CONTINUED FROM LAST POST
Though Native Son is peppered heavily with dialogue, it is also interspersed with long passages that illuminate Bigger’s motivation:
There was silence. The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life. Bigger knew that they were thinking of his life and the life of his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out—with himself and then in it. His heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath. This thing was getting the better of him; he felt that he should not give way to his feelings like this. But he could not help it. Why didn’t they leave him alone? What had he done to them? What good could they get out of sitting here making him feel so miserable? (1.1066)
Even though the point of view of the book is Bigger’s, we are treated to explanations of his behavior that he himself doesn’t vocalize… and emotions that are so immense and incomprehensible that they’re referred to as “the thing(s).”
What’s Up With the Title?
The title is a slam on American society. Bigger Thomas, the novel’s main character, is a “native son” of America: he was born and raised as a black man in the U.S., so he’s a product of the country. Local cultural and social forces shaped and created him.
So if he’s a monster, the title suggests, it can be blamed on American society. And this is precisely what Max, Bigger’s lawyer, argues in Bigger’s defense after Bigger commits murder—twice.
What’s Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Even today is my complaint rebellious, My stroke is heavier than my groaning —Job
The epigraph is a quotation from the Book of Job. Job was a good guy—faithful to God and wildly successful. He had a wife, wonderful children, massive wealth, and great health. However, Satan dares God to take all of Job’s blessings away and see if Job is still faithful after all the suffering. God agrees, and gives Satan freedom to do what he wants with Job… as long as he doesn’t kill him.
After Satan epically messes with Job’s life, Job sits there with boils on his face, stricken with poverty and hunger and pestilence and plague, his kids and servants dead. He questions why God allowed him to be treated like this. The only thing left to him is his wife, who grows bitter and encourages Job to rail against God. Yet even as he questions God, Job refuses to curse him. So in this particular game, God wins. Job struggles to maintain his spiritual faith in the face of tragedy and finally does it. He’s thus seen as one of the “righteous” men.
The quotation with which Wright chose to open Native Son comes from the period when Job is still frustrated about his sufferings. He’s still trying to figure out what’s happening to him. As Job begins to realize that his sufferings are due to forces he can’t control, he complains bitterly that he feels isolated, alone, and abandoned. Though Bigger isn’t “righteous” like Job, he is similarly a victim of larger forces that batter him about mercilessly—forces of racism, injustice, and poverty.
His bitterness and rebellion are natural responses to an unjust system. In the quote Wright used, Job hasn’t yet submitted to God; he’s still questioning the justice of his situation and the goodness of a God who would use him to wager a bet. Bigger likewise questions the justice of his situation. Instead of submitting to a social system of racism, he rails against it in the only way he knows how. His murder, ironically, awakens him to the forces of racism that caused him to murder in the first place—and waking up to the truth makes him want to live.
Steaminess Rating/Warning to Schools and Tutors
Exactly how steamy is this story?
So, we really do think the sex scene in this book should be rated R, but you won’t believe us unless you have a recently published copy of the book; older versions cut out a lot of the sexually explicit sections.
The first “sex” scene occurs when Jack and Bigger both masturbate in the movie theater. The movie they watch shows Mary Dalton enjoying her boyfriend Jan on the beach in Florida, perhaps not actually having sex, but at least having a heavy-duty make out session.
Later, as Bigger drives Jan and Mary around in the park after they’ve all been drinking together, he glimpses Mary’s white thigh in the rearview mirror while Jan and Mary are making out (perhaps having sex) in the backseat. We’ll never know if they actually had sex or not because Jan denies that they did.
After Jan, Mary, and Bigger get drunk, Bigger has to help Mary to her room because she’s too hammered to make it up the stairs alone. As he helps her, Bigger realizes he’s never been alone with a white girl before, much less in her room—and that brings about some sort of desire. Well, that and her pushing her pelvis up against Bigger and kissing him. But, instead of having sex with her, he accidentally kills her.
Bigger does get some real action with Bessie, though. The afternoon after he kills he goes and hangs out with Bessie and they have sex. Sadly, shortly afterwards he rapes Bessie… just before he kills her.
Narrator Point of View
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
Third Person (Limited Omniscient)
The narrator tends to follow Bigger’s thoughts and actions, only revealing what’s going on in Bigger’s head. The narrator, however, seems to know more about Bigger than the character does himself. The narrator indicates that Bigger is afraid, even when Bigger doesn’t realize it himself… or at least won’t admit it.
As a result, we (the readers) gain insight into Bigger’s inner thoughts, even all of the fear and shame that he tries to hide from the people around him. In this way, we learn who Bigger is and what drives him to become a criminal. We can judge Bigger better than the judge or jury can because we are able to see into Bigger’s mind and heart.
Crime Drama, Naturalism
Like most great books, Native Son can’t be shelved in just one section of your local bookstore. It combines elements of multiple genres, and that’s because it’s such a unique and visionary work.
On the one hand, the story of Bigger and the murders follows under the category of crime-related drama. In fact, this book almost reads like something straight out of the true crime genre. You know, those non-fiction books that give you all the gory details about an infamous crime? (Of these, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood might be the most famous.)
Bigger’s crimes—regardless of whether you feel Bigger is personally responsible, or if you can see how his circumstances led him to act as he did—are the focus of the novel’s plot. We see the build-up, commission, and resolution to his criminal acts.
But that question—how much personal responsibility Bigger bears, versus the role that his social surroundings might have played—is one that speaks to the presence of what some call Naturalism and others call Social Realism. In either case, a naturalist work is one that is concerned with the impact of society on its characters.
In the case of this novel, we’re invited to see how social trends like poverty and prejudice might have a tremendous impact on a person’s thoughts and actions. Sure, crime is a result of Bigger’s personal action, but can that really be separated from the bigger social forces that weigh so heavily on him? That, oh Shmoopers, is a question for you to ponder.
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