Understanding Bigger’s Humanity through Naturalism

While reading Native Son, I often felt rather uncomfortable, especially during the scenes where Bigger murders/rapes Mary and Bessie. His treatment towards women is horrific, and his general view of humanity is equally frightening. His sympathy for dictators simply because they have the ability to overpower others shows that he views the human spirit not as a method to empathize with others, but to dominate his fellow man. Bigger’s conceptions of humanity are objectively appalling, but in order to understand why he thinks in such a flawed way, we must consider how the genre of naturalism defines humanity and how human interaction functions within this genre. If we delve further into definitions of naturalism, I believe we can more fully understand Bigger and what brought him to such a bleak outlook on human beings.

The genre of naturalism places a great emphasis on the inner beast of humanity, which can clearly be seen in Bigger’s inner monologue in Native Son. In the naturalist genre, the inner beast is loosely defined as the personality that comes out of someone when they give in to their base desires, which are typically lust and greed. And Bigger ultimately falls victim to both of these inner cravings in the novel. First, Bigger craves sex when he brings Mary up to her bedroom; he does not care that she is drunk and unable to consent because she exists in his mind merely as an opportunity for him to have sex. He treats Bessie in a similar fashion, using the money he gives her to support her alcoholism as a means to receive sexual favors. Bigger also attempts to feed his inner cravings for greed by manipulating these women as well. After he accidentally kills Mary, he sees her death as an opportunity to extract wealth out of others, and again uses Bessie as a means to achieve his inner desires, as he tries to force her into collecting the money for him. But why does Bigger only see sex, wealth, and ultimately murder as means of lifting himself out of his dreadful existence? Naturalism argues that these base desires can be equated for traditional means of spiritual fulfillment when the circumstances of one’s environment imply a predetermined fate, which is exactly what Bigger feels he faces.

Bigger does not attempt to find solace in things like education, honest work, or religion because he does not believe these institutions can bring him to any reality better than the one he currently lives in. He refuses education when Mrs. Dalton offers to send him to night school, to work honestly when he decides to sleep with and kill Mary, and to pray for himself when asked by his mother and the preacher. Bigger’s continuous refusal to use traditional means of uplifting one’s status and spirit reflects that he does not believe he can improve his own situation. And this is why Bigger uses his naturalistic inner beast as an escape; he does not think his situation can improve, so he uses the methods of fulfillment given to him at birth. Naturalists argue that the desires for sex and wealth are innate, and that they continually arise out of humans when they feel their existence is not malleable. I do not think that this naturalist interpretation of Bigger’s character should make readers evoke for sympathy for his character, as he commits several heinous and unforgivable crimes. But I do believe we can better understand how Bigger got to this point of being irredeemable by focusing on these naturalist tropes of human nature. When people grow up feeling there is no escaping their bleak existence, I am sure they are more tempted to give in to base desires for sexual fulfillment and greed than those who grow up feeling they have multiple avenues of opportunity in their lives. Like the rat in the beginning of the novel, Bigger felt he had no avenues of escape. So while his actions are horrifying, they are not unpredictable if we apply traditional readings of naturalist texts to his situation.