16 July 2006

Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas is, unquestionably, a product of his environment. He grows up in almost exactly the same neighborhood as Studs Lonigan did; we already know that the environment here is not fully nurturing. By cramming a whole family into Studs' bedroom, giving them less money and less opportunity, marking them with a social stigma even worse than being Irish, and filling the boy with a burning rage against society, Wright all but guarantees that his protagonist will end up in worse shape than Studs. The only question is how.

Bigger Thomas is a product of his environment; he does not act of his own free will. He doesn't even discover free will until after he acts. No, he doesn't plan anything--everything he does is a response. If he wants to rob a store, it is because he is bored and needs cash; if he gets into a fight with his partners that makes them miss the hold-up, it is because he is scared. Likewise, he takes a job because his family will starve if he doesn't. He kills in the same guttural way--smothering the fear of discovery and accusations with a pillow. Remember, Bigger has been trying to do his job, trying to put Mary to bed because she was too drunk to do it herself. When blind Mrs. Dalton stops by the room, he panics at the thought she might accuse him of raping Mary and stifles her voice. He is too busy worrying about Mrs. Dalton to notice when Mary stops struggling. But once Mrs. Dalton is gone and Bigger realizes what he has done, he realizes his power over the world.

Bigger Thomas is a product of his environment. When the environment presents him an opportunity to make $10,000.00, he tries to cash in. He has been taught that Communists are bad, so he tries to blame them. He thinks that Besse will get him caught, so he kills her. Now Bigger is thinking. This is slightly better than the pure reactionary responses; Bigger is aware of his power, at least. He is now aware of his ability to influence the outside world. But Bigger is still not acting of free will.

Bigger Thomas is a product of his environment. He only comes into this realization as his story ends; his conversations with Mr. Max trigger the self-reflection which is necessary for free will. Without this awareness of how he has been controlled by his environment, Bigger would never be able to act in a way other than that indicated by those influences. Yet if he did not make this realization, he would have been drawn to the pleas of his mother and the minister; he would have been terrified by the burning cross outside of the courtroom. "But sometimes," Bigger tells Max, "I wish you hadn't asked me them questions. . . . They made me think and thinking's made me scared a little"(495).

But Bigger Thomas is a product of his environment. Even thinking doesn't change that. Bigger has been bred to hate by forces he cannot control. While he has no desire to kill, he accepts that he has killed and does what he consequently must. That he knows his actions are wrong is not enough to counter the forces of rage burning in his belly. This fire has been stoked by years of squalor, over-crowding, opportunities denied, and dreams deferred. While Bigger does realize that he can act otherwise, by then it is too late; the fire has already broken free, and is now just burning itself out.


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