Like most great books, Native Son can’t be shelved in just one section of your local bookstore. It combines elements of multiple genres, and that’s because it’s such a unique and visionary work.
On the one hand, the story of Bigger and the murders follows under the category of crime-related drama. In fact, this book almost reads like something straight out of the true crime genre. You know, those non-fiction books that give you all the gory details about an infamous crime? (Of these, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood might be the best, and most famous.) Bigger’s crimes—regardless of whether you feel Bigger is personally responsible, or if you can see how his circumstances led him to act as he did—are the focus of the novel’s plot. We see the build-up, commission, and resolution to his criminal acts.
But that question—how much personal responsibility Bigger bears, versus the role that his social surroundings might have played—is one that speaks to the presence of what some call naturalism, others call social realism. In either case, a naturalist work is one that is concerned with the impact of society on its characters. In the case of this novel, we’re invited to see how social trends like poverty and prejudice might have a tremendous impact on a person’s thoughts and actions. Sure, crime is a result of Bigger’s personal action, but can that really be separated from the bigger social forces that weight so heavily on him? That, oh Shmoopers, is a question for you to ponder.