“He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him.”
“But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.”The story starts off with Bigger killing a rat in the shabby one room he shares with his mother, sister and brother. On that same day, Bigger will go for a job interview with Mr. Dalton, the kindly white man who wants to help Negros by giving them menial jobs and donating ping pong tables to community centers in black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Mr. Dalton owns the company that rents that crappy one room to Bigger’s mother in one of the few crowded neighborhood where blacks are "allowed" to live in Chicago. Even when confronted with this fact later in the book, Mr. Dalton does not understand how no amount of ping pong tables will make up for that kind of systemic racism and discrimination.
This book is terribly frustrating to read. Bigger goes to work for the Daltons as a chauffeur, which really is an excellent opportunity for him and he destroys that opportunity. But the reader also sees where Bigger is overwhelmed culturally, out of his element, so much so that he can’t consider any options, any other way of behaving. He knows how to act in his black neighborhood where he is a bully motivated mostly by fear, but he is flummoxed in the world of white people. And equally, many of the white people with whom he interacts don’t understand either that he comes from what might as well be a different universe from them. The view into Bigger’s thoughts and motivations do not excuse his actions, but they do help make them understandable. Even if throughout the book the reader wants to step in and set him straight constantly.
The weakest part of the book for me was the endless, rousing closing argument made by Bigger’s lawyer at his trial. It’s a little too over-the-top and over long with its message when the book was doing just fine before I thought. I’m not sure if Wright didn’t trust his readers to get it or if he just wanted to preach his points. Still, this is a book very much worth reading and still unfortunately relevant. I'm glad to have read it. I think next I need to check out James Baldwin's Notes from a Native Son which contains an essay about this novel.