Violence against women is often a result of thwarted male privilege, misogyny, and feelings of frustrated control. In Richard Wright’s Native Son and Frank Norris’s McTeague, the two main characters of the novels both lead lives that leave them feeling often helpless and without agency. In McTeague’s case, it’s having to give up his life’s work as a dentist when he fails to satisfy local laws and regulations and in Bigger Thomas’s case, it’s having to live in the highly-segregated Chicago. Both men have instances when they feel they cannot exert control over their lives, and in both cases, it’s because of institutional forces that intrude on their lives. As a result, they assert their feelings of power and control on the women in their lives because male privilege – even as mitigated as it is in their cases – is still the only kind of privilege they can wield without question. The resulting message of the violence against women in the story places an undue onus on the women as well as it gives a space for the men to act out these violent tendencies, but be explained (not excused, but explained) by societal limitations and prejudices that seemingly cause them to commit these acts of violence.
While it wouldn’t be apt to call Wright’s Native Son a misogynistic novel because it’s far too complex in its characterization of the lead character, Bigger Thomas, there are some troubling and reductive depictions of women, especially Bessie and Mary, both of whom are killed by Bigger Thomas. In these two women, Wright has created a binary of female power and influence – both represent the kinds of tropes of femininity that Bigger consumes as a man in the early twentieth century. Bessie is written as the long-suffering, loyal, perennial victim while Mary is drawn as the capricious and short-sighted dilettante. Mary is introduced in the novel as an image on a news reel – idealized like a beautiful movie star; Bessie, on the other hand, is presented as put-upon and continuously battered and bruised by her hard life. In both cases, the women’s defining characteristics are large factors in their deaths: Bessie because she cannot seem to extricate herself from Bigger’s convoluted and dangerous life and Mary because her thoughtlessness puts Bigger in grave danger. The implicit message behind the deaths of Mary and Bessie is that if they didn’t get involved with Bigger, then they wouldn’t have to suffer – Bigger’s destiny as murderer was set, and one could argue that both Mary and Bessie had their respective destinies decided, as well – however, if Mary had behaved as a “proper” young lady, then she never would’ve been so inebriated that she’d lose her inhibitions.
When Bigger kills Mary, it’s an accident. But the way Wright has written the situation, it’s clear that Mary is seen as a deciding force in the accident. Because she’s defiantly liberal, she insists on having Bigger take her and her activist boyfriend, Jan, out drinking and eating. Instead of seeing her overtures as friendly or helpful, he recognizes the danger. “He distrusted them, really hated them” (Wright 81). She becomes drunk and Bigger must carry her back to her room. Bigger’s act of chivalry breaks an important taboo because it raises the fear of black male sexuality – particularly when it comes to black male sexuality and white femininity – as Bigger “wondered what a white man would think seeing him here with (Mary) like this” (Wright 93).
The frightening image of the lascivious, lecherous, and violent black man who lusts after white women is a trope that was popular in fiction – in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a much-referred to example of how white womanhood is positioned as something to be protected from black male sexuality. But because of Mary’s willful ignorance or naiveté, Bigger is repeatedly put in the difficult situation of play-acting an intimacy with his employer’s daughter that doesn’t exist. While Mary may not see (or she refuses to see) the danger Bigger is in because he’s seen in such close proximity to a young white girl, Wright is sure to make the readers understand that the implied fear of rape is always in the background. There are repeated references to rape: Bessie suggests that the authorities will assume Bigger raped Mary, and the police as well as the prosecuting attorney accuse Bigger of raping Mary. While being interrogated, Bigger was accused of other rapes, as well: “‘You raped her [Bessie], didn’t you? Well, if you won’t tell about Bessie, then tell me about the woman you raped and choked to death over on University Avenue last fall’” (Wright 352).
And despite the Dalton family’s work with black charities, Bigger understands that he cannot be found in a white girl’s room. The possibility of rape looms large in all of his interactions with Mary, and so when the blind Mrs. Dalton wafts into Mary’s room, Bigger quickly panics and smothers the young woman in fear that she’ll give the two up. The act of violence is an accident, but it’s significant that Mary’s behavior seems to be a contributing factor to Bigger’s crime. The tragedy would’ve been avoided had Mary heeded her father’s commands, and remained deferential to societal expectations of young women.
While Mary’s death is accidental, Bessie’s is murder. Bigger Thomas rapes and kills Bessie, after killing Mary Dalton. Bigger kills her because she’s no longer able to support him without reservation. He feels he needs to survive and move forward – like a shark – and she would only hold him back because of her feelings of anger, doubt, and regret. And these feelings she’s having manage to also infiltrate Bigger’s feelings, too, and he cannot slow down and worry about how he feels. He justifies a lot of his behavior by blaming Bessie, maintaining that he had to involve her in his crime because, “She had bothered him so much that he had had to tell her” (Wright 271).
Later when he decides he has to kill Bessie he reasons that, “If he took her along she would be crying all the time; she would be blaming him for all that had happened; she would be wanting whiskey to help her to forget and there would be times when he could not get it for her…He could not take her and he could not leave her” (Wright 273).
Raping Bessie is an act of control when his life has spiraled out of control. Because Bigger has crossed a threshold of sorts, he seemingly had some amount of control – that of deciding whether to kill. Everything up that point has happened above his head, but murdering Bessie was the one moment when he had complete control. His murder of Bessie appears to be the one moment in his life when he is able to act without the implied consent of white male privilege because “He had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself” (Wright 279).
It’s clear that both Mary and Bessie deserved better, but the question remains: does Bigger? It’s clear that every situation that Bigger found himself somehow was defined by how others viewed him: he was seemingly always on display, and had to wear various guises in different company: with the Daltons, he was the dutiful and loyal servant; with Bessie, he was the assertive and powerful lover; with his family, he was the impressive adult; with his friends, he was the intimidating stud. The various identities that he was forced to enact often created a tension that was bound to suffer from cracks – and in each identity, Bigger had to modulate his personality for his intended audience. I would argue that none and all of these identities were the real Bigger Thomas, in that he was forced to carve out specific sides of his personality that would suit his situation. But because his self-identification was always identified and defined by an other, it’s not surprising that when there are solitary moments when he can find instances of some kind of autonomy, he must take them. According to his thinking, Bigger is just as much a victim of circumstance as his victims are, and therefore in Bigger’s logic – at least initially – in some twisted way, Mary and Bessie both “deserved” to be killed. If it hadn’t been for societal expectations that would have forced Bigger to be afraid of seeming like a rapist, he never would’ve panicked and killed Mary in the first place (and he wouldn’t have had to kill Bessie, either).
I won’t go as far as saying that Wright is trading in victim-blaming, but he does assign a space for Bigger Thomas to claim a certain amount of victimhood, even when discussing Bessie’s murder. Because of his life of oppression and depression, his violence seems predestined (as does Bessie’s death). He has been position as someone who operates in a world
in which he exerts little control or power, so the tragedies that he causes is results from a life of systematic discrimination.
When reading Frank Norris’s McTeague, one must look at a different set of circumstances that define McTeague’s feelings of oppression. Unlike Bigger Thomas, McTeague has certain avenues for social mobility, and initially, he has a trade and a steady job. It’s only when he loses his job ostensibly because he didn’t have the necessary credentials to be a dentist, that his control over his life starts to descend. As a source of feminine power, his wife Trina, wields some control over his and their relationship because she has financial independence, and is pathologically unwilling to share her fortune with her husband.
Just as Bigger feels that everything is out of his control, in Frank Norris’ McTeague, the title character also feels his life is often out of control, and asserts himself and his male privilege on his wife, Trina, who exerts control over McTeague’s life by her avarice. As with Wright’s Mary, Trina is a doomed woman whose behavior and self-indulgence have fatal consequences. Like Bigger Thomas, McTeague wants to assert some kind of control in his life. Instead of being able to control the outside world, he asserts his male privilege in the home, by exploiting his brute strength and abusing and later killing Trina. A repeated mantra McTeague returns to is insisting on dignity – he was always worried of people “making small” of him. As he approaches Trina before murdering her, he mutters, “’you ain’t going to make small of me this time. Give me that money’” (Norris 293). As mentioned earlier with Wright, in Norris’ book, McTeague finds space to feel as if he’s been victimized, as well.
Unlike Bessie, Trina isn’t a tragic victim, though – she isn’t written as a reductive ideal. It’s her unfettered feminine authority which is transgressive and disrupts patriarchy that further casts her fate as murder victim. In many ways, she resembles Mary, in that she is seen as being the reason why the men who kill them are “driven” to the acts. When thinking about Trina, McTeague remembers her miserly ways and “his hatred of (her) came back upon him like a returning surge” (Norris 290). Though initially, it appeared as if Trina was in control of the relationship because she was in charge of the money and because she was smarter than McTeague, bitterness and anger enveloped him after years of being “abused” and he retaliated by becoming physically abusive, asserting his superior physicality – because he couldn’t assert his intelligence or wit (because he had none), he was reduced to physical violence, biting her fingers which became “cruelly lacerated by McTeague’s brutality” (Norris 276) and eventually, her fingers had to be amputated.
Along with his annoyance at Trina’s miserly behavior, Bigger is encouraged by alcohol to brutalize his wife. The alcohol, in turn, is an important element to his character’s degradation as well as his cruel treatment of his wife, because yet again, Norris is writing a cautionary tale of what can happen when someone dimwitted like McTeague is paired with someone as “castrating” as Trina.
The alcohol had its effect…it roused the man, or rather the brute in the man, and now not only roused it, but goaded it to evil. McTeague’s nature changed; it was idleness and a general throwing off of the good influence his wife had over him in the days of their prosperity. McTeague disliked Trina. She was a perpetual irritation to him (Norris 242).
Interestingly enough, the “good influence” Trina had was also the root of her downfall. When the two were prosperous and before Trina lost her senses with her pinching of pennies, her insistence on thrift was seen as a virtue. It’s only when it became unchecked, and when it interfered with McTeague’s position as the man of the house, that the thrift became a problem. But instead of presenting Trina as a victim of his stormy tantrums, Trina is painted as being equally pathological and unwell. The more brutal and violent McTeague became, the “tighter she drew the strings of the little chamois-skin that she hid at the bottom of her trunk” (Norris 242).
What’s more disturbing in Norris’s work is that thought Trina is afraid of McTeague and worries for her safety, he also falls into the trope of having the woman be somewhat thrilled by the experience of being overtaken and dominated. The sexual dynamic between McTeague and Trina is based on a power dynamic that is unbalanced – he because of his brute strength has a certain kind of privilege, while she because of her wealth and relative intelligence also carries a certain dominance in the relationship (at least until McTeague’s limit has been met). When the two meet, McTeague performs a crude operation on her teeth and while Trina is unconscious during the procedure, McTeague finds himself drawn to her. Norris repeatedly uses the imagery of dominance. Once the bloom of their relationship has faded and McTeagues has devolved into a horror, Trina’s response to his violent overtures still bears some troubling notes of delight: “And in some strange, inexplicable way this brutality made Trina all the more affectionate; aroused in her a morbid, unwholesome love of submission, a strange, unnatrual pleasure in yielding, in surrendering herself to the will of an irresistible, virile power” (Norris 244).
Just as Bessie in Native Son was written to be submissive and pliant, Trina has been written to be at some level hungry for the kind of brute force that McTeague inflicts on her. The unhealthy narrative of female sexuality in the novel is just one of many ways in which she is marginalized and reduced because of her gender. McTeague doesn’t fare that much better, and he’s set apart because of his ethnicity, class, and intelligence.
So where do these acts of violence fit in the larger question of social justice? Do these murders play a rhetorical role in the writers’ views of inequality, injustice, and fairness? Wright’s figure of Bigger Thomas acts as a warning tale of just how dangerous oppression can be – one cannot function in a world designed with unfair discrimination. Bigger Thomas is a victim of his circumstance, and it’s clear that he has a small voice in his destiny. Everything about his life is decided for him – all of the major decisions in his world happen above him. Bigger tries to carve out any instances of control and autonomy he can – whether it’s robbing a deli or plotting his escape from the police. It’s telling that the only times that Bigger has any autonomy, it’s in relation to his crimes.
With Wright’s work, there is a clear voice for social betterment, and Bigger Thomas suffers because of racism and discrimination. He makes terrible choices but he plays the role of the “brute” that is prevalent in Naturalism. When devoid of all hope and choices, one must revert to a stage that is seen as almost-primal. Because Bigger had very few choices in life, he was simply playing out the hopeless cycle that mark Naturalism stories.
But in Norris’s work, the tale is less political propaganda and more cautionary tale of what happens when social order is tampered with. McTeague’s minor transgression into law and order (working as a dentist without a license) as well as Trina’s wholly “unfeminine” behavior as the major financial planner of the household create a situation that Norris feels is doomed. McTeague’s lack of intelligence and lack of self-awareness dooms him to moving steadily toward the tragic end where he kills Trina and Marcus, and finds himself stranded in the desert.
McTeague, like Bigger, is also a warning to readers about unchecked feminine authority as well as challenged male privilege. Because Norris’ interest in mental health and mental capacity, it can be argued that McTeague was also a warning about the inherent violent nature of individuals, and that if unchecked and uncontrolled, could result in the kind of tragedy like Trina’s death. What’s interesting is that though Wright is calling for a world that would treat Bigger Thomas more fairly, I’m not sure that Norris is searching for the same kind of social justice. In Norris’ world, McTeague never should’ve happened – his reach toward social mobility was a farce and should never have been possible. Norris sought a stronger control of the world, where if boundaries are broken down, chaos like the kind that killed Trina, McTeague, and Marcus will occur. If social order is maintained, then someone like McTeague would not be put in the position of becoming frustrated and violent.
In both novels, men have experienced events that have thwarted their sense of privilege and their place in society as men. With McTeague, his feelings of belittlement – of being “made small” not only by Trina, but by society as a whole, made him direct his frustration towards
Trina, who was closest to him. Likewise, Bigger Thomas’s feelings of ambition and fairness are challenged constantly by white privilege, and he manages to assert his sole feelings of autonomy when he kills Mary and Bessie. It’s in these instances that both men manage to momentarily transcend their limits, but it comes at the price of killing the women closest to them. It would be interesting to read the novels if they were rewritten from the women’s points of view because all of the talk of thwarted male privilege ignores that the women have their own agendas, as well. But because they’re seen as appendages to their male partners, their concerns do not merit description in the novels (and in fact, Trina is punished for her enterprising ways). Either way, both novels chart the tragic consequences of the disruption of social justice and social order – and though the two books are vastly different in their executions of their messages, the link that binds them is violence against women as a result of thwarted male privilege.
Norris, Frank. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. 2011. New York: Signet Classics, 1899. Kindle ebook file.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1993. New York: HarperPerennial, 1940. Print.