Native Son

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The Furnace Symbol Analysis

The Furnace Symbol Icon
One of Bigger’s jobs at the Dalton house is to stoke the furnace that heats the entire property. He is taught to do this by Peggy on his first day of the job. After accidentally smothering Mary later that night in a fit of panic, however, Bigger decides that it would be best to burn Mary’s body in the furnace in order to avoid detection and make it seem that Jan is, in fact, Mary’s killer. Bigger manages to stuff Mary’s body entirely in the furnace, although he has to cut off her head and load it in separately. But Bigger fears all along that the furnace will not burn Mary’s body completely, and he is right. The journalists who gather in that room the next day find Mary’s body, and this eventually leads to the conviction that places Bigger on death row. The furnace, therefore, is not just an implement used by Bigger to aid in the commission of his crime; it is also a symbol of one of his small jobs at the Dalton estate, and a fiery reminder of the terrible deed Bigger has done. Later in the novel, Bigger has a dream in which the furnace appears to be burning the entire landscape, and it is clear that the physical act of placing Mary inside the machine has stuck with Bigger—it is the dominant image of his crime. And just as Bigger fed Mary into this destructive device, so too is Bigger fed (as Max later argues, at the trial) into the maw of the Chicago criminal justice system. Despite Max’s best efforts, the court rules that Bigger ought to be punished this way, and he is sentenced to execution at the novel’s end.

The Furnace Quotes in Native Son

The Native Son quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Furnace. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of Native Son published in 1993.
Book 1 Quotes

He was not crying but his lips were trembling and his chest was heaving. He wanted to lie down upon the floor and sleep off the horror of this thing. . . . Quickly, he wrapped the head in the newspaper . . . then he shoved the head in. The hatchet went next.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton
Related Symbols: The Furnace
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most gruesome scenes in the book. Again, Bigger does not chop up Mary because he wants to do this, or because he derives any pleasure from it. Rather, he believes he must do so in order to hide the body. The line of reasoning is, for him, perfectly logical - he must dispose of the body so that no one finds out about the murder - and he must do it quickly and efficiently. But in a context removed from this one, of course, Bigger's behavior is enormously irrational. He has, after all, killed out of fear, and now he is burning the corpse out of fear. His desire not to be caught causes him to commit further and further criminal acts, from which, fearfully, he feels he must run. The book is now structured as a series of consequences of Bigger's fatal, tragic  act, the accidental killing of Mary - and the manner by which he eludes, for a time, the authorities who zero in on him. 

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Book 2 Quotes

There was silence. Bigger stared without a thought or an image in his mind. There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas
Related Symbols: The Furnace
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

In the furnace room, surrounded by members of the new media, Bigger has a sense, even before Mary's bones are discovered not totally burnt in the furnace, that he is now no longer able to escape. He knows that, even if he were innocent, even if he had not killed Mary, even if he had managed to work peaceably in the Dalton house for many years, that there is something in his very blackness that would cause white people to suspect him of wrongdoing.

That Bigger himself has committed a heinous crime is, of course, true. But that Bigger has been a victim, throughout his life, of terrible acts of violence, large and small, implicit and explicit, is also true. Bigger has a sense, now, that the latter point can never justify the former - that no judge will look at his life and view his difficult circumstances as "making up" for murder. But Bigger also realizes how unfair the system is, how all its mechanisms, supposed to produce justice, would have been stacked against him even if he had done nothing out of the ordinary. 

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The Furnace Symbol Timeline in Native Son

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Furnace appears in Native Son. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...Henry also informs him that it will be part of Bigger’s duties to stoke the furnace and keep the house warm. (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
...of (mostly Communist sympathizers). Peggy takes Bigger down to the basement and shows him the furnace, where he is to burn the trash, rake out the coals, and sweep the ashes... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...the trunk is extremely heavy, and that he can instead burn Mary’s body in the furnace. Bigger puts Mary body about halfway in and begins pushing it into the fire; he... (full context)
Book 2
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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.... (full context)
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,... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...more commotion downstairs, and then hears Britten calling for Bigger to join him in the furnace room. Bigger obeys and goes downstairs, nervous now. (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Britten greets Bigger curtly in the furnace room; Britten has been joined by three men, his “associates” at the private investigation firm.... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Bigger tries to shove more coal into the furnace without clearing out the ashes, but the furnace begins smoking and fuming, causing the reporters... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...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;... (full context)