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.