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.