The third part of Native Son begins with Bigger in jail (for the murder and alleged rape of a white woman), in a trance that was “not so much a stupor…[as] a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything.” This catatonic state–a kind of physiological embrace of death–ends when he is taken to a court and realizes that
“not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment…[They] were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear…He had sunk to the lowest point this side of death, but when he felt his life again threatened in a way that meant that he was to go down the dark road a helpless spectacle of sport for others, he sprang back into action, alive, contending.
The rest of the novel unpacks this struggle over the “use” of Bigger’s certain death, and it is this deeper realization of the “death contract”–whereby not only is Bigger’s life determined by the threat of death but the meaning and value of his life and death are extracted from him and used by white society–that prompts Bigger’s resurrection to new a life.
Buckley and Max–the prosecuting and defending attorneys–argue over the various meanings of Bigger’s life and his approaching death. In both cases, Bigger’s life and death are rendered as a sacrificial moment within the life of the broader, dominant society (for the prosecution, his death as the exclusion of the subhuman and violent warning to deter other attacks against white civilization; for Max, as a victim whose actions are determined by racist capitalism, and therefore, whose life and death offer the opportunity to challenge this system).
In the last pages, the distance between Max and Bigger opens up as Bigger refuses to go to his death as the unfortunate victim of white society. He says, “What I killed for must’ve been good…When a man kills, it’s for something…I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.” Max responds with a look of terror and leaves groping for his hat and the door like a blind man, for he cannot see what is at stake for Bigger in taking responsibility for the murders and embracing the life experienced by killing.
In JanMohamed’s analysis of this book (chapter 3 in The Death Bound Subject), he states that Wright, by putting Bigger “in danger of completing a circle, of beginning and ending within the structure of social death,” reveals “the delicacy of the separation between social-death and symbolic-death: the latter fundamentally differs from the former in the subject’s capacity to be in conscious possession of the political meaning of his death” (130). Symbolic death–the embrace of one’s death as a means of creating a possibility of living beyond the threats of death–is separated from social death only by this conscious possession of the political meaning.
This emphasis on “conscious possession” works out in the novel over against the black female characters (his girlfriend and his mother) who cannot achieve such political consciousness. The control over the meaning of one’s life and death are still bound within the logic of sacrifice that is the death contract (one achieves this political power precisely as one consciously raises oneself above the lives of those who are not “hard” or “strong” enough to escape social death).
I have been reading Barth’s account of Christ’s death and resurrection with this struggle over the death contract in mind. I will start unpacking these Christological contours in a future post or two.