Native Son Summary
by Richard Wright

Start Your Free Trial

Native Son Summary

Native Son is a novel by Richard Wright in which Bigger Thomas becomes entangled in a series of criminal activities after accidentally killing his boss's daughter.

  • Bigger Thomas's family is poor and he begins working for the Daltons to make money.

  • Bigger accidentally kills Mary Dalton. To hide the evidence, he burns her body in the furnace. When police discover evidence of Mary's murder, Bigger flees.

  • Bigger and his girlfriend attempt to extort money from the Daltons. When this fails, Bigger kills his girlfriend, since she could implicate him in Mary's death. He's eventually arrested and sentenced to death for his crimes.

Overview Summary

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.

Download Native Son Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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....

(The entire section is 3,169 words.)