Bigger Thomas plays a major role in our understanding of the theme of fear in Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Here is how Bigger Thomas helps the reader through his utterances, actions, and experiences to appreciate more the theme of fear in the novel, Native Son.
In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, black youth like Bigger Thomas consistently show signs of being weighed down by a certain uncomfortable feeling of powerlessness. This feeling of helplessness is borne out of the fact that the largely racist white world has stripped young blacks of their humanity, dignity, and liberty.
This loss of control over their destiny or fate breeds in the black population a perpetual sense of fear of their own surroundings.
It is important to note that the fear experienced by blacks in society is not cowardice. Rather, it is created by a frustrating awareness of the loss of control over their actions and the consequences of those actions.
No wonder, the only time that Bigger does not experience this debilitating fear, and the only time he experiences a sense of personal power, is when he realizes that his killing of Mary Dalton and the burning of her body in the basement furnace are things he did on his own – no white person made him do it.
From then on, Bigger Thomas begins to act confidently and deliberately. For example, he cleverly crafts a hoax of a kidnap plot that seeks to implicate the communists in the disappearance of Mary Dalton.
The clever kidnap note and the manner in which it is delivered both attest to Bigger’s growing self-confidence for the first time in his life.
Here are some instances of fear, and the effects of this pervading sense of fear on blacks as a race and on the American society at large.
- This palpable atmosphere of fear generates a tendency toward violent behaviour. That is why Bigger Thomas carries a gun to his interview with Mr Henry Dalton.
- Bigger fears that Mary Dalton’s friendly attitude toward him in front of her white father could make him lose his job. This feeling of fear induced by his total loss of control over his own destiny/fate makes him hate white folks the more.
- Out of fear of the sheer enormity of the planned robbery of a white-owned property, Bigger clandestinely makes sure that the plan to rob Blum’s Delicatessen does not materialize.
- Bigger and Gus fight over the above issue simply out of a discomforting awareness of their mutual fright at the mere thought of robbing a white-owned property. Neither is willing to admit this fear openly. So each has to fight as a way of escaping the pain caused by their helpless situation.
- Out of the mortal fear of being discovered by the blind Mrs Dalton with a completely helpless drunk white girl, Bigger Thomas desperately tries to prevent Mary’s drunken moans from being heard by her mother by covering her head tightly with a pillow. It is this fear-induced reaction that kills Mary.
- Again, Bigger’s fear of being charged with murder and consequently being sent to the electric chair, makes him decapitate and then burn Mary’s body in the furnace.
- Bigger kills his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears (after raping her) mainly because he fears that Bessie could, out of her own fear, talk to the police about his whereabouts and his crime.
- Fear of the grievous consequences of his crime moves Bigger Thomas to attempt to deceive the police and implicate Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s communist boyfriend, in a supposed “kidnap” of Mary by “Red Communists”.
- Bigger makes a ransom demand for $10,000.
- Fear makes Bigger flee as soon as the remains of Mary’s body are discovered by a journalist in the fire at the Daltons’ home
- When he realizes that he will be executed, he experiences the fear, not of dying, but of doing so at the hands of the whites.
Thus the inevitable result is that fear, resulting from a frustrating awareness of their state of powerlessness causes oppressed blacks like Bigger to react in diverse, often violent, and unthinkable fashion.