Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
In the opening scene of the novel, Bigger has to deal with a disgusting rat in his family’s one-room apartment:
“There he is!” the mother screamed again.
A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.
“Goddamn!” Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hid; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs. (1.39-47)
His response is to throw a shoe at the rat and kill it: which, fair enough. We would probably just jump on top of the table and start shrieking, but that’s us. We’re weenies.
This rat is important on a few levels. Superficially, the rat shows us the kind of squalor that Bigger and his family are forced to live in: crowded apartments that are overrun with vermin. Not pretty.
But some critics argued that the rat is a symbol of Bigger himself—the rat comes into the domestic sphere of the Thomas house and is killed and Bigger comes into the domestic sphere of the Dalton household and (ultimately) is killed.
This scene also potentially foreshadows Bigger’s confrontation with the disgusting, penetrating racism in American society. The forces of racism permeate American society in the same way that pests overrun houses. And, though Bigger doesn’t kill those forces in American society itself, he does manage to obliterate them within himself and, we hope, in the novel’s reader.
Also, a discussion of vermin in a book about racism wouldn’t be complete without an analysis of how racism works. Racist ideology has a tendency to cast the object of the racism—in Native Son’s case, black Americans—as “lesser than” and “malicious.” This often rears its ugly little head by casting the object of racism as animals, especially pests. Like, say… rats.
The Pigeon Flying Away
Rule of thumb: when anyone in literature (or, hey, in real life) mentions that they’d like to be a bird, there’s an approximately 99% chance that they’re wishing for a little more freedom.
In Book One: Fear, Bigger and Gus “play white,” demonstrating how trapped they feel in their own lives and how much comparative freedom white people have. When they finish, the young men watch as a pigeon lands on the cable car tracks and struts around, then flies away as a street car approaches:
Then their eyes were riveted; a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pride. A street car rumbled forward and the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut and sheer that Bigger could see the gold of the sun through their translucent tips. He tilted his head and watched the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight over the edge of a high roof.
“Now, if I could only do that,” Bigger said. (1.292)
The pigeon represents freedom, the ability to go where he wants when he wants, instead of being stuck where he is.
Mary’s Severed Head
After Bigger kills Mary, the image of her severed head with blood soaking her hair keeps returning to haunt him. As he opens the furnace to see if her body has burned, it appears to him as if the coals are shaped like her body.
The recurring image of Mary’s body and of her severed head reminds him of his guilt, but they also remind him of the fear and shame that led him to kill her accidentally in the first place.
Hey: we heart Freud over here, but we’re by no means devotees. The guy’s theories are riddled with holes. That being said, when we’re presented with a dream in literature (especially in literature written post-Freud), we tend to open our dog-eared copies of The Interpretation of Dreams and have a look-see.
After being questioned by Britten, Bigger has a dream where he’s running away after being warned by a tolling church bell. He’s carrying a heavy package. This whole scene is bathed in a red glare, the glow from the furnace’s light. When he stops to unwrap the package, he finds his own severed head inside and his hair thick with blood. (Yikes!)
He starts to run to find a place to hide. Instead, he runs into some white people who want to ask him about the head. He’s standing there with blood on his hands. Finally, he gives up. He curses them and throws the head right into their faces.
The dream symbolizes Bigger’s guilt, as well as the growing sense that he’s going to face another confrontation with white people. Most importantly, it symbolizes his impending doom. We already know that Bigger can’t outsmart the people around him forever; the question is only when and how he’ll be caught. The dream foreshadows his demise but it also answers the question how he’ll be caught: ultimately, Bigger will hand over his own head to those seeking answers, whether through a mess-up on his part or through a subconscious need to confront his oppressor.
Snow starts falling after Bigger kills Mary and burns her body in the furnace. It continues to fall until he’s captured. This could been seen as a symbol of white society enveloping and overwhelming Bigger’s world.
Throughout the novel, Bigger thinks of whites not as individuals, but as a looming white mountain or a great natural force pressing down upon him. The blizzard is raging as Bigger jumps from his window to escape after Mary’s bones are found in the furnace. When he falls to the ground, the snow fills his mouth, ears, and eyes—all his senses are overwhelmed with a literal whiteness, representing the metaphorical “whiteness” he feels has been controlling him his whole life. Bigger tries to flee, but the snow has sealed off all avenues of escape, allowing the white police to surround and capture him..
Mrs. Dalton’s Blindness
Mrs. Dalton’s literal blindness serves as a metaphor for white people’s social and cultural blindness. This plays a crucial role in the circumstances of Bigger’s murder of Mary, as it gives Bigger the escape route of smothering Mary to keep her from revealing his presence in her bedroom. On a symbolic level, this set of circumstances serves as a metaphor for the vicious circle of racism in American society: Mrs. Dalton’s inability to see Bigger causes him to turn to violence, just as the inability of whites to see blacks as individuals causes blacks to live their lives in fear and hatred. Mrs. Dalton’s blindness represents the inability of white Americans as a whole to see black Americans as anything other than the embodiment of their media-enforced -stereotypes. Wright echoes Mrs. Dalton’s literal blindness throughout the novel in his descriptions of other characters who are figuratively blind for one reason or another. Indeed, Bigger later realizes that, in a sense, even he has been blind, unable to see whites as individuals rather than a single oppressive mass.
The Christian cross traditionally symbolizes compassion and sacrifice for a greater good, and indeed Reverend Hammond intends as much when he gives Bigger a cross while he is in jail. Bigger even begins to think of himself as Christlike, imagining that he is sacrificing himself in order to wash away the shame of being black, just as Christ died to wash away the world’s sins. Later, however, after Bigger sees the image of a burning cross, he can only associate crosses with the hatred and racism that have crippled him throughout his life. As such, the cross in Native Son comes to symbolize the opposite of what it usually signifies in a Christian context.
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