Welcome to the first installment of the Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project. Up next week, the 1999 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile.
One of the things that struck me most about the structure of Native Son is how perfectly circular it is. In the introduction to the novel in the edition I read, the prefacer described Bigger’s attempt to clean the rat out of his family’s apartment as a humiliation that sets the stage for his murder of Mary Dalton. But it also previews Bigger’s ultimate fate. The rat’s dash from the Thomas family skillets is the same briefly successful evasion that Bigger will experience from the police. Its death in a box is similar to Bigger’s own decline in a cell, though of course Bigger has an emotional revelation the rat is incapable of. And it inspires Bigger’s mother to speak almost prophetically of his own negation and ultimate fate. “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you,” she muses after he finally vanquishes the rat. “Maybe you oughtn’t’ve. Maybe you ought to left me where I was…You’ll regret how you living some day. If you don’t stop running with that gang of yours and do right you’ll end up where you never thought you would. You think I don’t know what you boys is doing, but I do. And the gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy. Just remember that.” And he does. “Bigger, did you think you’d ever come to this?” Mr. Max asks Bigger during the trial process. “Well, to tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair,” Bigger tells him. “Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be.”
But the inevitability of someone committing a crime is one discussion, and the question of whether that punishment is just or effective is entirely another. The main argument made by the prosecution in Bigger’s murder trial seems to be that it is an effective deterrent. “Our experience here in Dixie with such depraved types of Negroes has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence upon their peculiar mentality,” a source tells a Chicago newspaper for a story about Bigger’s trial. “Had that nigger Thomas lived in Mississippi and committed such a crime, no power under Heaven could have saved him from death at the hands of indignant citizens.” The prosecutor takes for granted that the death penalty will be a deterrent, telling the judge during sentencing that “Your Honor, millions are waiting for your word! They are waiting for you to tell them that jungle law does not prevail in this city! They want you to tell them that they need not sharpen their knives and load their guns to protect themselves. They are waiting, Your Honor, beyond that window! Give them your word so that they can, with calm hearts, plan for the future! Slay the dragon of doubt that causes a million hearts to pause tonight, a million hands to tremble as they lock their doors!”
There’s no question that, at various points in the novel, Bigger is afraid of death, and afraid, specifically, of the death penalty. That fear slackens somewhat when he believes he has his family and the Daltons fooled: “But at home at the breakfast table with his mother and sister and brother, seeing how blind they were; and overhearing Peggy and Mrs. Dalton talking in the kitchen, a new feeling had been born in him, a feeling that all but blotted out the fear of death.” When he’s going through his trial, he feels viscerally the horror of his death being made a symbol, though he has that realization only after her’s committed his crimes. Bigger reflects: