The protagonist and main character of Native Son is Bigger Thomas. He is the focus of the novel and the embodiment of its main idea–the effect of racism on the mental state of its black victims. Richard Wright’s exploration of Bigger’s psychological corruption gives us a perspective on the effect that racism had on the black population in 1930s America. Some critics of Native Son have questioned the effectiveness of Bigger as a character. For instance, the famous black writer James Baldwin has considered Bigger as too narrow to represent the full scope of black experience in America, but I believe he is a powerful and disturbing symbol of black rage.
As a 20-year-old black man cramped in a Chicago South Side apartment with his family, Bigger has lived a life defined by the fear and anger he feels toward whites. Bigger is limited by the eighth-grade departure from school, and by the racist real estate practices that forced him to live in poverty. Furthermore, he is subjected to messages from a popular culture that portrays whites as civilized and sophisticated and blacks as barbaric and subservient. Racism has severely reduced Bigger’s opportunities in life and even his conception of himself. He is ashamed of his family’s poverty and afraid of the whites who control his life–feelings he works hard to keep hidden, even from himself. When these feelings overwhelm him, he reacts with violence. “These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger–like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of some far-away, invisible force.” (31) Bigger robs people with his friends–though only other blacks, as the gang is too frightened to rob a white man–but his own violence is often directed at these friends as well.
Bigger sees white people as an overpowering and hostile force that is set against him in life. Just as whites fail to conceive of Bigger as an individual, he does not really distinguish between individual whites–to him, they are all the same, frightening and untrustworthy. Bigger feels little guilt after he accidentally kills Mary, the daughter of his white employers. In fact, he feels for the first time as though his life actually has purpose and meaning. Mary’s murder makes him believe that he has the power to assert himself against whites. Wright goes out of his way to show that Bigger is not a conventional protagonist, as his brutality and capacity for violence are extreme, especially in graphic scenes such as the one in which he decapitates Mary’s corpse in order to stuff it into the furnace.
Wright does not present Bigger as a hero to admire, but as a frightening and disturbing character created by racism. Wright’s point is that Bigger becomes a brutal killer because the dominant white culture fears that he will become a brutal killer. Wright emphasizes this vicious cycle of racism: though Bigger’s violence stems from racial hatred, it only increases the racism in American society, as it confirms racist whites’ basic fears about blacks. In Wright’s depiction, whites effectively transform blacks into their own negative stereotypes. Only when Bigger meets Max, his white, communist lawyer, does Wright offer any hope of breaking this cycle of racism.
Through interaction with Max, Bigger begins to perceive whites as individuals. Only when sympathetic understanding exists between blacks and whites will they be able to see each other as individuals, not merely as members of a stereotyped group. After he meets Max and learns to talk through his problems Bigger begins to redeem himself, recognizing white people as individuals for the first time and realizing the extent to which he has been affected by racism.
Early on in Native Son, Wright describes how Bigger retreats behind a “wall” to keep the reality of his situation from overwhelming him. This passage from Book Two shows the destructive effects of Bigger’s retreat.
“There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had…Never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.” (225)
He is isolated not only from his friends and family, but from himself as well. It seems that the black psyche is always divided. Bigger’s mind is split in two, leaving him unable to interact with others and unable to understand himself. It is this quest for wholeness that dominates Bigger’s life. Tragically, it is not until he has murdered two women and is soon to be executed that he is able to understand and grasp this wholeness. He is thrilled by his new realization, yet tormented by the fact that it comes too late, when he has only precious little time left to live.