Native Son by Richard Wright was published in 1940. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American who is living in poverty in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, and is reportedly based on the case of Robert Nixon. The novel is split into three separate books: Fear, Flight, and Fate.
Bigger Thomas is twenty years old at the beginning of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, and sister in a ghetto of Chicago. In the opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the dark in the small apartment that he and his family shares. A rat appears in the room and Bigger chases it and kills it with an iron skillet; he then terrorizes his sister, Vera, with the dead rat until Vera faints. Bigger’s mother scolds him, while Bigger’s internal monologue reveals that he hates his family because they’re suffering and he can’t do anything about it — he feels that he’ll only ever be able to have low wage, menial work and feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that he masks with ferocity and violence. Because that’s healthy and normal.
Bigger’s mom wants him to get a job with a white man named Mr. Dalton (who happens to be the Thomas family’s landlord), but instead Bigger meets with some of his friends at a local poolhall. They start talking and Bigger reveals that every time he encounters a white person he feels that something bad is going to happen to him. He and his friends, Gus, G.H., and Jack, plan a robbery of a white man’s store; they are all afraid of what will happen if they’re caught robbing and hurting a white man, but none of them admit it. They’ve burgled many black-owned businesses before, but robbing from whites is new territory. Bigger is so intimidated by white people that he no longer sees them as individuals, instead picturing them as an all-encompassing pressure of “whiteness” that is smothering him like a blanket. When they meet back at the poolhall to head out for the robbery, Bigger brutally attacks Gus in order to sabotage the night. This makes him realize that he needs to listen to his mother and seek out a job with Mr. Dalton.
He gets a job as Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur. Mr. Dalton, in owning the majority shares of several building in the South Side ghetto, has been exploiting black families for years; however, he sees himself as a philanthropist because he donates money to black schools and gives jobs to black boys like Bigger.
On Bigger’s first day of work, he shows up to the Daltons’ house and is immediately ill at ease; the house is large, Dalton and his wife, who is blind, use large words that Bigger doesn’t understand, and the Dalton’s daughter, Mary, comes home and asks Bigger why he isn’t in a union, which makes Bigger dislike her and fear that she will cost him his job. That night, Mary has Bigger drive her and her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist. Mary and Jan are eager to show off their progressive ideals and racial tolerance. They force Bigger to take them to a restaurant on the South Side and sit with them at the table. They order a bottle of rum and take it with them for the rest of the night. Bigger drives Jan and Mary around while they get completely trashed and grope each other in the back seat of the car while Bigger drives them around the park.
When they return to the Dalton’s house, Mary is too drunk to get out of the car, much less maneuver the stairs, so Bigger carries her to her room. He is a little drunk as well, and intoxicated by being so close to a white girl, and when they get to Mary’s room, Bigger kisses her.
Just as Bigger is putting Mary in her bed, Mrs. Dalton appears in the doorway. He knows that, because she’s blind, she can’t see him but he is still terrified that she will realize that he’s in her precious innocent daughter’s room and have him fired, if not worse. He’s also afraid that drunk Mary will say or do something that will make Mrs. Dalton further enter the room, so he puts a pillow over her face to muffle her; when Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger realizes that he has smothered her to death. Very Shakespearean.
Bigger realizes that the punishment for murder will be a lot less than an accusation of sexual assault. He decides to frame Jan, hoping that the Daltons will think poorly of Jan and his Communist leanings and assume that he’s dangerous and has kidnapped Mary. He takes Mary’s body down to the furnace to burn it; when he has trouble pushing her body into the small opening, he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head to make it fit. After he gets her body in the fire, he adds extra coal to the furnace and goes home. What.
Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said.
Having commited murder and seemingly gotten away with it has given Bigger a sense of power that he has previously never known. When he goes back to the Daltons’ for work the next day, Mrs. Dalton has noticed Mary’s disappearance and asks Bigger about the happenings of the previous night. He makes an effort to point the finger at Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends him home for the day and Bigger goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie is a stereotypical woman, nagging that he doesn’t love her and Bigger gives her money to shut her up. Bigger tells Bessie that Mary Dalton has disappeared and she begins to talk about different disappearances, including one where people murdered a child and asked for ransom money later. Bigger gets a cartoon lightbulb over his head and decides to do just that. He tells Bessie that he knows a little about what happened to Mary and is going to blackmail the Daltons; unfortunately, Bessie’s responses to him make him realize that she’s started to suspect that he’s had something to do with Mary’s disappearance.
When he returns to the Daltons’ house for work, they have hired a private investigator, Mr. Britten, to try to track down Mary. Mr. Britten talks to Bigger; Bigger senses that Britten is a little bit racist and accuses Jan based on his religion (Jewish), politics (Communist), and his attitude toward black people (friendly). In talking to Britten, Bigger takes on the role of the simple-minded black boy, which is almost as chilling as his role of violence; he is intuitive enough to know when to play into the stereotypes that are expected of him. He manages to fool Mr. Dalton, who thinks that he’s not a bad boy, but not Britten, who states that “a nigger’s a nigger” and that they’re all bad in some sense. Britten and Mr. Dalton bring in Jan and grill him about the night before, but of course his story is different than Bigger’s. When Mr. Dalton offers to pay Jan for information about Mary, Jan leaves.
Bigger checks on the furnace and then heads to Bessie. Jan confronts him in the street, but Bigger pulls a gun on him. Needless to say, they don’t have a very long chat. When Bigger gets to Bessie’s, he composes a ransom note and signs it “Red,” to further add suspicion to the pinko Communist Jan. In the letter, he demands $10,000 and adds a drawing of a hammer and sickle. Bessie has begun to have second thoughts about the whole thing and accuses Bigger of killing Mary. Bigger admits it, but says that it’s okay:
“If you killed her you’ll kill me,” she said. “I ain’t in this…. You told me you never was going to kill.”
“All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us.”
Bessie begs to be left out, but Bigger doesn’t want her to turn him in, so she has to stay involved. He delivers the ransom note by slipping it under the Daltons’ door when he reports for work.
Reporters have now caught wind of the story and descend upon the Dalton house. Bigger is told to clean out the furnace; he sifts some of the ashes into the lower bin and adds more coal, hoping that he will not have to take the ashes out until the reporters leave. However, the ashes still block the airflow, causing thick smoke to fill the basement. At this point, some of the reporters have come down to the furnace and one of them grabs a shovel and offers to help clear the ashes.
When the smoke dissipates, several pieces of bone and an earring are visible on the floor. As Bigger looks at these remnants of his gruesome killing, all of his old feelings return: he is black and he has done wrong. He once again longs for a weapon so he can strike out at someone. While the reporters marvel over the glowing hatchet head in the furnace, Bigger sneaks up to his room and jumps out the window. He runs to Bessie’s house to stop her from going to collect the ransom money. When Bigger explains that he accidentally killed Mary, Bessie tells him the authorities will think he has raped Mary and has murdered her to cover up the evidence. Bigger thinks back to the shame, anger, and hatred he felt that night. He thinks that he has committed rape, but to him, “rape” means feeling as if his back is against a wall and being forced to strike out to protect himself, whether he wants to or not. Bigger thinks that he commits a form of “rape” every time he looks at a white face.
Bigger and Bessie go to an abandoned building to hide out, and Bessie takes this time to tell Bigger just how much she hates him for ruining her life. Maybe not such a good idea to insult and anger the man with a streak of murderous violence. Bigger rapes Bessie on a pile of blankets that they brought with them and, after realizing that he can’t take her with him but he can’t leave her behind to turn him in, he hits her several times on the head with a brick that is lying nearby and throws her body down an airshaft.
Bigger goes through the city finding vacated apartments and alleys to sleep and eat, as all of the money he had was in Bessie’s pocket and is now at the bottom of an airshaft. He finds a newspaper and realizes that his time is probably running out — the press reports that Bigger probably sexually assaulted Mary before killing her, and the authorities have a warrant to search any and every building on the South Side, including private homes. Not believing that a black man could have formulated such a complex plan, they are also searching for a communist (read: white) accomplice. White anger is turning on blacks and there are reports of smashed windows and beatings throughout the city.
It begins to snow in the city and Bigger is forced inside. In one of the vacated apartments, Bigger thinks about life in the city and what it has become for blacks. From a window, Bigger marvels at the dilapidated buildings where black tenants live. He thinks back on his own life as he sees three naked black children watching their parents have sex in a bed nearby. He remembers how his family was once driven out of an apartment just two days before the building collapsed. Next door, Bigger hears two people debating his situation. One man declares that he would turn Bigger in to the police and he blames people like Bigger for bringing white wrath down on the whole black community, while the other argues that Bigger may not be guilty, since whites automatically view all black men with suspicion when a white girl is killed. Bigger decides that when he is captured, he will not say that the crime was an accident.
The police arrive to search the building where Bigger is hiding. Bigger escapes to the roof just as they burst into the building. A dramatic shoot-out ensues and the authorities finally capture Bigger, who is half-frozen from the cold and snow. The men carry Bigger down as a crowd of furious whites demands that they kill “that black ape.”
In jail, Bigger lives in a world with no day, no night, and no fear or hatred, as such emotions are useless to him now. He feels gripped by a deep resolution to react to nothing, and he says and eats nothing. He longs for death, but as a black man he does not want to die “unequal, and despised.” Bigger wonders if perhaps the whites are right that being black is the same as being an animal of some sort. Nonetheless, the hope that another way of life exists, one in which he would be able to forget his racial differences, keeps coming back to him.
The authorities drag Bigger to an inquest at the morgue. He senses from the white people around him that they plan not only to put him to death, but also to make him a symbol to terrorize and control the black community. A feeling of rebellion rises in him and he begins to come out of his stupor. In the morgue, Bigger sees Jan and the Daltons. As he gradually begins to snap out of his psychological stupor, he faints, overcome by hunger and exhaustion. When Bigger awakens in his cell, he believes he has “come out into the world again” in order to save his pride and keep the authorities from “making sport of him.”
Bigger asks to see a newspaper. The headline reads, “Negro Rapist Faints at Inquest.” The story compares Bigger to a “jungle beast” who lacks the harmless charm of the “grinning southern darky.” Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, advises total segregation and a curtailment of the education of the black population, which he claims will prevent men like Bigger from developing. Bigger contemplates returning to his protective stupor, but is not sure if he is still able to do so.
Jan comes to visit Bigger in jail. He says that he is not angry for Bigger trying to blame him and that he wants to help Bigger. Jan says he was foolish to assume that Bigger could have related to him in a different way than he relates to other white men. Jan says that he loved Mary, but he also realizes that black families loved all the black men who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. Jan introduces Bigger to Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Labor Defenders. Max wants to defend Bigger free of charge.
Buckley, the State’s Attorney, suddenly enters Bigger’s cell. Though Max argues that white power is responsible for Bigger’s actions, Bigger feels his burgeoning friendship with Max and Jan quickly evaporate when he sees the self-assured Buckley. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell and ask that Bigger cooperate with Buckley and reveal the name of his accomplice. In response, Max asks that they not sentence Bigger to death. Dalton says that despite the crime he is not angry with all black Americans. He announces that he has even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club earlier in the day. Doubtful, Max questions whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.
All the visitors leave the cell except Buckley, who warns Bigger not to gamble with his life by trusting Max and Jan. Buckley shows Bigger the mob gathered outside, which is screaming for his blood and urging him to sign a confession that also implicates Jan. Adding that the authorities know Bigger raped and killed Bessie too, Buckley pressures him to confess to other unsolved rapes and murders. Bigger realizes he could never explain why he killed Mary and Bessie because it would mean explaining his whole life. Bigger confesses to the murders but writes nothing to explain them. He signs his confession, feeling that there is no alternative. As soon as Bigger signs, Buckley starts to brag about how easy it was to extract a confession from a “scared colored boy from Mississippi.” After Buckley leaves, Bigger, feeling empty and beaten, falls to the floor and sobs.
At the inquest in the courtroom, Mr. Dalton takes the stand and Max is permitted to question him. As Max knows that Mr. Dalton owns a controlling share in the company that manages the building where Bigger’s family lives, he asks Dalton why black tenants pay higher rents than whites for the same kinds of apartments. Dalton replies that there is a housing shortage on the South Side. Max retorts that there are areas of the city without housing shortages, and Dalton replies that he thought black tenants preferred living together on the South Side. Max then succeeds in making Dalton admit that he refuses to rent to black tenants in other neighborhoods. He accuses Dalton of giving some of the real estate profits to black schools merely to alleviate his guilty conscience. Before dismissing Mr. Dalton, Max asks him if the living conditions of Bigger’s family might have contributed to the death of his daughter. Dalton cannot comprehend the question.
The coroner exhibits Bessie’s body to the jurors. Bigger knows that the authorities are using Bessie only to ensure that he will get the death penalty for killing Mary. Bigger becomes angry that they are using Bessie in death just as Bessie’s white employer used her while she was alive. He feels that the whites are using both him and Bessie as if they were mere property.
Bigger is indicted for rape and murder. Bigger asks to see a newspaper, which reports that he is certain to receive the death penalty. Max visits Bigger in his cell. Hopeless, Bigger tells Max that none of his efforts will be of use. Bigger feels destined to die to appease the public, and, therefore, has no possibly of winning the trial. Max tries to get Bigger to trust him. Despite his best efforts to avoid opening up and trusting anyone, Bigger does end up trusting Max, but still believes Max’s efforts will prove futile. Max then asks Bigger why he killed Mary. Excited at the prospect of finally feeling understood, Bigger tells Max that he did not rape Mary and hints that he killed her by accident. When Max presses him further about his feelings, Bigger states that Mary’s unorthodox behavior frightened and shamed him. When Max points out that Bigger could have avoided the murder by trying to explain himself to Mrs. Dalton, Bigger explains that he could not help himself and that it was as if someone else had stepped inside him and acted for him.
Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.
“Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . .”
He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him. “Go on, Bigger.”
“Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . .” he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.”
Bigger knows that he faces the death penalty, and therefore believes that it is too late to learn the meaning of his existence. He wishes he could retreat back into his mental stupor. He has a newfound feeling of hope for a new world and a new way of viewing himself in relation to other people, but this hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him. The voice of hatred he has read in the newspapers seems so much louder and stronger than the voice of understanding he has heard in Max and Jan. Bigger despairs that this hatred will endure long after he is dead.
In the courtroom, Max presents his case. He argues that Bigger is a “test symbol” who embodies and exposes the ills of American society. Max explains that his intent is not to argue whether an injustice has been committed, but to make the court understand Bigger and the conditions that have created him. Max points out that the authorities have deliberately inflamed public opinion against Bigger, using his case as an excuse to terrorize the black community, labor groups, and the Communist Party into submission.
Max goes on to say that the rage directed at Bigger stems from a mix of guilt and fear. Those who clamor for Bigger’s swift execution secretly know that their own privileges have been gained through historical wrongs committed against people like Bigger, and that their wealth has been accumulated through the oppression of others. Bigger’s options have been so limited, and his life so controlled, that he has been unable to do anything but hate those who have profited from his misery. Stunted and deformed by this oppression, Bigger was unable to view Mary and Jan as human beings. Max argues that the Daltons, despite their philanthropy, are blind to the world that has created Bigger and have themselves created the conditions that led to their daughter’s murder.
Max warns that killing Bigger quickly will not restrain others like him. Rather, these other blacks will only become angrier that the powerful, rich, white majority limits their opportunities. Popular culture dangles happiness and wealth before the oppressed, but such goals are always kept out of reach in reality. Max argues that this smoldering anger born out of restricted opportunities—though now tempered by the effects of religion, alcohol, and sex—will eventually burst forth and destroy all law and order in American society. By limiting the education of blacks, segregating them, and oppressing them, white society itself is implicated in Mary’s murder. Max claims that white society “planned the murder of Mary Dalton” but now denies it. He says that his job is to show how foolish it is to try to seek revenge on Bigger.
Max argues that Bigger murdered Mary accidentally, without a plan, but that he accepted his crime, which gave him the opportunities of choice and action, and the sense that his actions finally meant something. Bigger’s killing was thus not an act against an individual, but a defense against the world in which Bigger has lived. Mary died because she did not understand that she alone could not undo hundreds of years of oppression. Max points to the gallery, where blacks and whites are seated in separate sections. Blacks, he says, live in a separate “captive” nation within America, unable to determine the course of their own lives. He argues that such a lack of self-realization is just as smothering and stunting as physical starvation. Bigger sought a new life, Max says, and found it accidentally when he murdered Mary. Max argues that Bigger had no motive for the crimes and that the murders were “as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes.” The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living.
Max says that there are millions more like Bigger and that, if change does not come, these conditions could lead to another civil war. He says he knows the court does not have the power to rectify hundreds of years of wrongs in one day, but that it can at least show that it recognizes that there is a problem. Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there. Finally, Max argues that the court cannot kill Bigger because it has never actually recognized that he exists. He urges the court to give Bigger life. Bigger does not entirely understand Max’s speech, but is proud that Max has worked so hard to save him.
After Max’s arguments, Buckley declares that Bigger does in fact have a motive for Mary’s murder. Buckley claims that since Bigger and Jack masturbated while watching a newsreel about Mary the same day she was killed, Bigger must have been sexually interested in her. Buckley tells the courtroom that Bigger was a “maddened ape” who raped Mary, killed her, and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley concludes his argument by saying that Bigger was sullen and resentful from the start, not even grateful when he was referred to Mr. Dalton for a job. Buckley calls Bigger a “demented savage” who deserves to die, and whose execution will prove that “jungle law” does not prevail in Chicago. The court adjourns. After a brief deliberation, the judge returns and sentences Bigger to death.
Max visits Bigger again and tries to comfort Bigger, but Bigger wants understanding, not pity. He continues, saying that sometimes he wishes Max had not asked the questions, because they have made him think and this thinking has scared him. The questions have made Bigger consider himself and other people in a new way, and have caused him to realize that his motivation for hurting people was simply that they were always crowding him. He did not mean to hurt others, but it just happened. When Bigger committed the murders, he was not trying to kill anyone, but rather to make his life mean something that he could claim for himself. Bigger asks Max if this sense of meaning is the same reason that the authorities want to kill him. Max urges his client to die free, believing in himself. He tells Bigger that only his own mind stands in the way of believing in himself. The rich majority dehumanizes people like Bigger for the same reason Bigger could not see the majority as human—they each just want to justify their own lives.
Bigger tells Max he does believe in himself. He did not want to kill, but there was something in him that has made him kill and that something must be good. He tells Max that he feels all right when he looks at it this way. Max is horrified at Bigger’s words, but Bigger assures him that he is all right.
Richard Wright has been criticized for using the character of Max to promote his Communist ideology — while Wright has said that Max is promoting a world in which there is no black or white, there is no evidence in the book that the future will lead us to that world. If anything, the world is almost even more fractured after the trial. Wright was a member of the Communist party when he writing the book, which is why the heroes of his book were Communists, as well.
I first read this book in college and it scared the crap out of me. The thing that is the most unsettling is the anger. Bigger Thomas is one of the most angry characters in literature. Reading it in the 21st century was disturbing, and I don’t live with that sort of racial tension. I can only imagine what reading it in the 1940s was like. I know that there still is racism in America, but I have never experienced that intense hate and violence. Native Son is a very important book, if only for the sole purpose of scaring the crap out of white people and making people realize how the other side lives.