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.
The novel takes place in the city of Chicago in the late 1930s, during the Great Depression. It is a time when many thousands of nearly destitute African-American families are migrating from the South, in search of employment in the cities of the North. Many find their way to Chicago, where they are crowded into the city’s South Side ghetto, strictly segregated from the white parts of town. The Depression is a stormy period in American history, as millions of African Americans and poor white workers struggle to survive. The American Communist Party is at the height of its power, and is attempting to break down racial barriers and win prosperity for blacks and whites through overthrow of the rule of the wealthy classes. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is also organizing at this time, but favors more moderate methods.
While Native Son deals centrally with American racism in general, one important aspect of racism that the author confronts directly is related to sex. For centuries, American racists have believed that white women are in danger of being raped by black men. Many black men have been lynched (murdered), after being falsely accused of rape by frenzied mobs of whites. In one famous case in the 1930s, nine innocent teenaged boys were convicted of raping a white girl in Alabama, and all were condemned to die. Known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” they were saved from execution after years of mass protest. However, only four were set free. The remaining five served prison terms of varying lengths. Richard Wright himself participated in the movement to free them, and the Communist Party handled their legal defense.
Native Son was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and sold over 200,000 copies in its first three weeks. Most critics recognized the importance of the work right away, although many readers were indeed shocked by the intense violence of the story. Ralph Ellison, who would later write the acclaimed novel Invisible Man, remarked, “In Wright’s Native Son we have the first philosophical novel by an American Negro. This work possesses an artistry, penetration of thought, and sheer emotional power that places it into the front rank of American fiction” (New Masses, August 5, 1941). In 1941 the NAACP awarded the author of Native Son its prestigious Spingarn Medal.
Master List of Characters
Bigger Thomas—The main character is a 20-year-old African American who lives with his family in a single tenement room on Chicago’s strictly segregated South Side.
Mrs. Thomas—Bigger’s mother, who brought her family north about eight years earlier, sometime after white men killed Bigger’s father in Mississippi.
Buddy Thomas—Bigger’s younger brother, and the youngest of the three Thomas children; he is
fiercely loyal to Bigger.
Vera Thomas—Bigger’s younger sister.
Gus, G.H., and Jack Harding—Bigger’s friends, who hang around a South Side poolroom.
Doc—Owner of the poolroom.
Bessie Mears—Bigger’s girlfriend; She is a servant and housekeeper for rich white families.
Reverend Hammond—The pastor of Mrs. Thomas’ church.
Henry G. Dalton—Chicago real estate millionaire who hires Bigger as his chauffeur; He has given five million dollars to African-American education, yet makes a fortune renting rat-infested rooms to black families at inflated prices.
Mrs. Dalton—Wife of Henry Dalton; 51-years-old, blind and frail; She holds what she believes are liberal views towards African Americans.
Mary Dalton—Twenty-three-years-old; She is Mr. and Mrs. Dalton’s only child. Despite her wealth and her disapproving parents, she sympathizes strongly with the Communist Party and its attitude toward African Americans.
Peggy O’Flagherty—The Daltons’ Irish cook and housekeeper.
Mr. Britten—A private investigator whom Mr. Dalton hires to investigate Mary Dalton’s disappearance.
Mrs. Patterson—Mrs. Dalton’s maid.
Mrs. Rawlson—Mrs. Dalton’s aged mother.
Jan Erlone—Mary Dalton’s boyfriend; a member of the Communist Party, and the executive secretary of Labor Defenders, the Communist Party’s legal arm.
Boris A. Max—The Jewish lawyer from Labor Defenders, a Communist group, who agrees to defend Bigger.
David A. Buckley—Illinois state’s attorney who is up for re-election, and who prosecutes Bigger.
Stenographer—Buckley uses him to record Bigger’s jailhouse confession.
Deputy Coroner—He conducts the preliminary inquest of Bigger’s case.
Chief Justice Alvin C. Hanley—The judge who decides Bigger’s case.
H. M. O’Dorsey—Governor of Illinois.
Mayor Ditz—Mayor of Chicago.
Glenman—Chief of police.
Horace Minton—Superintendent of the school system.
Calvin H. Robinson—The police psychiatrist.
Mr. Britten’s assistants—three otherwise unidentified assistants.
White vigilantes—Deputized by Chief Glenman to hunt for Bigger.
Many unnamed newspaper reporters—Cover the story of Bigger’s trial.
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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1128 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1221 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Fear Summary and Analysis
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
(The entire section is 3159 words.)
Book 2: Flight Summary and Analysis
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
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
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
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...
(The entire section is 4787 words.)