioned responses to overwhelming stimuli.
A minor theme of the novel is in its relation between the social and economic disenfranchisement of African Americans and the sexual mores of the time, which both prohibited African American men from coming near or touching white women, thus inciting them to do so. Bigger is conditioned by the media images of white women as the most attractive and the most unattainable sexual objects. He is conditioned by the social taboo, which resulted in countless lynchings of African American men for supposedly coming into sexual contact with European-American women.
When he sees Mary Dalton, he is for the first time, in close contact with the repository of this contradictory message and instead of acting her part, holding her distance, Mary acts as his friend, and familiar. When he kills his girlfriend, Bessie, Bigger also acts out the logical extent of the conditioned relations between blacks and whites. Conditioned to regard her as less than precious, Bigger rapes, kills, and disposes of Bessie as if she were nothing to him.
The mood of the novel is melodramatic. It is written in the high emotional tone of high drama. Bigger is represented from the beginning as a victim of unremitting social forces. He never has a chance against them. The social system provides clear villains and unclear heroes and victims. The villains are the racists who hold power. The heroes are the communists who wish to redistribute wealth and establish and equality between rich and poor, black and white. The victims come from each of these groups.