Where It All Goes Down
Maybe you've seen the 2002 jazz-fest filmic spectacular called Chicago. Hey! That's also set in the 1930's, in Chicago... and it involves prison. So Native Son must be a glitzy, glamorous musical wonderland as well, right?
Um. No. Not even close.
Bigger’s family lives in a beat-up, rat-infested one-room apartment in the segregated community of Chicago’s South Side. We recognize instantly that they are living in a hovel unfit for humans, but that they have no other choice.
The dingy apartment is set in stark contrast to the Dalton’s luxurious home. Once Bigger arrives at the Daltons’ house, we realize just how small his world is; Bigger wasn’t kidding when he indicated that the South Side feels like a prison. The Dalton home makes Bigger uncomfortable. He doesn’t know how to behave, wondering if he should touch anything or not.
The difference between their riches and his own family’s poverty makes him feel ashamed. Essentially these two settings represent different worlds—one that white people live in and one that black people live in. The drastically different settings are just another tool that author Richard Wright uses to illustrate the unfair social circumstances that drive Bigger toward crime.
Later, the setting moves to the jail. The jail, however, isn’t so different than his life on the outside. Just like living in the South Side, Bigger’s life and options are extremely limited and he feels trapped. Bigger is visited by the Daltons, his family, friends, lawyer, and prosecutor all at the same time. We can only imagine that during that scene, his tiny cell was packed completely full with no room to move around in.
Though there are scenes in the courtroom, we are mostly treated to the typical question-and-answer format of trial cases, and then the long speeches by the defense and the prosecution. So we don’t see much of the courtroom, but we do know that it is filled to the brim with white people who want to see Bigger dead. Throughout the novel, the setting demonstrates that Bigger’s environment is hostile. He has no refuge from constant poverty or from racism.
Timing Is Everything
The temporal setting is also important. It’s the 1930s and racism is ever-present... and not well disguised. During the setting of the book, racial segregation is still legal. Bigger is held back from numerous opportunities because of his race: the army is segregated so black people can only mop floors; Bigger isn’t allowed to become a pilot; the South Side of Chicago is where all the black people in the city have to live.
Remember that Richard Wright wrote this book before the Civil Rights Movement. By setting Native Son in his own day and age, Wright attempted to portray what the oppressive social circumstances of his day were doing to peoples’ lives.