“Native Son” is a groundbreaking novel written by Richard Wright and published in 1940. The book is one of the first American books to explore the topics of race relations and the oppression and segregation that black people face in their daily lives. The book has won several awards since it’s release and has been adapted into many different formats including plays and feature films.
The play is the story of a young, black man living in poverty with his family on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s. The young man, Bigger Thomas, experiences hatred and distrust of white people because of the systematic racism that he has been subjected to for his whole life. He is the leader of a gang of 3 other young men his age and often involves himself in criminal activities.
Bigger is soon contracted by the millionaire owner of his tenement building to work as his driver. Bigger picks up the man’s daughter, Mary and takes her to meet with her boyfriend, a member of the Communist party named Jan. After a night out, Mary becomes increasingly drunk and the job of getting her back to her bed falls to Bigger. While he is attempting to do so, he almost get’s caught by the young woman’s mother and panics, putting a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her silent. In the process he inadvertently smothers her. In a flurry, Bigger hides the young woman’s body by disposing of it in the family’s furnace. Soon, the family discovers that Mary is missing and begins to search for her. Her remains are found in the furnace and Bigger flees in fear of being accused of her murder.
The police soon capture him and he is taken to jail to face sentencing by a jury. Despite the help of an excellent lawyer, Bigger is sentenced to execution for murdering Mary and his former girlfriend days later. The story expounds on the racism of 1930’s America and the impact of stereotyping on the mind of a young black man.
The novel starts with an alarm clock ringing in a one-room apartment on Chicago’s South Side. The alarm awakens a black woman named Mrs. Thomas and her three children, Bigger, Buddy, and Vera. As they dress, turning their heads to give each other privacy, a large black rat scurries across the floor. Bigger kills the rat with a skillet and dangles it in front of his sister before throwing it out. After breakfast, Bigger goes out into the streets to hang out with his gang, G.H., Gus, and Jack. They play “white” for a while, pretending they have choices and that they can do anything that they want. Tiring of that, they go to a local pool room and plan to rob a place named Blum’s Delicatessen, a white business, later that afternoon. It is the first time Bigger and his gang have robbed a white business, and the prospect of doing so unnerves them. But Bigger knows that in order to not lose face he’ll have to go through with it.
In an attempt to keep his mind occupied for the next few hours, he goes to the movies with Jack. They see a double feature the first of which portrays a glamorous white world while the other shows black people in the jungle. Bigger finds himself fascinated by the life portrayed in the white movie and especially by the Communist in the film who seemed to be hated by the rich people.
At two-forty pm, shortly before they are to rob the store, Bigger goes home to get his gun and then returns to the pool room. Angered when Gus arrives late, Bigger accuses him of cowardice and then pulls a knife on him and forces Gus to lick it. In secret, Bigger is relieved. He uses Gus’s lateness as an excuse not to pull off the robbery and saves face merely by intimidating Gus. His violence frightens the others but releases some of Bigger’s tension.
At five pm, Bigger goes to a job interview arranged by a relief agency which will cut off aid to the Thomas family if he does not take the job. He is to be the chauffeur for the Dalton family and, as part of his payment, will receive room and board in the Dalton home. Mr. Dalton, a white supporter of the NAACP, gives money to black colleges and Ping-Pong tables to the South Side youth centers. He is a real estate tycoon and owns the controlling interest in the company that owns the tenement in which Bigger’s family lives.
Bigger’s first assignment is to drive Mary, the Dalton’s daughter to an event at the university. But Mary tells Bigger to drive her to a different address where they pick up Jan Erlone, her lover who is a leader in the local Communist Party. Mary and Jan embarrass Bigger by trying to be friendly with him. He is used to being respectful and subservient to whites. But Mary and Jan shake hands with him, ride next to him in the front seat of the car, drink with him and ask him to eat soul food with them. This causes him to feel confused and even angry. After dinner, Bigger drives around the park while Mary and Jan drink and kiss in the back seat. They drop Jan off before going back to the Dalton home, and Bigger realizes that Mary is too drunk to walk. Angry, he carries her up to her room and places her on the bed. Feeling warm from the rum he has been drinking, he becomes so excited about being close to a white woman that he kisses her and gropes her breasts.
At that moment, Mrs. Dalton, Mary’s blind mother, enters the room. Bigger is so terrified at the prospect of being caught in a white woman’s room that he puts a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her from being heard. Mrs. Dalton, believing that Mary is sound asleep and drunk, leaves the room. When Bigger checks Mary’s condition he realizes that he has accidentally smothered her. Frantic and afraid, he quickly tries to devise a plan. He ends up putting her body in a trunk and takes it down to the basement furnace room. He then throws Mary’s body into the furnace but first decides that he must cut her head off with a hatchet so that the body will fit. Then he steals Mary’s purse which contains a bit of cash so that it will seem as if she has run off.
Bigger plans to act as if nothing has happened. He takes the trunk to the car since Mary had previously told him that she wanted him to take it to the railroad station the next morning. Then he goes home and goes to sleep.
At the beginning of book two, Bigger wakes up the morning after he killed Mary 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 wonders why they must live in such squalor. Bigger’s new attitude confuses his family. His mother asks him why he didn’t get in till four am and he lies and informs her that he actually got in at 2 am. He feels that this version of events fits better with the story he has concocted just in case he is suspected of Mary’s murder. He also thinks that he will out Jan as a Communist if he gets pulled in for questioning by the police.
He then meets with his gang and decides that since they don’t see anything they too, are blind. He thinks of Mary and reckons that her murder was justified because of the years of poor treatment he has received from whites. He further wishes that he felt a sense of solidarity with black people but that he doesn’t think that would happen unless they had a leader to unite them.
Bigger returns to the Dalton household and finds one of the Dalton’s children, Peggy, looking into the furnace. For a tense moment he suspects that he will have to kill her to keep his secret but as she does not find anything suspicious, he lets that thought go. Peggy notices that the car has been left in the driveway all night and Bigger informs her that Mary told him to leave it there. Peggy is still skeptical so Bigger further elaborates that a “gentleman” came to their house the night before and she chooses not to question him any farther. At this point, Bigger realizes that The Dalton’s have not yet realized that Mary is missing. He fakes surprise when she does not come down from her room to go to the train station. Peggy suggests that she already left. Bigger takes Mary’s trunk to the station and when he returns the Dalton’s are beginning to question Mary’s absence. They realize that it does not look like she packs all of her things in the trunk. Mrs. Dalton interrogates Bigger about his version of events but he repeats his story, adding that Jan accompanied him to Mary’s room to put her to bed.
Mrs. Dalton decides to give Bigger the rest of the day off. Bigger wishes that he had stolen more money from Mary’s room after she died. He visits Bessie Mears, his “girl” and tells her that he has something to do with Mary’s disappearance. He forces Bessie to participate in a ransom plot. Bigger feels that his strategy has worked so well that he should write a note suggesting that Mary has been kidnapped by Communists who demand ten thousand dollars for her release. Since no one suspects that a black servant could be capable of such a plot, Bigger’s scheme works well.
Mary’s disappearance makes the papers and the Dalton’s hire a private investigator named Mr. Britten to find her. Mr. Britten questions Bigger, who acts humble and answers the questions in a way that plainly implicates Jan. Mr. Dalton, who considers Jan a communist and a liar, orders Jan to be arrested and held for questioning.
Soon, Bigger is summoned to the furnace room by Mr. Dalton and the investigator and is further 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 leaving) he beats her to death with a brick while she is sleeping 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, foregoing food and sleep, from one tenement to another. He reads in a stolen newspaper that five thousand police officers and three thousand volunteers are looking for him. Bigger’s flight has made the authorities suspicious and helped them conclude that he may be guilty. They assume that he had both raped and killed Mary Dalton. As part of their search for him, they terrorize hundreds of black people on the South Side. Only a small area of the South Side – the place that Bigger is hiding – remains unsearched. Bigger knows that if they catch him he will die.
The next morning, he hears a police siren and escapes to the roof of the building that he is staying in. Shoot-out proceeds and the police spray Bigger with fire hoses to disarm him. The police capture Bigger and drag him down the steps and out of the building as a crowd of angry white onlookers yell for his execution.
Bigger is taken to prison and at the beginning of book three he has withdrawn inside himself for three days, refusing to eat or talk. He rouses himself for 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 direct Bigger toward Christian salvation and gives him a wooden cross to wear around his neck.
Jan visits, too. He tells Bigger that he is not angry and that he only wants to help. He tells Bigger that he was stupid to think that he could relate to Bigger without their races coming between them. Jan states that he did love Mary but that black families of the past have loved all of their family members who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. As he talks, Bigger realizes that for the first time in his life he is speaking to a white person as if they were equals. This makes Bigger feel even more guilty as he knows that he has hurt Jan by killing the woman he loved.
Jan brings in Boris A. Max, a Communist lawyer to defend Bigger free of charge. Mrs. Thomas begs the Daltons to have her son released and not to evict her and her family from their apartment but they tell her that they have no control over this. Mrs. Thomas further explains that it is Mr. Dalton’s real estate company that is trying to have her family evicted and he promises that he won’t let that happen. 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.
Bigger is lead to the courtroom to begin the inquest. Mrs. Dalton and Mr. Dalton testify against Bigger. The coroner shows Bessie’s body as an exhibit to the jurors. Bigger becomes angry at this, knowing that the whites are using Bessie in death just as they did when she was alive. They want to further cement his execution.
Bigger is indicted for rape and murder and a few days later his actual trail begins. During the trail, the district attorney, Mr. Buckley brings forth 60 character witnesses but Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max calls no one. Instead, he delivers an eloquent speech in which he argues that Bigger’s crimes came about because of the history of black oppression and exploitation by whites. He says that because of this stunted development, Bigger was patently unable to view Mary and Jan as fellow human beings. He also says that the Daltons, regardless of their charity work, are blind to the world of black people and have themselves added to the conditions that lead Bigger to murder their daughter. He warns white society that blacks will lash out against this oppression and that if black people are denied freedom of movement and choice, violence will be the only avenue left open to them.
Mr. Buckley argues in his closing statement that Bigger did, in fact, have a clear motive for murdering Mary and that it was not an accident as Mr. Max had suggested. He assumes that Bigger was sexually interested in Mary and raped her in a maddened state. He says that Bigger then killed Mary and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley refers to Bigger as a “demented savage” and says that he should be executed.
After this, the court adjourns. A short deliberation ensues and when the judge returns he sentences Bigger to death. On his way back to prison from the trail, Bigger sees a Klu 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 his relationship with the rest of the world. Max visits after failing to get a pardon from the governor for Bigger. Bigger feels that he has begun to trust Max and tries to explain to him how he feels. But Max is shocked and appalled when Bigger tells him that what he did was good because he hadn’t really known he was alive until after committing his crime.
As Max leaves, Bigger asks him to tell Jan hello. After this Bigger is left alone and decides to face death in acceptance of who he is.
Bigger Thomas – a 20-year-old black man who accidentally kills one of his employer’s daughters in an effort to stop her from alerting anyone that he is in her room. Throughout the novel, Bigger is very sullen and filled with hatred for whites who make him feel inadequate and humiliated. Often fearful, he tries to cover up his true feelings with violence which release tension and anger inside of him. Bigger is alienated and alone. He rejects not only white culture but black culture as well. He has never felt love and doesn’t even know how to love. As a result of this, he treats his girlfriend, Bessie as an object. After Bigger accidentally kills Mary, and again after he kills Bessie, he is surprised to find out that he enjoys murdering them and that murder is the only thing that he feels gives his life meaning.
Through this portrayal, Richard Wright seems to be going out of his way to show that Bigger is not a conventional hero. His capacity for violence and especially the brutal way in which he carries out the murders, plus the lack of remorse that he shows confirm him as an example of a figure that white oppression and racism have created and not as a hero to admire and identify with.
Bigger confirms the fears of the white society in the book by conforming to their stereotype of a brutish, savage, murdering black man. In this, Wright’s point is that Bigger became a brutal killer only because white society already assumed that he was one. Of course, contributing to the cycle of racism in the country.
Bigger only begins to redeem himself shortly before his death, when speaking to Max and Jan begins to make him see whites as people and realize the extent to which racism has stunted his development.
The title of the novel, ‘Native Son’, implies that Bigger’s descent into violence and murder is an inherently American tale. Bigger himself is a ‘native son’ whose own country discriminates against him even as they have created him.
Mary Dalton – a young white woman who is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. Mary is wealthy and indulgent but considers herself a liberal. Her ignorance causes her, unwittingly to disturb and humiliate Bigger. She represents the threat Bigger feels from whites. When Bigger kills her, he kills part of the threat.
But Mary’s importance in the novel does not solely rely on her death. Her form of racism is very subtly written but just as important as the racism of a more overt character like Mr. Buckley. Mary represents an insidious form of racism that is just as destructive as the other forms shown in the book. She identifies herself as a liberal and seems to be very progressive, but because of her sheltered, wealthy upbringing, she does not realize that she will never fully understand Bigger’s journey as a black man. She lacks a sophisticated understanding of what she is trying to support – the lives of black Americans.
Mary tries to treat Bigger as an equal but fails to realize that this type of treatment coming from a wealthy white woman will make him uncomfortable. Mary assumes that Bigger will accept her friendship because she supports the political ideas that she believes he represents.
Though Mary seems to show signs of recognizing that she made Bigger uncomfortable, she never gets a chance to develop these feelings as a character since her life is tragically cut short soon after.
Mr. and Mrs. Dalton – a wealthy white couple who live in Chicago and give millions to black charities like the NAACP and black colleges. However, in direct opposition to this, it is revealed in the court scene that Mr. Dalton’s 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 that they inflict on others.
Jan Erlone – Mary’s lover who is also a member of the Communist party – a fact that upsets Mary’s parents. Like Mary, Jan wishes to treat Bigger as an equal and is unaware that Bigger finds this patronizing. After Bigger tries to frame him for Mary’s murder, Jan comes to accept some of the blame for who Bigger is and thus, for Bigger’s crime.
Jan is the first white person who Bigger comes to see as a human being. Jan seeks to help Bigger and hires a lawyer to defend him. In the end of the book, the last thing that Bigger says is to tell Jan that he said hello thus showing that he still values Jan as a friend and wants to thank him for trying to help with the trial.
Boris A. Max – a white, Communist-affiliated lawyer that Jan hires to defend Bigger during his trial. Mr. Max realizes that Bigger is a victim of a long cycle of oppression and degradation. He tries to see Bigger as a human but is later shocked to learn that Bigger seems to have enjoyed the violence and may be more than just a misunderstood black man.
He leaves Bigger in his cell in that last scene and seems to be a bit relieved that he lost the trial.
Richard Wright Biography
Richard Nathaniel Wright was an American author whose outspoken protest against racial prejudice made him a spokesperson for a generation of black people in America.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1908, Wright spent his early life in poverty and moved frequently with his family around the tri-state area of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. Wright left school after the ninth grade and published his first story when he was only 16. He worked menial jobs to support himself and moved to the South Side of Chicago in 1927.
He joined the Federal Writer’s Project and the Federal Negro Theater Project during the Great Depression. In 1932, he joined the Communist party and wrote poems, short stories, and essays. He described his subsequent disillusionment with the party in his contribution to ‘The God That Failed’ (1950), a book of essays written by six former Communists. He lived in New York in the late 1930’s and worked as an editor. Wright’s first book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Children’ (1938) is a collection of stories that eloquently dramatize racial prejudice in America. His major work, ‘Native Son’ (1940), explores the violent psychological pressures that drive a young Chicago black man named Bigger Thomas to murder.
In 1939, Wright married Dhimah Rose Meidman, a dance teacher, but the marriage unfortunately ended a year later and in 1941, he married Ellen Poplar, a Communist organizer. The couple had two daughters, Julia, and Rachael.
In the autobiographical, ‘Black Boy’ (1945), Wright reveals in bitter personal terms the devastating impact of prejudice on a black person in the U.S during his formative years.
Wright became unhappy with life in the U. S and moved to France in 1947 where he became a French citizen and traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.
He used these travels as the basis for many non-fiction books.
Wright died of a heart attack in Paris, France in 1960 at the age of 52. He was buried in Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery.