“Rape [is] not what one did to women”

In Wright’s novel, one point of interest was the differences in the violence against white and black women. I found it interesting that Wright seemed to be expressing that Native Son and Bigger are the natural result of what happens when attempted black resistance is called “rape.” After violating Mary’s body, Bigger claimed that “rape was not what one did to women. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face … But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day.” Here, as I understand it, Wright is in some ways equating rape of woman’s body to the suppression of black resistance and the bodies of black men. This comparison does not work for me due to the violence against women that actually occurs in the novel. This would have been a better comparison if Bigger was only falsely accused of rape. Bigger’s claim of rape not being an act against women turns this violence done to Mary and later Bessie, into a racial battlefield against the powers that be. Even if one argues that Bigger didn’t rape Mary in the “traditional” sense, it is impossible to deny the sexual tension and imagery in Mary’s death. When Bigger forces her body down, he feels “tight and full, as though about to explode” as he presses “all his weight” onto Mary’s body.

Mary’s lack of boundaries excited Bigger to action while Bessie’s reluctance to offer her body to him stirred Bigger’s desires at multiple points in the novel. When Bigger first visits Bessie, he becomes aroused by her cold and standoffish attitude: “he really did not mind her standing off from him; it made him hunger more keenly for her.” As he rapes her in that cold tenement house, he is unconscious to her pleas and protests and even seems to enjoy Bessie’s resignation and the “surrender of something more than her body.” Throughout that entire night, while Bessie’s “no’s” and pleas were ignored or faded away from Bigger, Wright allowed the readers to hear them and recognize what was happening to Bessie. The manner in which Bigger treated his rape and disposal of both women were also points of interest. After killing Mary, Bigger feels “strange … as if he were acting upon a stage in front of a crowd of people.” However, with Bessie, Bigger is aware that no one is watching. Subconsciously, Bigger is aware that those in power don’t care about the rape of a black woman, so he feels free to commit the crime to relieve himself of the pressure he feels. Bessie’s treatment in Native Son can be seen through historical lenses of black women’s devaluation in American society.

One thought on ““Rape [is] not what one did to women””

  1. I agree with your take on the use of the idea of rape in the novel. I felt similarly and actually touched on this a bit in my last post. Had Bigger been accused of rape but not actually committed rape, I could have seen this analogy as effective. But to me, the egregious nature of his assaults against both Mary and Bessie undermine such a comparison. Also, as you detailed, there were many discrepancies in the rapes of the two women, and I think that the treatment of Bessie as literal garbage to be disposed of is so utterly counterintuitive to the larger point Wright is trying to make about race.

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