The Characters

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Bigger Thomas is a paradox—a “bad nigger” sympathetically portrayed. Not only is his the only point of view in the novel, but he is also the axis around which the other characters revolve.

Bigger’s relationship with his family is fraught with tension. He regards them all as “blind” and willing to accept the dehumanizing lot white society proffers. His mother, sister, and brother all have ways of succumbing. Mrs. Thomas finds comfort in religion. Vera, Bigger’s sister, does what is expected. For her, sewing lessons at the “Y” provide a safe activity. Buddy, although he looks up to his older brother, is resolved to “stay in his place.”

Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, has her own way of succumbing to white society. She is an alcoholic who no longer finds even sex satisfying. Bigger gives her liquor in exchange for sex, and she allows him to steal from her employers. Eventually, Bigger must kill her because she knows too much. Bessie is a true victim.

Bigger and his gang—G. H., Jack, and Gus—are victims of their own fear, hate, and rage. They demonstrate these negative emotions toward both themselves and white society. They are too scared to carry out the planned robbery of Blum’s store. Each, however, recognizes that the others are afraid because Blum is white. To rob Blum is to violate the white establishment.

Because a black man killing a white woman is one of the culture’s major taboos, Bigger’s fate is sealed when he accidentally smothers Mary Dalton. However, since the ultimate taboo is sexual intercourse between a black man and white woman, the murder charge against Bigger is trumped up to rape—which justifies, then, the death penalty.

Mr. Dalton, Mary’s father, is a seeming contradiction. He gives generously to black charities while at the same time owning the rat-infested tenement in which Bigger and his family live. Similarly, he provides table tennis for African Americans but not decent housing.

Mrs. Dalton displays a kind of missionary zeal in her relationship with African Americans. Her physical and psychological blindness, however, belie her actions. On first meeting Bigger, she speaks about him in his presence as though he were a textbook case. She is intent on doing what is best for him, as she sees it.

Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s boyfriend, also wants to do what is best for Bigger. He tries to befriend him on their first meeting by shaking his hand and insisting that Bigger call him by his first name. The protagonist is understandably uncomfortable; he is not used to such behavior on the part of a white man. Later, when Bigger is in prison, Jan visits him and finds him a lawyer. It is perhaps to Jan’s credit that Bigger’s final request of his lawyer is that he “tell Jan hello.”

Boris Max, Bigger’s communist lawyer, is eloquent though ineffectual. As Max sees it, white society, not Bigger, is to be blamed for the protagonist’s actions. Contrived though such a defense may seem, Max succeeds in gaining Bigger’s trust.

All the characters, black and white, Bigger included, are, to a degree, stereotypes. Wright seems more interested in the message and less in the medium.

Characters Discussed

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Bigger Thomas

Bigger Thomas, a young African American, frustrated by poverty and race prejudice, who has a pathological hatred of white people. He is reluctantly drawn into alliance with his employer’s daughter Mary and her sweetheart, who are crusading with the communists to help blacks. After an evening of drinking, Bigger carries the drunken Mary...

(This entire section contains 415 words.)

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to her room. To prevent her from making a sound that will alarm her blind mother, he puts a pillow over her face and accidentally smothers her. This act releases all of his pent-up emotions. He burns the body in the furnace, tries to get ransom money from his employer, and tries to frame the dead girl’s sweetheart. He confesses to his mistress, and after the discovery of the remains, he hides out with her. He fears that she will be found and questioned, however, and so he kills her. The police catch him, and under steady questioning by the prosecuting attorney, he admits his crime. Despite an eloquent plea by his attorney outlining the social structure that made him what he is, Bigger is sentenced to die. While awaiting death, he gets, from talking to his attorney, an understanding that his persecutors are themselves filled with fear and are not responsible for their social crimes.

Mr. Dalton

Mr. Dalton, a wealthy white man for whom Bigger works as a chauffeur.

Mrs. Dalton

Mrs. Dalton, his blind wife.

Mary Dalton

Mary Dalton, their daughter, crusading with the communists against racial discrimination. Bigger accidentally smothers her.

Jan Erlone

Jan Erlone, Mary’s sweetheart and fellow crusader. Bigger succeeds so well in throwing suspicion on him for Mary’s disappearance that Jan is arrested. After Bigger is arrested, Jan comes to see him and promises help. Jan introduces to Bigger a lawyer from the communist-front organization for which Jan works.

Boris A. Max

Boris A. Max, Bigger’s lawyer, provided by a communist-front organization. He argues that society is to blame for Bigger’s crime, but he does not succeed in saving Bigger from death. He is able to show Bigger that his enemies are also driven by fear and must be forgiven.

Bessie Mears

Bessie Mears, Bigger’s mistress, to whom he confides his guilt and whom he kills.

Britten

Britten, a detective hired by Dalton to investigate Mary’s disappearance.

Buckley

Buckley, the prosecuting attorney, under whose questioning Bigger breaks down and signs a confession. He makes full use of anticommunist feeling and race prejudice in prosecuting Bigger.

More Characters

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Mary Dalton
An only child, Mary is a wealthy girl who has far leftist leanings. She is filmed frolicking with Jan, a known communist party organizer. Consequently, she is trying to abide, for a time, by her parents’ wishes and go to Detroit. She is to leave the morning after Bigger is hired as the family chauffeur. Under the ruse of a University meeting, she has Bigger take her to meet Jan. When they return to the house, she is too drunk to make it to her room unassisted, and Bigger thus helps her. Mrs. Dalton comes upon them in the room, and Bigger smothers Mary for fear that Mrs. Dalton will discover him. Mary, as a symbol of white America, is destroyed by Bigger, who symbolizes what America hates and fears.

Mr. Dalton
Father of Mary, Mr. Dalton owns a controlling amount of stock in a real estate firm. This firm manages the black ghetto in town. Blacks in the ghetto pay too much for rat-infested flats. As Max points out at the inquest, Mr. Dalton refuses to rent flats to black people outside of the designated ghetto area. He does this while donating money to the NAACP and buying ping-pong tables for the local black youth outreach program. Mr. Dalton’s philanthropy, however, only assuages his guilt but does not change his shady and oppressive business practices.

Mrs. Dalton
Mary Dalton’s mother is blind, and this condition accentuates the motif of racial blindness throughout the story. Both Bigger and Max comment on how people are blind to the reality of race in America. Mrs. Dalton betrays her metaphorical blindness when she meets Mrs. Thomas. Mrs. Dalton hides behind her philanthropy and claims there is nothing she can do for Bigger. She cannot prevent his death nor can she admit to her family’s direct involvement in the creation of the ghetto that created him.

Jan Erlone
A communist, Jan is the boyfriend of the very rich Mary Dalton. Bigger attempts to frame him for the murder of Mary. Jan sees the murder as an opportunity to examine the issue of racism. Jan had already been seeking a way to understand the ‘negroes’ so as to organize them along communist lines against bourgeois people like Mr. Dalton. He is able to put aside his personal trauma and persuade Max to help Bigger. He represents the idealistic young Marxist who hopes to save the world through revolution.

Gus
Gus is a member of Bigger’s gang, but he has an uneasy relationship with Bigger.

Jack Harding
Jack is Bigger’s friend. Bigger views him as a true friend.

Mr. Boris Max
A lawyer from the Communist Party, Mr. Max represents Bigger after the murders. As a Jewish American, he is in a better position to understand Bigger. It is through his speech during the trial that Wright reveals the greater moral and political implications of Bigger Thomas’s life. Even though Mr. Max is the only one who understands Bigger, Bigger still horrifies him by displaying just how damaged white society has made him. When Mr. Max finally leaves Bigger, he is aghast at the extent of the brutality of racism in America.

Bessie Mears
Bessie is Bigger’s girlfriend. He murders her because he fears she might speak against him. She is representative of all the women in the ghetto, like Bigger’s mother and sister. All these women have the same tired look about their eyes and the same dreary occupations of washing clothes or working in kitchens. Bessie is so tired and depressed by the drudgery of her life that she only wants to drink when not working. Bigger provides drink, and she has sex with him, yet there seems to be no love between them. Still, as oppressed as she is, she cannot acquiesce to the murder of Mary. Fearing her inability to sanction the crime, Bigger brings her out with him to hide. He rapes her, bashes her head, and tosses her body into an airshaft.

Peggy
Peggy is the Irish-American housekeeper for the Daltons and, like Max, can empathize with Bigger’s status as an “outsider.” However, she is more typical of poor whites who are sure to invest in racism if only to keep someone below themselves. Like everyone in the Dalton family, Peggy hides her dislike for blacks and treats Bigger nicely.

Bigger Thomas
The protagonist of the story, Bigger commits two ghastly murders and is put on trial for his life. He is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. His act gives the novel action, but the real plot involves Bigger’s reactions to his environment and his crime. Bigger struggles to discuss his feelings, but he cannot find the words or the time to fully express himself. The voice of the narrator relates that Bigger—typical of the “outsider” archetype— has finally discovered the only important and real thing: his life. His realization that he is alive—and able to choose to befriend Mr. Max—creates some hope that men like him might be reached earlier.

Even though Bigger seems to be developing as a person, Bigger is never anything but a failed human. He represents the black man who feels he has few options in life and, as a result, turns to crime. As he says to Gus, “They don’t let us do nothing … [and] I can’t get used to it.” He even admits to wanting to be an aviator and later, to Max, he admits to wanting to be a great number of things. He can do nothing but be one of many blacks in the ghetto and maybe get a job serving whites; crime seems preferable. Not surprisingly, then, he already has a criminal history, and he has even been to reform school. Ultimately, the greatest thing he can do is transgress the boundary the white world has set for him.

Buddy Thomas
Buddy, Bigger’s younger brother, idolizes Bigger as a male role model. He defends him to the rest of the family and consistently asks if he can help Bigger.

Mrs. Thomas
Mrs. Thomas is Bigger’s mother. She struggles to keep her family alive on the meager wages she earns by taking in other people’s laundry. She is a religious woman who believes she will be rewarded in an “afterlife,” but as a black woman accepts that nothing can be done to improve her people’s situation. Moreover, she knows that Bigger will end up hanging from the “gallows” for his crime, but this is just another fact of life.

Vera Thomas
Vera is Bigger’s sister, and in her, Bigger sees his mother. Bigger knows that Vera will inevitably have the same tired look in her eyes and bear the continual strain of a family. The other option for Vera is to become a drunkard like Bessie.

Characters and Thematic Development

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The central theme of Native Son is the central theme of much black American writing, the duality of black existence in the United States. Bigger expresses his sense of exclusion as he and his buddies stand idly on a street corner watching a plane fly overhead: "They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail." As in Uncle Tom's Children, the central movement of Native Son is toward the development of self-awareness. Bigger's development is warped by environmental pressures that make him feel that violence is his only way to escape the stifling limitations imposed on blacks.

Native Son is a psychological as well as a sociological novel, and the three sections of the novel—"Fear," "Flight," and "Fate"—outline Bigger's development. "Fear" documents Bigger's life of poverty and hopelessness with his mother and sister. His entire existence is based on fear, and his greatest fear is to let this fear show. "Flight" shows the expansion of Bigger's sense of self in proportion to the personal danger he faces. He enjoys the independence and power of confusing the white authorities and is exhilarated by his brutal murder of Bessie Mears because, unlike his accidental suffocation of Mary Dalton, it is a consciously willed action that earns him the freedom to "live out the consequences of his actions." In "Fate," the novel becomes more expository. In his lengthy summation, Bigger's lawyer Boris Max argues that all of society shares the guilt for Bigger's crimes, and Max's efforts awaken in Bigger a desire for human trust.

Native Son is not a simple rejection of white America, for the novel shows that behind Bigger's violence lies the hope of acceptance. The real tragedy of Native Son is that Bigger can find no way other than violence to express his potentially healthy desire "to merge himself with others and be part of this world, to lose himself so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black." In Bigger Thomas, Wright creates one of the most disagreeable characters in American literature, yet he manages to portray him sympathetically. Wright's task is complicated by Bigger's inarticulateness, a limitation that compels the author to communicate Digger's condition through authorial intrusions, symbolism, and an action-filled narrative.

Wright carefully shows how Bigger is shaped by the conditions of his existence. In fact, Bigger's situation is so hopeless that he must avoid recognizing it or be led by self-awareness to violent and probably self-destructive actions: "He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else." Bigger's whole existence is conditioned by fear, and Bigger hates what he fears, including, for a large part of the novel, selfknowledge. The sense of self that Bigger develops after he commits murder is, therefore, too psychologically valuable for him to accept the friendship offered by Boris Max in the final section of the novel.

Bigger, of course, is more than a sociological case study. He embodies the notion, put forth by nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, of the modern man so alienated from traditional mores that he must make his own rules of behavior. In this sense Bigger is a metaphysical revolutionary, intuitively rebelling against the very conditions of his life. He sees a world of suffering, and if he cannot make this world match his innate sense of right, he will imitate its injustice: "He attacked a shattered world in order to demand unity from it." In doing so. Bigger becomes a monster. But Bigger will embrace even this identity because he has lived too long in a world that denies him any sense of self.

Wright's efforts to portray sympathetic white characters fail. The idealistic Jan Erlone and Mary Dalton never escape the shallowness of Wright's treatment. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton exist more as symbols of misguided white liberalism than as individuals. Boris Max is so overburdened with the responsibility of functioning as Wright's spokesman that his own personality is lost.

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