Sympathy in Wright’s Native Son In Native Son, Richard Wright introduces Bigger Thomas, a liar and a thief. Wright evokes sympathy for this man despite the fact that he commits two murders. Through the reactions of others to his actions and through his own reactions to what he has done, the author creates compassion in the reader towards Bigger to help convey the desperate state of Black Americans in the 1930s. The simplest method Wright uses to produce sympathy is the portrayal of the hatred and intolerance shown toward Thomas as a black criminal. This first occurs when Bigger is immediately suspected as being involved in Mary Daltons disappearance. Mr.
Britten suspects that Bigger is guilty and only ceases his attacks when Bigger casts enough suspicion on Jan to convince Mr. Dalton. Britten explains, “To me, a niggers a nigger” (Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper and Row, 1940.
154). Because of Biggers blackness, it is immediately assumed that he is responsible in some capacity. This assumption causes the reader to sympathize with Bigger. While only a kidnapping or possible murder are being investigated, once Bigger is fingered as the culprit, the newspapers say the incident is “possibly a sex crime” (228). Eleven pages later, Wright depicts bold black headlines proclaiming a “rapist” (239) on the loose.
Wright evokes compassion for Bigger, knowing that he is this time unjustly accused. The reader is greatly moved when Chicagos citizens direct all their racial hatred directly at Bigger. The shouts “Kill him! Lynch him! That black sonofabitch! Kill that black ape!” (253) immediately after his capture encourage a concern for Biggers well-being. Wright intends for the reader to extend this fear for the safety of Bigger toward the entire black community. The readers sympathy is further encouraged when the reader remembers that all this hatred has been spurred by an accident.
While Bigger Thomas does many evil things, the immorality of his role in Mary Daltons death is questionable. His hasty decision to put the pillow over Marys face is the climax of a night in which nothing has gone right for Bigger. We feel sympathy because Bigger has been forced into uncomfortable positions all night. With good intentions, Jan and Mary place Bigger in situations that make him feel “a cold, dumb, and inarticulate hate” (68) for them. Wright hopes the reader will share Biggers uneasiness.
The reader struggles with Biggers task of getting Mary into her bed and is relieved when he has safely accomplished his mission. With the revelation of Marys death, Wright emphasizes Biggers future, turning Mary into the “white woman” (86) that Bigger will be prosecuted for killing. Wright focuses full attention on the bewildered Bigger, forcing the reader to see the situation through Biggers eyes. He uses Biggers bewilderment to represent the confusion and desperation of Black America. The author stresses that Bigger Thomas is a mere victim of desperation, not a perpetrator of malicious violence.
Desperation is the characteristic Wright uses throughout the novel to draw sympathy for Bigger. A killer with a calculated plan for evading punishment would be viewed more negatively than Bigger, a confused young man desperately seeking a means of escape. His first poor decision after Marys death is to burn her in the Dalton furnace. The vile and outrageous course of action taken by Bigger impresses upon the reader the complete disarray of his thoughts. Readers observe the absence of careful thought as Bigger jumps out the Daltons window, urinating on himself, and as he frantically rushes from building to building, searching for shelter. However, Wright also includes actions that seem irreproachable despite Biggers state of mind.
His brutal murder of Bessie, the only character willing to help him, angers the reader. It is at that point that Bigger seems most immoral, but Wright again shows Biggers helplessness. Wright contrasts the “insistent and demanding” (219) desire that encourages Bigger to force intercourse with Bessie with the desperation that causes him to kill her. Even in the most immoral of acts, Wright finds a way to accentuate the difference between actions borne of depravity and those borne of desperation. The ultimate desperation and hopeless nature of Biggers future as the book closes and the death sentence is imposed leaves the reader with a sense of sympathy at Biggers plight.
Biggers state at the end of the novel parallels the desperation of Black Americas present and the uncertainty of its future. Black Americans in the 1930s faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. Latent racism and poverty made them desperate for solutions. Wright proves this through the life of Bigger Thomas. He hopes that White America will realize that a only a desperate action could be expected under these desperate conditions.
Wright says of Bigger: “Never again did he want to feel anything like hope” (315). The author suggests that all Blacks felt this way when he writes of the many families who were being persecuted during the search for Bigger. This novel is a call to the nation urging recognition of the desperate plight of Black America. Wright poignantly tells the story of the immoral Bigger Thomas but is able to draw sympathy for what many white Americans see as the typical black miscreant by clearly defining his common human emotions. Biggers desperation to protect his own life in spite of the obstacles around him makes him a brilliant representative for Blacks in America.
Wright wonders and asks the question he attributes to Bigger in the novel. “Why did he and his folks have to live like this?” (100).