In the past few weeks, we as a class have been talking at length about the significance of Bigger’s presence and narrative in American literature and society. We talked about him being a product of society, and suggested that everything that makes Bigger “monstrous” is a result of the inescapable oppression which he faces in his daily life. It wasn’t until I read Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone” that I understood why Wright’s depiction of Bigger did not fully resonate with me and with this particular story.
In my opinion, I align with Baldwin’s stance that details Wright’s descriptions of Bigger as “dehumanizing.” Bigger embodies the rage, the pain, the confusion, and the despair that Black individuals feel living in America, but in trying to emulate all of these emotions within Bigger, Wright reduces Bigger to a vessel of representation for everyone’s emotions and motivations but his own. “Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people — in this respect, perhaps, he is most American — and his force comes, not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth.” Baldwin states this problem clearly — when a writer reduces a Black character into something that is purely made up of other people’s assumptions in these “protest novels,” it leads us all to “believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition” since they lack intrinsic individuality and are only able to feel emotions and think thoughts that have been imposed upon them.
In framing Bigger’s life around the constructs and myths perpetuated by society, Baldwin writes that the nature of these protest novels “reject life,” since the driving force behind these narratives are caught in cycles of rage and oppression. “Within this web of lust and fury, black and white can only thrust and counter-thrust, long for each other’s slow, exquisite death… Thus has the cage betrayed us all.”