Max’s Case for Bigger: Determinism and Accountability

I was reflecting more after class about how “determined” Bigger was in committing his heinous actions. To a certain extent, I agree that his environment put him in a position where it was easier for him to succumb to his inner beast rather than suppress his feelings of lust. But then I asked myself, “how far back can we take this determinism argument?” The answer, based on Max’s argument for Bigger in the court is infinitely, as he takes the argument past Bigger to his ancestors during the era of American slavery. But I feel that there is something very flawed in this rationale, as it removes any sort of personal accountability for one’s actions.

There is an episode of Bojack Horseman (yeah I know I’m really referencing Bojack Horseman, sorry not sorry) where Bojack considers holding himself accountable for some of the cruel things he has done to other characters in the show. Diane, his friend, comforts him by saying that to a certain extent, society and his upbringing are responsible for his actions. In turn, Bojack goes on to reject the notion that he should be accountable for his behavior and continually claims that he cannot a bad person because it is society’s fault that he behaves poorly. Diane tries to tell him this is not what she meant, and that he should still hold himself accountable for his actions, but Bojack ignores her and goes on to say that he and his actions are insignificant specks in the grand scheme of a predetermined fate created by “society.” This is a rather comical example, but I think it points out some of the more absurd implications of Max’s arguments within Native Son and perhaps the absurdity of some of Wright’s own beliefs.

Max, and by extension Wright, argues that Bigger is not responsible for the murders and rapes he commits because living in the slums of Chicago made him a murderer and a rapist. It is not his fault, but his society’s. The world he lives in made him a murderer and a rapist by giving him no avenues of escape. But there were avenues of escape for Bigger. We briefly discussed in class the option of Bigger going into the military and I believe it is also mentioned towards the end of the book, though I think it is quickly brushed aside due to the military being a mainly white institution in Bigger’s eyes. Bigger also commonly used the movie theater, albeit in a disgusting way, as a method of escape from his reality. Throughout the novel, Bigger’s lack of escape is often portrayed as a nervous voice inside his head encouraging him to commit crimes, so there is a certain extent to which Bigger has agency over his actions even if his surroundings provoked him into giving in to his egregious desires. His upbringing was certainly flawed due to his environment, so some blame should be put on his surroundings when determining who and what was at fault for him falling victim to his inner lust for violence. But if we put all of the blame on his surroundings, we end up with a scenario where personal accountability does not matter. If we accept Bojack, Max, and Wright’s hypothesis that our environment is to blame for our actions, we would in turn live immorally without concern for our immorality.