Have you ever really liked a character in a book but hated their actions and choices? Rooted for them to succeed, but really hoped they didn’t do what you knew they were going to do?
That is exactly how I felt about Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of this novel. I really liked him, wanted him to make a life for himself, but knew that it was ultimately impossible. After all, he was a poor black man in the first half of the 20th century. He accidentally kills a rich white girl, but feels empowered by it. He almost makes himself believe that he killed her on purpose. Then he tries to get away with it by writing a ransom note and signing it “Red” with a communist sickle and hammer. We all know what happens next… he gets caught. He gets tried with very little of what we like to call “due process”. And he gets sentenced to death. Bigger’s life is inevitable. What makes this novel a true gem is the fact that Wright wrote the character of Bigger so that we can’t help but feel for him. We have compassion if not empathy. We can almost understand when he kills his girlfriend Bessie to keep her from talking. I say almost, because Wright doesn’t pull any punches with his descriptions of the violence. It is graphic, and it is horrible. Yet we see it coming. It has to happen.
I read this book for the first time when I was in high school. I picked it up off the shelf just because it was there. I have had to revisit it because of the course I am taking in college, and I find that I have a greater understanding of the book now than I did the first time I read it over 13 years ago. While this book is a course reading, I’ve placed it under pleasure reading as well, because it was a pleasure to read this intricate and thought provoking novel.