Native Son

Native Son Summary and Analysis of Book Two

Book Two:


Bigger does not get much sleep and when he wakes up in the bed that he shares with his brother Buddy, he slowly remembers the events of the previous night. As Bigger meditates on the murder he has committed, he looks around the small room at his sleeping family. It is Sunday morning and Bigger remembers that he must take Mary Dalton's trunk to the train depot. As he rises out of bed, Bigger notices that he has been extremely clumsy in his efforts to hide his tracks: Mary's purse as well as a bloody knife are only partially obscured in the chair where he set them. Bigger goes outside to throw the purse and knife away and he decides that he will keep Jan's pamphlets and put them in his dresser drawer at the Dalton's house, so that he will have evidence to cast doubts on Jan's character.

Bigger's mind is reeling and he thinks to return to the Dalton's home to see if Mary's body has burned, but then he wonders if it would be better to leave town immediately. Either way, Bigger will have to get his suitcase if only to move his clothes to his new room in the Dalton's residence. When Bigger returns to the apartment, his mother is awake and she asks him about his new job and salary, casually mentioning that she tried to stay awake waiting for him but she fell asleep a little after 2AM. Bigger insists that he arrived before 2AM. Ma does not press the issue but when Buddy wakes up, he tells Bigger that he stayed awake until 3AM to see him, but he fell asleep. Buddy also tells Bigger that Bessie stopped by to visit. As Bigger listens to his brother and observes his sister and mother, he becomes more and more convinced that his accidental crime has put him in a different world. They are blind, just like Jan and Mrs. Dalton. Bigger takes his suitcase and leaves the apartment after borrowing a half-dollar from his mother: even though he has the money from Mary's purse, he does not want to raise any suspicions.

Soon after Bigger leaves, Buddy chases after him and asks if he is in any trouble. When Bigger replies that he isn't, Buddy shows him a roll of cash that he has dropped in the apartment. Bigger is worried that Ma has seen it, but Buddy replies that he has covered Bigger's tracks. Bigger gives him a few dollars and asks Buddy not to tell anyone. Bigger continues his walk through the neighborhood and when he runs into his friends Gus, GH and Jack, he buys them a few packs of cigarettes and some beer. Bigger thinks about his crime and rationalizes that, instead of it being his fault, Mary has received what she deserved for putting him in an awkward situation. Still, Bigger feels a sense of pride in what he has done‹even if it was accidental; by the time he reaches the Dalton's mansion though, his pride has eroded and he is trembling.

Peggy is about to tend to the furnace and Bigger offers to take care of the job. Bigger can see the outline of Mary's body in the bed of burnt coals and so he re-fuels the fire. After this, he puts Jan's pamphlets in his room and then tends to the half-packed trunk that he is to take to the depot. Peggy mentions that the car was left outside over night and Bigger makes up a lie: Jan and Mary were in the car last night, parked in the Dalton's driveway, and they asked him to leave them outside. Jan calls and after treating him brusquely, Peggy explains that Jan is a "bad kid" and that Mary is a little wayward. Mary is not upstairs so Bigger takes the trunk to the depot anyway, at Peggy's suggestion that Mary will perhaps get to the depot on her own.

Mrs. Dalton is concerned and Bigger overhears her conversation with Peggy, during which she mentions that she smelled Mary's drunkenness the night before and notes that Mary did not pack all of the clothes that she intended to take to Detroit. Mrs. Dalton asks Bigger a few more questions and after he repeats his lying responses, Mrs. Dalton invites him to take the day off. As Bigger leaves, he wonders if he should have taken more money or actually planned the crime, and his inflated pride returns. Bigger decides to visit Bessie and as he is only interested in having sex with her, Bessie is concerned about the two white people that Bigger accompanied to Ernie's the night before. Bessie is especially worried that Bigger has taken a liking to Mary and that he is no longer interested in her.

To soothe Bessie's concerns, Bigger reveals his large sum of cash, about $125, and he suggests that Bessie use some of the money to buy something. Bessie is not as impressed by the money as she is frightened by the large sum and she demands to know what Bigger did to get the money. Bigger does not tell the truth; instead, he makes up a story about Mary eloping with Jan and reveals that he plans to write a ransom note for $20,000. Bessie is still worried that something else is wrong and even after they go out for drinks at the Paris Grill, Bessie thinks that they would be better off to simply leave town with the little money they have. Bigger tells his story of Mary's eloping and Bessie's concern is that Mary will return home, revealing Bigger's ransom note to be a fraud. When Bigger adamantly repeats that he is sure Mary won't show up, Bessie is alarmed and she cannot shake the idea that Bigger has done something to the girl. Again, she tries to convince Bigger to leave town, rather than play for more money. But when Bigger threatens to leave her, Bessie caves in and agrees to help Bigger.

Bigger heads for the Dalton's house to check up on things and his initial fear of the electric chair is dissipated. Now he feels that his destiny is within his grasp. When he arrives, he is told to return to the train depot to pick up Mary's trunk because she did not go to Detroit. Everyone is worried, especially after Bigger casually mentions that Jan was with Mary upstairs and that it was Jan who told him to take the trunk downstairs, for the depot. When Bigger returns, he feels a stronger impulse to leave town, but he convinces himself that he is strong enough to pull the whole thing off.

After taking the trunk down to the basement, Bigger is confronted by Mr. Dalton and his private investigator, Mr. Britten. They open the trunk and see that it is only halfway filled; after this, Mr. Dalton supervises Mr. Britten while the investigator asks several rounds of questions. Bigger reveals that he did not take Mary to school as he was supposed to and that Mary met her Communist friend Jan. Britten shows Bigger the pamphlets that were found in his dresser and he accuses him of being a communist. Bigger replies that he never met any Communists until the previous night and that Jan gave him the pamphlets. Mr. Dalton affirms that Bigger did not know Mary before hand, and that he did not understand her rhetoric when she was trying to unionize him. Britten brings Jan into the basement and Bigger feels a sense of shame, but this does not prevent him from repeating the same lies that he told earlier. Jan lies about not seeing Mary the night before and when this is revealed as an untruth, Jan looks increasingly guilty. After Jan storms out of the house, Britten assures Mr. Dalton that the police will pick Jan up and hold him for questioning.

Bigger flees the house and returns to his own neighborhood, stopping at a drugstore to collect a pad, pencil and envelope. After this, he goes to Bessie's apartment and he begins to write the ransom note. Bessie watches Bigger as his gloved hands scrawl a rather pitiful note signed "Red" (to implicate Communists). As he finishes, Bessie bluntly asks Bigger if he killed Mary. He begins to deny the charge, but Bessie says that she can look at him and tell that he has and that if he can kill Mary then there is little to stop him from killing her. Bigger admits his crime and hisses at Bessie, warning her not to snitch and threatening her that she is as guilty as he is.

Bessie begins crying that Bigger has ruined her life and she wishes for death. Bigger grabs the knife and warns Bessie to stop crying. He adds that if she screams, he will surely kill her. After Bessie quiets down, Bigger takes her outside into the blizzard; Bessie tries to convince Bigger that he should simply run away with the money he has. Bigger slaps Bessie and points out the building where she is going to collect the ransom money.

After this, Bigger returns to the Dalton's house for dinner and he decides that he will clean the ashes in the morning. Mr. Dalton bursts in with the news that Mary has been kidnapped; he has received the ransom note that Bigger has left outside. Britten is convinced that Bigger has played a role in the crime and he presses Bigger regarding his Communist ties, asking if the Communists have kidnapped Mary to raise money for their causes. Britten announces that Jan Erlone has been arrested and Mr. Dalton asks Bigger if there is anything that he has not told Britten. Bigger adds that Mary spent part of the night crying and that she got drunk with Jan. The press has arrived at the Dalton residence and they are planning a headline: "RED NABBED AS GIRL VANISHES." Bigger is told to keep quiet and not speak to the press. The reporters want to know if Mr. Dalton is pulling a stunt and they are intrigued by the alleged role of the Communists. At his press conference, Mr. Dalton reveals the ransom note and apologizes for Jan Erlone's arrest and he says that he is willing to pay the ransom and will follow the directions illustrated in the "Communist" ransom note that is signed "Red" and marked with a hammer and sickle.

The newspapermen want to ask Bigger a few questions and they are in the basement when he is clearing out the ashes. There is an unusually large amount of ash in the furnace and Bigger's inability to contain the flames draws attention. As the basement fills with smoke, Bigger flees the house leaving the newspapermen to discover an earring and chips of bone in the furnace. It does not take very long for them to realize that they are viewing the burned remains of Mary Dalton. When Bigger flees, he heads for Bessie's place and he announces that the plan is off and that the authorities will be after him in a short amount of time. Now, Bigger feels fear. Bessie guesses that they have found the girl and that he really did kill her. Bigger merely replies that there is nothing that can be done to change things at this point.

Bigger tries to explain to Bessie that he did not mean to kill Mary, that it was only an accident but Bessie begins sobbing because she knows that once Bigger is caught, he will be accused of raped. Bessie asks Bigger how they found Mary's body so easily and when he mentions that they saw bones in the furnace, Bessie begins howling. It is only at this point that Bigger begins to realize how lurid his crime was. Bigger rouses Bessie and says that they will have to leave her apartment and hide in the dilapidated houses because the police will soon be swarming the area. Bessie replies that she has no need to run off because she has not done anything, but Bigger forces her with him and drags her to a freezing cold warehouse where he rapes her. After Bessie cries herself to sleep, Bigger takes a brick and crushes her head again and again. After he is sure that she is dead, he throws her body down an airshaft and only then realizes that his wad of cash (now, $90) is in the pocket of her dress.

Bigger reflects that this is his first real murder, the other one being an accident. Bigger sense that he is in "a new world" and the changes occurring within him are irrevocable. In a few hours he is stalking the morning streets and his eye catches a glimpse of the headline: "HUNT BLACK IN GIRL'S DEATH." Bigger learns that 5000 police are searching the Black Belt and have already ransacked his home, he is assumed to be a murderer/rapist, white vigilante groups are rioting throughout the city and the chief of police is convinced that the blizzard snow has trapped Bigger within the city limits. Additionally, Jan Erlone has been exonerated by the absence of his fingerprints at the crime scene. Nonetheless, the police maintain that Bigger's crime is too elaborate to be the work of a Negro.

Bigger can only hide in the streets for so long and as he moves from building to building, he grows hungry as he listens to the bitter conversations of the blacks that live in the neighborhood. Many of them hate Bigger for all of the trouble that he has caused them. Not only must they suffer the indignities of police searches and violence, but also they will lose their jobs because many of the already-biased white population will think that all blacks are like Bigger Thomas. The police easily track Bigger Thomas down; amid the riots and tumult, the authorities raid over 1000 homes before chasing Bigger across the rooftops of a series of dilapidated buildings. A white civilian mob surrounds the police as Bigger is struck, beaten and dragged down a series of steps. His fingernails are ripped off and the "sea of noise" reverberates with the chant: "Kill that black ape."


Book Two marks the transition between Bigger's "flight" and "fate;" accordingly, this section is heavy with foreshadowing. There is a feeling of suspense that is sustained throughout Book Two, but this is not derived from the element of the unknown. Rather, the reader must watch Bigger become more and more entangled in the webs of fate. Certainly, Ma's warning of the "gallows" recurs as Bigger exhibits the "hubris" (pride) that precedes a great fall. Bigger's headlong rush towards his fate is not dampened when Bessie warns him that he will never be able to escape from the mobs and five thousand white police officers. And Bessie prophesies her own murder at Bigger's hands, adding that even if his confession of "accidental" homicide is valid, he will certainly be executed as a murderer/rapist. Bigger will be charged as the murderer/rapist of both Mary Dalton and his girlfriend, Bessie Mears, but it is his rape of Bessie that "proves" that he raped Mary. His brutal response to Bessie's foreshadowing brings an ironic sealing of his fate. When Bigger tells himself that he is entering a "new world," this foreshadowing is again, ironic. Certainly, Bigger is transforming into a "new person" living in a "new world," but the new worlds he will encounter are prison and the electric chair.

Bigger's scene with the rat opened Book One and the metaphor of the rat is continued in Book Two. Certainly, the rat remains a symbol of entrapment and execution, as much as it is a metaphor that testifies to Bigger's fate. Just as Bigger has been the predator of the rat (not to mention, Bessie and Mary), he has now become the prey. He is as ruthlessly stalked as the rat, and he too is trapped to be executed. The "rat" metaphor is strengthened in the scene of entrapment, when Bigger is surrounded by the mob. Among the slurs hurled, Bigger is described as "primitive" jungle thing. Someone cries "kill that black ape" and not long after a reference to Bigger as a "woolly black lizard," he is struck in the head by a metal object. This is not very different from the cursing that preceded Bigger's murder of the rat‹banging it in the head with a skillet; indeed, both the mob and Bigger say the exact same phrase "sonofabitch" after they have trapped their prey. And both Bigger and the rat rip and tear at their overpowering adversaries.

Book Two presents a darker sense of irony than the irony displayed in Book One. In one sense, Bigger is a young, inexperienced "petty thief" who has committed an adult crime. He is unable to keep track of the money he has stolen, he leaves visible tracks and his ransom note is pathetic. It is ironic that the authorities are convinced that Bigger has not worked alone because his crime is "too intelligent" to be the work of a black person. Even as Bigger's crimes are less than intelligent, Bigger's pride and overweening desire to prove himself push him to make unintelligent risks, losing his life in the gamble.

Wright presents a highly critical portrait of the news media, the private investigators and police detectives. Britten, a private investigator, is a parody of both "private eyes" and insular, racist thinkers. The height of Britten's investigation is a series of questions to determine whether Bigger is a communist‹a fact that will be proven if he "talks funny" having "spent time with Jews." Britten's ridiculous logic pervades a line of questioning that is girded by a fear of blacks mixing with whites. After the reporters arrive, the scene explodes into a farce. Wright now satirizes the pedantic journalists who are looking for an "angle" that might bring to light Bigger's "primitivism" and angst. At the same time, other reporters have taken on the role of police investigator, snooping in the Dalton's basement and discovering the ash of Mary's burned body. It is no surprise that the satirized press reports are full of hyperbole, portraying a "NEGRO MURDERER RAPIST" whose "primitivism" is brought to light in countless capitalized headlines of mob-inciting rhetoric.

Book Two makes several allusions, many of them to events well within Wright's social context as he was writing in 1939 and 1940. Wright makes references to the Scottsboro boys, and the "Lindbergh" and "Loeb" cases, situating Native Son within a certain vein of criminal-suspense novel. At the same time, Bigger's thoughts of how to commit a successful crime reveal that the tabloids are a poor education for the would-be murderer/kidnapper. Similarly, Jan's faith in the communist revolution is girded by the "Scottsboro boys" case. The hysteria and unique circumstances regarding these cases are ultimately of little value for the young, misguided characters. Wright's other major allusion in Book Two is to the ancient Greek dramas. Particularly in the "Oedipus" trilogy, the motifs of "hubris" and "blindness" were intertwined and Wright makes several direct allusions to the "tragic hero" whose angry pride leaves him spiritually blind. Bigger's fate robs him of his life, but this can only happen after his rage has robbed him of his sight.

There are two motifs that recur in Book Two. One of them is the motif of "time." This was initiated in Book One with the alarm clock of the novel's opening and the large clock that was ticking during Bigger's interview with Mr. Dalton‹both of these suggested that time was not on Bigger's side. This continues in Book Two, when Bigger must struggle to reconcile the details of his crime with the false time-schematic that he has constructed as an alibi. The section opens with Bigger's argument with Ma and then with Buddy, who both accurately recall falling asleep after 3am, waiting for Bigger to return home after his first evening at work. The clocks and eventually the "ringing" sound of police sirens, are all set against the "racing pace" inside Bigger's mind.

A second motif is the idea of "flight." Within the context of Book Two, Bigger goes to the "Paris Grill" with Bessie and as they become intoxicated, they discuss leaving for Harlem. In this time period, both Paris and Harlem are mythicized as havens‹not for criminals, but for black Americans in general. Certainly, Harlem was the more attainable of the two, but the "native son" is trapped at home and unable to free himself. The "flight" motif is also allusive in regards to the Greek story of Icarus: Bigger's dreams of "flight" create daydreams of being an aviator but in reality, he is running across the rooftops of dilapidated buildings, hoping to flee the mob. He is eventually caught and brought down low, unable to fly.

This "flight" motif is related to one of this section's three themes‹that of psychological escape. In the previous section, Wright casts Ma's dependence on religion as a placebo that makes her think that her son will work himself out, even as she is increasingly ineffective in her modish attempts to reform his character. Bessie is the closest parallel to Ma, though she finds her turns to the bottle, rather than the Bible, as the source of her escape from the weighty troubles of her life. While Bessie and Ma rely upon their modes of escape to ease and soothe their troubles, Bigger escapes in the opposite direction. Especially in Book Two, we find that Bigger's intention is to glut himself with pain and misery in order to blunt the senses by overcharging them into oblivion. Bigger thinks that if he can yell enough, kill and steal enough, he can harden himself from being able to feel any emotions. He might numb himself by the excesses of his crime. Instead, Bigger only becomes increasingly fragile‹he's trembling in Book Two and he will sob and sputter in Book Three.

Wright is especially unsympathetic towards characters who seek deluded, self-destructive and even spiritual escapes from the reality of the temporal world. Wright took issue with the established church, but he does not argue that religion is for the self-destructive or deluded, lumping churchgoers with alcoholics. Rather, religion like anything else in the life of a desperate, impoverished person can become a force that destroys the soul. A final thematic point worth noting is the violence that is enacted in the novel. Mary, the rat, Bessie and Bigger all suffer blows to the head, rather violent ones that snuff out their consciousness. In this Wright takes the literary principle of synecdoche "when a part of the body or organism comes to imply a condition for the whole," and turns it on its head. Just as these characters sought deluded escapes from reality, they lose consciousness before they die. (And in Book Three, we learn that Bessie survived the brick-blows to the head only to die of hypothermia in the air shaft, crawling in the direction of assistance.) The blows to the head imply a larger psychological condition, and of course, the blows to the head also have ramifications for the whole physical body because all of these creatures eventually die.

A second theme is the idea of blindness, which Wright connects to the ideas of youth and "hubris." In the reader's eyes, Bigger's proud announcement that he is entering a "new world" is a testament to his blindness. With so many opportunities to escape town and reject the destruction of violence, Bigger is trapped in the city. Ironically, Bigger is a chauffeur with access to a car and he drove this car to the train station. Bigger's pride and rage alternate to keep control of his mind and prevent him from seeing clearly. Consequently, Bigger's "flight" in Book Two is doomed before it begins and Bigger's "escape" is really a blind and headlong rush into the "fate" that is waiting for him at the end of the novel. Blindness is pervasive in the world of Native Son. Besides Mrs. Dalton's physical blindness, the distorting stereotypes and disfiguring violence of the "blindly raging" mob all serve as testaments to America's spiritual blindness. The Daltons believe that donating Ping-Pong tables to the dispossessed might give them hope; they are as blind as Bigger and the trauma of Mary's death is no assurance that they will be shaken out of their complacency.

The final theme of Book Two is "territory," continuing a thematic treatment begun in Book One. The "rat" metaphor and motif of "flight" interact in a way that heightens the importance of territory for Bigger. The ideas of the novel‹of racial segregation, of the predator and prey, invasion, capture and execution‹all of these are made explicit in Book Two and Bigger is the prey. He may have been emotionally trapped in Book One but in Book Two, Bigger is also physically trapped once the 5000 white police officers become a "swarm." With an vigilante sidekicks, the police easily close in on Bigger. Having invaded the Black Belt, they march from apartment to apartment until Bigger Thomas is found. Wright also makes "territory" an explicit concern by making the colors "white" and "black" literal. The swarm of police become a "sea of noise" and a "white and looming" force that is augmented by the white blizzard that is a "great natural force," complicit in its entrapment of Bigger. As Bigger sees the world, sky and snow are personified as more whites to augment and assist the white majority. At this point, the title of the novel is well past the point of irony, and the "native son" considers himself to be at war with his "native" land.