Native Son tells the story of a young black man caught in a downward spiral after he accidentally kills a young white woman during a moment of panic.
Bigger Thomas was destined for jail from the beginning. If it were not for murder and rape, it could have been for assault or petty larceny.
Polite and even fearful in the presence of his white “betters,” Bigger Thomas also hates them with a passion, not even he can fully fathom. When he says “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir,” narrator Peter Francis James gets the menace in there behind the stilted manners.
James has a gorgeous voice, a voice to fill a room with, and plays some characters with dash and conviction.
This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
Table of Contents
Bigger Thomas, a black man brutalized by years of frustration and poverty, finds meaning in life when he is sentenced to die for the accidental murder of a white woman.
Book 1: Fear
An alarm clock sounds in a small apartment on Chicago’s South Side, waking up Mrs. Thomas and her three children, Bigger, Buddy, and Vera. As they prepare for the day, a large rat scurries across the floor. Bigger quickly kills it with a skillet and tosses it out the window. After breakfast, he joins his friends G.H., Gus, and Jack to hang out on the streets. They spend some time pretending they have control over their lives and can do anything they want. Later in the day, they plan to rob a white-owned store, Blum’s Delicatessen, but Bigger is uncertain and nervous about it. To distract himself, he goes to the movies with Jack where they watch two films – one about a luxurious white world and the other about Black people in the jungle. Bigger is particularly struck by the Communist in the white movie, and how much the rich people seem to hate him.
As the time for the robbery approaches, Bigger goes home to get his gun. But when Gus shows up late, Bigger is so angry he accuses Gus of being a coward and threatens him with a knife. In reality, Bigger uses Gus’s lateness as an excuse to back out of the robbery and save face by bullying Gus. He feels a sense of relief, but his actions also scare the others.
Later, at 5:00 P.M. Bigger has an interview for a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. He must take this job or his family will lose aid. Mr. Dalton is a wealthy real estate tycoon and philanthropist who also owns the apartment building where Bigger’s family lives. Bigger’s first task is to drive the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, to an event at the university. But Mary changes their destination, and they pick up her lover, Jan Erlone, who is a leader in the local Communist Party.
Mary and Jan treat Bigger differently than he is used to and it makes him uncomfortable. They drink and chat with him, and even invite him to eat soul food with them. After dinner, Bigger drives around the park while Mary and Jan drink and kiss in the back seat. He drops Jan off before returning to the Dalton house, where he discovers that Mary is too drunk to walk.
He is so scared of getting caught in a white woman’s room that he accidentally smothers her with a pillow. Bigger realizes too late what he has done and is terrified at the thought of being caught. He takes Mary’s body to the basement, cuts off her head to make it fit in the furnace and burns it. He takes the trunk that Mary wanted him to take to the train station the next day and goes home to sleep.
Book 2: Flight
Bigger wakes up the next morning feeling like a new person. He feels more alive and powerful than ever before because for the first time in his life he has done something. He looks at his family and considers them blind; he finds his gang and concludes that because they don’t understand anything, they, too, are blind.
He goes back to the Dalton house and decides to point the blame at Jan because he knows that the Daltons and the police hate Communists. At first, the family think Mary has run off with Jan, but eventually, they realize she is missing.
The family hire Mr. Britten, a private investigator, to find her. He questions Bigger, who acts humble and answers questions in a way that implicates Jan. Mr. Dalton orders Jan to be arrested and held for questioning.
Bigger’s strategy has worked so well that he decides to write a note suggesting that Mary has been kidnapped by Communists who demand $10,000 for her release. Since the incident is reported in all the newspapers, Bigger indicates to Bessie Mears, his “girl,” that he has had something to do with Mary’s disappearance.
He forces her to participate in the ransom plot, and since no one suspects that a black servant could be capable of such a plan, Bigger’s scheme works well. He is summoned, however, to the furnace room by Mr. Dalton and the investigator, and is questioned about Jan.
There are reporters present, and when one of them tries to stoke the fire, he discovers a pile of bones and an earring in the furnace. Bigger panics and runs off unnoticed while the others contemplate the horrible sight.
Bigger picks up Bessie and they flee to a cold, vacant tenement building, where they have sex. But since Bigger can neither leave her behind (she knows too much and might talk to the police) nor take her with him (she is unenthusiastic about the whole affair), he beats her to death with a brick while she is asleep and throws her down an air shaft.
This second murder—which is discovered soon afterward—makes him feel even more alive and he continues to run, forgoing food and sleep, from one tenement to another. He reads in a stolen newspaper that 5,000 police officers and 3,000 volunteers are looking for him.
Bigger’s flight had made the authorities suspicious and helped them conclude mat he may be guilty; they assume that he has both raped and killed Mary Dalton. As part of their search for him, they terrorize hundreds of blacks on the South Side. Bigger knows that if they catch him, he will die.
Finally, the police corner him on the roof of a tenement building, where they spray him with fire hoses to disarm him and pry him loose from the chimney that he is hanging on to. He is dragged down the steps of the building and taken to prison.
Book 3: Fate
For three days Bigger withdraws inside himself, refusing to eat or talk. He rouses himself at the inquest, but faints when he sees Mr. and Mrs.
Dalton and Jan Erlone. When he comes to, he is visited by his mother’s minister, who tries to point Bigger toward Christian salvation and gives him a wooden cross to wear around his neck. Jan visits, too, and brings Boris A.
Max, a Communist lawyer, to defend Bigger. Mrs. Thomas begs the Daltons to have her son released and not to evict her and her family from their apartment. Bigger, feeling completely alone and angered by his visitors, rejects them all. He asks to see the newspapers and reads the articles describing him as an apelike rapist-killer who comes from a shiftless family. When he looks outside, he sees an angry crowd demanding his execution.
During the trial, Mr. Buckley, the district attorney, brings forth 60 character witnesses, but Mr. Max calls none. Instead, he delivers an eloquent speech in which he argues that Bigger’s crimes came about because of the history of black exploitation by whites.
He warns white society that blacks will lash out against this oppression and that if blacks are denied freedom of movement and choice, violence will be the only avenue left open to them. Max’s speech falls on deaf ears: Bigger is convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
On his way back to prison from the trial, Bigger sees a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. He feels so outraged that when he gets back to his cell, he rips the wooden cross from around his neck. When the minister comes back to visit, Bigger refuses to see him.
He tries to understand the meaning of his life and of his relationship with the rest of the world. He has begun to trust Max and tries to explain to him how he feels, but Max is shocked when Bigger tells him that what he did was good because he hadn’t really known he was alive until after committing his crime (“But what I killed for, I am!”). Bigger finally faces death, accepting who he is.
Bigger: 20-year-old black man. Sullen, filled with hate for whites, who make him feel inadequate, humiliated. Often fearful; tries to cover up his true feelings with violence, which releases tension and anger inside him. Alienated, alone; he rejects not only white culture, but black as well. Has never known love, doesn’t know how to love; treats his “girl” as an object. Murder is the only thing that gives his life meaning. He is “native son” whose own (white-dominated) country discriminates against him.
Mrs. Thomas: Bigger’s mother. Accepts things as they are; worries about Bigger’s “wild streak” and his anger. Deeply religious; clings to God and the church as her only solace and comfort.
Buddy and Vera: Bigger’s brother and sister. Vera is victimized by constant fear, too frightened to fight back against prejudice. Buddy admires Bigger, but is willing to act humbly and keep his place in society; doesn’t want to rock the boat.
G. H., Gus, and Jack Bigger’s gang: Cowardly hoodlums, fearful of whites and afraid of Bigger, though slightly awed by him.
Mr. and Mrs. Dalton: Wealthy white couple who give millions to NAACP and black colleges, but their real estate company charges high rents for rat-infested one-room apartments. They believe they’re doing good for blacks and poor people, but have no idea of the suffering the couple inflict on others.
Mary Dalton: Young white woman; daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. Wealthy, self-indulgent; considers herself a liberal. Her ignorance causes her, unwittingly, to humiliate and disturb Bigger. She represents the threat Bigger feels from whites; when Bigger kills her, he kills part of that threat.
Jan Erlone: Mary’s lover; Communist. Doesn’t understand Bigger, patronizes him. After Bigger tries to frame him, Jan comes to accept some of the blame for who Bigger is, and thus for Bigger’s crime. Jan is the first white person whom Bigger begins to see as a human being; at the very end, Bigger says, “Tell … Tell … Mister … Tell Jan hello….”
Boris A. Max: White Communist lawyer. Defends Bigger. Realizes Bigger is a victim of a long cycle of oppression and degradation. Tries to see Bigger as a human, but is shocked by Bigger’s view of his own life.
Mr. Buckley: Chicago prosecutor. Intent on “getting” and destroying Bigger. Assumes Bigger raped Mary Dalton. Running for reelection. Corrupt, plays to the crowd.
Mr. Britten: Private investigator hired by Mr. Dalton. Not vicious, but doesn’t give Bigger credit for much intelligence; doesn’t realize, for example, that Bigger is smart enough to write the ransom note. Bigger outsmarts him in the overall questioning process.
Bessie Mears Bigger’s “girl.”: Lives like a robot; works hard, tries to stay out of trouble. Like Bigger, she has no real feelings. Alcohol and occasional sex are her ways of escaping the harsh reality of her existence.
Main Themes and Ideas
Bigger’s life is dominated by an overwhelming physical and psychological fear of whites. He is afraid of entering their world, and the idea of robbing Blum’s Deli scares him. When he realizes that Mrs. Dalton is in Mary’s room, he is consumed by fear:
At the time when this novel was written, the worst place a black man could be, according to the prevailing prejudice of the times, was in a white woman’s room. It was a violation of social taboos. Fear causes Bigger to act violently: he threatens Gus in the poolroom and kills Mary accidentally in an attempt to avoid being discovered.
The Daltons think they are “friends” of blacks, but do not see reality as it truly is: they give money and Ping-Pong tables, then exploit blacks for financial gain through their real estate holdings. Mary and Jan talk about equality, but do not understand Bigger’s world. Even his family and gang are blind to the real world, having insulated themselves within protective cocoons.
Bigger recognizes this blindness in others and exploits it: While at the Daltons, he shuffles, stoops his shoulders, scratches his head, says “Yessuh,” and plays the role of “nigger.” When Britten questions him, he again plays the game of “fool the white folks, tell them what they want to hear.”
3. Oppression of Blacks by Whites
Wright asserts that whites have always oppressed blacks in America—that historically, whites have discriminated against blacks by “keeping them in their place” with rules, taboos, and penalties that limited blacks’ freedom of movement, speech, and choice.
Traditionally, white people adopted an attitude of racial superiority to justify their bigoted actions and they oppressed black citizens economically by denying them jobs and educational opportunities, and by charging them high rents. Bigger tells Max he would like to have learned to fly, but that only whites could do this.
The author states that every black person feels this oppression, that the tremendous power that whites hold over blacks causes Bigger to be so afraid. Wright shows that some blacks react to this situation by becoming passive and submissive (Buddy, Vera), while others escape through religion (Mrs. Thomas) or alcohol (Bessie), and yet others lash out against oppression (Bigger). With Bigger, violence is the only thing that eases his fears: as his violence increases, his fear subsides.
In his speech to the jury, Max speaks for Wright when he says that white society is guilty of killing Mary. Centuries of oppression by people like the Daltons have created the Biggers of the world; whites must therefore share a large amount of blame for Bigger’s crime.
Jan understands that although he has done nothing to hurt Bigger, Bigger hates him for his whiteness. Consequently, Jan knows he must accept some of the blame for Mary’s death. Though Bigger chokes and stifles Mary, Bigger, too, has been choked and stifled all his life.
The author argues that by denying blacks their humanity, whites have, figuratively, been killing them. Bigger tells Max that he died long before the death sentence was passed on him. Bigger feels that Mary’s death was justified; he hated her and feels no remorse.
5. Search for Identity
In killing Mary, Bigger creates a new life for himself. The killing was accidental, but after the murder he begins to make his own decisions. It is the first time in his life that Bigger knows he is alive, that he has an identity.
During his last few days, Bigger seeks a reconciliation between his feelings and the world around him. He is tantalized by the idea that he might be able to reach out to other human beings, but that in the end he will die alone. Bigger is beyond love; his environment has killed all possibilities for it.
For Wright, Bigger represents not only blacks, but anyone who suffers from the impersonal profit machine of capitalism. As Wright read more about trade unionism, Marxism, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he thought that help for American blacks might lie in the modern struggle for solidarity championed by communism. Bigger says, “Maybe if we had a true leader, we could do something.”
1. The Engaging Tragic Tale
The story of Bigger Thomas is a tragic one, but it is also an engaging one. From the very first page, Wright draws the reader into Bigger’s world, making us feel what he feels and see what he sees. It’s impossible not to empathize with Bigger, even as we cringe at some of the terrible choices he makes. Wright’s writing style is masterful, keeping the reader hooked from start to finish.
2. The Slice of History
One of the things I love about Native Son is that it provides a glimpse into a slice of history that is often overlooked in typical history classes. The novel takes place in post-depression Chicago, during a time when Jim Crow laws were still in place, and Communist activism was on the rise.
Wright also explores the concept of Red Lining/Black Belt, white guilt/apathy, and other themes that are still relevant today. This book serves as a reminder that we cannot move forward as a society unless we acknowledge and confront our past.
3. The Complex Characterization
The character of Bigger Thomas is one of the most complex and compelling characters in all of literature. He is not a hero or a villain; he is a human being with flaws and strengths, just like the rest of us.
Wright’s depiction of Bigger is both sympathetic and critical, showing us the many factors that contributed to his downfall while also holding him accountable for his actions. Through Bigger’s story, we see the ways in which society fails people like him, and the tragic consequences that can result.
1. Unreasonable Actions and Confusing Point of View
One of the most common criticisms of Native Son is that the actions of the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, are unreasonable and hard to understand. For example, some readers may find it difficult to comprehend why Bigger would kiss a white girl when he was so scared and jealous of white people, only to end up accidentally killing her. In addition, Bigger’s point of view can be confusing at times, as he often claims to be right while others are blind, but his story seems illogical and unreasonable.
2. Implication that Murder is Empowering
Another aspect of the book that some readers may find unsettling is the implication that Bigger’s murders are somehow empowering and freeing. While the book does shed light on the struggles of African Americans during the early 20th century, some readers may feel that the portrayal of murder as a means of empowerment is dangerous and disturbing.
3. Overlong Speechmaking
The final third of the book has been criticized for being overly verbose and repetitive, with Max’s speech running on for 35 screens on some e-readers. Some readers may find this excessive and may feel that the book could have been better edited.
Richard Wright’s Native Son is a powerful and thought-provoking work of historical fiction that delves deep into the complexities of racial and societal divisions in 1930s Chicago. Through the eyes of Bigger Thomas, Wright masterfully exposes the darkness and tragedy that often goes unnoticed during this period of history.
However, the true brilliance of this novel lies in its ability to inspire empathy and understanding, even for a character as flawed and troubled as Bigger. By encouraging readers to step outside of their own perspectives and to connect with those who are different from them, Wright delivers a powerful message of unity and compassion.
In the end, Native Son is a must-read for anyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of race relations in America, and to cultivate a greater sense of empathy and understanding for those who are different from us.
Richard Nathaniel Wright was an American author who wrote novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. He often wrote about the struggles of African Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
His writing was sometimes controversial, but it had a big impact on race relations in the United States during the mid-20th century. Many literary critics believe that his work was instrumental in bringing attention to issues faced by African Americans at that time.
Buy The Book: Native Son
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