Study Guide

Native Son

by Richard Wright

Native Son Summary

Overview Summary

Summary of the Novel
Native Son takes place in Chicago. All the action is confined to a few weeks in the winter of an unspecified year in the late 1930s. Twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas is living in a tenement room in the South Side ghetto with his mother and younger sister and brother.

Book One: Fear
As the novel begins, Bigger’s mother urges him to accept a job that is being offered by Henry Dalton, a wealthy white man who owns much of the property in the ghetto. She tells Bigger that if he refuses, the family will be denied relief (welfare), and be unable to pay rent or buy food. Bigger agrees to see Mr. Dalton, but first visits his friends at a poolroom, where they plan out their latest and most daring robbery. Although the plan to rob a white-owned delicatessen is Bigger’s own, he becomes frightened and ruins the plan.

Bigger goes to see Mr. Dalton at his mansion, and accepts the job of chauffeur. He is to be paid $25 per week, which is a good salary for those times. He is also given a room to live in. Nevertheless, he is extremely nervous, because he will now have to live his life amongst white people, whom he knows from experience are racists. He has even brought his gun to the interview. Bigger’s nervousness turns to near panic when Mary Dalton, Mr. Dalton’s beautiful, 23-year-old daughter, appears. Mary has begun to question her father’s wealth, and she is sympathetic to communism. She tries to speak to Bigger as an equal, rather than as a servant, but Bigger is worried that such talk might cause him to lose his job.

Bigger’s first task on his new job turns into an unparalleled nightmare. He drives Mary to see Jan Erlone, her communist boyfriend. The three then drive to the South Side, and eat in one of Bigger’s favorite restaurants. Jan and Mary ask Bigger to eat with them, and Bigger does so reluctantly. Jan buys a bottle of rum, and when the three leave the restaurant, they all drink from it. Bigger drops Jan off near his home, and then drives Mary home. Mary is quite intoxicated at this point, and Bigger helps her to her room, ever fearful that he might be caught with a drunken white girl in his arms. Suddenly, Mary’s blind mother appears at the door of the bedroom, just as Bigger is putting Mary to bed. Wild with fear, Bigger puts a pillow over Mary’s head to stifle her moans, so that Mrs. Dalton will come no closer and discover him. When Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger takes the pillow away, and Mary is dead. Bigger brings her body to the basement, and shoves her into the furnace. He has to hack off her head to make the body fit.

Book Two: Flight
In this section of the novel, Bigger first tries to deceive the Daltons about their missing daughter by implicating Jan in her disappearance. He enlists his girlfriend Bessie in a plan to extort ransom money from the family, and sends a note to Mr. Dalton asking for $10,000, which he signs “Red,” to make everyone think the communists have Mary. Newspaper reporters are allowed into the Dalton’s basement, and one of them discovers unburned pieces of human bone, and Mary’s earring. Bigger witnesses the discovery and flees. He goes to Bessie’s house to call off the ransom plan, and the two hide out in an abandoned building. There Bigger rapes Bessie, and then murders her, so that she cannot be interrogated by the authorities. Five thousand police officers conduct a brutal house-to-house search of the ghetto, and Bigger is soon caught.

Book Three: Fate
As the Chicago newspapers fill their pages with horrifying racist imagery, much of the city’s white population is whipped into a frenzy of hate, and the call for Bigger’s death grows louder and louder. Jan, who has forgiven Bigger for murdering his girlfriend and then trying to implicate him in the crime, helps Bigger get a lawyer. He is Boris Max, a Jewish Communist. In the course of preparing Bigger’s case, lawyer and client actually become close, and their relationship enables Bigger to begin to understand his own actions. At the end of Bigger’s trial, Max makes an electrifying appeal for his life—much of which was cut out of the first edition of the novel. The appeal fails, and Bigger is condemned to die. In their last meeting, Bigger tells Max that his crimes must have had a good purpose, or else he would not have risked his life committing them. Max is clearly shaken by Bigger’s reasoning, and the two men part, still in separate worlds.

The Life and Work of Richard Wright
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on September 4, 1908, in Roxie, Mississippi. He was a grandson of slaves. His father was an illiterate sharecropper, and his mother was a schoolteacher. When he was five, Wright’s family moved to Tennessee, but his father soon deserted them, and from the age of ten, Wright had to interrupt his schooling to earn money. The family was not only faced with extreme poverty, but also with terrifying racial violence. When Richard was living with his aunt and uncle in Arkansas, his uncle was murdered by a white mob. Despite all the hardships he faced as a child, however, Richard managed to excel in school. By the time he completed the ninth grade, books were his constant companions.

Although Wright would leave the South forever when he was only nineteen, it is not surprising that his early life there made the deepest impressions on his personality, and supplied him with much of the subject matter for his later writings. What is remarkable, however, is that Wright accomplished his own transformation into a literary person there, while yet a teenager, and against almost impossible odds. He was poor, black and only semi-educated, and, most forbiddingly, he was subject to constant and often potentially deadly racist harassment. Readers can learn about the depth of his transformation, and the obstacles he faced while achieving it, from Wright’s own compelling testimony in Black Boy, his autobiography. Wright described one defining moment of his self-education in especially vivid terms. When he was eighteen and working for an eyeglass company in Memphis, Tennessee, he read a story in a newspaper which attacked the writer H.L. Mencken. He became curious about why a white-owned newspaper would attack a prominent white writer, and decided that he must read Mencken’s own writings. He had no money to buy books, and as an African American, he was forbidden to borrow books from the library. Wright took a risk and asked a fellow white employee—an Irish Catholic who was therefore also subject to the prejudices of other whites—if he could use his library card, and pretend he was borrowing books for him. The man agreed, and Richard Wright at last had his encounter with H.L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces:

That night in my rented room…I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words…Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.

Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room. Who were these men about whom Mencken was talking so passionately? Who was Anatole France? Joseph Conrad? Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoevski, George Moore, Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Frank Harris, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, Zola, Norris, Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Dumas, Poe, Thomas Mann, O. Henry, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Gogol, T. S. Eliot, Gide, Baudelaire, Edgar Lee Masters, Stendahl, Turgenev, Huneker, Nietzsche, and scores of others? Were these men real? Did they exist or had they existed? And how did one pronounce their names? (Black Boy, p. 293)

Before too long, and with the help of his borrowed library card, Richard Wright filled in as many of the blank spaces in his learning as he could, absorbing book after book, like a starving man put before a Thanksgiving table.

In 1927, when he was nineteen, he and his aunt joined the great African-American migration to the North, settling in Chicago’s vast South Side ghetto. Initially, Wright was in awe of his new surroundings, but he was already watchful, and concerned about the plight of African Americans, and poor people generally. Although he found racism everywhere in segregated Chicago, it was neither as profound nor as potentially deadly as it was in the South. Blacks and whites mingled in railway stations, streetcars, and downtown restaurants. The poor neighborhoods, black and white, seethed with subversive political activism, something Wright had never seen in the South. At first he was attracted to the black nationalist movement led by Marcus Garvey, but he eventually rejected Garvey’s political philosophy as too narrow. Instead, Wright began his long involvement with communism, both because he felt the communists were more active than the nationalists in the day-to-day struggles of African Americans, and because the stated aim of communism was to break down the walls between black and white workers and build a new society free of all forms of oppression. In 1932, while working in the Chicago post office, some of his white co-workers invited Wright to a meeting of the John Reed Club. John Reed was an American writer who participated in the 1917 socialist revolution in Russia, and the American Communist Party set up literary clubs in his name across the country. Wright sooned joined both the John Reed Club and the Communist Party, and he began to contribute political poems and essays to such left-wing periodicals as Anvil, Left Front, and The New Masses. He also honed his skills by participating in the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Project Administration (WPA), a depression-era government program designed to provide work for the nation’s millions of unemployed.

Wright thus simultaneously launched a literary and a political life in Chicago at the dawn of the 1930s—the decade of the Great Depression. By 1937, he was encouraged enough by his own writing talent to risk relocation to New York, the nation’s literary capital. There he soon became the Harlem correspondent for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, and he also resumed publishing a series of five powerful stories about the South, which he had mainly written in Chicago. One of these stories, “Fire and Cloud,” won an important prize as the best fiction written by a WPA writer. The prestigious award brought Wright to the attention of the New York literary establishment. In 1938—less than one year after he had left Chicago—Harper & Brothers published his entire series of stories in a book entitled Uncle Tom’s Children. Its artistic genius and its penetrating awareness of the painful truths of racism and poverty in America were undeniable. The book achieved immediate and nearly universal acclaim, and Wright soon received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a cash prize to help finance the writing of his next work.

In fact, by the time he had been awarded the fellowship, Wright had nearly completed that book, an ambitious novel that combined elements of subtle psychological analysis with powerful Marxian social criticism. Wright published this work in 1940; it is called Native Son. It is Wright’s greatest book, and also one of the most important American novels of the Twentieth Century. As Wright himself explains in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”—a brilliant essay that is now published with the novel—he wanted Native Son to shock his white liberal admirers. He set his stark tale in the frozen Chicago ghetto, and is thereby able to reveal just how deeply divided all of America was, not only in the backward, faraway South—the setting of the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children—but in the great modern cities of the North as well.

Wright’s uncompromising book made him a famous writer, and readers were hungry to hear his own story. He responded with another masterwork, Black Boy, the first part of his autobiography, in which he included a powerful essay about segregation, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” (The second part of the autobiography, titled American Hunger, was not fully published until after Wright’s death.) Black Boy appeared in 1945, and was even more successful than Native Son. Richard Wright was now looked upon as a spokesman for an entire generation of African Americans.

With his words and with his actions, Richard Wright continued to struggle throughout his life against injustice. However, he left the Communist Party during the Second World War. He was repelled not by the idea of socialism, but by the narrow dogmatism of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, and his adherents who controlled the Party in America. Within a few years of Wright’s break from the Communist Party, the Cold War against the Soviet Union began. The domestic implications of this cold war affected Wright directly, because Congress began investigating American Communists in a campaign of intimidation that would come to be known as “McCarthyism,” after Senator Joseph McCarthy, one of the most ruthless anti-communists. Wright himself had for a long time been under F.B.I. surveillance, and even though he was no longer a Communist, he was still regarded by the government as a potentially dangerous subversive. He knew that he would soon be called to testify before the “House Un-American Activities Committee,” a Congressional body, where he would be asked to denounce his former Communist friends. He also knew that if he refused, he could be jailed.

The very real threat of government repression, combined with his increasing weariness of racism in American society, led Richard Wright to seek exile in France. In 1947, he moved to Paris, and he would spend almost all of the rest of his life in Europe. He associated there with French philosophers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and tried for a time to build with them a new revolutionary movement. He was also interested in their existentialist philosophy, and he explored themes of freedom and alienation in The Outsider, a novel published in 1953.

Toward the end of his life, Wright became involved, along with his friends George Padmore and Frantz Fanon, in the struggles of African countries to be rid of colonial rule. These men injected new life into Pan-Africanism, a movement which sought a revolutionary third path for African peoples, independent of capitalism and communism.

Richard Wright died suddenly in Paris on November 28, 1960, at the age of fifty-two. He left behind an enduring literary legacy which yet challenges readers to delve deeply into questions of racism, poverty, and human freedom. His ashes now rest in Père Lachaise cemetery, in Paris, far from his race-divided native shore. Yet that place is appropriate. Near his remains lie the graves of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, France’s greatest authors. Richard Wright may have been of a different age than those nineteenth century giants, but he was of the same race, the human race, and his vision of humanity was equally as vast.

Estimated Reading Time

The average silent reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute. Since each page of the 1993 HarperPerennial edition has up to 350 words, an average student might take two minutes to read one page. At that rate, the total reading time for the 500-page novel is between 16 and 17 hours. There are no chapters, but the author has broken his novel into three “books”: “Fear” (108 pages), “Flight” (206 pages), and “Fate” (188 pages). Try reading the first book in two or three sittings, and the second and third in four or five sittings each.

Native Son Synopsis

Native Son was the first novel by an American writer to deeply explore the black struggle for identity and the anger blacks have felt...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Native Son Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bigger Thomas lives in a one-room apartment with his brother, sister, and mother. Always penniless, haunted by a pathological hatred of white people, driven by an indescribable urge to make others cringe before him, Bigger has retreated into an imaginary world of fantasy.

Through the aid of a relief agency, he obtains employment as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. His first assignment is to drive Mary Dalton, his employer’s daughter, to the university. Mary, however, is on her way to meet Jan Erlone, her sweetheart. The three of them, Mary and Jan—white people who are crusading with the Communist Party to help African Americans—and Bigger—a reluctant ally—spend the evening driving and drinking. Bigger brings Mary home, but Mary is too drunk to take herself to bed. With a confused medley of hatred, fear, disgust, and revenge playing within his mind, Bigger helps her to her bedroom. When Mary’s blind mother enters the room, Bigger covers the girl’s face with a pillow to keep her from making any sound that might arouse Mrs. Dalton’s suspicions. The reek of whiskey convinces Mrs. Dalton that Mary is drunk, and she leaves the room. Then Bigger discovers that he had smothered Mary to death. To delay discovery of his crime, he takes the body to the basement and stuffs it into the furnace.

Bigger then begins a weird kind of rationalization. The next morning, in his mother’s home, he begins thinking that he is separated from his family because he had killed a white girl. His plan is to involve Jan in connection with Mary’s death.

When Bigger returns to the Dalton home, the family is worrying over Mary’s absence. Bigger feels secure from incrimination because he had covered his activities by lying. He decides to send ransom notes to her parents, allowing them to think Mary had been kidnapped. There are too many facts to remember, however, and too many lies to tell. Britten, the detective whom Mr. Dalton had hired, tries to intimidate Bigger, but his methods only make Bigger more determined to frame Jan, who, in his desire to protect Mary, lies just enough to help Bigger’s cause. When Britten brings Bigger face to face with Jan for questioning, Bigger’s fear mounts. He goes to Bessie, his mistress, who gets from him a confession of murder. Bigger forces her to go with him to hide in an empty building in the slum section of the city. There he instructs her to pick up the ransom money he hopes to receive from Mr. Dalton.

Bigger is eating in the Dalton kitchen when the ransom note arrives. Jan had already been arrested. Bigger clings tenaciously to his lies. It is a cold day. Attempting to build up the fire, Bigger accidentally draws attention to the furnace. When reporters discover Mary’s bones, Bigger flees. Hiding with Bessie in the deserted building, he realizes that he cannot take her with him. Afraid to leave her behind to be found and questioned by the police, he kills her and throws her body down an air shaft.

When Bigger ventures from his hideout to steal a newspaper, he learns that the city is being combed to find him. He flees from one empty building to another, constantly buying or stealing newspapers to judge his chances for escape. Finally, he is trapped on the roof of a penthouse by a searching police officer. Bigger knocks him out. The police finally capture Bigger after a chase across the rooftops.

In jail, Bigger refuses to eat or speak. His mind turns inward, hating the world, but he is satisfied with himself for what he had done. Three days later, Jan Erlone comes to see Bigger and promises to help him. Jan introduces Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Communist front organization for which Jan works. Buckley, the prosecuting attorney, tries to persuade Bigger not to become involved with the Communists. Bigger says nothing even after the lawyer tells him that Bessie’s body had been found. When Buckley begins listing the crimes of rape, murder, and burglary charged against him, Bigger protests, vigorously denying rape and Jan’s part in Mary’s death. Under a steady fire of questions from Buckley, Bigger breaks down and signs a confession.

The opening session of the grand jury begins. First, Mrs. Dalton appears as a witness to identify one of her daughter’s earrings, which had been found in the furnace. Next, Jan testifies, and, under the slanderous anti-Communist questioning, Max rises in protest against the racial bigotry of the coroner. Max questions Mr. Dalton about his ownership of the high-rent, rat-infested tenements where Bigger’s family lives. Generally, the grand jury session becomes a trial of the race relations that had led to Bigger’s crime rather than a trial of the crime itself. As a climax to the session, the coroner brings Bessie’s body into the courtroom to produce evidence that Bigger had raped and murdered his sweetheart. Bigger is returned to jail after Max promises to visit him. Under the quiet questioning of Max, Bigger at last talks about his crime, his feelings, his reasons. He had been thwarted by white people all of his life, he says, until he killed Mary Dalton; that act had released him.

At the opening session of the trial, Buckley presents witnesses who attest Bigger’s sanity and his ruthless character. The murder is dramatized even to the courtroom reconstruction of the furnace in which Mary’s body had been burned. Max refuses to call any of his own witnesses or to cross-examine, promising to act in Bigger’s behalf as sole witness for the defense. The next day, in a long speech, Max outlines an entire social structure, its effect on an individual such as Bigger, and Bigger’s inner compulsions when he killed Mary Dalton. Pleading for mitigation on the grounds that Bigger is not totally responsible for his crime, he argues that society, too, is to blame.

After another race-prejudiced attack by Buckley, the court adjourns for one hour. It reopens to sentence Bigger to death. Max’s attempts to delay death by appealing to the governor are unsuccessful.

In the last hours before death, Bigger realizes his one hope is to communicate his feelings to Max, to try to have Max explain to him the meaning of his life and his death. Max helps him see that the people who persecute African Americans, poor people or others, are themselves filled with fear. Bigger forgives them because they are suffering the same urge that he suffers. He forgives his enemies because they do not know the guilt of their own social crimes.

Native Son Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Native Son triggered Wright’s emergence into the foreground of American literature; the book became a best seller and was selected as the first Book of the Month Club offering by an African American. It immediately initiated controversy: Many within the black bourgeoisie condemned its depiction of a violent, white-hating black youth as the embodiment of white racist fantasies about the Negro “threat.” Wright’s fellow Communists disliked its racial preoccupations and reactionary emphasis upon the misdirected rebellion of a lone individual.

The novel also garnered high praise, however, often from those same audiences: The NAACP awarded Wright the Spingarn Medal, and critic Irving Howe suggested that Wright had transcended strictly aesthetic evaluations, saying, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” Wright’s avowed intention was to force readers to confront the full “moral horror” of American racism.

In the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that Native Son’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the composite of innumerable young black men Wright had encountered throughout his life; their outrage at being denied the American Dream explodes into unfocused violence that is as much a consequence of modern America’s urban industrial rootlessness as it is their racial grievances. Wright’s perspective rests on the Marxist tenet that the race question is intimately linked to the class exploitation at the heart of capitalism. Chicago’s notorious 1938 Nixon case, in which a black teenager was tried for the robbery and murder of a white mother of two and which influenced Wright in some of his fictional choices, provided topical validity for a story whose larger truths Wright had been pondering for years.

The novel rests upon elaborate philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings. Wright composed Native Son in three “acts,” titled “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate,” each of which blends naturalism, symbolism, and ideology. “Fear” deals with Bigger’s circumstances as the eldest son in a fatherless household dependent on government assistance. It also depicts the emotional volatility with which he responds to the grinding poverty of his family members’ lives, his mother’s expectations of rescue through accommodation to the system, and the repeated evidence of the futility of his ambitions in a racist culture. Among Wright’s influences was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), with which Native Son shares a bleak naturalism: The biological and environmental factors propelling Bigger’s actions as a human“organism” subject him to the machinery of impersonal cosmic and societal forces poised to crush those who misstep.

Bigger’s automatic impulse is a chilling propensity for violence. The opening scene functions both as naturalistic parable and symbolic forecast. While trying to rescue his terrified family from a rat, his fear energizes him to an instinctual assault on the animal, which responds with equal fierceness until it is killed with a frying pan. The boy gloats over his kill, enjoying an efficacy denied him in daily life: To kill, he intuits, is paradoxically to live.

To placate his desperate mother, Bigger grudgingly takes a chauffeur’s job with the wealthy Dalton family and is immediately thrown into a setting that arouses his deepest fears by putting him into constant, unpredictable contact with white people. When he is befriended by the Daltons’ daughter Mary, whose political sensibility reflects that of her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone, Bigger is both attracted and repelled. He hates the danger in which she so unthinkingly puts him, for he knows the cultural taboos their contact violates, yet he is imaginatively and erotically fascinated by her for the same reason.

He has no illusions concerning Mary and Jan’s idealistic but implausible claims of solidarity with his race; they know nothing of his life and only compound his anxiety by their naïve efforts at egalitarianism. They tragically place Bigger in the most compromising position possible to a black man: He finds himself alone with a drunken white woman, responding tentatively to her vague sexual invitation. When he hears someone outside her bedroom door, his terror prompts him to suffocate her, after which he disposes of her body by decapitating and burning her in the basement furnace; such lurid details transform the realistic facade of the narrative into something surreal.

In “Flight,” Bigger’s efforts to deflect his guilt serve only to ensure his entrapment. He concocts a scheme to disguise the crime as a kidnapping and ransom committed by Communists, but the black idiom of the ransom note betrays the killer’s race. Media attention leads to his exposure when a reporter camped out at the house discovers Mary’s bones as he stokes the furnace. Bigger’s decision to seek the help of his girlfriend Bessie backfires when she reveals her inability to handle such pressure, and Bigger decides—this time quite cold-bloodedly—to kill her as well.

With this second act, which Wright included despite friends’ urgings to omit it, Bigger moves beyond the naturalism defining the first section of the novel and into the existential realm of moral experimentation reminiscent of another of Wright’s literary influences, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886).

Ironically, while Bigger is far more responsible for Bessie’s murder than for Mary’s arguably accidental death, it is of virtually no importance to the white society which will eventually put him on trial. It becomes a footnote in his prosecution, the real target of which is his presumed violation of white womanhood. Bigger’s killing of Bessie contributes to the chain of events springing his trap: It not only costs him the ransom money but also moves him steadily toward capture as the police dragnet confines him to the ghetto and finally isolates him on a rooftop water tower, in a scene recalling the rat episode.

“Fate” deals with Bigger’s trial and his yearning to know what his life has meant before he dies. Wright uses verbatim Chicago newspaper accounts of the Nixon trial to demonstrate the inflammatory racist lens through which a crime such as Bigger’s is projected before the public. This effort at verisimilitude gives way to competing ideological analyses of Bigger’s situation, the tensions between them indicative of the struggle within Wright between Communist Party doctrine and existentialist individualism.

The speech of Bigger’s eloquent lawyer, Max, argues that the jury recognize the moral culpability of a society that produces boys filled with such hate and violence. Max also follows Marxist doctrine in pointing out the inevitable collision between classes in an exploitive capitalist system that pits haves against have-nots. Max’s defense, while unheeded by the jury which sentences Bigger to death, has a profoundly liberating effect on Bigger, who is stunned into recognizing that his humanity is confirmed, not denied, by his acts, which alone can define him: He declares, “What I killed for, I am!”

Bigger refuses to subordinate his identity to ideological symbolism and instead embraces his outlaw behavior as evidence of his vitality, not victimization. One might also argue that he is severing meaningful connection to collective societal values when he celebrates his act of murder as life-affirming. As the jail door swings shut on the doomed youth, Wright transforms Bigger from racial icon to representative existential man, responsible for determining the meaning of his own life in a cosmic void where death is the only absolute.

Native Son Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Native Son narrates the life and impending death of Bigger Thomas. The novel opens with the jarring sound of an alarm clock. The family’s morning ritual is interrupted by a rat, which Bigger hysterically kills. This act marks the first instance of the fear and rage that pervade the novel.

The planned robbery of Blum’s store also elicits fear and rage. Blum is white, and Bigger and his gang are used to preying on other African Americans. He fights with Gus, a member of his gang, and calls the robbery off.

Bigger gets a job as the Daltons’ chauffeur. His first assignment is to take Mary Dalton to the university. She, however, wants to meet her boyfriend, Jan. All three end up at Ernie’s Kitchen Shack on the South Side of Chicago, and they get drunk. Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her room. As he places her in bed, the ghostlike Mrs. Dalton enters. Panicstricken, Bigger suffocates Mary with her pillow. He decapitates her so that her body will fit into the blazing furnace and returns home to sleep.

As the investigation into Mary’s disappearance begins, Bigger implicates both Bessie and Jan. Mary’s bones are eventually found in the furnace, and Bigger must murder Bessie, to whom he has confessed, for his own protection. He kills her with a brick while she is asleep after he has raped her. Bigger flees through abandoned buildings on the South Side of Chicago. He is finally captured atop a water tank and imprisoned.

The third part of the novel—the inquest and trial—is set in the Cook County Jail and its environs. Bigger faints at the inquest and is taken back to his cell, where he reads newspaper reports of himself as the quintessential “nigger.” While in his cell, he is also visited by all those who have influenced his life, including the Reverend Hammond, his mother’s minister, who gives Bigger a wooden cross. Back at the inquest, Bigger is represented by Max, his communist lawyer.

Mary’s bones and Bigger’s signed confession are on display at the inquest. The deputy coroner elicits testimony from Mrs. Dalton and Jan; Max, for his part, questions Mr. Dalton. He points out that Mr. Dalton, as landlord of the rat-infested, one-room tenement in which Bigger and his family live, must bear a great deal of the responsibility for his daughter’s death. As testimony continues, Bessie’s mutilated corpse is brought in. The jury at the inquest decides that Bigger suffocated and strangled Mary while raping her. He must now be returned to jail to await trial.

Instead of being taken directly to Cook County Jail, Bigger is brought to Mary’s room at the Daltons’. He is then told to show how he raped and murdered Mary. He insists that he did not rape her and refuses to do anything. As he is being returned to jail, he sees the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan. On his return, he throws away the wooden cross given him by the Reverend Hammond and is visited by Max. Bigger tells him about his meaningless existence.

Bigger’s trial begins. Max focuses on the causes of Bigger’s behavior in his defense. Despite Max’s eloquence, Bigger is convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. An appeal to the governor fails.

Native Son Chapter Summary and Analysis

Book 1: Fear Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Bigger Thomas: the protagonist; a poor, 20-year-old African American

Mrs. Thomas: Bigger’s mother

Buddy Thomas: Bigger’s younger brother

Vera Thomas: Bigger’s younger sister

Gus, G.H., and Jack Harding: Bigger’s poolroom friends

Doc: owner of the poolroom

Bessie Mears: Bigger’s girlfriend

Henry G. Dalton: white Chicago millionaire and Bigger’s employer

Mrs. Dalton: Henry Dalton’s blind wife

Mary Dalton: Henry Dalton’s 23-year-old daughter

Peggy O’Flagherty: the Daltons’ Irish cook and housekeeper

Mrs. Patterson: Mrs. Dalton’s maid

Jan...

(The entire section is 3159 words.)

Book 2: Flight Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mr. Britten: a private investigator hired by Mr. Dalton to find Mary

Britten’s assistants: three otherwise unidentified white men

Various newspapermen: present in the Dalton home, reporting on Mary’s disappearance

Mayor Ditz: mayor of Chicago

Glenman: chief of police

Horace Minton: superintendent of schools

White vigilantes: deputized by Glenman to hunt for Bigger

Summary
Early the next morning, Bigger awakes in his house, horrified at what he has done. Fear and the desire to flee are always with him now, but he nevertheless continues to act according to his original plan. He disposes of Mary’s purse...

(The entire section is 2609 words.)

Book 3: Fate Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Boris A. Max: lawyer from Labor Defenders, a Communist Party group, who takes Bigger’s case

Reverend Hammond: pastor of Mrs. Thomas’ church

Deputy Coroner: state investigator who conducts the preliminary inquest of Bigger’s case

Chief Justice Alvin C. Hanley: the judge who decides Bigger’s case

Mrs. Rawlson: Mrs. Dalton’s mother

Stenographer: otherwise unidentified white man who takes down Bigger’s jailhouse confession

H. M. O’Dorsey: the governor of Illinois

Calvin H. Robinson: police psychiatrist

Summary
All of the action in the novel to this point has taken place during less than...

(The entire section is 4359 words.)

How "Bigger" Was Born Summary and Analysis

Native Son was published by Harper & Brothers on March 1, 1940. On March 12 of the same year, Richard Wright delivered the lecture, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” at Columbia University in New York City. He eventually gave this lecture four more times, twice in Harlem, and in Chicago and North Carolina. Harper’s soon published the lecture as a pamphlet, and it was included in subsequent editions of the novel. It is also included in the restored text of Native Son, published by The Library of America in 1991, and HarperPerennial in 1993.

Unlike some artists, who feel strongly that once they have created a work of art, their job is done, Wright was eager to discuss and explain the significance of his...

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