Study Guide

Native Son Fear

By Richard Wright

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"There he is!" the mother screamed again.

A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.

"Goddamn!" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hid; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs.

"Hit ‘im, Bigger!" Buddy shouted.

"Kill ‘im!" the woman screamed.

The rat’s belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance, its black beady eyes glittering, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly. Bigger swung the skillet; it skidded over the floor, missing the rat, and clattered to a stop against a wall.


The rat leaped. Bigger sprang to one side. The rat stopped under a chair and let out a furious screak. Bigger moved slowly backward toward the door.

"Gimme that skillet, Buddy," he asked quietly, not taking his eyes from the rat.

Buddy extended his hand. Bigger caught the skillet and lifted it high in the air. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering.

Bigger aimed and let the skillet fly with a heavy grunt. There was a shattering of wood as the box caved in. The woman screamed and hid her face in her hands. Bigger tiptoed forward and peered.

"I got ‘im," he muttered, his clenched teeth bared in a smile. "By God, I got ‘im."

He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat’s head, crushing it, cursing hysterically:

"You sonofab****!"

The woman on the bed sank to her knees and buried her face in the quilts and sobbed:

"Lord, Lord, have mercy. . . ."

"Aw, Mama," Vera whimpered, bending to her. "Don’t cry. It’s dead now."

The two brothers stood over the dead rat and spoke in tones of awed admiration.

"Gee, but he’s a big bastard."

"That sonofab**** could cut your throat."

"He’s over a foot long."

"How in hell do they get so big?"

"Eating garbage and anything else they can get."

"Look, Bigger, there’s a three-inch rip in your pantleg."

"Yeah; he was after me, all right."

"Please, Bigger, take ‘im out," Vera begged.

"Aw, don’t be so scary," Buddy said.

The woman on the bed continued to sob. Bigger took a piece of newspaper and gingerly lifted the rat by its tail and held it out at arm’s length. (1.39-1.66 )

The book opens with a scene of fear: man against the huge, slobbering, aggressive rat. Though the rat is just a rat, and Bigger manages to kill it, we instantly recognize how the fight with the rat symbolizes the family’s daily struggle to survive, despite overwhelming poverty and their lack of options/freedom. It is a potent demonstration of the fear that pervades their lives.

Save for the sound of Doc’s whistling up front, there was silence. Bigger watched Jack closely; he knew that the situation was one in which Jack’s word would be decisive. Bigger was afraid of Gus, because he knew that Gus would not hold out if Jack said yes. Gus stood at the table, toying with a cue stick, his eyes straying lazily over the billiard balls scattered about the table in the array of an unfinished game. Bigger rose and sent the balls whirling with a sweep of his hand, then looked straight at Gus as the gleaming balls kissed and rebounded from the rubber cushions, zig-zagging across the table’s green cloth. Even though Bigger had asked Gus to be with him in the robbery, the fear that Gus would really go made the muscles of Bigger’s stomach tighten; he was hot all over. He felt as if he wanted to sneeze and could not; only it was more nervous than wanting to sneeze. He grew hotter, tighter; his nerves were taut and his teeth were on edge. He felt that something would soon snap within him.

"Goddammit! Say something, somebody!"

"I’m in," Jack said again.

"I’ll go if the rest goes," G.H. said.

Gus stood without speaking and Bigger felt a curious sensation—half-sensual, half-thoughtful. He was divided and pulled against himself. He had handled things just right so far; all but Gus had consented. The way things stood now there were three against Gus, and that was just as he had wanted it to be. Bigger was afraid of robbing a white man and he knew that Gus was afraid, too. Blum’s store was small and Blum was alone, but Bigger could not think of robbing him without being flanked by his three pals. But even with his pals he was afraid. He had argued all of his pals but one into consenting to the robbery, and toward the lone man who held out he felt a hot hate and fear; he had transferred his fear of the whites to Gus. He hated Gus because he knew that Gus was afraid, as even he was; and he feared Gus because he felt that Gus would consent and then he would be compelled to go through with the robbery. Like a man about to shoot himself and dreading to shoot and yet knowing that he has to shoot and feeling it all at once and powerfully, he watched Gus and waited for him to say yes. But Gus did not speak. Bigger’s teeth clamped so tight that his jaws ached. He edged toward Gus, not looking at Gus, but feeling the presence of Gus over all his body, through him, in and out of him, and hating himself and Gus because he felt it. Then he could not stand it any longer. The hysterical tensity of his nerves urged him to speak, to free himself. He faced Gus, his eyes red with anger and fear, his fists clenched and held stiffly to his sides.

"You black sonofab****," he said in a voice that did not vary in tone. "You scared ‘cause he’s a white man." (1.380-385)

Bigger acts out his fear by bullying others; when it doesn’t work, he grows angry, but the anger is just a way to get rid of his fear.

He listened awhile to her rubbing clothes on the metal washboard, then he gazed abstractedly into the street, thinking of how he had felt when he fought Gus in Doc’s poolroom. He was relieved and glad that in an hour he was going to see about that job at the Dalton place. He was disgusted with the gang; he knew that what had happened today put an end to his being with them in any more jobs. Like a man staring regretfully but hopelessly at the stump of a cut-off arm or leg, he knew that the fear of robbing a white man had had hold of him when he started that fight with Gus; but he knew it in a way that kept it from coming to his mind in the form of a hard and sharp idea. His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness. He had fought Gus because Gus was late; that was the reason his emotions accepted and he did not try to justify himself in his own eyes, or in the eyes of the gang. He did not think enough of them to feel that he had to; he did not consider himself as being responsible to them for what he did, even though they had been involved as deeply as he in the planned robbery. He felt that same way toward everyone. As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was they way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared. (1.632)

The only way Bigger is able to make it through the day is by pretending not to be so scared.

Vera brought her plate and sat opposite him. Bigger felt that even though her face was smaller and smoother than his mother’s, the beginning of the same tiredness was already there. How different Vera was from Mary! He could see it in the very was Vera moved her hand when she carried the fork to her mouth; she seemed to be shrinking from life in every gesture she made. The very manner in which she sat showed a fear so deep as to be an organic part of her; she carried the food to her mouth in tiny bits, as if dreading its choking her, or fearing that it would give out too quickly. (2.154)

Bigger realizes that his sister Vera lives with the same fear he does—and he realizes that Mary lived without fear. This has everything to do with race and class.

No; he did not think they would suspect him of anything. He was black. Again he felt the roll of crisp bills in his pocket; if things went wrong he could always run away. He wondered how much money was in the roll; he had not even counted it. He would see when he got to Bessie’s. No; he need not be afraid. He felt the gun nestling close to his skin. That gun could always make folks stand away and think twice before bothering him. (2.436)

Because the gun gives Bigger a certain amount of power, it also lessens his fear. This makes it seem like Bigger’s fear isn’t simply about white people, but being powerless in the hands of those who hold the power.

"Bigger, honey. I—I don’t know," she said plaintively.

"You wanted me to tell you."

"I’m scared."

"Don’t you trust me?"

"But we ain’t never done nothing like this before. They’ll look everywhere for us for something like this. It ain’t like coming to where I work at night when the white folks is gone out of town stealing something. It ain’t. . . ."

"It’s up to you."

"I’m scared, Bigger."

"Who on earth’ll think we did it?"

"I don’t know. You really think they don’t know where the girl is?"

"I know they don’t."

"You know?"


"She’ll turn up."

"She won’t. And, anyhow, she’s a crazy girl. They might even think she’s in it herself, just to get money from her family. They might think the Reds is doing it. They won’t think we did. They don’t think we got enough guts to do it. They think n*****s is too scared. . ." (2.784-797)

Bigger tries to coax Bessie to join him in sending a ransom note to the Daltons, in order to get money, but fear prevents her. This is Bigger’s exact reasoning why they’ll never be suspected—because everybody would think black people are too scared to do something like this.

The compact array of white faces and the constant flashing of bulbs for pictures made him stare in mounting amazement. His defense of indifference could protect him no longer. At first thought that it was the trial that had begun, and he was prepared to sink back into his dream of nothingness. But it was not a court room. It was too informal for that. He felt crossing his feelings a sensation akin to the same one he had had when the reporters had first come into Mr. Dalton’s basement with their hats on, smoking cigars and cigarettes, asking questions; only now it was much stronger. There was in the air a silent mockery that challenged him. It was not their hate he felt; it was something deeper than that. He sensed that in their attitude toward him they had gone beyond hate. He heard in the sound of their voices a patient certainty; he saw their eyes gazing at him with calm conviction. Though he could not have put it into words, he felt that not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control. The atmosphere of the crowd told him that they were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear to wave before the eyes of that black world. And as he felt it, rebellion rose in him. He had sunk to the lowest point this side of death, but when he felt his life again threatened in a way that meant that he was to go down the dark road a helpless spectacle of sport for others, he sprang back into action, alive, contending. (3.8)

Bigger realizes that he’s just a symbol for the white men who plan to try him for this accidental murder—he’s a symbol of blackness, which they fear.

Listlessly, he talked. He traced his every action. He paused at each question Buckley asked and wondered how he could link up his bare actions with what he had felt; but his words came out flat and dull. White men were looking at him, waiting for his words, and all the feelings of his body vanished, just as they had when he was in the car between Jan and Mary. When he was through, he felt more lost and undone than when he was captured. Buckley stood up; the other white man rose and held out the papers for him to sign. He took the pen in hand. Well, why shouldn’t he sign? He was guilty. He was lost. They were going to kill him. Nobody could help him. They were standing in front of him, bending over him, looking at him, waiting. His hand shook. He signed.

Buckley slowly folded the papers and put them into his pocket. Bigger looked up at the two men, helplessly, wonderingly. Buckley looked at the other white man and smiled.

"That was not as hard as I thought it would be," Buckley said.

"He came through like a clock," the other man said.

Buckley looked down at Bigger and said.

"Just a scared colored boy from Mississippi." (3.400-405)

Bigger confesses his crime and feels even more powerless as he does so – a fact observed by the prison guards who claim he’s just a "scared colored boy." His fear lies in his powerlessness, which is a result of the color of his skin.

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