Sympathy for a Murderer in Richard Wright’s Native SonIn Native Son, Richard Wright introduces Bigger Thomas, a liar and a thief. Wright evokes sympathy for this man despite the fact that he commits two murders. Through the reactions of others to his actions and through his own reactions to what he has done, the author creates compassion in the reader towards Bigger to help convey the desperate state of Black Americans in the 1930’s.
The simplest method Wright uses to produce sympathy is the portrayal of the hatred and intolerance shown toward Thomas as a black criminal. This first occurs when Bigger is immediately suspected as being involved in Mary Dalton’s disappearance. Mr. Britten suspects that Bigger is guilty and only ceases his attacks when Bigger casts enough suspicion on Jan to convince Mr. Dalton. Britten explains, “To me, a nigger’s a nigger” (Wright 154). Because of Bigger’s blackness, it is immediately assumed that he is responsible in some capacity. This assumption causes the reader to sympathize with Bigger. While only a kidnapping or possible murder are being investigated, once Bigger is fingered as the culprit, the newspapers say the incident is “possibly a sex crime” (228). Eleven pages later, Wright depicts bold black headlines proclaiming a “rapist” (239) on the loose. Wright evokes compassion for Bigger, knowing that he is this time unjustly accused. The reader is greatly moved when Chicago’s citizens direct all their racial hatred directly at Bigger. The shouts “Kill him! Lynch him! That black sonofabitch! Kill that black ape!” (253) immediately after his capture encourage a concern for Bigger’s well-being. Wright intends for the reader to extend this fear for the safety of Bigger toward the entire black community. The reader’s sympathy is further encouraged when the reader remembers that all this hatred has been spurred by an accident.
While Bigger Thomas does many evil things, the immorality of his role in Mary Dalton’s death is questionable. His hasty decision to put the pillow over Mary’s face is the climax of a night in which nothing has gone right for Bigger. We feel sympathy because Bigger has been forced into uncomfortable positions all night. With good intentions, Jan and Mary place Bigger in situations that make him feel “a cold, dumb, and inarticulate hate” (68) for them. Wright hopes the reader will share Bigger’s uneasiness. The reader struggles with Bigger’s task of getting Mary into her bed and is relieved when he has safely accomplished his mission.