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An alarm clock rings and Ma wakes the kids up—Bigger, Buddy, and Vera. We know the setting is a one-room apartment because the boys have to turn their heads while their mother and sister, Vera, get dressed and the women do the same when the boys get dressed.
Their morning routine is interrupted when a rat enters the room and Bigger and Buddy try to kill it with a skillet. The scary thing is that the rat actually attacks them as they chase it rather than just running away to hide.
Finally, the battle with the rat is over. The two boys kill it, smashing its head in with a shoe. While the women sob, Bigger and Buddy admire their work, noticing how big the rodent is and how long its fangs are.
Bigger teases his sister by approaching her and swinging the giant rat. Vera screams and falls off the bed in a dead faint. Ma asks Bigger to help get Vera back up on the bed, then calls him "the biggest fool I ever saw" for scaring her like that.
She wonders why she even gave birth to him, then says if Bigger was a real man, they wouldn’t have to live in such a dump.
Vera wakes up and complains about Bigger and about being late for her sewing class at the YMCA.
The mother berates Bigger, saying that he’s going to feel sorry about the way he treats Vera if the girl ever dies. This is evidently a common tirade, which she continues by letting him know they’d be just as well off without him. He’ll regret running with the gang someday, she says. The gallows lie at the end of the path he’s running.
She continues her lament, saying she might as well die. Bigger shuts their voices out of his head. He’s ashamed of the way they live but feels powerless to help them.
The family sits down to eat while his mother sings "Life’s Railway to Heaven," a song that irritates the heck out of Bigger.
As they sit down to eat, the mother nags Bigger, saying he’ll have to get up earlier than this if he wants to keep a job. Anyway, does he plan to take that job? She continues, while he says he’s already told her he’s going to take the dang job—how many times does he need to tell her anyway?
Then there’s a little spat. Ma pretends like Bigger hasn’t said he’s going to take the job and how, if he got the job, he could help them live in a better place than this. Buddy tells his mother to lay off. Bigger says he wishes they’d let him eat.
Bigger gets angry as he sits there, thinking about the job. He asks for some carfare (that’s money for public transportation) and, as he leaves, his mother says if he doesn’t take the job, there won’t be any more food. He yells that he’s already said he’ll take the job and slams the door shut.
As he leaves, he angrily reflects on the fact that he has only two choices: take the job and be miserable, or refuse it and starve.
He thinks about how he’ll spend the day and notices a poster of a white face. He realizes the poster is a picture of a man called Buckley, who is running for State’s Attorney again. He thinks if he made as much money as Buckley, he would never have to worry again.
It was one of those pictures where Buckley looks at you straight on and, as you walk away from it, you keep glancing back, feeling like somebody’s watching you. The letters above the picture announce, "YOU CAN’T WIN," and Bigger mutters to himself, "You crook."
He counts his money and swears that he’s always broke. He needs another twenty cents to go to the movie and buy a magazine. He really wants to see a movie.
Instead, he could go hang out with Gus, G.H., and Jack—members of the gang—but he’d have to be ready to do what they’ve been scheming. The plan is to hold up Blum’s Delicatessen, which could make him some quick money.
The thing is, they’d never robbed a white man before. It seemed safer to rob black people, because they knew a white policeman wouldn’t care as much. Robbing Blum’s seems like a terrible thing, like it would bring the wrath of the entire police force upon them.
They want to do it—it seems like the real deal, a real stickup—but they’re afraid.
As Bigger contemplates all of this, Vera passes him by and says goodbye.
She tells him to stay away from G.H., Jack, and Gus and get that job.
Bigger’s sure that his mother has been talking to Buddy and Vera about him. About how he’ll be sent to prison instead of the reform school (like last time) if he gets into trouble again. What he resents is his mother telling Vera these things, not Buddy. Vera believes everything she’s told.
He heads towards the poolroom. He sees Gus, the mastermind of the plan to rob Blum’s. G.H. and Jack aren’t around yet.
The two guys smoke. They watch the sky and make small-talk about the weather.
They see a plane writing something in the sky. While it slowly etches words out ("USE SPEED GASOLINE"), they discuss how fast planes fly. Bigger claims he could fly a plane if he had a chance, but Gus mocks him, saying he wouldn’t be able to fly because he’s black.
Bigger is resentful of the way white people treat black people. Gus, on the other hand, just thinks that the world is how it is and there’s no use getting all upset about it.
Bigger suggests that they "play white," a game where they imitate white people.
Gus doesn’t want to, but Bigger insists. Bigger pretends to be a general in the military, commanding Gus to take his men to the river and attack at dawn. So Gus falls into the game, saying, "Yessir!" to everything Bigger says.
Then Gus takes his turn, imitating J.P. Morgan (a rich banker). He pretends he wants Bigger to sell twenty thousand shares of U.S. Steel stock, to dump ‘em at any price, and to let him know that afternoon if the president phoned.
Then Bigger calls, pretending to be the President. He tells Gus that as Secretary of State, Gus has to be at a cabinet meeting that afternoon. He’s planning to do something about all those black people "raising sand" all over the country.
When they finish the final one, Bigger starts cursing about how white people don’t let black people do anything. He’s known that for awhile but he hasn’t gotten used to it. They have things, black people don’t. They live in separate neighborhoods. They do things black people can’t. It’s like prison, he concludes.
Then Bigger admits, almost like he’s proud, that he thinks something awful is going to happen to him just because he’s black.
Gus is obviously afraid and tells Bigger to stop thinking about it.
But Bigger admits he wants something, anything, to happen.
Then they watch as a grey pigeon swoops down onto the cable tracks and struts. It flies away as a street car approaches.
Bigger says he wishes he could do that. He wants to be able to go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do.
Gus tells him not to think about it, but Bigger insists it’s not that simple. Gus advises Bigger to get drunk and sleep it off.
Bigger says he can’t because he’s broke.
Do you know where white people live, Gus? He asks.
Gus nods towards the dividing line.
Bigger says they live in his stomach.
Gus looks away as if ashamed. He admits he knows what Bigger means. They’re also in the throat and chest, making it so sometimes you can’t breathe.
That’s why Bigger feels something awful is going to happen to him. Or like he’s going to do something he can’t help.
Gus knows what he means and they agree that whites own the world.
They go to the poolroom, nod at Doc (the poolroom owner), and start playing pool. Bigger wins.
Then he starts playing badly, thinking about Blum’s. Finally Bigger brings the robbery up and says "Let’s do it."
Gus isn’t so sure—Blum has a gun. But, Bigger presses the issue, accusing Gus of being scared because Blum is white.
Bigger says Gus doesn’t have to go into the store, he can just be the lookout. Jack, G.H., and Bigger will go in.
Jack and G.H. arrive.
Bigger asks if they want to play pool, and Gus points out that he’s the one paying for the game. Everybody laughs, but Bigger feels like the joke is on him.
So Bigger tells them they can all laugh, but he has Blum’s place all figured out. He says it’ll be easy. The cops are at the other end of the street, the old man is the only one in the store. So one person should stay outside to watch while the other three go in. One person will keep a gun on Blum, one will go for the cash box, and the third will have the back door open so they can make a quick getaway down the back alley.
G.H. objects because previously they had always said they’d never use a gun. Bigger says this robbery is something big, which is why they need a gun. He asks if they’re too scared to do it.
There’s silence. Bigger watches Jack, knowing he’s the one who decides.
As he waits to see what Jack will say, and whether Gus will go or not, he gets more and more scared. He’s afraid they really will go. He grows hot. He thinks something inside is going to snap.
Finally, Jack says he’ll go. G.H. says he’ll go if everybody does. Gus is still quiet.
Now Bigger is content. He’d wanted it to be three against one so he’d played his cards right.
As they wait for Gus to decide, he begins to hate and fear Gus with the hate and fear he tends to reserves for whites.
But still Gus is silent. Bigger’s anger grows and grows until he calls Gus an S.O.B. and accuses him of being scared because just because the owner of Blum’s is white.
Gus tells Bigger not to cuss at him.
They argue. Gus insists Bigger isn’t his boss, and Bigger insists that Gus is yellow.
Gus looks at Bigger and Bigger grows fearful again. He knows in a minute he’ll hit Gus if Gus doesn’t answer.
Gus finally does answer. He tells Bigger that he’s the source of all their problems. It’s his fiery temper. Gus asserts that he has a right to make up his own mind, and it’s Bigger who’s actually scared—scared Gus will say yes and then they’ll have to actually go through with the robbery.
Bigger threatens to take a pool ball and stuff it in Gus’s mouth.
Gus finally says he’s going with them but he’s not going to take orders from Bigger.
Bigger leaps at him but Jack gets in the way and stops the fight. Bigger stares at Gus and his anger is so palpable that he wants to stab Gus with a knife, kick him, send him sprawling.
Gus and G.H. go for a walk.
They all decide to meet back at the pool hall at 3 o’clock for the big heist.
After Gus and G.H. leave, Bigger begins to sweat with his fear. He directs all his anger towards Gus.
Bigger says that Gus is cowardly, so in order to get him to do anything, you have to make him more scared of what’ll happen if he doesn’t do the job than what’ll happen to him if he does.
Bigger is beginning to feel hysteria and he knows he needs to get rid of that emotion. The only way he can regain his confidence is to do something violent.
He fluctuates between these moods: indifference and violence, silence and anger, brooding and desire. In other words, he’s moody and proud of it.
Jack and Bigger leave the pool room. They walk leisurely, smoking cigarettes. Bigger says he wants to see a movie, so they head to the theatre, buy tickets, and go inside.
Bigger looks around the theater to see if anyone is watching him. Then he starts to masturbate. (This scene is removed from older printings of the book.) He challenges Jack to see who can get off first. Bigger wishes he had Bessie here now and Jack says he can make Clare moan.
They finish and change seats.
Then he says they’d better take their guns this time but Jack says they should be careful not to kill anyone. They both wish the robbery was already over.
The movie starts and they see pictures of white women in Florida and comment how beautiful they are. But as they watch, Bigger realizes that one of the women—Mary Dalton, daughter of Chicago’s Henry Dalton—is the daughter of the man he’s supposed to work for if he takes the job his mom has been nagging him about.
The girl Mary has fallen in love with a radical. It shows them kissing on the sand and the announcer says that shortly after this scene became public, Mama and Papa Dalton called Mary home because they didn’t like her Communist friend.
What’s a Communist? Bigger wants to know.
Jack thinks it’s a race that lives in Russia. And rich people don’t like Communists.
Bigger thinks that Mary is hot.
Jack says his mother used to work for rich families and that rich girls will go to bed with anybody "from a poodle on up."
Bigger is suddenly excited about his new job. He’ll get to see rich life from the inside. Maybe he’d figure out how to get some wealth out of it. Bigger sees getting rich is a game that white folks know how to play.
His mother had told him that rich white people liked black people better than they liked poor white people. He’d heard of a black chauffeur who married a rich white girl; the parents sent them out of the country but gave them money to live on.
Bigger decides that he will take the job. Maybe Mary Dalton will want to see the South Side of Chicago. Maybe she had a secret sweetheart and she’d give him money to keep quiet about it.
He suddenly thinks he’s a fool to want to rob Blum’s when he’s got this job coming up.
Jack says it’s time to go because it’s twenty to three. So they leave the theatre and agree to go get their guns and meet back up.
Bigger walks home, his fear getting worse as he goes. He doesn’t want to do this anymore, but feels trapped.
He hears his mother singing inside the apartment: "Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart."
Bigger tiptoes inside and gets his gun. When his mother calls out to ask if that’s him she hears. He leaves without answering, slamming the door behind him.
He feels the fear growing in his stomach.
When he gets to Doc’s (the poolroom), though, Gus isn’t there. Bigger feels a bit relieved.
Jack, D.H., and Bigger don’t speak to each other. Bigger smokes a cigarette and thinks he should say something in order to break the tension.
The guys are playing pool, and Bigger bets Jack "two bits" that he can’t hit a ball into one of the table’s pockets.
Jack makes it and says Bigger would have lost if it had been a real bet.
Gus still hasn’t shown up, and if he takes much longer, it’ll be too late to execute the plan—and Gus knows that. The robbery has to be done while the cop is on the other end of the street and before folks came in looking to buy things for their supper.
Bigger begins to threaten to do something to Gus if he doesn’t make it. G.H. defends Gus and says he has more guts than the rest of them.
Jack says they can always do it tomorrow.
Bigger walks to the window and sees Gus coming along the street. At that moment, he knows: he’s going to do something to Gus although he doesn’t know what yet.
Gus is whistling, "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" as he comes in.
As he comes in, Bigger whirls around and kicks him hard. As Gus flops to the floor, Bigger laughs. Gus gets up and looks at Bigger with hate. Doc says to take it easy.
Gus threatens to fix Bigger one of these days. Bigger tells him to say that again, in a threatening way.
Doc tells Bigger to leave Gus alone.
As Gus goes away, Bigger follows him, grabbing him by the collar and yelling to say it again.
Gus yells at Bigger to quit hassling him, but Bigger strikes Gus.
As Jack tells Bigger not to hurt him, Bigger says he’s going to kill Gus—and starts choking Gus by tightening his hold on Gus’s collar.
Gus begins to struggle. But finally he shakes loose and Bigger staggers back. Then he pulls out a knife. He springs, trips Gus to the floor and brandishes his knife over Gus’s prone body.
Gus surrenders and finally Bigger gets up.
He demands that Gus get up too. When he doesn’t, Bigger puts his knife to Gus’s throat. Finally, Gus stands and Bigger demands that Gus lick the knife. Gus starts to cry, and he looks around the room for help but nobody moves. Gus licks the blade, crying.
Doc says, "Ha-ha," laughing, thinking the joke is done, but Bigger isn’t finished yet.
He has Gus stretch his hands high up along the wall. He makes a circular motion on Gus’s stomach with the blade and asks how’d he like to have his belly button cut out?
Doc laughs. Jack and G.H. laugh. Bigger smiles. He calls Gus a clown and tells him not to be late next time.
Bigger insists that it’s too late to do it now.
Gus throws a billiard ball at Bigger (he misses) and runs away. Bigger starts to go after Gus but Doc says that’s enough, laughing while he says it. G.H. and Jack laugh, too.
Bigger gets more and more furious. He takes out his knife again and tells them to keep laughing. Doc bends down behind the counter and picks up something in his arms that he doesn’t show to anyone. But he’s still laughing.
Bigger’s getting more riled up and starts slashing the billiard tables.
Doc then tells Bigger to get out before he shoots him.
Bigger walks slowly past Doc, his knife in his hand. He looks back and sees that G.H. and Jack have already taken off.
Doc shows the gun at last, telling Bigger again to get out of there.
Afraid, Bigger leaves. He passes Blum’s store and sees that Blum is alone and the store is empty. He had lied. There would have been plenty time to rob the store.
But still, he thinks, he had shown them all that he was their equal while also hiding his fear. Now he just wants to be alone.
He goes home and sits in a chair by a window, looking out at the world.
His mother tells him not to get in trouble.
He listens to her washing clothes and thinks about how he felt when he fought Gus: relieved. He was tired of the gang. And today’s events put an end to his relationship with them anyway.
He had known that it would be better to fight Gus than to hold up a white man with a gun. But he hid his fear even from himself—the only way he could live was by hiding that truth. So he thinks to himself that he had fought Gus because Gus was late. He just needed to remember he wasn’t responsible to anyone.
He feels the gun against his skin and thinks he should put it away but decides he’ll take it with him to the Dalton Place. It’ll make him feel safer, especially since he is going to be among white people. In Bigger’s mind, the gun makes him their equal.
At five, he gets up and gets ready to leave. As he heads out the door, his mother asks him if he’s going to see about the job. Yes, he says. She gives him a quarter to buy himself something to eat.
He walks south, then east, wondering if the Daltons are the same ones in the movie after all. But, it doesn’t seem as mysterious and wonderful as it had in the movie theatre.
When he reaches the Daltons’ house, he feels only fear and emptiness. Should he go through the front or the back? he wonders. As he walks along the fence, he doesn’t see a way into the back. Then he wonders whether a white policeman would think he’s there to rob a house? He begins to wish he’d never come.
He goes into the front and pushes the doorbell. The door opens. A white face. A woman.
She knows who he is and lets him in. She tells him to wait while she gets Mr. Dalton.
Left alone, he’s very uncomfortable. He hadn’t realized that the white world would be so different from his own that he’d feel intimidated and scared.
He looks at the paintings on the wall. He hears music. He begins to feel angry.
A white man comes and gets him. Bigger follows him through the house. They pass an elderly woman who is blind. When they pass, the man tells Bigger that the lady was Mrs. Dalton and she has a "deep interest" in black people.
Now we realize that this man is Mr. Dalton. He asks for the paper from the "relief people" (the ones who referred Bigger for the job). As Bigger reaches into his pocket to get it, he drops his hat. He’s not sure what to do—pick up his cap or get the paper. So he reaches for the hat.
He hates himself for a minute. He hasn’t met Mr. Dalton’s eyes yet. He feels convinced that this is the way white people want him to behave in their presence. He notices that Mr. Dalton is watching him closely as he searches for the paper.
Finally he finds it.
Mr. Dalton begins to question him about where he lives, to whom he pays rent, how big the place is, and how much he pays for rent per week. Bigger had heard that Mr. Dalton owns the South Side Real Estate Company, the place where he pays the rent each week.
It turns out Bigger is twenty years old and unmarried.
Mr. Dalton continues to question him, saying that the relief people had said that Bigger works very hard when he’s interested in what he’s doing. But they also said he was always in trouble. Mr. Dalton wonders if Bigger will keeping stealing now that he has a job?
Bigger says no.
Mr. Dalton plans to hire Bigger as his driver, and he’ll pay him $25 a week. He’ll get the clothes he needs, his meals, and a room to sleep in. He can keep $5 for himself to spend as he likes, and he should send the remaining $20 to his mother to keep his brother and sister in school.
Mr. Dalton then tells him about the daily schedule: Bigger will have to take Mr. Dalton to the office at nine. Then he needs to return home to take Miss Dalton to school at ten. At twelve, he should pick up Miss Dalton at the university. From then until night, he’s free, unless the Daltons need to go out at night. He’ll work every day, but the family doesn’t get up until noon on Sundays, so he can have Sunday mornings off. He’ll get one full day off every two weeks.
Mary Dalton walks into the room. Yes, she is the same girl from the movie.
Mr. Dalton introduces Bigger to Mary as their new chauffeur.
She asks Bigger if he belongs to a union and, when he says no, insists that he should. Mr. Dalton tells her to hush.
Bigger hates her for a moment. He’s trying to get a job and she’s ruining it.
Mr. Dalton tells her to leave Bigger alone. She tells him, "All-right, Mr. Capitalist," then asks Bigger if Mr. Dalton doesn’t look like a capitalist.
Bigger doesn’t know what a capitalist is.
Then she tells her father that if Bigger doesn’t have anything else to do, he can drive her to a lecture at the university tonight.
She leaves. Bigger wishes she hadn’t said anything about unions and wonders if he won’t be hired now. She’s not at all the way he had imagined she would be.
Mr. Dalton calls after Mary, then leaves the room.
Bigger hears them talking and her laughing. He decides he should leave this crazy girl alone. No wonder they called her a Communist!
Mr. Dalton returns, picks up his paper, and looks at it a long time.
Then he tells Bigger that he’s hiring him because he’s a big supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Bigger has never heard of the NAACP.
Mr. Dalton calls Peggy, the cook, and tells her to give Bigger something to eat. He tells Bigger to drive Miss Dalton to the university at 8:30.
Peggy takes Bigger to the kitchen and makes him bacon and eggs.
She asks him if Mr. Dalton told him about the furnace. He says no. So she tells Bigger that his job is also to keep the fire going in the furnace.
Peggy seems kind, he thinks, but maybe she’s just trying to shove off some of her own work on him. As he eats, he thinks that the only bad part of the job so far is "that crazy girl," Mary Dalton. In film, he could deal with her, but in real life she "put herself in the way."
Peggy tells him he’ll like the job and the last black man worked for "us" for ten years. Bigger wonders why she refers to herself as part of the family by using the word "us." That man left because Mrs. Dalton made him go to night school and he got a government job.
Bigger decides he isn’t going to night school.
Peggy’s been with the Daltons for twenty years. She says they’re millionaires but they live "like human beings" and they’re not snobbish. She says they’re like one big family.
Mr. Dalton, she says, does a lot for "your people," but Mrs. Dalton is the one who makes him do it. She’s the one who made her husband rich when he married her.
Peggy continues to talk, letting him know that he has more than just a job here—he has a home. She explains that this is only home she’ll ever know. Apparently, she plans to work for the Daltons until she dies. And she explains that her Irish parents feel the same way about England that black people feel about the white Americans, so she can understand him.
Then Peggy tells him that Miss Dalton is always in trouble and is always worrying her parents. That ends the gossip session.
She takes him down to the basement to the furnace. He sees the embers glowing and smells the fire and ash.
Peggy explains that every morning, he’ll find the garbage here and he should burn it and put the bucket on the dumbwaiter. He’ll never have to put coal on the fire—the system is rigged so it feeds coal automatically. And the water fills by itself, too. He just has to take out the ashes and sweep. When the coal is low, he needs to tell Peggy or Mr. Dalton so they can order more.
Peggy gives Bigger keys to his room, the garage, and the car.
In the garage, she explains how he should drive the car out of the garage, then wait at the side door for whoever he’s driving.
Since Bigger is free until he has to drive Miss Dalton at 8:30, he goes to his new room. He looks at the pictures of Jack Johnson, other boxers, and a few white actresses on the walls. The bed is soft and he thinks how he can bring Bessie here some night. He can drink in peace. He won’t have to sleep with Buddy anymore!
He lights a cigarette and stretches out on the bed. He thinks he should buy himself a gold watch.
The one bad part of this job is that girl. Mary Dalton. She could make him lose his job.
He tries to figure out what she acts like. He has never met a white woman like her; she doesn’t stand aloof and distant from him. Maybe she is okay, he thinks. And Mr. Dalton had given millions of dollars to black people. So there’s clearly plenty of money around.
He hopes the car will be a Packard or a Rolls Royce, something grand. When he’s alone in the car, he’ll burn rubber.
He’s thirsty. He looks at his watch, then goes to the kitchen. There, he sees Mrs. Dalton standing still in the middle of the kitchen. She looks like she’s listening. Beside her is a white cat.
He’s about to tiptoe away when she says, "Are you the new boy?"
He admits he wanted water and she welcomes him to come in. He goes to the sink, watching her, feeling watched. He realizes that Mrs. Dalton has an uncanny ability to know exactly where he is by listening.
They exchange pleasantries until finally she asks how far he went in school and he says to the eighth grade. She wonders if he’d ever think of going back. Would he like to get an education? What would he want to be if he could get an education? Bigger doesn’t know.
He leaves her, still standing where he found her. He feels like she would be a harsh but kind judge.
His mother, he thinks, wants him to do all the things she wants him to do. But Mrs. Dalton wants him to do the things she thinks he should want to do. But he doesn’t want an education. He has other plans or at least, an idea of other plans.
He drives the car out of the garage, disappointed that it’s a Buick, and inspects it. He decides it’s okay.
Mary Dalton comes out and gets in the car. He gets in and asks if her university is the one on the Midway. She hesitates, then says yes.
He watches her in the rearview mirror as he drives. She acts distant now, nothing like when he’d first met her.
As he drives, he feels powerful.
Mary Dalton tells him to pull into a side street. He doesn’t know what she means but does as he’s told.
He pulls in to a curb and turns back to look at her, but her face is right there, close to his.
Mary asks if she scares him. He says no and thinks how weird and unexpected she is.
She asks him to light a match and she smokes. Then she asks him if he’s a tattletale.
He opens his mouth but can’t speak.
Then Mary says she’s not going to the university and tells him to drive her to the Loop. She instructs him to lie and say he brought her to the university if anyone asks.
He agrees. Mary says she thinks she can trust him and she’s on his side. He doesn’t know what the girl means by that.
She says she’s going to meet a friend of hers who is also a friend of his.
Bigger is startled by this, but she says he doesn’t know this friend yet.
Maybe she was talking about "the Reds," he thinks—Communists. But his friends aren’t Reds.
He will have to lie to Mr. Dalton, but what if Mr. Dalton is having them watched? He’ll have to watch his step so that Mary doesn’t make him lose his job.
He drives her to a dark building and she gets out, saying she won’t be long. She tells Bigger that he’ll understand everything better "bye and bye," and makes a reference to that being a song that "your people" sing.
When she leaves, he reflects how weird she is and how much she frightens him.
He looks at the building Mary entered and wonders whether she’s gone to meet her sweetheart or Communists or both. Bigger reflects on how he’s seen cartoons of Communists in the newspaper and they’re always looking murderous or trying to set things on fire. They’re crazy.
Mary comes back out of the building with a young white man. They come around to the front of the car and Miss Dalton introduces Bigger to "Jan," who extends his right hand to shake. Bigger starts to shake then stops. Jan insists and they shake and even when Bigger tries to pull his hand away. Jan grips Bigger’s hand firmly.
Jan tells Bigger he doesn’t want to be called sir. They’ll call each other by their first names. Bigger doesn’t respond and Mary laughs, telling him that Jan really means it.
Bigger starts to feel angry with Mary for laughing at him. He wishes they would leave him alone. He wonders what everybody passing might think and he’s aware that he’s a black man and that men like Jan have made him aware that he’s a black man. He feels naked and so he hates them.
Jan asks if he can drive for awhile and Mary says it’s okay.
With Jan is now at the wheel, Mary is in the passenger seat and Bigger is wedged in the middle. He is sitting in between two white people, two "white looming walls." He smells Mary’s hair and feels the pressure of her thigh against his own.
Jan and Mary talk about how beautiful the world is. Jan says that "after the revolution," "we" will own the Chicago skyline, the whole world. There will be no white or black, no rich or poor, he says.
Bigger doesn’t feel like he should move even though he feels cramped. He’s black and so he feels cramped.
Jan wants to know where they can get a good meal on the South Side. Mary adds that they want to go to a real place.
So Bigger takes them to Ernie’s Kitchen Shack. He wants them to hurry up and get there so he can sit in the car and stretch out his legs while they eat.
Jan points at the apartments they pass and says he’s always wanted to get inside there to see how "your people" live. He’s traveled the world but he doesn’t know people ten blocks from his own home. Even though he’s talking to Bigger about black people, Jan still refers to black people as "them." "They’re human," he says. "They must live like we live."
Bigger wishes he could kill all of them in the car. He’s feeling his emotions get out of control. Why couldn’t they leave him alone?
Bigger accidentally calls Jan "sir" again and Jan chides him for it.
When they get out, Mary and Jan obviously expect Bigger to go in the restaurant with them, but Bigger doesn’t want to go where people know him and will wonder what he’s doing with these white people.
He tells them he doesn’t want to, but they pressure him until he feels trapped and gives in. Bigger distrusts and hates his white companions.
Mary begins to cry because she realizes they’ve made Bigger feel bad. Then she apologizes to Bigger about crying.
Jan says, "Let’s eat." Ironically, although he wants them to be "equal," Jan keeps commanding Bigger: Let’s eat, sit down, don’t call me sir.
Inside, Bigger’s friend Jack waves at Bigger and stares at Jan and Mary. The waitresses and customers stare at them, too.
Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, comes over and says hi, then walks away when she sees Jan and Mary.
Jan and Mary eat but Bigger struggles with his food. When Mary encourages him to eat, he says he isn’t hungry. When Jan asks if he’d like some beer, Bigger decides he might feel more comfortable around them if he were drunk. Jan orders rum and pours a round. Bigger begins to feel much better.
Jan starts firing questions at Bigger about where he was born (Mississippi), how long he’s been in Chicago (five years), where his father is (dead, killed in a riot in the South), whether anything was done about his father’s death (no), and how he feels about that (he doesn’t know). Jan brings up the Scottsboro trial and asks if "we" did a good job keeping them from killing those boys.
Then Mary tells Bigger that they’d like to be his friend.
He says nothing, just drinks more. He’s drunk enough now that he can look at them.
Bigger drives them home, while Mary and Jan cuddle in the back seat.
Mary asks Bigger if he has a girl and he says yes. Mary says she’d like to meet her sometime.
Then Jan and Mary start talking about a demonstration and three "comrades" were arrested. They need money for bail so Mary says she’ll send a check.
Mary says she’s finishing school in the spring and she plans to join the Party then. She also says she wants to meet some Negroes. Jan admits he doesn’t know many very well, but she’ll meet them when she’s in the Party.
Mary starts expressing her admiration for black people for how emotional they are. Jan admits the Communists can’t have a revolution without them.
Mary starts singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and Jan joins in.
Bigger thinks to himself that they’re getting the tune wrong.
In the back seat, Jan and Mary continue to drink.
They ask Bigger if he wants some so he slows the car and takes a "swig."
He thinks about how Jan and Mary are getting plastered, though he’s clearly feeling it himself too. He doesn’t feel like he’s driving—more like he’s floating.
Bigger sees Mary lying flat on the back seat with Jan bent over her. Then he sees a flash of white thigh.
Finally, Mary says it’s 1 a.m. and time for her to go. Jan says he hates to see her go to Detroit, but she says she’ll be back in a couple of days. She wants just a little more liquor, though, to help her sleep.
Both Jan and Mary are drunk now. Jan gives Bigger some pamphlets to read and says they’ll talk about them in a couple of days.
Bigger drops Jan off and Mary gets up front in the passenger seat. Bigger’s feeling pretty drunk himself. As they drive home, Mary tells him he’s really nice and leans her head on his shoulder.
When they get home, Mary has trouble getting out of the car. Bigger helps her, but he gets really turned on. He has to hold her up.
She tells him to turn her loose but then she falls. Bigger realizes that she’s going to wake everybody up. He feels helpless at the same time that he admires her and hates her. And he’s kind of excited to see her all drunk. So he helps her up.
As he leads her up the stairs to the kitchen door, Bigger feels her breasts. He gets excited, helping her, and hates her at the same time.
Finally, he gets Mary to her room and tries to wake her again. As Bigger is helping her, though, she begins to kiss him and he realizes suddenly that she’s experienced. He kisses her again. Mary’s hips grind against his.
Bigger lifts Mary and lays her on the bed. He plans to leave, but he doesn’t want to remove his hands from her breasts. He kisses her again.
The door behind him creaks. Mrs. Dalton is there and she calls Mary’s name. Mary mumbles in her sleep while Bigger holds his breath and is silent.
Mary tries to rise, but Bigger pushes her head back in the pillow to keep her from saying anything that would allow Mrs. Dalton to discover his presence.
Mrs. Dalton says that her daughter must be asleep.
Bigger wants to move but he’s afraid Mrs. Dalton will sense him. He holds his hand over Mary’s mouth. Mary tries to rise again and so he covers her entire face with the pillow and he pushes on the girl with all his weight so she won’t make a sound.
Mrs. Dalton moves towards them and Mary’s fingernails dig into Bigger’s wrists.
Mrs. Dalton keeps asking if that’s Mary. Suddenly, Mary’s fingers loosen. Bigger takes his hands from the pillow and he hears a long sigh from the bed.
Now Mrs. Dalton asks if Mary is ill.
Bigger stands up and matches his movements with Mrs. Dalton’s so she can’t hear him. Mrs. Dalton reaches the bed and touches Mary. She takes a step back and exclaims that Mary stinks of whiskey—she’s dead drunk. Then she kneels by the bed and starts praying.
Finally, Mrs. Dalton leaves and Bigger relaxes. What if that had been Mr. Dalton, he thinks? He was lucky indeed.
But how will he get back to his own room? He begins to hate this entire house.
He goes to the bed and looks down at Mary. Then he blinks. He realizes suddenly that her chest isn’t moving. He can’t hear her breath. He bends toward her, moving her head with his hand. She’s dead.
Bigger had killed her. He’s a murderer, a black murderer no less. He knows he has to leave. But, had Mrs. Dalton known he was in the room?
Would Jan give him away? Jan could say that when he had left the two, Mary was very much alive.
Bigger frantically thinks. Nobody can know that he was the last person who was with her.
His fingerprints are all over the body, he realizes, all over the house! They’d give him away.
But if he had come up to get the trunk, which she was taking with her to Detroit in the morning, that would explain his fingerprints in the room! He could take the trunk and put it in the basement and put the car in the garage and go home.
No, there had to be a better way. He could lie and say he brought Jan back to the house with him.
He starts rehearsing the story in his head.
Finally, he gets the trunk and drags it across the floor.
Then he realizes he can put Mary’s body in the trunk. She was supposed to be gone for three days. Maybe nobody will know. He’ll have three days to figure it all out.
So he lifts her into the trunk, terrified the entire time, but her body doesn’t quite fit and he has to shove it in, doubling up her knees. He starts to realize what he’s done—he, a black man, has killed a white woman.
Finally, he takes the trunk downstairs, expecting Mrs. Dalton (a white blur) to appear any minute.
When he gets the trunk in the basement and sees the furnace, he suddenly has another idea. He could put her in the furnace. He could burn her.
He opens the door of the furnace, then opens the trunk. He lifts Mary’s body out and begins to shove her in the furnace.
Bigger pushes the body in feet first. There’s so much smoke, he can barely see. Her body sticks at the shoulders and as he tries to push her further in, she won’t budge.
Suddenly he sees the cat staring at him and he wonders if he needs to kill the cat and burn it, too? He realizes that he had left the door to the kitchen open, so he closes it and reminds himself that cats can’t talk.
He gets his knife from his pocket and looks at the furnace. Can he do it? He sees a pile of newspapers, so he puts them under the head. Then he touches the knife to her white throat. Yes, he decides, he has to do this. So he starts to saw at her neck, but her head won’t come off.
He wants to run away but feels he has to do this. He has to burn her.
He sees a hatchet and realizes that’ll do the trick. So he gets the hatchet and chops. The head rolls off.
He wants to cry, he wants to go to sleep, but he has to do this thing. So he shoves the head in the furnace, wrapping it first with newspapers. Then the hatchet.
He wonders if there’s enough coal to burn the body? Nobody could come down here before 10 a.m. and it’s four a.m. So he wipes his knife with paper and puts the paper in the furnace. He pulls the lever and coal rattles in, covering the body, and the fire blazes bright.
He shuts the trunk and puts it in a corner. He decides to take it to the station in the morning and looks around to see if he’s cleaned everything up. It appears he has, so he goes out the back door.
It’s starting to snow. He sees the car in the driveway and thinks he’ll leave it there.
Bigger begins to rehearse the story in his head: "Jan and Marry were sitting in the car, kissing. They said, "Good night, Bigger"…And he said, "Good night…"
He sees the door open, Mary’s purse on the floor. He takes it and closes the door. Then he leaves the door open and walks down the driveway.
He takes the purse and walks. What should he do now? Run away? He sees that the purse is full of money. He hurries home and joins his family. He feels his gun, warm and wet, on his skin and hides it under the pillow.
He stretches out beside his brother Buddy and goes to sleep.