Sympathy In Wrights 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 1930’s.

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 Dalton’s 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 nigger’s a
nigger” (Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper and Row, 1940.
154). Because of Bigger’s 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
Chicago’s 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
Bigger’s well-being. Wright intends for the reader to extend this fear
for the safety of Bigger toward the entire black community. The
reader’s sympathy is further encouraged when the reader remembers that
all this hatred has been spurred by an accident.

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While Bigger Thomas does many evil things, the immorality of his role
in Mary Dalton’s death is questionable. His hasty decision to put the
pillow over Mary’s 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
Bigger’s uneasiness. The reader struggles with Bigger’s task of getting
Mary into her bed and is relieved when he has safely accomplished his
mission. With the revelation of Mary’s death, Wright emphasizes
Bigger’s 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
Bigger’s eyes. He uses Bigger’s 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 Mary’s 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 Dalton’s 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 Bigger’s 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
Bigger’s 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 Bigger’s future as the book
closes and the death sentence is imposed leaves the reader with a sense
of sympathy at Bigger’s plight. Bigger’s state at the end of the novel
parallels the desperation of Black America’s 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. Bigger’s 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)