Bigger Thomas lives in a one-room apartment with his brother, sister, and mother. Always penniless, haunted by a pathological hatred of white people, driven by an indescribable urge to make others cringe before him, Bigger has retreated into an imaginary world of fantasy.
Through the aid of a relief agency, he obtains employment as a chauffeur for a wealthy family. His first assignment is to drive Mary Dalton, his employer’s daughter, to the university. Mary, however, is on her way to meet Jan Erlone, her sweetheart. The three of them, Mary and Jan—white people who are crusading with the Communist Party to help African Americans—and Bigger—a reluctant ally—spend the evening driving and drinking. Bigger brings Mary home, but Mary is too drunk to take herself to bed. With a confused medley of hatred, fear, disgust, and revenge playing within his mind, Bigger helps her to her bedroom. When Mary’s blind mother enters the room, Bigger covers the girl’s face with a pillow to keep her from making any sound that might arouse Mrs. Dalton’s suspicions. The reek of whiskey convinces Mrs. Dalton that Mary is drunk, and she leaves the room. Then Bigger discovers that he had smothered Mary to death. To delay discovery of his crime, he takes the body to the basement and stuffs it into the furnace.
Bigger then begins a weird kind of rationalization. The next morning, in his mother’s home, he begins thinking that he is separated from his family because he had killed a white girl. His plan is to involve Jan in connection with Mary’s death.
When Bigger returns to the Dalton home, the family is worrying over Mary’s absence. Bigger feels secure from incrimination because he had covered his activities by lying. He decides to send ransom notes to her parents, allowing them to think Mary had been kidnapped. There are too many facts to remember, however, and too many lies to tell. Britten, the detective whom Mr. Dalton had hired, tries to intimidate Bigger, but his methods only make Bigger more determined to frame Jan, who, in his desire to protect Mary, lies just enough to help Bigger’s cause. When Britten brings Bigger face to face with Jan for questioning, Bigger’s fear mounts. He goes to Bessie, his mistress, who gets from him a confession of murder. Bigger forces her to go with him to hide in an empty building in the slum section of the city. There he instructs her to pick up the ransom money he hopes to receive from Mr. Dalton.
Bigger is eating in the Dalton kitchen when the ransom note arrives. Jan had already been arrested. Bigger clings tenaciously to his lies. It is a cold day. Attempting to build up the fire, Bigger accidentally draws attention to the furnace. When reporters discover Mary’s bones,...
(The entire section is 1128 words.)
Native Son triggered Wright’s emergence into the foreground of American literature; the book became a best seller and was selected as the first Book of the Month Club offering by an African American. It immediately initiated controversy: Many within the black bourgeoisie condemned its depiction of a violent, white-hating black youth as the embodiment of white racist fantasies about the Negro “threat.” Wright’s fellow Communists disliked its racial preoccupations and reactionary emphasis upon the misdirected rebellion of a lone individual.
The novel also garnered high praise, however, often from those same audiences: The NAACP awarded Wright the Spingarn Medal, and critic Irving Howe suggested that Wright had transcended strictly aesthetic evaluations, saying, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” Wright’s avowed intention was to force readers to confront the full “moral horror” of American racism.
In the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that Native Son’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the composite of innumerable young black men Wright had encountered throughout his life; their outrage at being denied the American Dream explodes into unfocused violence that is as much a consequence of modern America’s urban industrial rootlessness as it is their racial grievances. Wright’s perspective rests on the Marxist tenet that the race question is intimately linked to the class exploitation at the heart of capitalism. Chicago’s notorious 1938 Nixon case, in which a black teenager was tried for the robbery and murder of a white mother of two and which influenced Wright in some of his fictional choices, provided topical validity for a story whose larger truths Wright had been pondering for years.
The novel rests upon elaborate philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings. Wright composed Native Son in three “acts,” titled “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate,” each of which blends naturalism, symbolism, and ideology. “Fear” deals with Bigger’s circumstances as the eldest son in a fatherless household dependent on government assistance. It also depicts the emotional volatility with which he responds to the grinding poverty of his family members’ lives, his mother’s expectations of rescue through accommodation to the system, and the repeated evidence of the futility of his ambitions in a racist culture. Among Wright’s influences was Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), with which Native Son shares a bleak naturalism: The biological and environmental factors propelling Bigger’s actions as a human“organism” subject him to the machinery of impersonal cosmic and societal forces poised to crush those who misstep.
Bigger’s automatic impulse is a chilling propensity for violence. The opening scene functions both as naturalistic parable and symbolic forecast. While trying to rescue his terrified family from...
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Native Son narrates the life and impending death of Bigger Thomas. The novel opens with the jarring sound of an alarm clock. The family’s morning ritual is interrupted by a rat, which Bigger hysterically kills. This act marks the first instance of the fear and rage that pervade the novel.
The planned robbery of Blum’s store also elicits fear and rage. Blum is white, and Bigger and his gang are used to preying on other African Americans. He fights with Gus, a member of his gang, and calls the robbery off.
Bigger gets a job as the Daltons’ chauffeur. His first assignment is to take Mary Dalton to the university. She, however, wants to meet her boyfriend, Jan. All three end up at Ernie’s Kitchen Shack on the South Side of Chicago, and they get drunk. Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her room. As he places her in bed, the ghostlike Mrs. Dalton enters. Panicstricken, Bigger suffocates Mary with her pillow. He decapitates her so that her body will fit into the blazing furnace and returns home to sleep.
As the investigation into Mary’s disappearance begins, Bigger implicates both Bessie and Jan. Mary’s bones are eventually found in the furnace, and Bigger must murder Bessie, to whom he has confessed, for his own protection. He kills her with a brick while she is asleep after he has raped her. Bigger flees through abandoned buildings on the South Side of Chicago. He is finally captured atop a water tank...
(The entire section is 570 words.)