A Subtle but Important Developmental Milestone

One of my favorite college courses during my undergrad was called, 20th Century African-American Novels. We read books written by African-American writers during the 20th century, discussed them in class, and wrote short essays about them. Richard Wright’s book Native Son was one of my favorite books from the class. I am actually re-reading it again now. Anyway, I wanted to publish the essay I wrote on the main character of the book, Bigger Thomas. Enjoy!

“Those were smart people; they knew how to get hold of money, millions of it. Maybe if he were working for them something would happen and he could get some of it” (33).

Bigger Thomas expresses a desire to surround himself with rich white people so he can gain access to money. He reveals his lack of direction and priorities, because money is his motive for surrounding himself with rich white people. As the novel progresses, when Bigger is in jail awaiting his trial, he reveals a development of his character that is important because—with this foundational growth—he establishes a chance to begin a new life.

Wright uses metaphorical language to hint at Bigger’s possible new life ahead. The feeling to commit suicide, “Sprang up itself, organically, automatically; like the rotted hull of a seed forming the soil in which it should grow again” (274). Bigger is a dead seed who has never sprouted because he lives in fear. Though Bigger is not dead yet, he perhaps has not been alive either. Also, Bigger finds commonality with others for the first time in the novel. He thinks, “He had to go forward and meet his end like any other living thing upon the earth” (275). He finally finds a connection between him and other humans; he discovers commonality through death because every living thing dies. Furthermore, Bigger reveals a longing to learn about the “tension of hate and love” (275). Before this time, he mostly hated and never loved. Around his family members and Bessie he never reveals an ability to love. The growth in Bigger’s mind at this moment is powerful. At the movie theater that day he spoke about money, but now he speaks about a new life, commonality, and a desire to learn.

The growth Bigger experiences cannot be the only component that gets him to a new life where he can reach his potential. He needs some assistance to free himself of fear. The passage reads,

“There would have to hover above him, like the stars in a full sky, a vast configuration of images and symbols whose magic and power could lift him up and make him live so intensely that the dread of being black and unequal would be forgotten; that even death would not matter, that it would be a victory” (275).

He needs a spark of assurance to drown out the negativity stemming from his feeling unequal; once the assurance comes, he can start a new beginning. In this new world, Bigger has a desire to connect with some part of it; the identification will teach Bigger about pride and dignity. Money does not cross Bigger’s mind. His focus is on learning about pride and humility and hate and love, but this milestone in his life happens at a difficult time. When Bigger has a wave of negativity strike him, “the conviction that there was some way out surged back into him, strong and powerful, and in his present state, condemning and paralyzing” (275). The new glamour and identification comes at a time when he is jail with people on the outside rallying to show their hatred. He strongly believes the new life is possible, but given where he is physically, there is nothing further he can do; he will need outside help to begin this new life.

The passage is important because he is no longer focusing on money and wealth but moralistic values. However, he needs help from someone in order to start living with pride, dignity, and love. This specific passage gets Bigger to connect with Max during later parts of the novel, acting as a foundation for further development. Had he not gotten here, Bigger arguably never would have connected with Max. Max does something no one has ever done to Bigger; he asks him questions about his life. After Max leaves the jail that day, Bigger thinks even more hopeful about commonality, wholeness, and a desire to live. The chances of Bigger beginning a new life are even greater now.