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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
BOOK 1 - "Fear"
Mrs. Dalton enters her room and calls her name. Mary mumbles. He worries that if Mary speaks, Mrs. Dalton will come to the side of the bed and discover him there. He pushes Mary back with a pillow. He is afraid to move away from the bed, thinking Mrs. Dalton might hear him. He is in a frenzy. He holds his hand over Mary's mouth. She struggles. He places the pillow over her face. Her body surges upward and he pushes downward with all his weight. She stops scratching his hands and he takes his hands from the pillow and hears a long sigh. Mrs. Dalton keeps calling out to her then smells the alcohol and prays over her. Finally, she leaves the room.
Bigger realizes Mary is dead. He is horrified that he, as an African American man, has killed a white woman. He decides he will say it was Jan, reasoning that the "reds" will do anything. He puts her in a trunk and takes her to the basement. He decides to put her body in the furnace. He has to cut off her head to fit her in. It takes him a long time to cut her head off. He wonders if there will be coal enough to burn the body. He wonders if people will be able to smell the body burning. He starts an exhaust fan to blow the smell out of the house.
He pushes the trunk into a corner, planning to take it to the station in the morning. He sees the car in the driveway and decides to leave it there and tell the Daltons that Jan and Mary were sitting in the car and told him good night. He sees that the door of the car is open and Mary's purse is laying on the seat. He takes it and closes the door, but then decides to leave it open. He goes home and falls asleep.
Book I is the shortest of the three sections of the novel, yet it contains the some of the most memorable and horrible scenes of the novel. In this section, Wright sets up all the pressures of Bigger Thomas's life and then stages what feels like the inevitable result of those pressures. In this plot, Wright uses the vision of the literary naturalists, who wrote at the turn of the century, to see the impossible situation of African Americans in a country whose laws sanction racial discrimination. The earlier generation of naturalists, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and others, focused primarily on economic inequalities in the United States. Richard Wright continues that tradition, but applies it to the more intense inequalities that obtain when racial discrimination is added to the maldistribution of wealth.
Like the earlier naturalists, Wright fully understood the power of the media--films, advertisements, and music--to convince people that the way things were was the way things ought to be. When Bigger and Jack go to the movies, Bigger loses his sense that wealthy whites are profiting from his poverty and begins to believe that only poor whites are his enemy. He learns to identify with his oppressors. That is, he begins to believe that his oppressors are actually benevolent and have arrived at their fortunes, not by exploiting discriminatory housing and labor laws which hurt poor people in general and people of color in particular, but simply by being smart. He learns to hate other poor people--poor European Americans.
The scene at the movies is also highly significant for how it positions women in the interplay of desire. In the first movie, he sees, The Gay Woman, the symbol of wealth is the white woman. In the second movie, Trader Horn, he sees African men and women animalized. The second movie does not even seem to have a plot, as if to imply that people of color have no significant course for their lives, but instead spend their time only dancing and acting wild. These two stereotypes are later echoed in the room once occupied by the Dalton's former chauffeur, Green. His walls are filled with pictures of African American prize fighters and white women movie stars, the one being the image of brute strength barely held back and the other being the image of sophisticated and unattainable beauty.
Bigger escapes the unbearable thoughts of his life by going to the movies, playing around with his friends, and committing petty crime. His mother finds her escape in her religion. Wright sets up an important theme of the novel in this fact. Bigger finds his mother's religion totally irrelevant to his life. One gets the feeling that Wright, too, finds religion "the opiate of the masses," to use Karl Marx's phrase. It keeps people from resisting their present social and economic oppression. It rewards acceptance instead of resistance, in Wright's view.
Wright's task as a novelist in this book is to make the reader understand what drives Bigger to kill Mary and then dispose of her body in such a brutal way. Wright names the first book "Fear" and he takes the reader through example after example of the fear that permeates Bigger's life, from the foot-long rat which he kills upon awakening that day to the fear of being turned out of his home for not getting a job to the fear of losing his standing with his friends for being afraid to rob Blum's Delicatessen.
Wright combines Bigger's fear with his barely contained violence. The violence escalates as the day proceeds, first with the rat, next with his violence toward his close friend, Gus, and ultimately with his almost unintentional violence towards Mary. The violence seems to be fed by fear and anger. Bigger's nerves are strung tight from the pressures of his life of poverty when he enters the Dalton's home. He is intensely uncomfortable in the presence of European Americans because he has been taught to fear them all his life. He knows they have all the power of the state and the economy on their side. Moreover, he has been conditioned to believe that they came by that power legitimately and that they deserve to have it. His low estimation of his own worth, his internalized oppression, makes him feel ugly and brutish in the presence of European Americans. When Mary and Jan violate all the codes of social interactions between black and white, Bigger's already short fuse gets shorter. Add alcoholic intoxication to that mix and Wright builds a strong picture of determinism.
It is also important to examine the connection between racism and sexism which Wright explores here. In Bigger's life, African American women hold the home together. Mrs. Thomas and Vera keep the males in the home with shame and obligation. In sharp contrast to African American women, European American women have been historically set up in both racist and sexist ways as the ultimate objects of wealth and beauty.
In the South, after the Civil War, hundreds of African American men were lynched with the pretext that they looked at or touched European American women. The ideology of the lust of African American men for white women was used to keep African American men under social control. African American men, especially those raised in the South, grew up with the constant warning not to look at or approach white women. They were even supposed to cross the street when a white woman approached on the sidewalk.
In the confusion of Bigger's position in the car with Mary, who is not only close to him, but is laying her drunken head on his shoulder, Bigger is paralyzed with fear that he will be found out--even if innocent--and lynched. In the midst of this moment of succumbing to temptation, Bigger's fear is heightened when he had to carry her up to her room. Even experiencing this intense fear, Bigger kisses Mary and touches her breast. This moment is made up of a complex interplay of many elements--the most important of which is Bigger's conditioning that white women are the ultimate sexual object. When her mother walks in and approaches the bed, Bigger in desperation silences Mary with a pillow and unintentionally kills her. His disposal of the body as if it were trash is a gut-wrenching conclusion to the sexual and racial politics portrayed in Book I.