Native Son Summary

Native Son is a novel by Richard Wright in which Bigger Thomas becomes entangled in a series of criminal activities after accidentally killing his boss's daughter. Here are some key plot summary points"

  • Bigger Thomas's family is poor, and he begins working for the Daltons to make money.

  • Bigger accidentally kills Mary Dalton. To hide the evidence, he burns her body in the furnace. When police discover evidence of Mary's murder, Bigger flees.

  • Bigger and his girlfriend attempt to extort money from the Daltons. When this fails, Bigger kills his girlfriend since she could implicate him in Mary's death. He's eventually arrested and sentenced to death for his crimes.

Plot Summary

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Last Updated June 27, 2023.

The setting of Native Son is in Chicago, and the story unfolds over a period of a few weeks during the winter season, although the specific year is not mentioned, it is assumed to be in the late 1930s. Bigger Thomas, a young adult of twenty, resides with his mother, younger brother, and sister in a tenement room located in the South Side ghetto.

Book One: FearAt the start of the novel, Bigger's mother encourages him to take a job offer from Henry Dalton, a rich white man who owns a lot of property in the ghetto. She explains that if he declines, the family won't receive welfare and won't be able to pay for rent or food. Bigger consents to meet with Mr. Dalton, but before doing so, he goes to a poolroom to meet his friends, and they scheme to carry out their most daring robbery yet. Even though Bigger came up with the plan to rob a deli owned by a white person, he becomes scared and ruins the plan.

Bigger visits Mr. Dalton's mansion and agrees to work as a chauffeur for a salary of $25 per week, which was a decent wage during that era. He is provided with a room to reside in, but he feels extremely anxious about living with white people whom he believes are prejudiced based on his past experiences. Bigger is so apprehensive that he brings along his firearm to the interview. His nervousness heightens when he meets Mary Dalton, a 23-year-old attractive daughter of Mr. Dalton, who questions her father's wealth and supports communism. Mary treats Bigger as an equal rather than a servant, which worries Bigger that such conversations may jeopardize his job.

Bigger's initial assignment at his new job turns into an unprecedented nightmare. He drives Mary to visit her communist boyfriend, Jan Erlone. Afterward, the trio goes to a restaurant on the South Side, which happens to be one of Bigger's favorite spots. Jan and Mary invite Bigger to dine with them, but he reluctantly agrees. Jan purchases a bottle of rum, and they all indulge in it before leaving the restaurant. Bigger drops off Jan near his house and then drives Mary home. By this point, Mary is quite intoxicated, and Bigger assists her to her bedroom, all the while anxious about being caught with a drunken white girl in his arms. As Bigger is putting Mary to bed, her blind mother unexpectedly enters the room, and he becomes overwhelmed with fear. To prevent Mrs. Dalton from discovering him, he places a pillow over Mary's head to silence her moans. Once Mrs. Dalton departs, Bigger removes the pillow, only to discover that Mary has died. Bigger takes her body to the basement and pushes it into the furnace, but he needs to sever her head to make it fit.

Book Two: FlightIn this part of the book, Bigger attempts to mislead the Daltons regarding their daughter's whereabouts by accusing Jan of being involved in her disappearance. Bigger collaborates with his girlfriend, Bessie, to devise a scheme to obtain ransom money from the family. He sends a message to Mr. Dalton, signed as "Red," demanding $10,000 and makes it seem as though the communists are responsible for Mary's disappearance. Meanwhile, journalists are given access to the Daltons' basement, where one of them uncovers Mary's earring and unburned fragments of human bones.

Bigger observes the revelation and escapes, after which he heads to Bessie's residence to cancel the scheme to demand a ransom. The two of them take refuge in an empty structure where Bigger...

(This entire section contains 799 words.)

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sexually assaults Bessie and subsequently kills her to prevent her from being questioned by law enforcement. A massive manhunt is launched, with about five thousand police officers searching the neighborhood, resulting in Bigger's eventual arrest.

Book Three: FateAs the Chicago press inundates their publications with disturbingly racist visuals, many white residents of the city become increasingly consumed by hateful fervor and demand that Bigger be put to death. Despite having previously forgiven Bigger for killing his girlfriend and attempting to frame him for the crime, Jan assists Bigger in finding legal representation with Boris Max, a Jewish Communist. Through the process of working on Bigger's case together, the lawyer and his client form a close bond, leading Bigger to gain insight into his own behavior.

At the conclusion of Bigger's trial, Max delivers a powerful plea for Bigger's life, but much of it was excluded from the initial version of the novel. Unfortunately, the appeal is unsuccessful, and Bigger is sentenced to death. During their final encounter, Bigger informs Max that his unlawful deeds must have served a noble cause, or he wouldn't have taken such risks. Max is visibly affected by Bigger's rationale, and they part ways, still living in different worlds.

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