I think there’s a lot to be said about not being able to find the motivation of certain actions committed by characters in novels. Not only does it provoke a sense of ambiguity within characterization, but it also causes the reader to pay more attention to what that character signifies, and what their actions signify.
I’m going to ATTEMPT to try and break down the characterization of Bigger Thomas, from the novel Native Son by Richard Wright.
Think of the drink aisle in the grocery store, except it’s divided into three parts. The middle part is scattered with 2 L Diet Coke Bottles. They are few, and are often hidden. The other bottles in that middle section are 2 L water bottles. The other two sections that surround this middle section are bottles 2 L Minute Made Pink Lemonade.
Can you see it?
Alright, now think of all of these as people in the setting of the novel, Chicago in the 1930s. The water bottles represent black people, who are restricted to living in the confines of the middle section, or black belt, of Chicago. These people wish they could have a chance, even crave it, but they accept the situation they are in. Water is pure, and moves despite adversaries in its path. The water in these bottles reflect the feelings that these people have. They wish things could change but they also want to keep moving on in life, they just want to survive the conditions they were thrown into.
Now the Minute Made Pink Lemonade Bottles represent the White people of Chicago. They are quite the opposite of water. This lemonade is filled with sugar, and artificial preservatives that really aren’t good for you at all. These people are quite ignorant not only of black people, but what their actions do to black people. They’re scared, and filled with guilt for the fact that they have segregated these people, and might actually possibly wrong about what they have done. However, they don’t do enough to change the problems in American society, that works against Black people. The pink sugary drink represents this fear, guilt, and ignorance that the white people experience.
Lastly, we come to the Diet Coke. There aren’t many. In fact, in the case of the novel, there is only one, and he is Bigger Thomas. Why a Diet Coke bottle, you may wonder? Well, because that’s the only picture I could find of a soda bottle exploding, which conveys my metaphor.
We all know soda is bad for you, mainly because it is sugary, and carbonated, and serves no purpose other than it tastes good. In this case, the drink inside the bottle represents Bigger’s thoughts and emotions. Bigger isn’t very expressive, when he is not angry or scared. In fact, he’s quiet and just wants to go through life and earn money. This is similar to the Water bottle he is surrounded by, but similar to the Lemonade bottles, Bigger faces ignorance not only of the world around him, but also of understanding White People. He hates them for how they oppress him, for how he doesn’t have a chance to go and achieve distant dreams, such as becoming a pilot. This bitterness is the carbonation in the soda. It’s fizzy, this is kinda similar to the tingling one receives when they drink minute made lemonade. The light fizziness in the lemonade is the anger and guilt that the white people in the novel face, but the fizz that Bigger experiences is on a larger scale. He’s scared, upset and disappointed.
Now you can say that all the other Black people must feel this way as well, and yeah sure, but you forget, water is pure. They may feel upset, and they may feel anger, but they do not stop to contemplate what life could be like had they not been born into the life they were given, at least in the novel they do not. Bigger does and his refusal to see White people as anything other than an enemy is the closing of the cap on his bottle. The cap signifies Bigger not being able to understanding anything other than what he believes. He isn’t expressive, so the sugary drink, his thoughts and emotions, stay within the bottle, him.
Anyone know what happens to a bottle of soda when you shake it, and then you uncap it….? Well for those of you who don’t… IT EXPLODES! What might cause the shaking in this large metaphor? Well, the shaking of the bottle is the oppression that the black people face, the fact that they are stuck in one part of the city, can only obtain a certain level of education, and on and one and on. There was a limit to just about everything that they could do, and that shook them to the core. However, while all the other black people are water bottles, and don’t explode when they are opened, Bigger is a carbonated drink, who is pressured by his own thoughts and emotions, and cannot let go of his anger for the people who oppress him and his people.
So he snaps. The thing about Bigger is that he is not representative of all black people, especially in this novel. Mentally and emotionally he just can’t seem to express himself, and like Mr. Max says in the novel, White people are ignorant, and feel guilt and scared for what they have done to Blacks, so they channel it through anger. Bigger is similar to this, he channels all his fear and oppression he faces from white people, through anger. I think that this was what the ending of the novel met, when Max tries to convince Bigger that he committed murder because he was oppressed, because he was shaken, but if you remember Bigger was closed off, he was different, he couldn’t let go how he felt. So when he tells Max that he killed for something, and he meant to do it, he likely did.
All these components of Bigger come together in the novel. It’s complex, and very difficult to understand, but I hope this metaphor broke it down somewhat.