America Is Blind to Racism and Poverty
Wright uses elements of Sophocles' drama Oedipus to illustrate America's
blindness to racism and poverty. When the tragic hero Oedipus fails to heed warnings, he blinds himself in a fit of fury when what was foretold by the Oracle dramatically unfolds. And blindness, physical and spiritual, is also at issue in Native Son.
Bigger accuses almost every other character of being blind to what is going on around them: "they were simply blind people, blind like his mother, his brother, his sister, the Daltons. (329)" Both Mr. Dalton and the sightless Mrs. Dalton are blinded by their wealth and appease their consequent guilt by making cursory charity contributions. Bigger's mother is blinded by her zealous religious beliefs, Jan by his ignorance and the housekeeper Peggy, and the private investigator Britten, by their backgrounds which socialize them to believe they are superior to African-Americans whom they view as less than human. However, throughout most of the novel, Bigger remains unaware of his own blindness and this prevents him taking advantage of the few available opportunities that could enhance his life. He fails to realize until it is much too late that he has also been psychologically damaged and blinded by the ever-present racist propaganda and oppression in American culture. For instance, only whites are allowed to be aviators, the occupation Bigger, if given the chance, would love to pursue. American movies depict whites as wealthy and sophisticated while blacks are presented as savages.
In Book III, Bigger must, all too late, finally confront his own blindness. Wright imbues his characters with blindness to bring attention to the state of America's lack of vision regarding racism and its consequential poverty in early twentieth century America. African-Americans are confined to areas like the primary setting of the novel, South Chicago's Black Belt. Since there are simply no other areas available to rent, landlords, or slumlords, make no effort to improve the appalling conditions while they overcharge their tenants. For instance, in the opening chapter, Bigger is forced to share one room with three members of his family. They wake to the sound of rat inside the wall. And, since people do not have a variety of places to shop, goods and food are similarly overpriced. Bigger, who is starving by the time he is caught, must pay more money for a loaf of bread than he would in Chicago's wealthier areas. At the trial, Max brings these facts to bear in Bigger's trial as his reasoning behind why Bigger killed Mary Dalton. However, hardly surprisingly, the jury fails to understand their own sightlessness and condemns Bigger to death.
Isolation and Alienation
Bigger shares a bedroom with four people yet he feels isolated. He never
shares his heart with any of his family. They lean on him, yet offer him no
support. He has a gang of friends but they never talk about anything substantial. He thinks nothing of spilling the blood of his friend Gus who has just shared his own money by paying for the pool game. After Mary's murder, there is no one Bigger can confide in, and he erects a wall of isolation around himself and comes to believe that everyone, except himself, is blind. Spurning his girlfriend Bessie when she sees him with the white Mary and Jan, he uses her for sex yet fails to share intimate moments. She loves him but he wants to be rid of her. Alone, he runs from the police, avoiding even his own community. The isolation in his prison cell needs no illustration.
In short, Bigger represents the stereotypical young alienated African-American
male in 1930s America, who as a result of white oppression, Wright maintains,
feels helpless, vengeful and impotent. In the introductory essay, "How Bigger
Was Born," the author writes that Bigger represents a composite figure of
young African-American males who, with very few opportunities in life, become
increasingly antisocial and violent, and ready to explode.
Wright ultimately blames the structure of American society for this sense of
alienation and warns that there are millions of Biggers throughout the country. Changes that benefit African-American culture in the form of education and employment opportunities must be come about, or the consequences will be dire.
Many of the characters want to escape from the oppressive world in which they live. Bigger wants to flee by learning to fly an airplane. His family wants to escape Chicago's Black Belt and move to a better home; Mary Dalton wants to
escape the world of wealth created by her parents, Bessie constantly talks
about running away with Bigger and Jan adopts communism as a means of escaping what he sees as wrongs in American culture.
However, escaping is easier said than done, and sometimes substitutes compensate. Early on we hear Ma calling on God and singing hymns. She sends Reverend Hammond to save Bigger's life. She copes with her life of desperation through her zealous adherence to the word of God. Her true life, she maintains, will begin in the life hereafter. And Bigger, who will never fly an airplane since it is an occupation reserved for whites, puts his desperate life on hold in the movies where he can escape South Chicago's Black Belt. Early on, he finds a few hours surcease from the anxiety associated with robbing Blum's in the darkness of the movie theatre. Similarly, the Daltons escape facing the consequences of their guilt in allowing African-Americans to live in squalor by contributing such gifts as ping-pong tables to charitable organizations.