Bigger is “dragged” from one police precinct to another, in an effort to get him to talk, to cooperate with authorities. But Bigger has more or less “given up,” at least as far as his outward struggle with the police is concerned. He thinks, inwardly, that, despite his best efforts, his attempts to kill in order to change the world around him, he has only ruined his own life, in addition to taking two others. Bigger realizes that some new experience, a “new pride and humility,” will have to be born in him, if he is to derive any “message,” any meaning from his killings.
From this point forward, Bigger is mostly concerned with how to survive in prison—how to move from day to day, and how to contextualize his actions, in the face of increasingly powerful pressure, often racist, that is placed upon him by authority figures. Only Max and Jan, during this period of imprisonment, are truly able to connect with, and to help, Bigger.
Bigger is led by police to the Cook County Morgue, where he spots Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and Jan, though Bigger cannot speak to them—he is nearly in a daze, and has been eating little food and drinking little water since his capture. Presumably the Daltons and Jan are in the morgue to identify Mary’s body; after seeing them, Bigger falls into a swoon, and awakes on a cot in a different part of the Cook County municipal building, where the cops offer him food and water, and where Bigger asks to read a paper.
This is the first of several swoons Bigger undergoes in prison. Bigger’s swoon might be compared to Vera’s, at the beginning of the novel. Then, Bigger was responsible for it—he teased her with the dead rat. And here, Bigger sees an even more horrific sight of death—the body of Mary, almost completely destroyed, which is now visible in the harsh light of the exam room.
A policeman gives him a copy of the most recent edition, where Bigger reads of his capture. Bigger also reads a physical description of himself, his skin color, and his “animal-like” or “ape-like” features, and a description of his family in Mississippi as being “shiftless and immoral.” The article reports that some authorities in Chicago are already saying, publically, that death is the only fate possible for Bigger, and a southern white newspaper editor, quoted in the piece, says that, in the South, African Americans are not permitted the kind of liberties they have in the North, which can cause crimes like the ones Bigger has committed.
The racist linkage of Bigger and “ape” imagery has a profound effect on the nature of the trial and on the remainder of the novel. If, as Buckley, the judge, and members of the jury reason, Bigger is truly an “ape,” then he does not need to be treated as a man, does not need to be afforded the protections and the rights the court might otherwise afford to a white man in Bigger’s position.
Bigger drops the paper and lies back down on his cot. A period of time passes, and then an African American preacher from the Black Belt is let into Bigger’s room by the police. There, the preacher begins telling Bigger that the only way to save himself is by saving his soul, by giving himself up to Jesus, by admitting to God’s power and God’s love. Bigger listens to the preacher impassively, saying nothing, and only when the preacher offers Bigger a wooden cross for his neck does Bigger snap out of the reverie the preacher’s words have occasioned. Bigger sees Jan coming into the jail cell, where the preacher remains; a jolt of fear runs through Bigger, and he wonders why Jan has come to see him.
The preacher arrives with a message that seems, almost, to have been inserted into the text forcefully by Wright. To the preacher, as to Bigger’s mother, seeking salvation is at this point Bigger’s only option—he must ask God for forgiveness, in order to have some chance at an afterlife in paradise. But Bigger does not care about the life after this one; in fact, he cannot be made to care about his own life now. Thus the preacher’s message, and his mother’s, fall on deaf ears.
Jan begins speaking, though it is difficult for him to get the words out. Jan tells Bigger that, though at first it was hard for him (Jan) to accept that Bigger had lied and tried to blame Jan for Mary’s murder, Jan now understands that Bigger was offended by Jan’s gestures of kindness when they were out on the town that night. Jan also says that, in jail, he thought about the number of African Americans who had been killed by whites, either authorities or vigilantes, and though Jan still grieves for Mary, and knows that Bigger has done something wrong, Jan still wishes to help Bigger to fight the charges against him in whatever way possible. Bigger listens to Jan politely, and the preacher tells Jan he is a good man for saying these things.
Jan’s goodwill in this part of the novel might seem hard to believe, since Jan has just found at the Bigger has murdered his girlfriend, whom Jan loved, and that Bigger then went on to blame Jan for exactly this murder. Jan, however, recognizes, perhaps to a fault, that Bigger has been wronged by society, and that what Bigger needs, now, is an advocate in his corner, someone who is willing to explain to the jury just why Bigger has behaved in this manner. Thus Jan agrees to have Max, his friend, represent Bigger.
Bigger wonders if Jan isn’t trying to trick him, but Bigger realizes that Jan wants to help; Jan asks Bigger if he can send Max, the Communist Party lawyer who is also a public defender, to be Bigger’s lawyer; although Bigger says he has given up all hope, Jan asks that Bigger trust Max, whom Jan calls into the cell along with the preacher (whose name is revealed to be Hammons). Max tells Bigger that he’s here to help Bigger’s case, and though Bigger says he has no money, Max says that doesn’t matter; the Labor Defenders will take up Bigger’s case for free.
Max might be understood as a “preacher” of a different kind. He does not care about salvation in the afterlife, but rather hopes to afford Bigger the most humane treatment possible in this life. Max does not excuse Bigger’s actions, but he also believes that Bigger, like anyone else in the United States, deserves a fair trial in a court of law.
At this point, Buckley, the State’s Attorney whose picture Bigger saw on a poster in the beginning of the novel, walks into the cell as well. Max tells Buckley immediately that Bigger will be signing no confessions; Buckley, who is contemptuous of Max, Jan, and all Communists, says that his office doesn’t need a confession to convict Bigger, since the evidence against him is so strong. Buckley tells Bigger some “advice,” that Bigger ought to give himself up completely, that the only thing Bigger can hope for now is, essentially, a swift and painless death.
Buckley, who is technically a public servant, seems willing to serve everyone who is not a member of Chicago’s African American community. Buckley indeed tells Bigger that he must follow the “wishes” of the mobs outside; Buckley implies that he cannot be held responsible if justice is not done in the courtroom and if the mob’s clamor for justice on their own. This sentiment is terrifying for Bigger.
At this, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell, too. Buckley goes to them and wishes them his condolences for their daughter’s murder. Henry and Mrs. Dalton say that they only wanted to help Bigger and send him to school; Henry says that just today he has given more ping-pong tables to a local community center in the Black Belt. But this causes Max to yell out that African Americans in Chicago need more than ping-pong tables; they need systematic support at all levels, and a new kind of fairness in government and the economy. Buckley shouts out that this is Communism, pure and simple, and implies that Max’s ideas are un-American.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Mr. and Mrs. Dalton would be allowed into Bigger’s cell before his trial had even commenced, but again, as per Wright’s statements in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” what is more important to him, in this sequence, is establishing the emotional texture of Bigger’s incarceration, rather than the idea that he, Wright, is following strict rules of verisimilitude in laying out his novel.
Bigger’s family and the rest of the gang enter the cell, too, which now contains most of the major characters in the novel up till this point. Bigger’s ma asks him if he’s really committed these crimes, and Bigger, not answering directly, tells his mother that he doesn’t need anything at the moment; that there’s nothing she can do for him. Ma says that Vera has dropped out of her sewing classes because of the looks the other students give her; Buddy offers to break Bigger out of jail, but Bigger tells Buddy to be quiet and forget such outlandish ideas.
Not only has Bigger greatly disappointed his family—he has nearly destroyed it entirely. Not even Vera, Ma’s last beacon of hope, is able to continue in her classes, and therefore the family is more or less destitute. Only Buddy seems not to abandon all hope—he still believes, as a child might, that Bigger can escape and rejoin the family outside the prison walls.
Ma tells Bigger that, in heaven, the family will be reunited, and that Bigger ought to pray for his own salvation while in prison; the preacher seconds this opinion. Jack and Gus tell Bigger that the authorities tried to blame a number of crimes on them, but the boys wouldn’t confess and were helped by Jan and Max, who have also volunteered to defend the gang. Ma pulls Vera, Buddy, and Bigger into a circle, and prays loudly for Bigger’s soul. On their way out of the cell, Ma asks Mrs. Dalton, who has been standing in the corner with her husband, not to have the authorities kill Bigger. Mrs. Dalton says that it’s now out of her hands, and that she tried to help Bigger, but the Daltons to agree to allow the Thomases to stay in their apartment, owned by Mr. Dalton’s corporation.
This interaction between the Thomas and Dalton families, the only one in the novel, serves the underscore the relationship between the two—something Mrs. Dalton believes is strictly financial. The Daltons will permit the Thomases to keep their apartment, but that is all the relief they can provide. And perhaps this is sensible; after all, Bigger did murder their only daughter, Mary. But the Daltons have long profited from the Thomas's poverty, and their "kindness" will result in them continuing to profit from it.
The Thomas family leaves the cell, and Buckley tells Bigger that he’s caused a great deal of pain for everyone around him, and that the best thing to do is to confess to everything, avoid trial, and receive his punishment. Max and Jan also leave the cell, with the preacher and the members of the gang. Only Buckley and Bigger remain, and Buckley takes Bigger to a window to show him the chanting mob outside his cell, who want to lynch Bigger on the spot. Buckley says he’s the only thing standing between Bigger and this lynching.
Buckley once again takes an opportunity to tell Bigger that, essentially, there is “nothing he can do” to keep the mob away from Bigger if the court does not convict him and sentence him to death. Of course, this is not true—Buckley’s obligation is to the law, not to the mob outside, but Bigger feels that what Buckley is saying is true, even if it is not morally right. Bigger is guilty, but the law is also not fair, or even trying to be fair.
Buckley asks Bigger where Bessie is, and tells Bigger he knows that Bigger raped and killed Bessie. Buckley tries to pin other rapes and murders on Bigger, naming names Bigger has never heard, but as Bigger denies these other crimes, Buckley becomes only more convinced that Bigger has a long criminal history, and that Bigger has ties to the Communist Party. Bigger continues to deny that Jan had anything to do with Mary’s murder, and Bigger also denies that he raped Mary, although he did rape Bessie.
Buckley simply assumes that Bigger must have committed every unsolved crime in the Black Belt region over the past several years—Buckley is not content merely with solving the case at hand; rather, he hopes to pin a length criminal history on Bigger, to make him the scapegoat for an entire community.
Buckley brings in a secretary to take down Bigger’s confession; Buckley makes it seem as though, for an instant, he is sympathetic with Bigger’s plight, since Bigger has never had a “fair shot” in life. Bigger realizes at this point that all hope is lost, and begins narrating exactly what happened on the night in question, including Mary’s murder and then Bessie’s the next night. The secretary takes it all down, and Bigger signs it. The secretary and Buckley leave, and as Bigger collapses to the floor, feeling all is now over, Buckley says he is off to “the club,” and that Bigger is only a “scared” young man from Mississippi.
Bigger realizes that, at this point, there is no use in disputing the charges; he confesses to his crimes in meticulous detail, perhaps with the hope that, in doing so, he might somehow avoid suspicion for other crimes he truly did not commit—the crimes Buckley wants to pin on him after the fact. Buckley desire to go to the “club” after the confession serves only to underscore the disconnect between his world of luxury and Bigger’s.
Bigger lies on the floor, convulsed by sobs, realizing that, now that he has confessed to his crime, he must find a “new strength” on which to stand and with which to face the charges leveled against him. The police come back into the cell and say it is time for the inquest. As Bigger is being led to the inquest room by a guard—where he will be formally read the list charges—a white man escapes from a crowd of people gathered in the building and punches Bigger in the head, before being removed from the hallway by other guards.
This is not the first time, and will not be the last, that Bigger is subjected to violence outside of the court-sanctioned protocols he is to undergo during his trial. Although no one in the Chicago judicial system officially condones these extra-legal practices, it is understood that Bigger will have to withstand a certain amount of racism during his trial—and no one steps in to stop it.
Bigger is led into a courtroom for the inquest—or the hearing in which “facts regarding the case” are established. This will require members of the Dalton family to testify; Bigger looks on as Mrs. Dalton is sworn in and handed a piece of metal by one of the court employees. The deputy coroner presiding asks Mrs. Dalton if she can identify the piece of metal, and she says she can: it is an earring she once owner, and her mother before her; Mrs. Dalton gave that earring to Mary when she turned 18. The deputy coroner goes on to ask what Mrs. Dalton saw the night of the murder. Mrs. Dalton tells how she went into Mary’s room and smelled alcohol; the deputy coroner raises the possibility that Mary was already dead when Mrs. Dalton entered the room. The deputy coroner has no further questions, and Mrs. Dalton sits down.
Before the trial, the inquest must be convened to determine the cases “facts” and to decide the crimes with which Bigger is to be tried. Normally, this is more or less a perfunctory affair, but in this instance, the deputy coroner, perhaps wanting to make a name for himself, decides to run through a very long list of evidence, and to bring in witnesses to discuss Bigger’s behavior and actions before and after the murder. This is done primarily to inflame the crowds, who already want to see Bigger killed—without, even, the burden of a “trial.”
The deputy coroner then asks the (white, male) members of the jury if they have any reasonable objection to serving on the jury for the trial of Bigger Thomas; they say they have no objections. The deputy coroner calls Jan to the stand, ostensibly in order to further clarify the events of the night in question; soon after the deputy coroner begins his interrogation, however, Max objects aloud, saying that Jan is not on trial, and that the fact that Jan and Mary were drinking that night should not be used to implicate Jan in Mary’s murder.
Only Max is the voice of reason in this instance, remarking that everyone knows the crimes with which Bigger has been charged, and that the facts of the case are really not in doubt. After all, Bigger has already signed a confession—the deputy coroner seems only to want to make sure that everyone in the crowd, and all the newspaper, are aware of the grisly details of the murders. The law wants the mob at fever pitch.
The deputy coroner then launches into a series of leading questions against Jan, asking whether Jan would approve of Mary marrying an African American, whether Jan got Mary and Bigger drunk in order to facilitate a romantic interaction between the two, and whether the Communist Party paid for the rum Jan purchased for the purposes of “welcoming” Bigger into the fold of the Party. Jan strenuously denies all these allegations, saying he only wished to give Bigger literature about the Party in order to help bigger. At the end of the questioning, Jan and Max are both exhausted and horrified by the leading, prejudicial questions being asked; Jan is told to sit down, and the deputy coroner calls Henry Dalton to testify.
The deputy coroner, like Britten, is unwilling to let go of the idea that Jan was in some way connected to the murders. This stems entirely from Jan’s association with the Communist Party, since Jan has demonstrated, time and again, that he is a patient, kind individual, one committed to passive resistance and non-violence. But the courts, and the authorities in them, believe that Communism is a threat to the American way of life, and therefore, Jan is a threat to all that they stand for.
The deputy coroner quickly asks Mr. Dalton a few questions about the nature of his charitable work in the African American community in Chicago. Max then rises to cross-examine Dalton; he asks whether it’s true that Dalton owns the South Side Real Estate Company; Max also makes it clear that Dalton only rents to African Americans in the Black Belt (that, in other words, he would not rent an apartment outside the Black Belt to an African American family). Max also gets Dalton to admit that he has never hired anyone of African American descent, whom he has helped to “educate” through his charities, to work for him in a professional capacity at one of his companies. Dalton has only hired African Americans to work for him personally, as Bigger did.
An important scene in the novel, if not in the inquest. Dalton finally admits to the “tradition” that keeps him from renting apartments to black families in parts of Chicago other than the segregated Black Belt. Dalton seems to think that there is not anything wrong with this policy; indeed, he believes that African-American families want to live “together,” in a segregated community, and that his company is merely helping to facilitate this.
The deputy coroner then states that, owing to the “circumstances” of the trial, he finds it necessary to bring into the courtroom the mutilated body of Bessie, about whom Bigger has thought very little since her murder. Max and Bigger are both shocked that this is possible; many in the room are shocked as well, and Max yells out, objecting, that the presence of Bessie’s body can only be used to incite violence against Bigger, to prime the public for vengeance against him. The deputy coroner, however, says that Bessie’s body is a necessary part of the inquest, and when it is uncovered, Bigger swoons, hearing only that he is to be charged with two counts of rape and murder, and that he is to be transferred to Cook County Jail, where Max says he will meet with Bigger to formulate their next move.
The unveiling of Bessie’s body is an especially gruesome moment in the text. For Mary’s body consisted only of shards of bone, barely identifiable; in this case, however, Bessie’s body is very much present, and the damage that Bigger has done to it is also on display. The presence of Bessie’s body forces Bigger to comprehend what he has done to his girlfriend, a person who loved him, and to whom Bigger felt it necessary to channel all his anger and frustration. Again, in this section, it becomes clear that Bessie is perhaps the most thoroughly victimized character in the novel.
As Bigger is once again led through the hallways of the coroner’s office and the municipal building, he hears shouts from white citizens, in the building and outside, leveled against him; someone once again calls him a “black ape.” Bigger is then taken quickly by the authorities back to the Dalton house, where the police ask him, once he is taken out of the car, to “go through the motions” of how he killed Mary, how he took her down to the furnace room and attempted to burn her body. Bigger is too stunned to cooperate, and wonders why the police are asking him to do this; large crowds are gathered on the streets outside, hoping for a glimpse of Bigger as they scream and curse his name.
This scene, or sequence of scenes, seems not to follow standard legal protocol, as it is unclear why the police take it upon themselves to parade Bigger through the streets of Chicago and force him to re-create the actions that the court does not hold in dispute. Perhaps the only reason for which this is done is a simple one: the police want, further, to inflame public sentiment against Bigger. And they succeed in doing this, for Bigger is once again referred to as an “ape,” an “animal.”
On his way out of the Dalton house, once again led by police with weapons drawn, Bigger is spat on by a white citizen, and Bigger sees a lone cross, high on a roof in the South Side, on fire—Bigger recognizes that this is a sign of the Ku Klux Klan, and that the white citizens of Chicago will not rest until Bigger is killed. Bigger is shoved back into a police car and driven to Cook County Jail, where he is processed, in a daze, and admitted formally as a prisoner following his cruel “parade” through the community. As this is happening, Bigger rips off his wooden cross, worn around his neck and given to him by the preacher, and hurls it away from himself.
Although relatively little description is afforded this scene, it is one of the starkest in the novel. Bigger himself describes, earlier, that his family came from the South, and yet, in Chicago, a northern city, one sees signs of the Ku Klux Klan, associated with the cruelest, most racist segments of Southern society. Bigger understands, when he sees this cross, that his trial will no longer maintain even a shred of objectivity—he is now, simply, going to be killed.
Bigger realizes that the preacher has been waiting for him at the jail , and though the preacher tells Bigger not to abandon Christ—to keep Him, rather, in his heart—Bigger says he has no soul and wants no hope, now; he rejects a religion whose symbols can be used, as in the flaming cross he has just seen in the South Side, as images of hatred for African Americans. The guards at the prison lead Bigger to his cell, where he collapses, bereft; the guards tells the preacher he ought not to bother Bigger, as his behavior has been especially “wild” since the inquest. The preacher and guards leave Bigger alone in his cell.
It is understandable, then, that Bigger no longer wishes even to associate with the image of the cross—the very same cross that the preacher gave him when he met Bigger earlier in this section of the novel. Although the preacher acknowledges that there is a great deal of hate directed at Bigger, the preacher also believes that Christ is the guardian who will protect Bigger in these circumstances—a conclusion with which Bigger does not agree.
Bigger lies still for a while, then rises and realizes that, even here, in jail, the “cellblocks are segregated”—Bigger cannot escape the racial discrimination he has felt his entire life, even while incarcerated. A guard comes buy and gives Bigger a newspaper (sent by Max) and tells Bigger that Max has also arranged for Bigger to get new clothes while awaiting trial. As Bigger sits in his cell, he watches as white guards bring in a middle-aged African American man, mentally ill, who claims he is a university professor writing a book on African Americans. The mentally unstable man yells at the guards, saying he wants to report the findings of his research to the President of the United States; after screaming in their shared cell for a time, the mentally-ill man is led away by guards in a straitjacket.
A shocking sequence, and an important one. Members of African-American society who resist the prevailing order—the order as orchestrated by white Chicagoans, in which African American speech is considered a threat—are forced into prison, and are treated as mentally unstable. Bigger recognizes that this man has been forced, through a lifetime of discrimination, to question even his most fundamental beliefs, and his own sanity. And Bigger understands, too, that prison is segregated, just as the outside world is—that prison is a mirror of the culture of which it is a small subset.
Bigger is told by a guard that Max is here to see him; Bigger is taken to an interview room where he and Max can talk. Max asks Bigger to begin telling him about his life, and although Bigger tells Max that there’s no use in max helping him, now, Max insists that Bigger tell him something about his life experiences, and his reasons for committing his crimes. Max tells Bigger that he knows Bigger hates white people, and that many white people hate Bigger. Max also begins telling Bigger that people like the Daltons also hate trade unions and the efforts of the lower classes to provide for themselves. Max repeats that he is hear to help Bigger, and that he wants to know why Bigger committed his crimes.
Max’s interview with Bigger is one of the most important long passages in the novel. Max, like Jan, wants to learn about Bigger as a human being, wants to separate Bigger, the murderer and rapist, from Bigger, the young man who has committed terrible deeds but who is nevertheless a man. At first, Bigger is defensive, wondering if Max has an ulterior motive in wanting to get to know him, but slowly, Bigger begins opening up to Max, telling him about the circumstances of his life.
Max asks if Bigger raped Mary, and Bigger repeats that he did not, although he considered it briefly when he was in the room with her, in part because so many white people assume that black man want to rape white women. Bigger tells Max that, that evening with Jan and Mary, Bigger hated them; they made him feel inferior, ashamed of his blackness. Max tells Bigger that Jan and Mary were trying to communicate with Bigger, even though their efforts may have been flawed, and though Bigger understands this intuitively, he has trouble recognizing that Jan and Mary had Bigger’s best interests at heart.
Bigger is given a chance, here, to explore the reasons for his shame and hatred. When he was eating with Jan and Mary, he felt that his blackness was pushed to center-stage—that Jan and Mary, though well-intentioned, were still communicating to him because of, and by means of, his blackness. Bigger, for his part, wanted only to communicate with them as a human being.
Max asks Bigger if he went to church, if he believes in God, and Bigger says that he doesn’t, really, and that church never helped him to feel loved, or to feel hope about his circumstances—Bigger, in fact, says that church is for “poor people,” even though Max tells Bigger that he himself is poor. Bigger also tells Max, after Max asks him, what he wanted to do for a living—be an aviator. Although Bigger notes that it is difficult for an African American man to learn to fly planes in the army, which is segregated, and in which black men are forced, often, to do menial jobs while white men get to fly the planes.
An interesting, small section, in which Bigger attempts to distance himself from “poor” Chicagoans, even though he himself is very poor, as Max points out. Perhaps this is an indication of a psychological truth, that humans tend to believe that they are not the worst off of those around them; that there are others who must have a more difficult plight than they do. Bigger says that religion only belongs to the poorest and the most desperate.
Max goes on to ask Bigger if Bigger has ever voted, or cared about politics in any way; Bigger responds that he was once paid five dollars, as a child, to vote illegally in a local election, but this is all. Max goes on to say that he understands, to an extent, how Bigger feels, and the discrimination Bigger has experienced, as Max, a Jewish-American, has also been discriminated against for his religious belief, particularly by high-powered members of Chicago society.
An indication, briefly, in this scene of the kind of machine politics in Chicago that were common during the 1920s and ‘30s. Politicians, or member of the “machine,” would pay young city residents to vote illegally, in order to “stuff ballot box” and ensure that candidates (usually Democrats, in the cities) would retain their seats.
Max tells Bigger that they will begin by entering a not-guilty plea at Bigger’s arraignment, followed by a switch to a guilty plea for the trial; Max will do this to enable himself a platform, in the trial, for arguing the difficult circumstances of Bigger’s life, in an attempt to persuade the jury, perhaps, to lessen Bigger’s sentence to life imprisonment. Bigger agrees to this and Max leaves the cell, saying he will check in with Bigger soon. Bigger is left to his own thoughts, and though he is “exhausted and feverish,” he cannot sleep, because he is filled with “rage” against the powers-that-be in Chicago; he also greatly regrets the decisions he has made leading up to the murders. For the first time since his imprisonment, Bigger realizes that he wants to live, that he wants to avoid death for as long as possible.
Bigger’s realization that he wants to live can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, it might be understood as a slow turn toward self-knowledge—the idea that Bigger has come to terms with his crimes, and that he is seeking to repent. There is another, more cynical view, however, which is merely that Bigger wants to remain alive for as long as possible, because all human beings wants to live as long as possible—it is a basic desire of all humankind. It is unclear, here, which if these imperatives motivates Bigger.
Over the next week, before his trial begins, Bigger is again visited by his mother and Vera, who ask if Bigger has been praying for salvation; Bigger lies and says that he has been. Bigger receives another newspaper, sent to him in jail by Max, which shows that the Governor of Illinois has ordered the National Guard to protect the courthouse from riots during Bigger’s trial; professors and other “experts” are quoted in various articles in the paper, arguing that Bigger is “more cunning” than might be expected, and that he, like other black men, has a “fascination” with white women.
A long-running racist stereotype—the idea that African-American men simply “cannot stop themselves” from being attracted to, and from sexually assaulting, white women. Bigger, as Bessie predicted, has been caught up in a storm he did not even consider—for as much as white society loathes the idea that Bigger murdered Mary, they are even more upset by the idea that he might have assaulted her beforehand. And, in fact, he considered such an assault and did stop himself.
Max arrives on the day of Bigger’s trial, tells him to straighten his tie and look presentable for court, and walks with Bigger into the courtroom, where the judge and bailiff declare that the case of the People of the State of Illinois vs. Bigger Thomas is now in session. Bigger spots his family, members in the gang, and a good deal of other Chicago citizens in the audience of the courtroom, and wonders if he will be able to make it through the trial without swooning again, as at the inquest.
The trial, as in many novels of “crime” and “punishment,” forms the climax of the action, although the outcome in this novel is more or less clear from the beginning—that Bigger is guilty, and that he will be convicted of his crime and sentenced to death. The suspense, here, arrives in the form of the arguments used for and against Bigger, by Max and Buckley.
Buckley, as State’s Attorney, is representing the prosecution, and Max, as Bigger’s attorney, enters officially a plea of guilty, which is a change from the plea of not guilty as entered at the inquest; this change has been done according to the plan Max set out to Bigger at their previous meeting. The courtroom gasps as Max says he intends to argue not that Bigger was insane when committing the crimes, but rather that the circumstances of his entire life should be considered during the sentencing period of the trial. Buckley objects to the judge, arguing that Max must argue either for insanity or not, that there is no middle ground, but Max contends that he has a right, during sentencing, to offer mitigating circumstances on his client’s behalf, and the judge agrees with Max.
Max’s argument seems here to be quite sensible, and from a legal standpoint, they are not without precedent, as it is common for defendants to argue that there are other circumstances impacting their decision to commit a crime, and that these circumstances should excuse them from the death penalty. But Buckley argues that any such arguments are attempts to “wash away” the crime that Bigger has committed—Buckley argues, instead, that Bigger must pay the “ultimate price” for these two murders. There is a suggestion here that Buckley might have been willing to entertain such circumstantial evidence for a white person, but certainly not for a black one.
The judge asks Bigger to rise and to acknowledge (after stating that he has only received an eighth-grade education) that he, Bigger, is entering a guilty plea. Bigger says he knows what he is doing, and agrees to the please. The judge asks Buckley to begin his case with an opening statement, and Buckley rises, arguing that a mob is “breathing down his neck,” and “standing at his back,” hoping that “justice is served” in Bigger’s case. Buckley makes it seem that Max is putting forward an insanity defense on Bigger’s behalf (to which Max vociferously objects), and Buckley closes his opening statement by going over in detail, the gruesome nature of Bigger’s crimes.
Buckley once again makes the case that the citizens of Chicago will not rest unless Buckley has Bigger sentenced to death. Of course, one might argue that Buckley is just doing his job: following the will of the people who elected him. But it is truly Buckley’s job the make sure that the state prosecutes defendants in a just manner, and if Buckley is arguing that the mob wants its own brand of justice, then he is necessarily infringing on Bigger’s own right to a fair trial.
Buckley asks the judge, before Max begins his statement, that Buckley be allowed to call sixty witnesses for the prosecution against Bigger; Max argues that this number is an exorbitant one, designed only to inflame the anger of the people in the courtroom and all over Chicago, but the judge says that sixty witnesses will be heard. Max then gives his brief opening remarks, saying that, though a guilty (and not an insanity) please has been entered, Max has a right and a duty to argue that Bigger’s circumstances, the difficulties he has faced in his young life, ought to be weighed against the severity of his crimes when the sentence against Bigger is determined. Max sits as the courtroom murmurs at Max’s impassioned defense of Bigger, and the judge adjourns the courtroom until after lunch.
What is interesting, here, is Bigger’s and Max’s reluctance to argue that Bigger was operating under the fog of “insanity” when he committed his crimes. Presumably this defense would be possible, but Bigger and Max consider it a lie, since Bigger has never once said that he felt insane when he was killing; only that he was afraid, and that he killed because he did not know what else to do. In a strange way, Max seems to respect Bigger for, at the very least, taking full responsibility for his actions, even if those actions are horrific ones.
Buckley then, after lunch, calls a long parade of witnesses, each of whom can attest only to a small set of details regarding Bigger’s character and appearance, and each of whom argues that Bigger seemed “sane” when they met him. This list includes Britten, fourteen newspaper reporters who were crowded in some way in the furnace room, and who had some view of the bones that fell from the furnace; two of Bigger’s teacher (who called him a poor student, but “sane”); and members of Bigger’s gang. A small girl even climbs inside a mock-up of the furnace in the Dalton home, to show to the jury that Bigger could indeed have fit and burned Mary’s body in that device.
The parade of people Buckley calls to the stand include most of the characters from the novel, and some who have not been mentioned at all, like Bigger’s teachers from elementary school. As at the inquest, it appears, here, that Buckley has done this only to make sure that everyone in the courtroom—the jury, the judge, and the crowd itself—recognizes the extent to which Bigger’s crimes has rocked the city of Chicago. Max, for his part, argues that these witnesses are not necessary, since no one on the defense disputes the facts of the case.
Buckley, finally satisfied after several days of witnesses, that the facts of the case have been established, rests his case, and Max agrees, as the defense, that the facts Buckley has presented are true (if overwhelming in their repetitiveness). Max says that, as in his opening statement, he will be calling no witnesses, but will instead make a plea, at the appropriate time, that Bigger be sentenced to life in prison rather than to execution. The judge asks Max to make his plea the next day, and adjourns for the evening.
Max, on the other hand, calls no witnesses, since there are, really, no witnesses he could call to support his argument. Instead, Max makes a nuanced, impassioned case for the difficulty of Bigger’s circumstances—not to excuse Bigger’s deed, but to contextualize and perhaps explain his actions, as the outcomes of a young man whose life has been governed largely by fear.
The case recommences the next day. Max begins a long, impassioned speech on Bigger’s behalf, arguing not that Bigger deserves total clemency, but rather that Bigger’s life circumstances ought to be viewed before the court tries to condemn him to death. Max argues that, although Bigger’s crimes are horrific, they must be judged in the violent and impoverished context in which he was raised; Max also reveals that he, a Jewish man representing Bigger, has received death threats for his participation in Bigger’s trial. Max argues that Bigger is being tried “as a symbol” of blackness and violence in the city, and that it would be unwise and unfair to give him death simply because that is what the mob, dominated by the voices of white citizens, demands.
One interesting parallel in the novel is the manner in which Max’s life has been impacted by racism, as has, of course, Bigger’s. Although in Max’s case this racism is not nearly so severe, anti-Semitic sentiment in Chicago nevertheless causes him, constantly, to have to justify his motivations, and to argue for his total “American-ness,” as though, being Jewish-American, he might have allegiances not entirely in line with those of other citizens. It is Max’s experience of racism that, perhaps, gives him a window on Bigger’s situation.
Max then begins a long, lyric disquisition on the nature of injustice in the United States. Max makes clear that Bigger’s crimes are crimes, and that society is not responsible for the crimes as such. But Bigger has also grown up in a deeply unequal society, one in which opportunity is systematically denied to African Americans. Max states that this society also denies opportunity to another entire class of people, one not determined by race—namely, labor (vs. owners of capital)—and it is these distinctions, black and white, labor and owner, that create a United States that is divided, and in which violence between groups is made possible.
Max, too, considers that there are enormous class distinctions in America, in addition to racial ones, and that Bigger has had terrible experiences not just because of the color of his skin but because of the lack of economic opportunity provided to people of his impoverished circumstances. Bigger’s lack of education, and his lack of a political consciousness, seem to derive from his inability to continue in school, because of the family’s financial pressures.
Max states that killing Bigger will not solve the larger problems that face Chicago and the rest of the country. It will not produce a more equitable distribution of wealth; it will not integrate the neighborhoods; it will not ensure that African Americans have equal access to fulfilling employment. Max goes on to say that Mary wanted to help Bigger, and for that she was killed—this is Bigger’s fault, but killing Bigger will not bring Mary back; it will not undo Bigger’s wrong. The only way to make good out of Bigger’s crime is to spare his life, to stop the cycle of murder and recrimination that forces the African American population in the United States to remain subjugated to the power of the white majority.
Max admits that Mary and Jan had Bigger’s best interests at heart, at least as far as they could. Mary and Jan were also blinded by their own privilege—they did not necessarily know how to interact with someone in Bigger’s position, but they wanted to help, they wanted to get to know Bigger, even if Bigger was afraid of them. This is one of the great ironies, and tragedies, of Bigger’s case—that Mary and Jan did not want to be his enemy, but rather, hoped they could possibly be his friend.
Max says that Bigger did not state, in his deposition at the inquest, or in his confession, that “all went blank to him.” Instead, he takes responsibility for his crime, even if he is not entirely sure why he killed. Max states that Bigger’s undifferentiated hate—expressed toward blacks and white alike—is a result of the societal pressures and unfairnesses placed on African Americans; Max also emphasizes that Bigger’s “very existence is a crime against the state,” in the state’s eyes—meaning that the United States does everything it can to blame African Americans for societal wrongs before African Americans have committed a single crime.
Max’s argument, here, takes a turn into the “public sphere,” as he claims that Bigger has, for his entire life, been “criminalized,” or viewed with a kind of suspicion by those white citizens of Chicago who expect young African-American men to commit crimes. Bigger admitted to Max, previously, that he probably at least considered raping Mary, and actually raped Bessie, because he had been told his entire life that rape was something to which African-American men were predisposed—that Bigger had in some way “internalized” this racist ideology.
Max closes his argument by stating that sending Bigger to prison would be an act of mercy and an act of courage—it would mean that the court avoided mere vengeance and still delivered justice to Mary’s and Bessie’s families and to the city of Chicago. But sending Bigger to prison would also indicate that the state wishes for Bigger to be rehabilitated—to learn the meaning of a virtuous, a good life—without merely forcing Bigger to die as repayment for his wrongs. Max closes by saying that, to keep Bigger alive is to keep the spirit of the society in which he lives alive.
Perhaps Max’s most powerful point. Killing Bigger accomplishes nothing other than vengeance—to kill him is to say that killing can, in some way, answer the senseless killing for which Bigger is in jail in the first place. But Max says that, for the state to keep Bigger alive is the more powerful gesture—it is the kind of thing that an enlightened democracy ought to do. The question is, whether this justification is sufficient for the jury to sentence Bigger to life in prison.
The court takes a brief recess. Buckley then rises and delivers his closing argument, in which he once again rehearses the details of Bigger’s crimes (while saying that he will not rehearse these details); Buckley also attributes Max’s motive, in his plea for Bigger’s life, not to a general humanistic spirit but to “typical Communist cunning.” Buckley refers to Bigger as a “savage” and a “demented” person, and does all he can to stir up, once more, the court’s resentment against Bigger. The judge, after Buckley’s statement is heard, says the court will adjourn for one hour to determine the facts and give its ruling. Max pleas for more time in order for the court to go over the case, but the judge says that one hour is sufficient. Both Bigger and Max believe that all is lost, and that Bigger will be sentenced to death.
Max and Bigger both recognize, at this point, that the trial is more or less over, that if the judge is only giving the jury an hour to think over its ruling, then that jury has probably already come to a decision, one that cannot be changed. Buckley, for his part, does everything he can, before the end of arguments, to make it seem not only that Bigger is a criminal, but that Max himself is a person committed to defending and indeed supporting criminals, and that Max is somehow blaming Bigger’s actions on the Chicago community at large.
Bigger and Max are called back into court after recess, and the verdict is delivered swiftly and as imagined: Bigger is sentenced to die on Friday, March 2. Max vows to Bigger, as Bigger is being led away, that Max will speak to the Governor and ask for a stay of execution, but Bigger senses that this is the end, and he begins to resign himself to his own execution. Several days pass, and Max sends along a telegram saying that his appeal to the governor failed, and that the execution will be carried out. Bigger seems resigned to his fate, and to have expected that clemency would not pan out.
At this juncture, Bigger understands that nothing stands between him and death—only time. Soon he will be killed, and it is not quite accurate to say that he has accepted his fate, but he also understands that, even if he does not accept it, there is nothing he can do to change it. Max seems genuinely upset that there is nothing more he can do for his client. He truly cares about Bigger as a human being.
Max visits Bigger in his jail cell in the days before his execution. Max apologizes to Bigger, saying that he tried everything he could, and Bigger seems choked with emotion in the presence of Max. Finally, Bigger thanks Max for all he’s done for him, and in particular, for listening to Bigger, for asking questions about Bigger’s life before the trial started. This was the first time Bigger was ever really asked anything by an outsider—by someone who wished to learn more about Bigger’s humanity.
An important point in the novel. Bigger was greatly moved by Max’s help, but mostly by the fact that Max cared enough about him to ask him about his life, about the nature of his struggles as a young man. Bigger will always remember Max’s help, and in a sense, Bigger also regrets that he was not able to see that Jan, too, wanted to help him, as did Mary.
Max is greatly moved by Bigger’s sentiments, and he takes Bigger to a window in his cell, showing him the buildings of the Chicago skyline. Max tells Bigger that these buildings are not “held together just by stone and steel,” but by the “belief of men.” Max tells Bigger never to lose sight in this belief—in the power of humankind—and Max also says that the white majority in Chicago, like those who control the means of production, are afraid of the beliefs of men like Bigger (and, implicitly, like Max).
Another important moment. Max’s beliefs are not religious sentiments—he does not believe that Bigger will be saved in the afterlife—but Max also knows that Chicago itself, that the United States on the whole, is held together by the idea of free men, from all backgrounds, making decisions together. Max wants Bigger to know that such a world does and can exist outside the prison walls.
As Max is getting ready to leave, Bigger says that he’s not sure why he killed, but that after he did, he began to feel more powerful, more free; Max appears “terrified” by this sentiment, and Bigger agrees that it is, to some extent, a terrifying one. Max appears to have no more to say to Bigger, and wishes him goodbye. Bigger also says goodbye, and as Max gets his hat and leaves the cell, Bigger tells Max to say goodbye also to Jan. The cell door closes, and Bigger is left alone, awaiting his execution. The novel ends.
Yet the novel ends on a truly ambiguous note. Although Max does his best to argue for the inherent goodness of man, Bigger, even as Max is leaving, wonders whether killing in his case wasn’t justified—this causes genuine terror for Max, who perhaps believed, up till now, that Bigger would repent totally for his crimes. Max now sees that, although Bigger’s death by execution is in no way justifiable, it is also possible that Bigger might never admit to the full immorality of the crimes he committed—no matter how long he is given, in prison, to mull over his deeds.