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  • Bigger's Divided SelfViolence and Homosociality in Native Son
  • Masaya Takeuchi (bio)

Bigger Thomas's violence in Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) has provoked a vigorous critical debate between those who read it as a creative action through which Bigger achieves self-recognition and affirms his human identity and those who attack it for reinforcing stereotypes of African-American men and exaggerating their misogyny.1 There is merit in both views. Bigger's murder of Mary Dalton can be interpreted as a necessary means for creating a new self, yet his rape and murder of Bessie Mears suggests a male-centric narrative which represses and silences the black female voice. However, the fact that Bigger is subjected to complex social forces—racial oppression and cultural discourses—that divide his sense of selfhood makes problematical any simple apology for or criticism of his violence.2 His melancholic identification with his father, who was killed by whites, releases his self-destructive impulses and leads to the formation of a tough persona in order to avoid feeling guilty for his family's suffering. As a result, Bigger's identity splits into two conflicted selves, an assertive one among blacks and a submissive one in front of whites. His struggle to balance the two selves not only produces his gender-divided views of two women—Mary as passive and subversive and Bessie as obedient and strong-willed—but also provokes his violence against them. By the novel's end, he is in the process of becoming unified, as his tears indicate, but this unification is brought to nothing by the white male homosociality in the Chicago of the 1930s, a homosociality characterized by fear of black male sexuality under the influence of Southern racist discourse and anxiety about black solidarity with the Communist Party. To some extent, then, James Baldwin's argument is correct: "The failure of [Native Son] lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone [End Page 56] which is real and which cannot be transcended" (23). Paradoxically, however, springing out of the depths of his despair is Bigger's sincere hope for achieving human solidarity and transcending racial categorization. His "faint, wry, bitter smile" (430) in the novel's last scene expresses both his unresolved mixed feelings—pain, isolation, and despair—and the recovery of his humanity in the darkness of racism.

The Social Construction of Bigger's Assertive Self

Native Son recounts how the assertive, masculine side of Bigger is constructed in opposition to his family's plight and to the white racism that oppresses them all. In the opening scene, in which Bigger dangles a killed rat in his sister Vera's face until she faints, his mother tells him she sometimes wonders why she gave birth to him and blames him for the family's poverty: "We wouldn't have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you" (8). She defines "manhood" as the ability to earn money and support the family; however, because of racial oppression, Bigger can get only menial jobs that don't pay enough to let him occupy the traditional male role of breadwinner. Mrs. Thomas's failure to understand his difficulty ends in "creating a sense of guilt in Bigger—guilt about his inability to function as a man, guilt about his inability to support his family, guilt about what he does with the other boys when she is not physically watching over him" (Harris 65).

Important to Bigger's struggle towards manhood is the killing of his father in a riot in Mississippi when Bigger was a child (74). His father was probably murdered by whites, and Bigger must realize that his father's death led to the family's predicament. Much as Wright felt responsible for supporting his impoverished family after his father's desertion (Fabre 14), Bigger, the eldest son, must have felt obligated to replace his dead father. In addition, as the sudden death of Wright's uncle in Wright's childhood "crystallized once and for all his vague dread of the white world into...