Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is set in Chicago in the late 1930s and reflects many different traits of the city during that historical era. Such traits include the following:
- Chicago had a large and growing black population, made up mainly of African Americans who were leaving the south to come north and find better jobs and more opportunities for social and cultural freedom.
- Bigger Thomas and his family live in a racial ghetto on the south side of Chicago. Such ghettos, which were characteristic of many large northern (and southern) cities, were often poverty-stricken areas and areas of high crime. Because of various legal and informal kinds of racial prejudice, blacks often found it very difficult to leave these areas.
- Because unemployment was typically so high in such areas, and because standards of education were typically so poor, young African Americans often found themselves with few genuine opportunities to improve their lives. Participation in gangs and involvement in crime were often common.
- Bigger is able to find a job through a Chicago relief agency. Such agencies were common at the time, partly because the U. S. as a whole was still dealing with the economic devastation wrought by the great depression. Chicago was badly affected by the depression, as were most other large cities.
- Bigger is employed by Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, wealthy white people who support the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but who also profit financially from the high rents their real estate company charges to black people living in the ghetto.
- Bigger and his friends enjoy going to movies. Motion pictures were a much more prominent form of entertainment in the 1930s than they are today. Even small towns had their own movie theaters, and theaters were scattered in neighborhoods throughout large cities. New movies were constantly opening, and films would often run for just a few days before even newer movies replaced them. For people living in ghettos, going to movies was often one of the few means of access to, and knowledge about, the outside world. Thus it is not surprising that Bigger, before he starts his job, wonders,
Was what he had heard about rich white people really true? Was he going to work for people like you saw in the movies [?]
- Bigger meets a local communist named Jan Erlone. Communism, as an open political force, was much more prominent in the big cities of America in the 1930s than it is today.
- The Daltons live in a very nice house in a very wealthy section of the city – a fact that once again symbolizes the socioeconomic divisions that existed in Chicago (and other big cities) at the time.
- Bigger and his trial are prominently featured in the local newspapers. Newspapers at the time were perhaps the most important form of news media. Television did not yet really exist (except in experimental versions), and radio was mainly a source of entertainment. Thus, Wright’s novel reflects the important roles that newspapers (which were often designed to appeal to emotions rather than intellect) played in big cities of the era, including Chicago.
- Bigger is convicted and is condemned to die by execution. Capital punishment was much more common in the 1930s than it is today, or at least it was much more likely to be carried out quickly. The novel reflects this system of big city justice.