Bigger Thomas as a Tragic Hero
When analyzing Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright’s protagonist in the novel Native Son, one must take into consideration the development of his characterization. Being a poor twenty-year-old Black man in the south side of Chicago living with his family in a cramped one- bedroom apartment in the 1930’s, the odds of him prospering in life were not in his favor. Filled with oppression, violence, and tragedy, Bigger Thomas’ life was doomed from the moment he was born. Through the novel, Bigger divulges his own dreams to provide for his family and to be anything but a “nobody.” Although Bigger struggled to fight through obstacles to pursue his dreams for the future, his chase for a better life came to an abrupt halt after the tragic accidental murder of his employer’s white daughter. Bigger Thomas fits the definition of a tragic hero, considering he is the protagonist of Native Son that experiences tragedy throughout the novel. Along with tragedy, Bigger also undergoes change as the novel progresses. By the end Bigger’s life story, he is able to change into a man that is no longer consumed through the fear in his heart. Due to his characteristics, Bigger Thomas can be compared to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Both characters are tragic heroes that are related by their struggles through tragedy and changes they undergo throughout their lives. By comparing the two characters, one can solidify the importance of both characters because of their tragedies they experience.
In the beginning of Native Son’s book one: Fear, one is able to realize that Bigger Thomas’s fate looms in the hands of his environment. He did not choose to live a life of poverty in the “Black Belt” of south side Chicago. This life was forced upon him. On page 20 of the novel, foreshadowing occurs as Bigger chats with his friend Gus about his future. He says, “Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me” (Wright 20). He displays a defeatist attitude that he further explains as he talks to Gus. He explains his reasoning as he questions, “Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships?”(Wright 20). As a result of this conversation, the reader is able to identify that Bigger goes through his life feeling defeated. He has minimal hope for his future as he lives in fear that something awful will happen to him due to the color of his skin and where he lives. Although one may argue that Bigger is a negative person who uses the color of his skin to justify his evils, this is not the case considering Bigger constantly is oppressed by his environment and lacks options in his life. The white people that surround Bigger give him no hope to prosper thus creating a tragic existence from the start. It is not until Bigger gets a job offer from a rich white philanthropist, Mr. Dalton that his life may be able to turn around for the better. Unfortunately for Bigger, this opportunity does just the opposite.
While accepting a job as a chauffer for the Dalton family, Bigger becomes optimistic about his current situation. Instead of constantly letting his mother and siblings down, he is now able to provide for them through this job by granting them $20 from his salary each week. Although the job acquired little skill, Bigger was satisfied that through this job, he could be less of a “nobody.” While reflecting on this new chapter in his life, Bigger expressed, “This would be an easy life. Everything was all right, except that girl” (Wright 59). The girl that worried Bigger was Mary Dalton, Mr. Dalton’s free spirited daughter that constantly challenged Bigger’s patience and authority. Their first encounter left Bigger skeptical of Mary Dalton’s motives. By their second encounter, Bigger was blatantly fearful that Mary would cause him to lose his job. During their second encounter, Bigger is ordered to chauffer Miss Dalton to the University for her nightly class. Unfortunately to Bigger’s surprise, Miss Dalton has another set of plans. She tells Bigger, “I think I can trust you” (Wright 64) in order to toy with his emotions and disobey his boss’ orders as Bigger, Mary, and Mary’s communist boyfriend Jan Erlone take the car out for a night in the loop. After a rousing evening on the town filled with booze and conversations about communism that left Bigger offended and ashamed to be black, it became Bigger’s duty to make sure that Mary was placed safely in her bed after being too intoxicated to stand on her own. Because Bigger strives to obey his boss, he feels inclined to personally place Mary in her own room in order to avoid trouble. This shows that Bigger Thomas took Mary to her bedroom with no intention of causing any problems in his new workplace reminding the reader that Bigger is not an evil human being, just a product of his environment. After being in Mary’s bedroom, Bigger decided to overstay his welcome due to his curious arousal with white women. To Bigger’s surprise, “a hysterical terror seized him” (Wright 85) as Mrs. Dalton makes an appearance in Mary’s bedroom to check on her daughter. Bigger automatically assumed that if he was caught in Mary Dalton’s bedroom at an odd hour of the night he would be immediately fired and accused of raping a white woman that could ruin his already tragic life forever. Due to her blindness, Bigger was not seen immediately, but he realized if Mary kept mumbling, Mrs. Dalton would make her way to the bed and eventually feel Bigger laying next to her. Out of pure fear, Bigger reacts irrationally as he suffocates Mary Dalton with a pillow in order to keep her quiet. Fear is what provoked the irrational response that killed Mary Dalton and turned Bigger Thomas’ life into a series of tragic events. In Malcolm Cowley’s scholarly article, Richard Wright: The Case of Bigger Thomas, he reminds the reader that despite his monstrous actions towards Mary Dalton, he is not the one to be blamed. Cowley makes the point that Bigger, “has been trained from the beginning to be a bad citizen. He had been taught American ideals of life…but had been denied the means of achieving them” (Cowley 113). Cowley’s observation justifies that Bigger reacted as a product of his environment that constantly taught him to be a bad citizen because he had no way to achieve the kind of life he would hope for. This provokes even more tragedy in Bigger’s life. Through the accidental murder of Mary Dalton, a tragic hero arose in the form of Bigger Thomas. This tragic hero was born out of pure fear for the white man, but as the novel progressed, the fear of oppression slowly left the tragic hero as he vows to no longer live in fear.
After Bigger Thomas’ accidental murder of Mary Dalton, Bigger’s life turns into a wild goose chase where he is forced to hide out until being caught by Chicago authorities. While awaiting his trial, certain to face death, Bigger meets the man that will defend his case. The defendant Max, a white communist decides to take on Bigger Thomas’ case in order to show white people the oppressive lifestyles black people were forced to survive on every day. At first Bigger was skeptical about a white man volunteering to defend a black man accused of murder and rape. He questioned, “Why would Max risk that white tide of hate to help him” (Wright 420). He is shocked that a white man would defend a black man out of the goodness of his heart. Max asks Bigger questions that remind Bigger that he is a human being among everyone else despite his race. At this point it does not matter to Bigger if Max saves his life, because Max has made him mature mentally and undergo change. After recounting a conversation where Max asked Bigger questions about what he wanted to do with his future, he expresses to Max, “ (you) asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a human” (Wright 424). After Max assures Bigger that he is a human, Bigger transforms his way of looking at life. Instead of feeling constantly oppressed, Bigger believes that he is a human that deserves a future much like everyone else despite the color of his skin. Instead of accepting his death sentence, Bigger realizes that he has the urge to live his life as a human that possesses the ability to have a future. As Max reassures him, “you’re human, Bigger” (Wright 424) Bigger comes to a change in his heart. He realizes that the fear he has sustained from the white people that constantly suppress him comes from his own thoughts. He now believes in himself as an individual that no longer lives in fear. Because of this, Bigger is able to accept his death sentence and change his outlook on life. Unfortunately, this change came too late in his existence to matter. Although Bigger loses the battle with life, he ultimately wins the battle with the color of his skin after accepting that he is just as human as Max, his defendant.
In James Baldwin’s article, “Many Thousand Gone- Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son,” Baldwin explains his interpretation of Bigger Thomas’ battle within Native son. He explains, “In this case the force of circumstance is not poverty merely, but color a circumstance which cannot be overcome, against which the protagonist battles for his life and loses” (Baldwin 53). This statement is not accurate considering a battle is not lost. Even though Bigger Thomas is sentenced to death, he is able to end his life with peace of mind knowing that he can die as a human without fear. The change Bigger Thomas has undergone shows that Bigger has overcome his oppression thus winning his battle. After reading Native Son, the protagonist Bigger Thomas resembled another tragic hero from the play, Death of a Salesman. By comparing Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman to Bigger Thomas, one can tell how similar their characters are although they have been created in different time periods and environments. Both Bigger and Willy are lost souls trying to give meaning to their ultimately meaningless lives. As a result of their self made pressure to have a purpose in life, they both are not well liked by their friends. After divulging a plan to rob a store owned by a white person, Bigger gives his friends Gus, G.H., and Jack strict instructions to meet together at a specific time. When Gus shows up to their meeting spot late, Bigger is outraged. He cusses at his friends and resorts to physical harm due to his anger. While his friends watch Bigger self-destruct into a man of rage, G.H. lets bigger know that, “You done spoiled things now” (Wright 40). Not only had Bigger spoiled the plan to rob the store, but Bigger had also spoiled his friendships as all three men leave him to wallow in his rage alone. A similar situation occurs in Death of a Salesman as Willy Loman receives a friendly visit with his friend Charley. Since both men were unable to sleep, they decided that a quick game of cards would be a sufficient outlet for their energy. While playing cards, Willy develops a hostile attitude towards Charley and constantly insults him on his choice of eating habits and card playing abilities. After Charley accuses Willy of cheating during their game, Willy evolves into a rage-infested tyrant and orders his friend to leave. Charley retorts, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” (Miller 1252) and storms out the door. This instance compares to Bigger Thomas’ uproar with his friends considering both outbursts led to their friends leaving them to wallow in their own anger.
In addition to not being well liked, both Willy Loman and Bigger Thomas live in constant fear throughout their stories. As a mediocre salesman, Willy Loman spends his days fearing that he is not successful enough to provide for his family. Because of this looming fear to be successful, Willy often lies to his family about his job in sales to make himself seem far superior to who he really is. For example, while Willy explains to his wife, Linda about the money he has made on one of his sales trips, he exaggerates the amount of money he made. This lie would have been unnoticed if Linda did not ask Willy to pay for the reparations of their leaky roof. When Linda asks him to pay, Willy exclaims, “A hundred and twenty dollars! My god, if business don’t pick up I don’t know what I’m gonna do” (Miller 1247). The shame Willy feels because he is unable to pay for the roof reparations directly correlates to the constant fear Willy has to become successful for his family. Bigger Thomas is also a character that constantly lives in fear. This fear is shown when Bigger is explaining to his lawyer Max about how whites have all the power and Bigger fears that because of this, his life will not amount to anything. He tells Max, “Well they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth, they like god…” (Wright 353). Since Bigger believes that white people control everything he fears that nothing can be done to make his life meaningful. Both Bigger Thomas and Willy Loman possess similar qualities that show are comparable through their lack of ability to make friends throughout their fear ridden lives. Through Bigger Thomas’ life of oppression, violence, and tragedy, one is able to tell that he struggles with the hopes of becoming anything but a “nobody.” Being the protagonist of a tragic novel, Bigger possesses the qualities of a tragic hero. Even though his life is cut short due to the tragic accidental murder of Mary Dalton, his boss’ wild daughter, Bigger is able to go through a change that brings him peace of mind as he awaits his sentence to die. Being a product of his environment, Bigger constantly lived in fear of the white man. With the help of his lawyer Max, Bigger was able to undergo change and realize that he too was a human that had no need to live in fear. Drawing from specific scenes from the text, Bigger Thomas can be compared to Willy Loman, the protagonist in the play, Death of a Salesman. Their characters were both inflicted with fear throughout their lives that eventually ended in tragedy for both characters.
Arthur Miller Death of a Salesman. Baym, Nina, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.
James Baldwin- Many Thousand Gone- Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son – Ed. Houston A Baker- Englewood NJ Prentice Hall. 1972-48-63 Malcolm Cowley- Richard Wright The Case of Bigger Thomas- Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son- Ed Houston A Baker – Englewood Hills NJ Prentice Hall. 1972-112-115
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1940.