Native Son Characters
by Richard Wright

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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

(Great Characters in Literature)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,792 words.)