Native Son

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black man, lives in Chicago’s South Side ghetto with his long-suffering mother, his younger sister Vera, and his younger brother Buddy. Unemployed, Bigger hangs out with his pals; they occasionally commit petty crimes to get spending money and prove their manhood. Bigger expresses his pent-up feelings mainly through violence.

Bigger gets a chance for a better life when the Daltons, a family of rich white liberals, hire him as a chauffeur. Disaster strikes on his first night on the job. He carries the Daltons’ drunken daughter, Mary, to her bedroom, where, to prevent being caught, he accidentally smothers her with a pillow. He burns Mary’s body in the furnace, then conceives a kidnap scheme for which he recruits the help of his alcoholic girlfriend, Bessie. When Mary’s bones are discovered, Bigger kills Bessie to keep her quiet.

Bigger is soon apprehended and put on trial for his crimes. His white, communist lawyer, Boris Max, battles a racist prosecutor, Buckley. Connecting Mary’s death with Dalton ownership of the slums that bred Bigger, Max projects Bigger’s case as a paradigm of black revolution, with future armies of Biggers swarming out of the ghettos. Bigger, however, makes a pathetic revolutionary model, and Max himself is no more convincing than the other stereotyped whites. What does persuade is the novel’s depiction of black frustration: Wright’s portrayal of Bigger has a gripping intensity that recalls Dostoevski’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.


Emanuel, James. “Fever and Feeling: Notes on the Imagery in Native Son.” Negro Digest 18, no. 2 (December, 1968): 16-24. Identifies and examines clusters of images and symbols present in the novel. Concludes that Wright uses this sprawling network of images to deepen the reader’s understanding of Bigger and Bigger’s feelings about himself and his environment.

Felgar, Robert. “The Kingdom of the Beast: The Landscape of Native Son.” CLA Journal 17 (March, 1974): 333-337. Enlightening, important discussion of the novel’s depiction of society as a jungle. Convincingly contends that animal imagery pervades the novel and posits that the book’s many beast images objectify white society’s stereotypical conception of the African American world.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on “Native Son.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a thorough examination of the genesis and background of Native Son. Kinnamon analyzes Wright’s own essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” along with letters, notes, manuscripts, and galley and page proofs to show how external forces influenced the writing of the novel.

Magistrale, Tony. “From St. Petersburg to Chicago: Wright’s Crime and Punishment.” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 59-70. Argues that, in composing Native Son, Wright was greatly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel Crime and Punishment (1966). Pinpoints and analyzes in detail a number of significant similarities between the two novels. Convincing and informative in its treatment of the novel’s debt to the Dostoevski classic.

Nagel, James. “Images of Vision in Native Son.” University Review 35 (December, 1969): 109-115. Perceptive, highly instructive analysis of Wright’s use of sight and blindness in the novel. Argues that blindness is the novel’s controlling image and that it functions throughout the book as a metaphor for white America’s racial myopia. Remains, even after its initial publication in 1969, one of the most insightful articles ever written on the novel.

Siegel, Paul N. “The Conclusion of Richard Wright’s Native Son.” PMLA 89, no. 3 (May, 1974): 517-523. Detailed, illuminating interpretation of book 3 of the novel. Sets out to refute the frequently advanced criticism that book 3 is the novel’s weakest section. Maintains that the lengthy trial that concludes the novel, far from being repetitious and anticlimactic as many critics have claimed, is an integral part of the book’s artistry and message.

Skerrett, Joseph T., Jr. “Composing Bigger: Wright and the Making of Native Son.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Offers an illuminating analysis of the biographical aspects of Native Son. Skerrett argues convincingly that Richard Wright and Bigger Thomas share many attributes.

Williams, John A. The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970. Provides a solid biography for the general reader. Williams places Wright in his historical context both at home and abroad, giving a sense of the man and his times.

Wright, Richard. Early Novels: Lawd Today! Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son. Vol. 2 in Works. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991. Reinstates significant cuts that were made in Lawd Today! and Native Son. The volume, however, also deserves attention for its detailed chronology, which reads like an excellent biography.

Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” In Native Son, by Richard Wright. Reprint. New York: Perennial Library, 1987. Details the genesis of Native Son. The author describes five Bigger Thomases, dating back to his childhood. Wright is his own best critic.