Twenty years old at the start of the novel, Wright’s protagonist Bigger Thomas lives a life so small, it’s claustrophobic. At the opening of the novel, Bigger makes his living through petty crime. His daily existence is blotted with fear of white people, fear of life itself, and shame at the way his family lives. Though we know he’s gained a new job, even the new job offers little hope for a better life. His family will continue to live in the same rat-infested one-room apartment and struggle to put food on the table, a fact that fills Bigger with a hopeless sense of his own powerlessness. The Daltons, the wealthy white family that employs him, suggest that Bigger has an opportunity to gain an education through night school while he lives and works for them. Although this is an opportunity that few blacks at the time are offered, the Daltons’ generosity is mitigated – in fact, obliterated – by their racism. Bigger knows that the wealthy white family owns the apartment in which Bigger’s family lives, so he knows that they make money off his family’s misery. In some small dim part of his mind, he recognizes the injustice of it all; so when Mrs. Dalton suggests he might go to night school, Bigger decides he’ll have nothing to do with their attempts to give him an education.
In an essay called "The Fact of Blackness", Franz Fanon describes Bigger Thomas as a symbol that represents all black men. Bigger Thomas’s most consistent emotion is fear; he is afraid of himself. Here is how Bigger feels even before he ever commits a crime: "All those white men in a group, guns in their hands, can’t be wrong. I am guilty. I do not know of what, but I know that I am no good." Ultimately, Fanon argues, Bigger Thomas has to do something to end the tension he feels. So he murders a white girl. The tension released by this action. Even though the death was initially accidental, Bigger’s act gives him a sense of purpose and identity. He’s actually done something now: he’s taken his fate into his own hands and his every choice in life is no longer dictated by others. This feeling is, of course, short-lived but Bigger enjoys it while it lasts.
Like Fanon, Bigger’s lawyer, Boris Max, highlights the fact that Bigger lives with daily tension. He suggests that all black men in America grow up with a heightened sense of their powerlessness. Their powerlessness, combined with an aggressive attempt by the larger society to prevent them from accomplishing anything, creates an inner turmoil that is often released in acts of crime. Max suggests that American society itself is to blame for crimes like Bigger’s.
If you’re wondering whether Bigger Thomas is an unrealistic character, check out Richard Wright’s essay called "How ‘Bigger’ Was Born." Richard Wright explains that he created Bigger by compiling characteristics from different people he’d known all his life. Bigger #1 was a bully Wright knew as a kid, who liked to terrorize the other kids by taking their toys. He liked the power he had over his victims as they groveled and begged for their toys back. Bigger #1 would only return the toys when his victim paid him proper deference.
Bigger #2 was a seventeen-year-old Wright knew whose toughness was directed at whites instead of other blacks. He bought food on credit, which he refused to pay. He rented a room and never paid rent. His explanation was that the whites had everything and blacks had nothing and it was foolish not to take what you needed.
Bigger #3 who, Wright says, "carried his life in his hands in a literal fashion." He was a bad man, taking things that didn’t belong to him, and died violently during the Prohibition era. Bigger #4 broke the Jim Crow laws deliberately, knowing that someday he’d pay for it. He was eventually committed to an asylum. Bigger #5 also broke Jim Crow laws by riding in the white sections of street cars and refusing to pay to ride. In a confrontation with the conductor, he took out a knife and told the conductor to "make him" move to the black section. He was proud to be called the "Bigger Thomas nigger" who you needed to leave alone.