Bigger Thomas as a Tragic Hero
When analyzing Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright’s protagonist in the novel Native Son, one must take into consideration the development of his characterization. Being a poor twenty-year-old Black man in the south side of Chicago living with his family in a cramped one- bedroom apartment in the 1930’s, the odds of him prospering in life were not in his favor. Filled with oppression, violence, and tragedy, Bigger Thomas’ life was doomed from the moment he was born. Through the novel, Bigger divulges his own dreams to provide for his family and to be anything but a “nobody.” Although Bigger struggled to fight through obstacles to pursue his dreams for the future, his chase for a better life came to an abrupt halt after the tragic accidental murder of his employer’s white daughter. Bigger Thomas fits the definition of a tragic hero, considering he is the protagonist of Native Son that experiences tragedy throughout the novel. Along with tragedy, Bigger also undergoes change as the novel progresses. By the end Bigger’s life story, he is able to change into a man that is no longer consumed through the fear in his heart. Due to his characteristics, Bigger Thomas can be compared to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Both characters are tragic heroes that are related by their struggles through tragedy and changes they undergo throughout their lives. By comparing the two characters, one can solidify the importance of both characters because of their tragedies they experience.
In the beginning of Native Son’s book one: Fear, one is able to realize that Bigger Thomas’s fate looms in the hands of his environment. He did not choose to live a life of poverty in the “Black Belt” of south side Chicago. This life was forced upon him. On page 20 of the novel, foreshadowing occurs as Bigger chats with his friend Gus about his future. He says, “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” (Wright 20). He displays a defeatist attitude that he further explains as he talks to Gus. He explains his reasoning as he questions, “Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships?”(Wright 20). As a result of this conversation, the reader is able to identify that Bigger goes through his life feeling defeated. He has minimal hope for his future as he lives in fear that something awful will happen to him due to the color of his skin and where he lives. Although one may argue that Bigger is a negative person who uses the color of his skin to justify his evils, this is not the case considering Bigger constantly is oppressed by his environment and lacks options in his life. The white people that surround Bigger give him no hope to prosper thus creating a tragic existence from the start. It is not until Bigger gets a job offer from a rich white philanthropist, Mr. Dalton that his life may be able to turn around for the better. Unfortunately for Bigger, this opportunity does just the opposite.
While accepting a job as a chauffer for the Dalton family, Bigger becomes optimistic about his current situation. Instead of constantly letting his mother and siblings down, he is now able to provide for them through this job by granting them $20 from his salary each week. Although the job acquired little skill, Bigger was satisfied that through this job, he could be less of a “nobody.” While reflecting on this new chapter in his life, Bigger expressed, “This would be an easy life. Everything was all right, except that girl” (Wright 59). The girl that worried Bigger was Mary Dalton, Mr. Dalton’s free spirited daughter that constantly challenged Bigger’s patience and authority. Their first encounter left Bigger skeptical of Mary Dalton’s motives. By their second encounter, Bigger was blatantly fearful that Mary would cause him to lose his job. During their...
Cited: Arthur Miller Death of a Salesman. Baym, Nina, gen. ed. The Norton
Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A.
New York: Norton, 2013.
James Baldwin- Many Thousand Gone- Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native
Son – Ed. Houston A Baker- Englewood NJ Prentice Hall. 1972-48-63
Malcolm Cowley- Richard Wright The Case of Bigger Thomas- Twentieth Century
Interpretations of Native Son- Ed Houston A Baker – Englewood Hills NJ
Prentice Hall. 1972-112-115
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1940.
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