Native Son

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Native Son Book 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bigger awakes and realizes, just as his eyes open, that his has killed Mary and stuffed her body in a furnace; the events of the previous night, at the Dalton house, were real. He quickly realizes that, although the rest of his family is still asleep in their apartment, he has left Mary’s purse, with some of her money, lying out on a chair in the room, and his pocket-knife, still in his pocket, has dried blood on it. Bigger realizes that he can take some of the pamphlets Jan gave him, which are still in his pockets, and put them in his drawer at the Daltons’, making it seems like Jan was trying to forcibly convert him to the (purportedly evil) Communist cause.
Just like Raskolnikov, Bigger has left out, overnight, key bits of evidence that could be seen as incriminating. Bigger is lucky that no one in the apartment is yet awake—but Bigger will later on be undone by Mary’s bits of bone in the furnace, another glaring oversight that will cause the blame for the murder to fall squarely on Bigger. The small amount of money Bigger steals from Mary will also only last him less than a day, as will be seen.
Themes
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Bigger looks at the clock; it’s seven a.m. Bigger then decides that, in the hour and a half before he is to take Mary’s trunk to the train station, he will pack and work further on his alibi, to make it seem that Jan is Mary’s murderer. As he is gathering clothes and putting them in his own small suitcase, he wakes his mother, who asks if Bigger got the job at the Daltons. Bigger says that he did. His mother asks why Bigger came in so late the night prior—at four a.m.—but Bigger angrily replies that he came in at two. His mother quibbles for a moment, and says four—Bigger corrects her again, hoping to keep his alibi straight, in case he has to relate it later to the police.
Bigger senses, even as he knows he has left a trail of evidence linking himself to Mary’s murder, that it will be important to keep his story straight. But as it turns out, his mother is never questioned in connection with the murders—the journalist, upon finding bits of Mary’s bone, will have all the proof they need, when Bigger simultaneously flees the scene. One imagines that, if Bigger simply said Jan fed the bone into the furnace, he could have maintained his ruse at least a while longer.
Themes
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Vera and Buddy soon also wake up, and Vera, like Ma, asks Bigger if he got the job, and how much he’s making. Bigger angrily tells Vera the details of the job; Vera can sense that Bigger is upset, but Bigger won’t tell her why. Buddy takes Bigger’s side, and seems excited about Bigger’s new occupation. Ma prepares breakfast for the family, and as she is doing so, Buddy tells Bigger that Bessie came by their apartment the night before, telling Bigger’s family that she saw Bigger at Ernie’s eating with two white people. Bigger explains that this is part of his new driving job, and Buddy seems impressed by this.
Although it is not clear how Ma and Vera feel about Bessie, they nevertheless are close enough with her that it is not uncommon for Bessie to visit the Thomas home after-hours. In this case, Bessie serves as a the conversational link between Bigger’s actions the previous night—eating with Mary and Jan—and his family, who would not have learned this fact otherwise.
Themes
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
As Ma is preparing breakfast, Bigger realizes that this is perhaps the final time he will eat with his family. Although he is nervous about the crime he has committed, he also feels that he has “surpassed” his family now, that he has done something that has liberated him—killing a white woman—and that, now, there is no turning back—that Bigger is free to determine the course of his life. Bigger and the rest of the family eat bacon and eggs, and Bigger jumps up, saying he has to go. Realizing that he ought to pretend he does not have the cash he has in fact stolen from Mary’s purse, Bigger asks his mother for a half-dollar, which she gives him. Bigger walks out the door.
Bigger’s first realization that his murder of Mary has been “empowering” to him. Although it is not entirely clear, even as the novel progresses, what Bigger means by this, it is perhaps sufficient to say that, by killing Mary, Bigger has changed the course of his life. He has, in a sense, broken through the frustrating binary in which he has had to live—the choice between a job he hates and his family’s total poverty. In this instance, Bigger feels, if erroneously, that he has taken his fate into his own hands.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
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Buddy comes after Bigger and meets him on the staircase; Buddy hands his brother the large wad of cash that had fallen out of Mary’s purse, which Bigger thought he had stuffed securely in his pocket. Buddy asks where the money came from, but Bigger tells Buddy not to mention to anyone, under any circumstances, that Bigger has this money. Buddy agrees, and looks at his brother with a mix of fascination and awe. Bigger says he has to go, and leaves his brother, walking out into the snowy morning.
Buddy, throughout this entire ordeal, will never cease to support Bigger, even when Bigger is in jail—at that moment, Buddy asks, perhaps not entirely seriously, if he can be of any help to Bigger in breaking out of prison. Buddy, like Jan and Max, support Bigger, although Buddy does so out of brotherly love, and Jan and Max do so out of a sense of class solidarity with a man they consider a worker and comrade.
Themes
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Walking back to the Daltons’, Bigger stops off in a drugstore, where he finds G.H. at the soda counter. Bigger buys G.H. a pack of cigarettes, and G.H., surprised at Bigger’s generosity, asks what has changed—Bigger hints that his job at the Daltons’ has made him a rich man overnight. Jack and Gus enter, too, and Bigger, to show that there are no hard feelings, buys them all packs of cigarettes and wishes them a good day, saying he has to head off to work. On his walk to a tram-car, which will take him to the Daltons’, Bigger appears positive about his plans, believing that, when news of Mary’s death is revealed, everyone will immediately blame Jan and his “red” (Communist) companions.
Perhaps Bigger’s generosity in this sequence should have been enough for the members of the gang to realize that something was amiss—it wouldn’t make sense that, after one day on the job, Bigger would already be wealthy enough to provide cigarettes for all his friends, since he is only being paid a relatively small wage to serve as a driver. But the gang seems happy for Bigger—and, perhaps, relieved that he is no longer angry at them for the botched robbery of the previous day.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
On the tram-ride to the Daltons’, Bigger thinks about the possibility, however improbable it might seem, of a large group of black citizens rising up against their white overlords in Chicago. Bigger seems to wish that this would happen—or, at the very least, that blacks would organize themselves and agitate for better rights—but Bigger thinks to himself that it would take an enormous effort for African Americans to do this. Bigger also remarks on the growing difficulties in the world—the Second World War is about to start, and there is strife in Spain, Italy, and Germany—and he wonders if African Americans in Chicago have any hope of standing up to the white majority, if, in turn, entire countries are having difficulty holding back the tides of dictatorship and war.
Although there are not many references to the “outside world” in the novel, Bigger here begins to wonder about the state of war in Europe, which, based on other events of the novel, seems to place the book in the late 1930s, when the Spanish Civil War was raging, and when Europe was dividing itself into Fascist and Allied group. Bigger senses that there is not total uniformity among segments of the population he considers “white” or “powerful.” But Bigger also senses that these decisions, of war and power and politics, are not typically made by African Americans in the United States.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger’s musings are cut short by the end of his tram-ride; he arrives at the Dalton house, and, entering, is wished good morning by Peggy, who tells Bigger that he ought to tend to the furnace, which, according to her, burned hot the night before, but is now burning only feebly. Bigger says he will look to the furnace immediately. Peggy tells Bigger that it is nearly time to take Mary to the station; Bigger begins his alibi, telling Peggy that Mary had him keep the car outside overnight (the car is now covered in fresh snow); Bigger also reports that Mary asked him to bring her trunk downstairs in preparation for her departure the next day.
The snow, which has occurred over night, paints the entire day with a kind of eerie whiteness and silence. Bigger will have to trudge through the snow several times, to get to Bessie’s house, and will have to drive through the snow to get to the train station. If anything, the snow appears to add to the closeness and stillness of the scenes—the fact that Bigger is muffled, stifled by the events of the previous night, and that eventually he will be overwhelmed by them.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Peggy goes upstairs to get dressed, and Bigger goes down to the furnace-room, where he fears that Mary’s body might still be visible among the coals—or, even worse, that the body has somehow, miraculously, avoided being burnt at all, which would completely foil Bigger’s plan. Bigger notices that the furnace seems especially full, but he cannot detect anything particular among the ashes; he adds more coal to the furnace, then drags Mary’s trunk out to the car, making it seem as though Bigger’s preparations for driving Mary have not been interrupted.
Even at this point in the novel, Bigger senses that furnace might not burn hot enough to have completely obliterated all traces of Mary’s body—crematoria, for instance, must burn at exceptionally high temperatures for long periods of time to reduce bodies totally to ashes. But Bigger also figures that he will be able to dispose of these ashes at some point, undetected.
Themes
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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Peggy returns to the kitchen and asks if Bigger has seen Mary come downstairs yet that day; Bigger says that he has not, and Peggy, not knowing how Mr. and Mrs. Dalton will react when they wake up, tells Bigger to take Mary’s trunk down to the train station, for it to be sent along to Detroit (presumably, Peggy thinks, along with Mary). Bigger drives the trunk to the station and drives back, navigating the now quite snowy streets.
The trunk will be one of the first indications that all was not right with Mary the previous night, as Mrs. Dalton will realize that Mary did not pack a good deal of new clothing for the “dances” in Detroit, meaning that perhaps someone else packed Mary’s trunk for her.
Themes
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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
When he returns to the Daltons’ house, Bigger is asked by Peggy if he’d like any breakfast; he has no appetite, but agrees to eat some oatmeal and milk. Peggy asks who Mary was with the night before, and Bigger says it was Jan, while also insinuating that Bigger left the car with Jan and Mary, in the driveway, and that Jan was the last person to see Mary before she went to bed. He then goes to check on the furnace and heads back to his bedroom, wondering what will happen when the Daltons find out that Mary is missing.
Bigger’s meals with Peggy never seem to be comfortable affairs. Although Bigger is provided for at the Daltons’ house—he is indeed given a great deal of food, more or less whenever he wants—it is his fate in the novel that he can never enjoy this bounty, as he is either too ashamed at the Daltons’ paternalistic generosity, or too nervous after the crime to eat a meal unencumbered.
Themes
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger, in his room, hears Mrs. Dalton and Peggy talking in the hall; he goes into a closet in his bedroom, from which he can hear Mrs. Dalton and Peggy quite distinctly. Mrs. Dalton asks Peggy why the car was in the driveway all night; Peggy responds that Mary is not in her room, that her bed appears not to have been slept in, and that Jan called that morning (as he promised to do, in Bigger’s presence, the night before), checking in on Mary before her train-ride to Detroit. Peggy wonders if Jan’s calling wasn’t just a feint, used to make it seem that Mary did not stay at his house the night before. Peggy seems to believe that Mary’s absence is simply one of her pranks, an instance of “bad behavior” with Jan.
Through Peggy and Mrs. Dalton’s interaction, the reader begins to learn that Mary has been accustomed to this sort of behavior previously—and, indeed, Mrs. Dalton’s response the night before about Mary’s drunkenness (and the very existence of the news-reel showing Mary on vacation with Jan) indicates that Mary has a reputation as something of a reckless socialite. But neither Peggy nor Mrs. Dalton is prepared to believe that this recklessness could lead to any serious harm on Mary’s part.
Themes
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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
But Mrs. Dalton responds that Mary was in her room at two a.m. the night before—when Mrs. Dalton crept in and smelled liquor in the room—and wonders if something hasn’t happened to Mary. Mrs. Dalton then feels around in Mary’s room and discovers that a good many of Mary’s new clothes were not packed in the trunk—this causes Mrs. Dalton to believe that Mary didn’t pack her trunk at all the night before, and that something happened to Mary to keep her from going to Detroit as planned. Mrs. Dalton says that she’d like to speak with Bigger later that day, after she’s thought for a moment about where Mary could be.
Bigger realizes, upon overhearing this conversation, that he will need an airtight alibi in order to fool the Daltons long enough to make his escape. Although Bigger was panicked during the commission of the crime, and is still panicked now, he nevertheless recognizes how important it will be to shift blame convincingly onto Jan, the most likely other suspect in Mary’s murder.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Some time passes, which Bigger spends dozing in his room. Mrs. Dalton has Peggy ring for Bigger; Bigger hears it on the third ring, and Mrs. Dalton comes to his door, asking about the events of the previous night. Bigger knows that Mrs. Dalton’s embarrassment about Mary’s disappearance—which she believes is a result of Mary’s sexual impropriety with Jan—will cause her not to grill him too harshly. Bigger makes it seem that Jan came back to the house with Mary, that Jan told Bigger to leave the car in the driveway, and that Jan then went up to Mary’s room with her—and that both of them were inebriated. Mrs. Dalton thanks Bigger for this information and tells him he can have the rest of the day off.
Bigger realizes, here, that Mrs. Dalton will be nervous to talk to him about subjects she considers taboo—namely, the sexual activities of her daughter, or these supposed sexual activities. In this way, Bigger evinces a nuanced understanding of the motivations and hesitations of someone in Mrs. Dalton’s position. At other times, however, Bigger seems blind to the expectations or desires of those around him—especially in his relationship with Bessie, whose feelings he rarely takes into account.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger decides that he will take the afternoon and visit with Bessie, his girlfriend, whom he glanced briefly the night before at Ernie’s. He rides a streetcar to Bessie’s neighborhood and thinks, en route, of how, if the white people he passes in the streetcar knew that he had just murdered a white woman, they would beat and murder him. Bigger also scolds himself for not managing to make more money out of the murder—he briefly considers the idea that he might have pretended to kidnap Mary to extort more from the Daltons.
As evidenced by his interaction with Mrs. Dalton in the previous scene, Bigger has become far more aware of the feelings of those around him, perhaps because the initial shock of committing the murder has worn off. Bigger has also started to see the murder as something he should have profited from. In his state of poverty and anger, he shows no remorse.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger arrives at Bessie’s small, squalid apartment, and greets her cheerfully. Bessie does not know “what’s gotten into” Bigger, and when Bigger asks what Bessie’s been up to, Bessie replies that she’s been working, and that she wonders if Bigger has been doing the same. Bigger says he’s been very busy, which is why it’s been difficult for him to call Bessie or see her, but now he shows her the wad of money he’s taken from Mary’s purse, making it seem like the money was given to him by the Daltons; he promises to be sweet to Bessie from now on, and says that she can stay with him occasionally at his room in the Daltons’ house.
Bessie is not so easily won over in this case, and though she receives a relatively small amount of description in the course of the novel, Bessie is one of the work’s more interesting characters. She is loyal to Bigger, although she seems to understand Bigger’s selfishness, his desire to further his own life at the expense of other people’s. By the same token, Bessie agrees to go along with Bigger’s plan, half out of fear, and half out of desperation at her current, impoverished circumstances.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bessie is alarmed at the sight of all this cash, and asks Bigger several times where he could have gotten it all at once. They count the money; it amounts to 125 dollars. Bigger then tells Bessie that he’s going to be sweet to her, without revealing any more information about the money; they make love and nap for a time. When they wake up, Bigger seems distant, and Bessie asks whether Bigger doesn’t have something on his mind; Bigger replies that he does, but wonders if he’ll be able to share this information with Bessie. Bessie says she can keep a secret and wants to know, but Bigger replies that they should go out and get a drink.
What Bigger has “on his mind” at this moment could be a matter of some dispute. Perhaps he wants to fill Bessie in on the entire truth of the murder—how he killed Mary accidentally, and how they ought to flee—but it is more likely, at this point, that he is considering how to tell Bessie only part of the truth, in order to use her in his scheme to collect a ransom from the Daltons. Again, Bigger shows that he has lost some of the panic of the previous night, and is thinking farther ahead in his own self-interest.
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Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bessie continues to ask Bigger about the nature of what he’s been up to, and Bigger replies that it will be easier to talk once they’re seated at the Paris Grill, the bar where they will have drinks. Bigger thinks that what Bessie really wants is alcohol—he believes that she drinks to forget the difficulties of her life—and what Bigger lusts after is Bessie’s body. This reverie is interrupted when they reach the bar; Bigger orders two gin cocktails, and Bessie drinks hers quickly. Bessie again asks Bigger if he will tell her what’s on his mind.
Bessie’s alcoholism is not given much space in the novel, but it is clear, from her interactions with Bigger, that she is dependent on alcohol, and that she uses it primarily to forget the difficulties of her life—some of which are caused by Bigger’s treatment of her. Bessie is perhaps the most pitiable of the novel’s characters, caught between a difficult world and a relationship with Bigger that she cannot escape.
Themes
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Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger decides, on the fly, to tell Bessie a half-true version of what has happened to Mary. He says that Mary has eloped with Jan, that no one can find the couple, and that he, Bigger, has taken some of the money from Mary’s room—thus the large wad of cash he’s been holding in his pocket. Bigger tells Bessie that the two of them can make it seem that Jan, or someone else, has abducted Mary—Bigger and Bessie can therefore ask for a ransom, and make their way out of town while Mary is still unaccounted for. Bigger tells Bessie that it’s very important she keep this plan secret, if it’s going to work.
Bigger has grown more confident, and is more capable, in this section, of creating a story that can make it seem that he was not the murderer, but that, nonetheless, he is in a position to profit from Mary’s disappearance. Despite this, Bessie appears to sense, from the beginning, that Bigger knows more information about Mary’s condition than he is willing to let on—and this will be confirmed the next day.
Themes
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Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger and Bessie leave the bar; Bessie is worried about the plan, since it is so obviously illegal, since it exposes her to criminal prosecution—and, most of all, since she can’t be sure that Mary wouldn’t return on her own. Bigger makes it seem that it’s very unlikely Mary would return in this way, and Bessie asks how Bigger can be so sure, but Bigger doesn’t respond. Outside, Bessie tells Bigger that she’s scared of the plan, but that she’ll go along with it to please Bigger, if necessary. Bigger gives Bessie some money and tells her he’ll meet with her the following night. On his walk back to the Daltons’ house, Bigger thinks on the “blindness” he has seen, from Bessie to his mother to the Daltons—no one can believe that Bigger would be capable of killing Mary, right under their noses, without their realizing.
One might ask why Bessie goes along with Bigger’s plan, despite voicing her objections to him. Although Bessie knows that her relationship with Bigger is an abusive one, she feels powerless to change her circumstances—she feels she needs the “protection” a man can offer her, even though Bigger provides nothing like protection, and indeed only seems to imperil Bessie. Bessie also perhaps figures that there are few places in Chicago where she can hide from him; and Bessie makes little mention of other family and friends, indicating that Bigger alone takes an interest in her life, however minimal.
Themes
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Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
This feeling, that everyone in the world is blind, and that he, Bigger, can see, makes Bigger feel proud of his own strength. He reaches the Daltons’ house, and runs into Peggy, who tells Bigger that Mrs. Dalton wants him to pick up Mary’s trunk from the train station, since the family has called to Detroit and Mary has not arrived at her destination. The family is now extremely worried on Mary’s behalf, and Bigger fears that his plot is becoming more complicated.
Another indication for the family that something is seriously wrong with Mary, that she is perhaps no longer just playing one of her “pranks,” but instead that she has gone missing. Bigger’s confidence in the previous scene with Bessie is tested by the harsh reality of this new situation—his alibi will have to withstand official scrutiny.
Themes
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Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Mr. and Mrs. Dalton come down to the kitchen to speak with Bigger before he leaves to pick up the trunk from the station. Mr. Dalton asks Bigger, directly, what happened the night before, and Bigger, lying to keep his alibi straight, says that Jan returned to the house with Mary, that Mary told Bigger to take the trunk down to the basement, and that Jan told Bigger to keep the car outside all night. Bigger then implies that Jan and Mary were in Mary’s bedroom together after two o’clock.
One might stop to imagine, here, how likely it would be that an authority would believe mild-mannered Jan to be Mary’s abductor. It is perhaps an evocation only of the strength of the Communist “menace” that the police and Britten fear Jan so greatly, even though he tends to preach a mostly non-violent kind of progressive politics.
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Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger goes to the train station, picks up the trunk, and returns to the Dalton house. He thinks, en route, that he will have to “fasten” his story straight in order to keep the authorities from figuring out that Bigger is lying about Jan’s presence in the house, and other details of the previous night. Bigger takes the trunk downstairs to the furnace room, and, just as he is considering busting open the trunk to look inside and again examine its contents, Henry comes into the room, startling Bigger. Henry asks Bigger what’s the matter, and Bigger, saying nothing, is introduced by Henry to Britten, a private investigator hired by Henry to look into Mary’s disappearance.
Again, it seems in this sequence of events that time has been “collapsed” somewhat, as Britten, the private investigator, is hired by Dalton in a relatively small span of time—a few hours—between Mary’s disappearance and Bigger’s return from the train station. One might imagine that Henry has a PI on retainer; one might also simply conclude that, in this part of the novel, Wright wanted to introduce Britten’s character as quickly and seamlessly as possible.
Themes
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Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Britten says hello to Bigger and asks, first, to see in the trunk; because it is locked, Britten will need to bust it open, and for this Henry asks for the hatchet—the same one Bigger burned the night before in the furnace, after using it to chop off Mary’s head. Bigger feigns looking for the hatchet and says it’s not in the furnace room—Britten says it’s no problem, and breaks open the trunk himself, finding very little clothing inside. Britten then has Bigger sit on the trunk and, again, answer some questions about the previous night.
An important piece of evidence, missing. Although Bigger knew that he had to destroy the hatchet, because it was covered in blood, he did not count on its absence being an important issue; here, however, Dalton and Britten cannot find the hatchet when they need it, and any seasoned PI might determine, from that, that perhaps the hatchet was used in the commission of the crime.
Themes
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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger realizes that now is the time to go into more detail with his story, in order to convince the Daltons and the authorities that Jan is responsible for Mary’s disappearance. Bigger tells the story of the night more or less as it happened, except making it seem that Jan came back to the house with Bigger and Mary, and that Jan then went into Mary’s room after telling Bigger to take the trunk down to the basement, and to keep the car parked out in the driveway. Britten asks Bigger if Jan attempted to give him any Communist literature, or talk to him about Communism, and Bigger, sensing that this is an opportunity to make Jan seem suspicious, agrees that Jan did in fact do so.
For many in the novel, it’s a very small leap between “Communist propaganda” and “murder.” It seems not to matter to characters like Britten that committed Communists of Jan’s nature are mostly pacifists, and devoted to causes they find unjust. It is far easier for Britten and Dalton to assume that Communists want the destruction of the American government and the “American way of life.”
Themes
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Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Britten suddenly begins yelling at Bigger, asking if he, too, is a Communist, and if Bigger is therefore in on Jan’s plot to kidnap or hurt Mary. But Bigger, genuinely frightened, says that he doesn’t know anything about Communism, and that he was only following orders the previous night, the first night of his new job at the Daltons’ house. Henry seems convinced by Bigger’s innocence—by the idea that Bigger is as scared of Communism as any God-fearing American would be—and Britten, grudgingly going along with Dalton’s assessment, tells Bigger he might have questions for him later. Dalton tells Bigger to go upstairs and continue working for the family as usual.
Henry, perhaps to his credit, does not suspect that Bigger is responsible for Mary’s disappearance. It is unclear, initially, why this is the case: perhaps he is more inclined to think Jan is the criminal; perhaps he feels that Bigger did not have the means to plan for such a kidnapping. In the second case, it is Henry’s subtle shade of racism that keeps him from seeing the truth that is right before him—that Bigger himself, the “hired driver,” is the responsible party.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger goes back up to his room and hears Mr. Dalton and Britten talking in the kitchen. Dalton defends Bigger, in his typically paternalistic way, saying that many black young men from the South Side never get a chance, and that he, Dalton, only wants to help them. Britten, on the other hand, has only derogatory things to say about African Americans, and wonders whether Bigger can be trusted in his account of the previous night. Britten says that he will go about trying to contact Jan, to see if Bigger’s story stands up to scrutiny.
Britten is very much the opposite of Dalton—he is suspicious of seemingly anyone in a position of inferiority, or with “something to prove.” This includes both Jan and Bigger. Interestingly, once Bigger seems to be the actual criminal, Britten never gives up hope that Jan was somehow implicated, perhaps in helping to “recruit” Bigger to his Communist cause.
Themes
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Bigger lies down and has a nightmare about the previous night, in which he, Bigger, is running in a terrible apocalyptic landscape, and in which a furnace looms, burning bright and hot, on the horizon. Bigger awakes to the sound of a bell ringing, and realizes he is being called from below. When he arises, he answers the door to find Jan, Mr. Dalton, and Britten wanting to speak with him. The three come into Bigger’s room. Britten asks Jan whether it’s true that Jan gave Bigger Communist pamphlets and then came back to the Dalton house the night before. Jan says he didn’t come to the Daltons’ at all, and asks Bigger directly why Bigger is lying to the authorities to say that this is so.
There are very few scenes like this in the novel, where Bigger is allowed to describe, via the narrator, the subjective material of his own mind. Often, Bigger’s thoughts are reported in the same manner they would be in something like a newspaper article—Bigger’s confusions appear more or less straightforward as they make their way to the reader. But in this case, Bigger’s dream is strange, and is described strangely—all that can be discerned from it is the magnitude of Bigger’s anxiety about his crime.
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Jan continues to describe the events of the previous evening—he does not lie, but instead says that, although he gave Bigger some Communist literature, he, Jan, did not come back to the Daltons’, nor did he tell Bigger to do anything with Mary’s trunk. Jan wonders, genuinely, who or what has put Bigger up to lying about the night’s events—Jan cannot convince Britten or Dalton that he isn’t lying, and although Jan says he’s going to go back to his own apartment (since Britten is only a PI and not the police), Britten says that he’ll call the authorities and have Jan picked up for questioning. Britten and Dalton seem to trust Bigger’s word over Jan’s at this point in the conversation.
One might question whether Jan’s response, here, or the amount of his emotional investment, seems true to life. Always rational, Jan simply tells Britten that the night’s events did not happen as Bigger describes them—although he is clearly agitated, he does not seem to evince the righteous indignation of someone who has been falsely accused. Later on, Jan will be one of the first to accept Bigger’s "apology" for having shifted the blame, even though Bigger never really apologizes to Jan.
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On the way out of the house, Jan runs into Bigger, who has gone down the staircase (Britten and Mr. Dalton have already left Bigger’s room to discuss matters further); Jan asks Bigger, again, why Bigger is lying about the previous night, but Bigger says he doesn’t want to talk to Jan. The two walk down to the furnace room, and, after Jan continues asking Bigger what’s the matter, and why Bigger is lying to Britten, Bigger pulls out his gun and threatens Jan, saying he does not want to talk to him, and that Jan ought to leave the premises. Jan, confused as to Bigger’s motivations and Mary’s whereabouts, leaves the house, and Bigger, in a kind of rage, walks out into the still-snowy night.
As compared to Jan’s relative calm, Bigger becomes more and more upset the longer Jan’s stays in the house. This, perhaps, because Bigger is himself anxious, deep down, for having shifted the blame to Jan, whom he knows to be innocent. It is a testament to the strangeness of Bigger’s anger that he is almost willing, in the Daltons’ own house, to shoot Jan, rather than to talk to him about the nature of his crime—one gets the sense that Jan would listen to, and maybe try to help, Bigger, if Bigger chose to confide in him.
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Bigger goes to a corner store and gruffly asks for some paper, a pencil, and an envelope, then rides the tram-car to Bessie’s apartment, remarking along the way that Mr. Dalton’s company owns the apartment house in which Bigger was raised, and probably the one where Bessie lives, too—Dalton claims he is all for helping African Americans, but he’s also happy to take their money and force them to live in squalid conditions. At Bessie’s apartment, Bigger gets out of the tram-car and walks up to her room, banging loudly on the door and asking to be let in. Bessie does so, but seems afraid of Bigger; he tells her to shut the blinds, get him a knife (for sharpening the pencil), and have a drink while he works.
As it turns out, Mr. Dalton owns not only the apartment building that Bigger’s family lives in, but also the tenement where Bessie lives (presumably alone). It becomes clear, throughout the course of the novel, that Dalton owns a great deal of the Black Belt, and he later admits that he refuses to rent to African Americans outside this region of town because it’s an “old custom” to keep African American families “together” in this way—a more or less bald statement of segregated racism.
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Bigger puts on gloves (so his fingerprints cannot be traced on the letter), and writes a ransom note, pretending to be a Communist from Jan’s group called “Red.” The note, scrawled quickly, asks for ten thousand dollars to be brought the following evening at midnight, in small bills, to a stretch of Michigan Avenue on which Bessie will be stationed, in an abandoned apartment—when the car sees a flashlight shine three times, it’s to drop off the money out the window of the car and speed away; Bessie will then collect the cash, and Bigger and Bessie will leave town.
Although it is not expressed explicitly in this section, one gets the idea that the note does not bear the style of one written by members of the Communist Party in Chicago—that it is not in the manner of the informational pamphlets Jan has provided to Bigger earlier in the narrative. Nevertheless, Bigger goes to great lengths to make the note appear anonymous, even making sure that he does not touch it with his bare hands.
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Bessie comes up to Bigger after he finishes the note, asking once again where Mary is, and if Bigger knows about her whereabouts—she begins to think that Bigger himself has kidnapped or harmed Mary. Bigger finally breaks down and admits to having killed Mary; he tells Bessie that she’s now “in” the plot “as deep” as he is, and that, because she has spent some of the money Bigger gave her the night before, she could also be arrested and tried, along with Bigger. Bessie is terrified by this, but Bigger says they are going out to scout locations for an abandoned apartment, wherein Bessie can wait, the following night, for the Dalton family’s drop-off of the ten thousand dollars.
Of course, this is not exactly true—although Bigger has implicated Bessie in the events of the previous night and day, Bessie has not yet committed a crime, and she is mostly just scared of Bigger—worried that he might harm her in some way. Bigger proves himself adept at manipulating Bessie, at getting her to do exactly what he wants, and when he wants it—and Bessie seems to be powerless to stop the engines of fate, which she acknowledges are carrying her toward bad luck and death.
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They leave Bessie’s apartment and head to Michigan Avenue; Bigger has brought a flashlight along, and they duck into an abandoned apartment building, one that used to be owned by wealthy white families who have since fled the Black Belt. Bessie has begun whimpering and crying to herself, and when Bigger tells her, continually, to be quiet, Bessie finally asks aloud if Bigger isn’t just going to kill her, too, and whether it might not be better if Bigger were in fact to do so.
A bit of foreshadowing. Bessie understands that, at this point, Bigger is pursuing his task single-mindedly, and Bessie also senses, before Bigger does, the futility of his scheme to extort the Daltons through a fake kidnapping. Bessie will spend much of the rest of the novel in an alcoholic stupor, as a way of coping with the terrible stress of Bigger’s plot.
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Bigger gets Bessie, finally and grudgingly, to agree to wait for the “drop-off” of the money the following night, in the abandoned apartment they have staked out. Bigger leaves Bessie, tells her to be patient and calm, and says he will see her soon. Bigger walks through the snowy, cold night back to the Daltons’ house, where he goes up to the front door furtively and drops the ransom note, sealed in an envelope, under the front door. He is nervous that he has committed himself to this additional ruse, on top of already having murdered Mary, but he feels, too, that he is powerful enough to pull off the trick. Bigger then goes inside through the back entrance.
Although, of course, Bigger’s murder of Mary is the dominant plot “hinge” of the novel, it is nevertheless greatly important, at this point, that Bigger drops off the ransom note, for he sets into motion a belief that Mary has been kidnapped which is difficult to quell. The amount of media attention caused by this announcement will bring reporters to the Daltons’ home, and it is reporters who find Mary’s bones hidden in the furnace.
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Bigger finds that a large dinner has already been set out for him by Peggy. Bigger lays into the food, and finds that he is famished, having eaten only little in the past 24 hours. Bigger also sees that Peggy has brought in the envelope from the front hallway, and set it on the table in the kitchen—Bigger eyes the envelope nervously, until Mr. Dalton comes in and takes it away. While Peggy tells Bigger that he should be up the next morning at 8 a.m., in order to drive Henry to work, Henry himself comes back into the kitchen, with Bigger present, and asks Peggy who dropped the letter off at the house. Bigger notices that Henry looks stunned by the contents of the note.
Bigger finally has a meal after waiting an immensely long time to eat—this is perhaps the last moment of comfort he will find as a “free man,” as certainly his trial, in the final section of the book, is a harrowing and nearly torturous experience. Dalton, for his part, seems not even to notice Bigger at this point in the novel; he is too concerned about Mary’s wellbeing, now that he “knows” she has been kidnapped.
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Bigger goes back up to his room, from which he can hear a commotion downstairs. Henry has called Britten over to the house once again, and Britten immediately begins asking questions of Peggy—wondering if anyone else what at the house that afternoon, if Bigger has been acting strangely, and, notably, if Bigger has referred to anyone as “comrade” or has used other instances of Communist language. Peggy says that she doesn’t believe so; Bigger waits, hears more commotion downstairs, and then hears Britten calling for Bigger to join him in the furnace room. Bigger obeys and goes downstairs, nervous now.
Britten returns, and has even more questions for members of the Dalton household. Britten seems to think there is a link between Bigger and a cell of the Communist Party in Chicago—what Britten does not realize until later, however, is that Bigger acted, and committed murder, out of fear and out of no set of principles. And Jan, a representative of the Communist Party, wanted only to help Bigger—not to recruit him as a part of a systematic crime-wave through the city.
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Britten greets Bigger curtly in the furnace room; Britten has been joined by three men, his “associates” at the private investigation firm. Britten continues to ask Bigger the same questions he asked of him earlier in the day, but with a renewed urgency: what Bigger did the night before, what Bigger saw, how Jan behaved with Mary, what Jan told him to do with the trunk. Bigger repeats his story and makes no glaring errors in recounting it to Britten.
The furnace room will prove to be the center of events in the Dalton home for the remainder of this part of the novel. It is the furnace’s malfunction, caused by Bigger’s lack of attendance to it, which causes him to clear the ashes, to reveal the bones—and which forces him to flee the house entirely.
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Britten asks Bigger, pointedly, if Bigger is a Communist, and Bigger says he is not, and that he knows very little about Communism. A voice from upstairs calls down to the furnace room—newspaper reporters have arrived at the house, and though Britten says he can provide them with no information at the time, one reporter answers that the story has already hit the pressed: the headline is “Red Nabbed as Girl Vanishes.”
As in any era, reporters tend to arrive even in what appears to be a situation lacking any evidence; it is not made clear how the reporters learned of Mary’s disappearance, but once they are at the Dalton house, they immediately take hold of the story, and indeed make the story, when it is journalists themselves who find Mary’s remains.
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Britten goes upstairs for a moment to talk to Henry, then returns to say that Dalton will not have anything official to say on the matter till Tuesday (it is still Sunday, the day after the crime was committed). The reporters ask if Mary is missing, if Jan is responsible, if Jan has been arrested, and what Dalton plans to do about finding his daughter. Britten admits that they don’t know where Mary is, but does not provide any more information. One nameless reporter attempts to talk softly to Bigger and slips him some money, asking him for all the information he has; but Bigger realizes he cannot speak to the reporter, says as much to him, and slips the money back into his hand.
An interesting and relatively subtle part of the novel. The journalist’s actions here are barely discernible even by Bigger, to whom they are directed; Bigger only realizes after missing a beat that the journalist is attempting to bribe him. The fact that Bigger makes a “principled” stand here, and returns the money, might be viewed either as Bigger’s self-interest—not wanting to talk to authorities at all—or as a strange kind of loyalty to the Daltons’ privacy.
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Mr. Dalton comes downstairs, however, and announces that he would like to make a statement after all regarding his daughter’s disappearance. Mrs. Dalton follows him down the stairs, and the reporters gasp at her white, nearly glowing presence, whom the narrator describes as being “ghost-like.” Henry tells the reporters that he has asked the police to release Jan and drop all charges against him; Henry goes on to apologize to Jan for the statements made by Bigger and others that put him in jail in the first place. Henry then announces that Mary has been kidnapped by a man calling himself Red, whose note the Daltons have recently received; because this note was delivered when Jan was in custody, Dalton has reason to believe that Jan is not involved.
Dalton, for his part, was never as convinced as Britten was that Jan was involved in criminal activity, and because Jan was in prison when the ransom note was delivered, Dalton seems to think that Jan was not involved, even though, as Britten later suggests, Jan might have put someone else in the Communist Party up to the delivery of the note—it was, after all, only signed “Red.” Dalton never formally reconciles with Jan, but it is seen that Jan is at least tolerated by members of the Dalton family for the rest of the novel.
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The reporters ask if the Daltons plan on paying the ransom, and Henry replies that he will, and will follow the instructions listed in the letter (which the letter itself has asked the Daltons not to make public; thus Dalton does not tell how the ransom will be delivered). As Henry is telling the reporters this information, Bigger stands quietly in the corner of the furnace room and wonders if the plan will work as he intended. The reporters go upstairs to check Mary’s room for more clues, and when they return to the furnace room, they find Bigger reading the newspaper in which the story of Mary’s disappearance, and Jan’s arrest, are first reported.
Dalton appears to take the ransom note very seriously—perhaps as a strategy, knowing that, if he does not, then the kidnappers might simply murder his daughter. Dalton does not ever admit to believing that Mary was actually captured, but he seems to think it is the best course of action to proceed as though she has been, to follow the demands of those leaving the ransom. Note how easy it is for Dalton to bring together so much money, more than Bigger would be likely to earn in a lifetime.
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The reporters ask Britten if they may interview Bigger, since he was the last to see Mary alive the previous night. Britten says Bigger can provide no new information, but grudgingly agrees to allow them to talk to Bigger. Bigger tells the reporters that he really can’t say anything more than Mr. Dalton has just told them, and during their conversation, another reporter, who has gone upstairs to use his phone to call the newsroom, comes back to say that Jan won’t leave police custody after all.
Interestingly, Jan does not want to leave the police station, and though he eventually does, the reason for his finally doing so is never divulged, nor is his reason for wanting to stay in the first place. Most likely is the idea that the reporters later discuss, namely, that Jan simply did not want to be “free” in a city where he is the chief suspect in Mary’s disappearance.
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Some of the reporters, and Britten, believe that Jan won’t leave the precinct because he is in fact guilty and afraid of what will happen to him if he’s free to walk around; other reporters, however, believe Mr. Dalton’s hunch, that Jan has nothing to do with the kidnapping. Some of the reporters ask more questions about Jan—including if he’s Jewish—and others try to get more information from Bigger, who stands more or less mute in the furnace room; the reporters conclude that Bigger can provide little useful information to them, and that Bigger himself is “stupid.”
A recurring, and subtle, plot-point is the questioning by authorities relating Judaism and Communism. This was common in the 1930s in the US, before the Second World War—there was a sense in some aspects of the culture that anti-Semitic notions of Jewish “conspiracy” and global political notions of Communist conspiracy were aligned or perhaps linked. These concerns are only briefly mentioned, however, in this novel.
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The reporters take more pictures of Bigger—this picture-taking causes Bigger to feel even more uncomfortable. Peggy comes downstairs with food for the reporters and Britten, and tells Bigger that it’s become cold upstairs, and that Bigger will therefore need to clean the ashes out of the furnace in order to push more coal into it. Bigger realizes that, if he cleans out the ashes, there might be chunks of Mary’s body that have not yet burned—he is filled with fear at having to stoke the furnace in front of the reporters.
A crucial moment in the novel. It is interesting here to note that it is Peggy who is, in some sense, directly responsible for Bigger being “found out” by the authorities—since she asks that Bigger clean out the ashes while the reporters are still present. Bigger is in a situation from which he cannot escape, for he cannot make it seem that there is any problem at all with looking inside the furnace.
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Bigger tries to shove more coal into the furnace without clearing out the ashes, but the furnace begins smoking and fuming, causing the reporters to choke on a cloud of black smoke that begins filling the furnace room. The reporters tell Bigger that he has to clear out the ashes, and he finally relents; one of the reporters pokes around in the furnace and releases the ashes; he spots something curious inside, and pushes the ashes out of the furnace with a shovel, scattering them on the floor of the room. The reporters realize that the white chunks of bone are in the ash, and that they probably belong to Mary’s body, which has burnt in the furnace and choked it with ash and debris. Bigger is immediately gripped by an immense dread.
From this point forward, the novel is a story of Bigger’s attempts at survival. He is no longer capable of convincing authorities that he is not the responsible party—instead, he must do everything in his power to resist being captured, and, after this, he must do all that he can simply to survive the ordeal of the inquest and subsequent trial. All Bigger’s dreams of a new life, somewhere beyond Chicago, with Bessie at his side, evaporate once Mary’s bones are scattered across the floor.
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Bigger realizes that, if he doesn’t go, he will be questioned once again by Britten and the authorities, and may in fact be placed in jail. As the reporters are combing through the ashes and wondering who is responsible for Mary’s death and cremation, Bigger walks quietly out of the furnace room, climbs the steps, and makes his way to his own bedroom; he then jumps out the window into the snow. Bigger realizes that, in his fear, he has urinated in his pants, but he also realizes that he still has his gun. He begins to walk to Bessie’s house.
What is perhaps not totally plausible here is the fact that not a single reporter in the room turns to see where Bigger is headed. Perhaps Bigger is simply very skilled at making himself disappear, and one wonders, too, if the journalists simply feel, at this point (and wrongly), that Bigger does not possess the mental faculties to have been involved in Mary’s disappearance at all.
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On his way to a tram-stop, which will take him to Bessie’s, Bigger stops at a kiosk and buys a copy of a newspaper, in which he reads more about the abduction, the ransom, and the holding of Jan in custody. Bigger fears that, with all the scrutiny of the police across the city, there will be no way for him to pick up the money on Michigan Avenue later that night without being caught—he fears that the plan is now off, and that he and Bessie will have to flee. He hops on a tram, rides it for a few minutes, gets off, and enters Bessie’s apartment, where he tells her sharply to turn on the lights.
A recurring feature of the novel is the manner in which newspapers are deployed to tell Bigger and other characters of events that are happening “off-stage,” or in a part of Chicago that is not being described by the narrator. Even in prison, Bigger will be given bits and pieces of the newspaper, supplied mostly by his friendly lawyer Max.
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Bigger tells Bessie everything—that he truly did kill Mary, and that the reporters found her body in the furnace; that he ran away from the Dalton house and will be hunted by the police; that he only has 90 dollars left, with which they will need to live while they hide out in abandoned houses in the Black Belt. Bessie moans and says she wishes she were dead—she tells Bigger, as they gather quilts, drink whiskey, and prepare to leave Bessie’s apartment, that the police will find them and perhaps kill them. Bessie also tells Bigger that the police will believe he raped Mary, if word gets out that he was in her room with her. Bigger had not thought of this, and immediately realizes that Bessie is right—they will consider Bigger a rapist and a murderer.
An important realization, for Bessie and for Bigger, in the novel. Bessie is, of course, right—the entire city of Chicago believes, until the very end, that Bigger raped Mary and burned her in order that he might be able to hide the evidence of that rape. The myth of black male hypersexuality is so strong in the world of the novel that Bigger simply cannot convince anyone that he did not rape Mary Dalton—especially once it is found out that Bigger went on to rape his own girlfriend, Bessie, in the aftermath of the first murder, and before her death.
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Bigger and Bessie leave Bessie’s apartment and walk outside for several blocks, until they find a different abandoned building that smells of rot and decay. They climb up to the third floor, and Bessie spreads out quilts and takes out the flask of whiskey they’ve brought with them; Bigger leans over the window to an air-shaft in the building and smokes a cigarette. Finishing his smoke, Bigger tells Bessie to lie down and be calm for a moment in the cold, dark room of the abandoned building; Bigger lies down next to her, and though Bessie protests, Bigger begins taking off her clothes and fondling her. Bessie continues saying no, and Bigger rapes her on the floor of the abandoned room; Bessie is intoxicated and appears to fall asleep at some point during or after the assault.
It is unclear, of course, why Bigger chooses this time and place to assault Bessie, although there are several possible explanations. One, offered later by Bigger in his conversations with Max in prison, is that, because Bigger is expected to rape, and especially once he realizes that all of society will feel he raped Mary, he feels he has nothing to hold on to—no reason to uphold the laws under which he was raised. But there is also a sense that Bigger wants to possess Bessie utterly, to control her in a world otherwise completely beyond his control—and rape is a part of this terrible impulse.
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Bigger goes to the air-shaft once again and thinks about his murder of Mary and his current situation with Bessie—he worries to himself that Bessie will not be able to keep quiet and go along with the plans he devises; that she will give herself up to the police and cause Bigger to die in prison or be electrocuted. Bigger decides that he must kill Bessie; he scans the apartment for materials (using the flashlight, briefly, to illuminate the space while Bessie sleeps), and finds a brick, which he takes over to where Bessie is sleeping.
Just as the furnace is the central functional element of the Daltons’ house, and one to which Bigger will return when he needs to dispose of Mary’s body, the air-shaft in the abandoned building is the structural element linked to Bessie’s demise—Bigger will seek to stash her body there after her death, and like Mary, Bessie, too, will be found by authorities much later. In Bessie’s case, her body is frozen from exposure, not burned, as in the furnace.
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Bigger holds the brick above Bessie’s head and hesitates for a moment, wondering if he can kill again, but soon this hesitation is gone, and he decides that the only way to carry out his plan and possibly escape police detection is by bludgeoning Bessie to death. He brings down the brick on Bessie’s skull, repeatedly, until he feels a sickening softness and moistness on her head; he turns on the flashlight again to make sure she is dead, and sees her mangled and broken face lying in a pool of blood.
Another brutal instance of murder. Bigger, already a profoundly unsympathetic character, probably reaches his nadir at this point in the novel, murdering an innocent women who is simply devoted to him, who wishes to please him, and who, above all, is terrified of him. Bessie is the novel’s truest victim—she has suffered the most and gained the least in her short and difficult life.
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Bigger dumps Bessie’s body down the air-shaft, only to realize, after he’s done so, that Bessie had Bigger’s remaining money in her shirt pocket. Now Bigger is entirely without cash, and he reflects on the two murders he has committed in the past two days—he realizes that a major split has occurred in his life; he lives a “new life” now, and he must figure out a way to avoid detection and survive. But he still feels the small, electric feeling of pride, or excitement, at the thought that he has escaped the narrow confines of his previous life. Bigger tries to sleep on the floor of the abandoned building before planning his next move in the morning.
Although it is no victory for Bessie, and certainly it does nothing to save her life and assuage her pain—but Bigger, at the very least, cannot profit from her death, since Bessie had the money in her pocket, and Bigger disposed of her body without even considering this fact. Bigger’s lack of money appears to matter a great deal at this juncture, but in fact, Bigger will barely need money at all, since his capture is so imminent, it would be impossible for Bigger to escape, even if he had hundreds of dollars.
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Bigger wakes up the next morning and, curious about the recent developments in his case, steals a newspaper from a corner vendor while the man isn’t looking. Bigger then ducks into an alley and reads the headlines and article, which seem to say much that he’d expected: that he is being hunted by the Chicago Police, that they believe he murdered and possibly raped Mary, and that thousands of officers, and some vigilantes, are walking the streets of the Black Belt and South Side in order to find him.
Just as the opening book of the novel follows Bigger closer, and provides information about Chicago only inasmuch as it is revealed to Bigger, here, too, we find through the newspaper that Bigger is being hunted, that all of Chicago is on the lookout for him—we see very little of these crowds, however, and mostly hear them, later, as they hurl racist insults at Bigger.
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Bigger realizes that he has to find a place to hide out. He goes first to a bakery and uses five of his remaining cents to buy a loaf of bread; he then hoists himself, via the alley, in the kitchen of second floor apartment with a For Rent sign out front. Bigger huddles in the corner of the apartment and eats his bread; he can hear, from the noise in the adjacent apartment, that a family is arguing about his case, which they’ve read about in the newspaper—everyone in the Black Belt seems to be talking about it. Someone in the other apartment says that Bigger’s running away makes him seem guilty; another says that Bigger will always have seemed guilty, even if he was innocent, and that perhaps he ran away only in order to avoid an unfair trial.
An important point raised by the neighbor here, and conveniently heard by Bigger while he is on the lam. Even if Bigger were innocent, what protection could he expect from a city, and a police department, primed to assume that all African American men are criminals? Bigger knows that he is guilty, and that his escape would be purely in his self-interest; but he also knows, deep down, that there are others like him who are innocent, who are nevertheless hunted through the city, and treated with none of the kindness that ought to be afforded to a human being in the United States.
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Bigger moves to the back of the kitchen and tries to sleep, as he has barely slept the past two nights. He dozes for an indeterminate amount of time, then goes back to the window and hears more African American citizens discussing his case; one person even fears that he has heard noise in his apartment building, assuming it is Bigger, hiding out. Bigger sees, while hiding out in the alley again, the headline of a newspaper that states that 8,000 armed men are bearing down on the Black Belt, sweeping from house to house; Bigger realizes that he must hide himself even better, or pray there is a way to elude the authorities. He climbs back into the apartment building, turns off the light, and waits.
Eight thousand armed men is almost an unfathomable number—an enormous army, essentially, raised against Bigger, and that number, as the headline indicates, is swollen with citizens from the surrounding (white) areas, who have joined vigilante leagues to find Bigger. The police, apparently, do nothing to actively discourage white citizens from doing this, and the notion that Bigger is being hunted by an army of white men only makes it seem more likely that this is not a search for a criminal, but a prelude to something far more brutal—something resembling a “lynching.”
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Bigger then hears, after several minutes, the sounds of motors and sirens, which by now have encircled the block in which he is hiding. It is unclear whether Bigger’s presence has been tipped to the police, or whether this is simply part of the sweep the police are doing of the entire neighborhood; Bigger climbs through a trap door and makes his way to the roof of the building, where he wedges himself between the chimney and the trap-door. He hears police officers arguing about whether Bigger is still in Chicago; one says that Bigger “could be in New York” by now.
The irony, here, is that Bigger probably did have sufficient time to escape the police, at least in Chicago, and to make his way out of the city—but only if he had left immediately after Mary’s murder. It is unclear whether Bigger would have been the first suspect, or if Jan still would have—meaning that, by sticking around the Dalton house, Bigger probably only hurt the chances of his escape.
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Another police officer, to whom the first was talking, roots around in the apartment then climbs the trap-door and begins to poke his head through it, scanning the roof. Bigger, acting almost on reflex, pulls the gun out of his pants and uses it to hit the officer, named Jerry, on the head; the officer tumbles back down to the apartment and Bigger begins crawling away to another part of the roof. Bigger then gets up and begins running across the roof of the building, jumping over ledges to the roofs of adjacent buildings, in the hopes of eluding the police officers who have reached the roof and are now following him on foot. The block is encircled.
The officers who are searching for Bigger do not seem particularly well equipped to catch him, but this does not matter, as there are so many officers and there is only Bigger, alone, with a gun to protect him, and a limited amount of roof on which to crawl. This chase scene is notable for its lack of climactic action—from the beginning, Bigger seems to sense that his cause is doomed, that he will be captured by the police.
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A bullet flies past Bigger’s head, and Bigger realizes that he is captured; there is nothing he can do to avoid the police. He also realizes that, eventually, he will reach the edge of the block and will only be able to jump off the entire building. The police officers continue shooting at him and throwing tear-gas canisters at him; they realize that Bigger has a gun, although he does not fire back on the police. Finally, the police decide to use the hose on Bigger; it is pulled onto the roof, and a spray of water is unleashed onto Bigger’s freezing body.
Bigger’s gun might have been “useful” here, although he does not have the desire to fire it. Thus Bigger never ends up discharging his weapon throughout the entirety of the novel, despite having killed two people, and having threatened a good many others with death for various reasons. The gun is, ultimately, a red herring, like the robbery at Blum’s—something designed to turn the reader’s attention away from other events in the novel.
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Bigger collapses under the powerful stream of water, and the policemen tell him repeatedly to put down his weapon. At this point, Bigger realizes that he has truly been captured; his flight is over. The police take Bigger’s shivering body and drag it down the steps of the apartment building; his head and body knock against the staircase as he is led outside. The last thing Bigger hears before losing consciousness is the sound of people on the street yelling at him, calling for his death by lynching, and referring to Bigger as a “black ape.” The second book ends.
It is difficult to disassociate the stream of water from the use, in the south, of water canons as a means of brutalizing large groups of African Americans, often those who had assembled in protest of segregation and other Jim Crow laws. Bigger, here, is caught because of this canon, and from this point on, the criminal justice system has him in its total control—he is a prisoner now, and can only await his fate.
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