Bigger Thomas lives a life so small, it’s claustrophobic. It's stifling. It's unimaginable... which is one of the reasons that Native Son is so important. Because many people literally could not imagine an existence like Bigger's, Wright wrote it down for us. Thanks to Wright, there was no need to imagine... because readers probably couldn't un-learn what they now knew about grinding, racism-fueled poverty.
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:
"Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God..." he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. "They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." (3.1087)
He gains a new job, but even that offers little hope for a better life. His new job will afford him a room in his employer's house, but 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 black people at the time were offered as part of an employment package, 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. 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 even afraid of himself.
Here is how Bigger feels even before he ever commits a crime:
"You know one thing?" Big said.
"Sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me," Bigger spoke with a tinge of bitter pride in his voice.
"What you mean?" Gus asked, looking at him quickly. There was fear in Gus’s eyes.
"I don’t know. I just feel that way. Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me..." (1.279)
This amount of self-loathing and relentless fear is an insanely destructive force. If you're made to feel that "something awful's going to happen" from the start, you're pretty much trapped in a spiral of intensely negative emotions... which leads to more stress than anyone knows what to do with.
Ultimately, Fanon argues, Bigger Thomas has to do something to end the tension he feels. So he murders the daughter of his employers, and the tension released. 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.
And it's not just Fanon that talks about the powderkeg of emotion that Bigger lives with. Bigger’s lawyer, Boris Max, highlights the fact that Bigger lives with crazy amounts of 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. Not only that, but Max suggests that American society itself is to blame for crimes like Bigger’s.
It can be tempting to dismiss Bigger as, well, too big. Too intense. Too unrealistic. This character can't possibly be anything more than a parable, right?
Dead wrong, guys. And if you don't believe us, 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. That's right: Bigger is a composite, but he's a composite of real-life, flesh-and-blood people. Wright breaks down the "Biggers" he'd known into Biggers 1-5. Here's the deal:
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 white people. He bought food on credit, which he refused to pay. He rented a room and never paid rent. His explanation was that the white people had everything and black people had nothing and it was foolish not to take what you needed.
Bigger #3 was a guy 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.
Thanks to Wright's essay, we know that Bigger Thomas and his maelstrom of self-destructive and self-hating emotions is a character who models a lot of the same emotions that Wright's acquaintances felt. It's hard to like Bigger, but (and more importantly) it's harder to look away from him. And it's pretty much impossible to forget him.