Study Guide

Native Son Fate and Free Will

By Richard Wright

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Fate and Free Will

"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. . . ."

"Aw, for Chrissakes! There ain’t nothing you can do about it. How come you want to worry yourself? You black and they make the laws. . . ."

"Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships. . . ."

Gus hunched Bigger with his elbow and mumbled good-naturedly, "Aw, n*****, quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts."

The plane was gone from the sky and the white plumes of floating smoke were thinly spread, vanishing. Because he was restless and had time on his hands, Bigger yawned again and hoisted his arms high above his head.

"Nothing ever happens," he complained.

"What you want to happen?"

"Anything," Bigger said with a wide sweep of his dingy palm, a sweep that included all the possible activities of the world.

Then their eyes were riveted; a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pride. A street car rumbled forward and the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut and sheer that Bigger could see the gold of the sun through their translucent tips. He tilted his head and watched the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight over the edge of a high roof.

"Now, if I could only do that," Bigger said.

Gus laughed.

"N*****, you nuts."

"I reckon we the only things in this city that can’t go where we want to go and do what we want to do."

"Don’t think about it," Gus said.

"I can’t help it."

"That’s why you feeling like something awful’s going to happen to you," Gus said. "You think too much."

"What in hell can a man do?" Bigger asked, turning to Gus.

"Get drunk and sleep it off."

"I can’t. I’m broke." (1.279-301)

Bigger realizes that his fate is tied intimately to the color of his skin; his choices are limited by the white citizens surrounding the South Side, even though he has almost no interaction with them. Though Gus tells him to stop thinking about it, Bigger’s onto something: he realizes that he’s trapped in a world where white people dictate what he can and can’t do, where he can and can’t go. He doesn’t even have enough money to get drunk about it because, once again, white people have denied him a decent paying wage for living.

"I’d just as soon go to jail as take that relief job." (1.470)

Bigger’s choices are extraordinarily limited. He can either live a life of crime, which will probably lead to jail, or take the one job that’s offered to him.

He felt that he had his destiny in his grasp. He was more alive than he could ever remember having been; his mind and attention were pointed, focused toward a goal. For the first time in his life he moved consciously between two sharply defined poles: he was moving away from the threatening penalty of death, from the deathlike times that brought him that tightness and hotness in his chest; and he was moving toward that sense of fullness he had so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies.

The shame and fear and hate which Mary and Jan and Mr. Dalton and that huge rich house had made rise so hard and hot in him had now cooled and softened. Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength. What his knife and gun had once meant to him, his knowledge of having secretly murdered Mary now meant. No matter how they laughed at him for his being black and clownlike he could look them in the eyes and not feel angry. The feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force had gone from him. (2.843-844)

Inadvertently killing Mary allows Bigger to feel as if he has a choice for the first time in his life. Was killing Mary really an act of free will, or was it fated because of the situation Bigger found himself in?

Because he could go now, run off if he wanted to and leave it all behind, he felt a certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. He was conscious of this quiet, warm, clean, rich house, this room with this bed so soft, the wealthy white people moving in luxury to all sides of him, whites living in a smugness, a security, a certainty that he had never known. The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score. (2.1107)

Because Bigger has done something that nobody knows or suspects, he feels freedom, like he has his destiny in his own hands.

Bigger tiptoed up the steps, one at a time, hoping that the roar of the furnace and the men’s voices and the scraping of the shovel would drown out the creaking sounds his feet made. He reached the top of the steps and breathed deeply, his lungs aching from holding themselves full of air so long. He stole to the door of his room and opened it and went in and pulled on the light. He turned to the window and put his hands under the upper ledge and lifted; he felt a cold rush of air laden with snow. He heard muffled shouts downstairs and the inside of his stomach glowed white-hot. He ran to the door and locked it and then turned out the light. He groped to the window and climbed into it, feeling again the chilling blast of snowy wind. With his feet upon the bottom ledge, his legs bent under him, his sweaty body shaken by wind, he looked into the snow and tried to see the ground below; but he could not. Then he leaped, headlong, sensing his body twisting in the icy air as he hurtled. His eyes were shut and his hands were clenched as his body turned, sailing through the snow. He was in the air a moment; then he hit. It seemed at first that he hit softly, but the shock of it went through him, up his back to his head and he lay buried in a cold pile of snow, dazed. Snow was in his mouth, eyes, ears; snow was seeping down his back. His hands were wet and cold. Then he felt all of the muscles of his body contract violently, caught in a spasm of reflex action, and at the same time he felt his groin laved with warm water. It was his urine. He had not been able to control the muscles of his hot body against the chilled assault of the wet snow over all his skin. He lifted his head, blinking his eyes, and looked above him. He sneezed. He was himself now; he struggled against the snow, pushing it away from him. He got to his feet, one at a time, and pulled himself out. He walked, then tried to run; but he felt too weak. He went down Drexel Boulevard, not knowing just where he was heading, but knowing that he had to get out of this white neighborhood. He avoided the car line, turned down dark streets, walking more rapidly now, his eyes before him, but turning now and then to look behind.

Yes, he would have to tell Bessie not to go to that house. It was all over. He had to save himself. But it was familiar, this running away. All his life he had been knowing that sooner or later something like this would come to him. And now, here it was. He had always felt outside of this white world, and now it was true. It made things simple. He felt in his shirt. Yes; the gun was still there. He might have to use it. He would shoot before he would let them take him; it meant death either way, and he would die shooting every slug he had. (2.1962-1963)

Bigger’s guilt is established and it feels to him as though his guilt has nothing to do with what he actually did—but was established the moment he was born with black skin. His skin color is his fate and his fate is guilt.

He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come. During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind. So close had danger and death come that he could not feel that it was he who had undergone it all. And, yet, out of it all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real, there remained to him a queer sense of power. 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. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.

He had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the last two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing. Blind anger had come often and he had either gone behind his curtain or wall, or had quarreled and fought. And yet, whether in running away or in fighting, he had felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all its fullness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and say: "I’d like to know you’re your people live." (2.2123-2124)

Bigger thinks about what he has done – killed two women—and his violence gives him a sense of freedom. He’s actually done something with the rage that has been building up inside him all of his life. He has actually done something to the people who created the anger inside of him.

There was no day for him now, and there was no night; there was but a long stretch of time, a long stretch of time that was very short; and then—the end. Toward no one in the world did he feel any fear now, for he knew that fear was useless; and toward no one in the world did he feel any hate now, for he knew that hate would not help him.

Having been thrown by an accidental murder into a position where he had sensed a possible order and meaning in his relations with the people about him; having accepted the moral guilt and responsibility for that murder because it had made him feel free for the first time in his life; having felt in his heart some obscure need to be at home with people and having demanded ransom money to enable him to do it—having done all this and failed, he chose not to struggle any more. With a supreme act of will springing from the essence of his being, he turned away from his life and the long train of disastrous consequences that had flowed from it and looked wistfully upon the dark face of ancient waters upon which some spirit had breathed and created him, the dark face of the waters from which he had been first made in the image of a man with a man’s obscure need and urge; feeling that he wanted to sink back into those waters and rest eternally. (3.1, 3.4)

Once Bigger’s fate is determined, fear is useless—as is hope, hate, or any emotion at all.

"Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . . ."

He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him.

"Go on, Bigger."

"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." (3.1084-1087)

Bigger feels that he is not in control of his own future, he has a fate which is determined by white people.

"I don’t know. Maybe this sounds crazy. Maybe they going to burn me in the electric chair for feeling this way. But I ain’t worried none about them women I killed For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right. Maybe God’ll get me for it. If He do, all right. But I ain’t worried. I killed ‘em ‘cause I was scared and mad. But I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while." (3.1109)

Killing Mary made Bigger feel that he had some free will in life, that he wasn’t just doing what white people wanted him to do and acting the way they wanted him to act.

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