The Importance of the Cat in Native Son
Throughout the history of writing, cats have symbolized craftiness, misfortune, deceit and death. Richard Wright creates no exception to this reputation in his novel Native Son. Bigger Thomas, a young, depressed black man, is placed in an awkward position when he is interviewed for a job with the Daltons, a wealthy white family. The Dalton's unnamed white cat, gazes at Bigger, symbolizing initially white society. This gazing causes Bigger to feel angry and awkward so that is comes to assume a far more critical symbolic level on the night of Mary Dalton's murder. His feelings lead him to express himself overtly in violence, specifically Bigger's killing of Mary. In effect, the Dalton's cat kills Mary.
The history of the feline is extensive and intriguing. Although we think of the black cat as always being the carrier of misfortune, the white cat has held a dark position as well. In England the white cat is notorious for its bad luck, and an older American superstition stated that a white cat at night indicates disaster. The Dalton's cat abruptly has Bigger feeling uneasy,
Then he was stone-still; the white cat bounded past him and leaped upon the desk; it sat looking at him with large placid eyes and mewed plaintively [...] He hated himself at that moment. Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out (47).
Through the cat, Wright foreshadows the murder of Mary. Bigger's reaction to the cat, being stone-still, could be easily used to describe Bigger's reaction when Mrs. Dalton walks in the room, and how he felt when he realized what he had done. The verb bound, used by Wright to describe the cat's movement, can have a deeper meaning. Bound, the past tense of bind, could be used to describe Bigger's situation after he kills Mary; he is forced and bound into a life of uncertainty and fear. The placid eyes, undisturbed by tumult or disorder, reflect the same way that the cat reacts in witnessing the murder of Mary. The deep green eyes looking into Bigger's inner self judge his heart. The eyes are symbolic of Josephus's singular description of Jesus Christ, telling of his piercing eyes able to look directly into one's soul. They cause him to feel guilty and become that much more irritated. The cat's plaintive meow, expressing sorrow and melancholy, is how the family will feel after realizing what has happened to their precious girl. One of the first cases of Bigger admitting to hating himself is stated in this quotation. These feelings can only lead to his later striking out. His wanting to wave his hand and blot out the white man can directly relate to the future murder. The "white man" can be considered the entire white race. His "waving of his hand" on the pillow over Mary's face "blots" her out of the world....