Chicago in the 1930’s was split into two opposing views of life: the raw, tough life in the Black Belt of Chicago’s south side ghetto and the awe astounding world of the distant white realm. These stark distinctions from the two dictate the ways in which Bigger Thomas conducts his behavior and personality. Richard Wright’s implementation of setting within Bigger’s existence plays an instrumentive role in portraying how society shapes one’s personality in his novel Native Son.Bigger’s own home is estranged for the young man who feels out of place and unwanted. Although “he [hates] his family, [it is] because he knows that they are suffering and that he is powerless to help them,” (13) his pride in his own self worth, is never more present then when he is around his family. He considers himself better than them; why should he have to go work just to grovel like them? Why should he have to go to church just to make himself feel happy? What is the use?Although “he knows that his mother is waiting for him to give an account of himself and he [hates] her for that” (96) and although feeling superior to that of his mother, the continual presence of her authority weighs on him everywhere he goes. The lack of freedom he enjoys is parallel to that of the restrictions that are placed on him by society and no matter where he turns, he is faced with restrictions. Even after playing a simple prank on his sister, his mother reacts by declaring, “‘Bigger sometimes I wonder why I birthed you'”(11) adding to the already seemingly broken man.
This obvious show of misunderstanding is that of which Bigger is forced to deal with his whole life. And all that Bigger wants to do is “to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black” (226) and not have to continue being the black boy who is expected to conform to the accepted black stereotype. This longing to be free from the constraints of his home-life expresses Bigger’s need to be free from the constraints of which society holds over him.Bigger also is ashamed in regards to his lifestyle where “all slept in one room [and] pots could be heard rattling all over the house” and the air was full of the malodor of chained life to a single routine (100). This chaotic life is not one of desire for the young man who wants to be alone and be able to be himself in peace. He believes it is not possible in his home and in the environment he lives in which is a continual bombardment of shattering defeats for which Bigger is unable to see through. Bigger’s own comfort zone is unsympathetic to his feelings of dissatisfaction with his life.He confides his innermost thoughts on his life to his friends when he remarks that “‘half the time [he feels] like [he is] on the outside of the world, peeping in through a knothole in that fence” (23) to which his friends would not be able to understand and could not understand how others in their position would be able to change their life, so why even fuss about it.
His friends would try to understand by telling him not to think about it anymore for the more one thinks the more one starts to realize the injustices and mistakes that have occurred.This only leads to the desire to fight for ones rights which only leads to defeat again. Therefore, Gus and the others just want to accept their life, as Bigger’s plight is undesired by them.
They would tell Bigger that the reason he feels this way is that he “‘[thinks] too much'” (24) and here his friends would rather get drunk and sleep it off instead of doing something about their situation. They would rather just sit back and let their life end as if meaningless and unimportant.Whereas Bigger requires meaning and he wants options, not what is left over and designated for ‘blacks only. This determination for change alienates himself from the others in his group. This distance is furthered by Gus accusing Bigger of being afraid to complete a job that results in a brawl between the two friends which seems harmless enough is in fact a perfect example of what Bigger does around his friends when proven wrong and intimated (29). He uses his coolness as a defense mechanism to ward off the ego shot.
Bigger wants to make it clear to his friends that he is the one in charge and that he is better than they are.However, just like in his own home Bigger is unable to make this dominance clear. The Dalton home and white society creates a sense of superiority and perfection.
Bigger knows for sure “the white folks got everything” (329), he knows that he will never be able to enjoy the luxury and freedom that he believes the whites possess. The white society in Bigger’s mind presents the life that all mankind strive to be. Bigger desires the life that Mary and Jan possess and cannot understand how they would be willing to throw it all away to know about the ways in which the blacks live.Bigger though ” had not thought that this world would be so utterly different from his own that it would intimidate him” considering that since he could not use his coolness that he has relied on in the past, now he has to behave as he has to (47). Although this is an exciting change for the man out of the ghettos, it is still disarming in its splendor. He feels uncomfortable in this new and benumbing world he has just stepped into, where “each person lives in one room and has a little world of his own” (100).This contrast to his former way of life is stark and sudden, but favored.
He has longed for this all his life and now it is all here for him to enjoy. However, he never quite feels a part of this society when “he would [have] liked to have examined [things, he] dared not,” in light of this ever-present fear that looms over him (47). This fear of never being able to trust a white man in knowing that he will one day turn against the black man. Bigger feels this way when Jan was offering help to Bigger while in jail (268).Bigger feels he cannot trust this aid that is so reassuring, falling back on his old thoughts of suspicion. The complete vulnerability of Bigger’s, with the knowledge of defeat, is uncovered in his time spent in jail. Now he is all alone and coming to terms with his life and the meaning behind it.
He now knows that he “[lives] and [acts] on the assumptions that he [is] alone, and now he [sees] that he [has] not been. What he [has] done made others suffer. No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they [will] not be able to.His family [is] a part of him, not only in blood, but in spirit” (277). Knowing this now is possible by his surroundings, which force him to look in himself.
There are no places to hide in jail; he has a room to himself and all the time in the world to pan over why he got there and he believes that “he [is] alone, profoundly [and] inescapably. [And] he [rolls] on the floor and [sobs], wondering what it [is] that [has] hold of him, why he [is] here” (288). Why was he here though? What has this seemingly petty black man done? He had taken a life, but that was not what was important.He defied a country, he represented every white persons fear, that one day the black man might be able to rise up and take their children just as they had done to the black people years before. This was fear; a panic that was created that swept the nation. How could a black person do this? This torments Bigger while in jail, but when his very own mother, who he feels did not love him, came to beg for his life he saw “her eyes [were] empty, eyes that looked upward when the last hope of earth had failed” (277).He then finally breaks down and “[sinks] to his knees and [sobs].
I don’t want to die I don’t want to die'” (336). However, it is too late. Bigger does exactly what he was against, he obediently molded into the injustices of a prejudice society, sacrificing the value of individuality and self-pride to conform to an accepted black stereotype. Bigger Thomas grew up in an environment that neglected him and had friends who did not know the real Bigger. He was continually kept down by society who he believed to be controlled by the whites however all the while wanting to be apart of that society.Depending on the area in which Bigger is in it dictates the behavior and personality he reflects.
While at home he acted tough, the would-be hero. Around his friends he was a hotheaded, trouble-maker. In the presence of the powerful whites, he was quiet and introverted. But when all alone in jail Bigger did not impress anyone and was himself just a young man who was kept down all his life, who just wanted a fair chance like the whites had.
Richard Wright’s achievement of setting within Bigger’s existence plays a decisive role in portraying how society shapes one’s personality in his novel Native Son.