On the one hand, Bigger is a thoroughly unlikeable character. Even though we recognize that it is not his fault that he’s poor, and we recognize that circumstances have created his tendency towards crime, he’s a manipulative bully. He’s mean to his little sister, mean to his friends, and mean to his girlfriend.
Ultimately, however, though we don’t like Bigger, the tone of the novel is sympathetic to the position he’s in. This is achieved in large part by a narrator who explains how shame and fear dominate Bigger’s life, causing him to act the way he does:
"Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything... You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing [...] You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks [...] Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . ." he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. "They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." (3.1084-1087)
No matter how horribly Bigger acts (and he does act horribly), moments like these allow the reader to understand—and sympathize with—the vice-like mental strain that would cause someone to panic and lose hope.
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 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 and 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 weigh so heavily on him? That, oh Shmoopers, is a question for you to ponder.
The title is a slam on American society. Bigger Thomas, the novel’s main character, is a "native son" of America: he was born and raised as a black man in the U.S., so he’s a product of the country. Local cultural and social forces shaped and created him.
So if he’s a monster, the title suggests, it can be blamed on American society. And this is precisely what Max, Bigger’s lawyer, argues in Bigger’s defense after Bigger commits murder—twice.
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.
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.
Even today is my complaint rebellious, My stroke is heavier than my groaning —Job
The epigraph is a quotation from the Book of Job. Job was a good guy—faithful to God and wildly successful. He had a wife, wonderful children, massive wealth, and great health. However, Satan dares God to take all of Job’s blessings away and see if Job is still faithful after all the suffering. God agrees, and gives Satan freedom to do what he wants with Job... as long as he doesn’t kill him.
After Satan epically messes with Job’s life, Job sits there with boils on his face, stricken with poverty and hunger and pestilence and plague, his kids and servants dead. He questions why God allowed him to be treated like this. The only thing left to him is his wife, who grows bitter and encourages Job to rail against God. Yet even as he questions God, Job refuses to curse him. So in this particular game, God wins. Job struggles to maintain his spiritual faith in the face of tragedy and finally does it. He’s thus seen as one of the "righteous" men.
The quotation with which Wright chose to open Native Son comes from the period when Job is still frustrated about his sufferings. He’s still trying to figure out what’s happening to him. As Job begins to realize that his sufferings are due to forces he can’t control, he complains bitterly that he feels isolated, alone, and abandoned. Though Bigger isn’t "righteous" like Job, he is similarly a victim of larger forces that batter him about mercilessly—forces of racism, injustice, and poverty.
His bitterness and rebellion are natural responses to an unjust system. In the quote Wright used, Job hasn’t yet submitted to God; he's still questioning the justice of his situation and the goodness of a God who would use him to wager a bet. Bigger likewise questions the justice of his situation. Instead of submitting to a social system of racism, he rails against it in the only way he knows how. His murder, ironically, awakens him to the forces of racism that caused him to murder in the first place—and waking up to the truth makes him want to live.
Though Native Son is peppered heavily with dialogue, it is also interspersed with long passages that illuminate Bigger’s motivation:
There was silence. The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life. Bigger knew that they were thinking of his life and the life of his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out—with himself and then in it. His heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath. This thing was getting the better of him; he felt that he should not give way to his feelings like this. But he could not help it. Why didn’t they leave him alone? What had he done to them? What good could they get out of sitting here making him feel so miserable? (1.1066)
Even though the point of view of the book is Bigger’s, we are treated to explanations of his behavior that he himself doesn’t vocalize... and emotions that are so immense and incomprehensible that they're referred to as "the thing(s)."
In the opening scene of the novel, Bigger must confront a rat in his family’s one-room apartment. He overcomes the rat by throwing a shoe at it and killing it. Some critics argued that the rat is a symbol of Bigger himself – that Bigger invades civilization like the rat invades his family’s home and is killed. This scene also potentially foreshadows Bigger’s confrontation with virulent forces of racism in American society; though he doesn’t kill those forces in American society itself, he does manage to kill them in himself and, we hope, in the novel’s reader. In another perspective, the rat is a product of his environment and is powerless when faced with an opponent that has more weapons at his disposal. The rat is not inherently bad, but a rat stuck in a city has few options. Likewise, Bigger is a product of his environment and, when confronted by white society, he is destroyed.
In Book One: Fear (1.291), Bigger and Gus "play white," demonstrating how powerful they think whites are and how trapped they feel in their own lives. When they finish, the young men watch as a pigeon lands on the cable car tracks and struts around, then flies away as a street car approaches. That’s when Bigger admits he wishes he could be just like that pigeon, free to fly away. The pigeon represents freedom, the ability to go where he wants when he wants, instead of being stuck where he is.
After Bigger kills Mary, the image of her severed head with blood soaking her hair keeps returning to haunt him. As he opens the furnace to see if her body has burned, it appears to him as if the coals are shaped like her body. The recurring image of Mary’s body and of her severed head reminds him of his guilt, but they also remind him of the fear and shame that led him to kill her accidentally in the first place.
After being questioned by Britten, Bigger has a dream where he’s running away after being warned by a tolling church bell. He’s carrying a heavy package. This whole scene is bathed in a red glare, the glow from the furnace’s light. When he stops to unwrap the package, he finds his own severed head inside and his hair thick with blood. He starts to run to find a place to hide. Instead, he runs into some white people who want to ask him about the head. He’s standing there with blood on his hands. Finally, he gives up. He curses them and throws the head right into their faces. The dream symbolizes Bigger’s guilt, as well as the growing sense that he’s going to face another confrontation with white folks. Most importantly, it symbolizes his impending doom. We already know that Bigger can’t outsmart the people around him forever; the question is only when and how he’ll be caught. The dream foreshadows his demise but it also answers the question how he’ll be caught: ultimately, Bigger will hand over his own head to those seeking answers, whether through stupidity or through a subconscious need to confront his oppressor.
Snow starts falling after Bigger kills Mary and burns her body in the furnace. It continues to fall until he’s captured. This could been seen as a symbol of white society enveloping and overwhelming the world.
Mrs. Dalton’s literal blindness serves as a metaphor for white folks’ social and cultural blindness. Just as she couldn’t see that Bigger was in the room with her daughter, or that Mary was actually dead, the white characters in the novel are blind to the social realities around them.
For the Reverend Hammond, the cross represents life. The wood is carved from a tree, which represents the world; and on the cross is a suffering man. Reverend Hammond believes that life is suffering. The cross is also a Christian symbol of grace and forgiveness, representing Christ’s sacrifice for all of mankind’s sin. However, the symbol is turned upside down when Bigger is brought out from the Dalton’s house to confront a mob that wants nothing more than to lynch him. Somebody in the mob is burning a cross. The Ku Klux Klan cross is a symbol of racism, hate, and vengeance to Bigger. While the KKK cross incites Bigger to rebellion and the desire to kill, the preacher’s cross makes him submissive and weak. This could suggest that the power of redemption as exemplified in the symbol of the Christian cross can transform souls, whereas the bigotry and hatred as exemplified in the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan cross creates anger.
The narrator tends to follow Bigger’s thoughts and actions, only revealing what’s going on in Bigger’s head. The narrator, however, seems to know more about Bigger than the character does himself. The narrator indicates that Bigger is afraid, even when Bigger doesn’t realize it himself... or at least won’t admit it.
As a result, we (the readers) gain insight into Bigger's inner thoughts, even all of the fear and shame that he tries to hide from the people around him. In this way, we learn who Bigger is and what drives him to become a criminal. We can judge Bigger better than the judge or jury can because we are able to see into Bigger’s mind and heart.
Bigger’s life is one where his every dream is immediately trampled down by oppression and harsh circumstances. As a black man in 1930's America, in Chicago’s South Side, he has limited opportunities and no ability to live anywhere else. But at the opening of the book, he has the possibility of a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man.
Bigger’s job pays more than he could have imagined—enough for himself and for his family—and involves very little work. Plus, he has the opportunity to improve himself if he wants to go to night school.
But best of all, he has his own room and his own bed, all comforts which he has never previously enjoyed. He dreams of bringing his girlfriend, Bessie, back to his room for some privacy, which he’s never been able to do before.
First night on the job, Bigger is shamed by Mary Dalton’s clumsy attempts to treat him as an equal. Trying to avoid problems with his employer, he accidentally kills her.
Since nobody knows what has happened to Mary (he burns her body in the downstairs furnace), and since nobody seems to suspect him, he decides to use her sudden "disappearance" as an opportunity to get money from his employer in the form of a ransom. He enlists his girlfriend Bessie in the plan, who agrees very reluctantly to be a part of it.
Bigger’s plans go awry when Mary’s body is discovered by some journalists. He flees the scene and his guilt is established. He seeks solace from Bessie, but realizes that she’s a huge liability because she’s so frightened.
Bigger convinces the girl to run away with him, then he rapes and murders her to keep her from talking to the police. Afterwards, he seeks hiding places throughout the city until his pursuers discover him on a rooftop and capture him.
Bigger’s trial is set up swiftly and the prosecution uses the mob mentality to convict Bigger of the intentional murder of a white woman. However, his kind lawyer helps Bigger to realize that not all white men hate him or want him dead. Bigger’s lawyer makes an impassioned plea that his sentence should be mitigated due to the circumstances in which he was raised, appealing to the judge’s sense of justice.
But, Max, Bigger’s lawyer, is ultimately unable to convince the judge that Bigger should be sentenced to life in prison instead of the death penalty. The last scene of the book shows Bigger alone in his prison cell, awaiting the moment when they come to take him to the electric chair.
The novel starts with a scene in the Thomas family’s one-room apartment, as Bigger and his brother Buddy chase and kill a rat. Over breakfast, Bigger’s mother keeps asking Bigger if he’s going to take the job he’s been offered because, if he doesn’t, the relief organization will stop giving them food.
Bigger meets up with his friends and makes plans to rob Blum’s store. At the movies, however, he sees a show about some of the wealthy families in Chicago, including the Daltons, who are offering him the job. It makes Bigger long for a different life. Instead of robbing Blum’s store, Bigger initiates a fight with his friend Gus.
Bigger goes to the Daltons’ house and gets the job, but while he’s talking with Mr. Dalton, Mary comes inside and asks Bigger if he belongs to a union. Then she tells him he should belong to a union. He makes her uncomfortable and he’s worried that he’ll lose his job.
Mr. Dalton doesn’t take away the offer of a job. Instead, he tells Bigger his first responsibility is to drive Mary to the university that evening. Bigger understands that Mary Dalton is crazy and he needs to be careful around her. That evening, instead of the university, Mary directs him to drive her to meet up with Jan Erlone, her boyfriend and a Communist activist.
Jan and Mary want to experience the South Side of Chicago where all the black people live. They pressure Bigger into coming to a local restaurant with them, and manage to make him feel ashamed and alienated. They also all get drunk.
After Bigger drops Jan off, he takes Mary home, but she’s too drunk to make it up to her bedroom without help. As he takes Mary upstairs, Bigger gets turned on because of the intimacy of the moment and the way she’s acting. But, the blind Mrs. Dalton appears, wondering if Mary’s arrived home. Bigger, afraid he’s going to be caught in a white woman’s bedroom, smothers Mary’s little noises with a pillow so the mother won’t know he’s in the room.
After Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger discovers that he accidentally suffocated Mary to death. He doesn’t know what to do. It was an accident, of course, but he’s worried that the justice system won’t believe him since he’s black. Bigger stuffs Mary’s body into her luggage trunk, and takes the body downstairs. There, Bigger manages to get her body into the furnace after hacking off her head. Bigger hopes that the body will burn by morning.
Bigger decides to pretend like everything’s normal. He visits his girlfriend Bessie, where he hatches a plan to write a ransom note and try to getting a lot of money from the Daltons. The ransom never pans out because some journalists at the Daltons’ house discover Mary’s body in the furnace.
Bigger takes off running and heads to Bessie’s apartment. Bessie is scared to flee with him, scared to stay with him, and scared to be caught by the police. Bigger realizes he can’t leave her behind to tell the cops everything, but he knows she doesn’t have the fortitude to run with him. He rapes Bessie, kills her, and stuffs her body in an airshaft.
Afterwards, he takes off, looking for a place to hide from his pursuers. He ends up hiding on the roof of a house, and then leaping from roof to roof to escape the men seeking him. In the end, though, he’s caught and taken to jail
Jan befriends Bigger, despite what Bigger has done, and provides him with a lawyer, Boris Max. Max argues that Bigger is the product of society’s racism and oppression. Though he's guilty, he had few other options and was pushed to his life of crime by forces outside of his control. So, he should be sentenced to life in prison instead of getting the death penalty.
The judge of Bigger’s case orders that Bigger should be put to death for his crime. During this time, Bigger begins to trust Max. This is the first white person he’s ever trusted in his life.
Max visits Bigger in prison the day he’s scheduled to die. Bigger says that he wishes he had a chance to live, now that he’s seen what life has to offer. But, he’s ready to die.
Before Max leaves, Bigger tells him to say goodbye to "Jan." This is the first time he’s called Jan by his first name, indicating that for the first time, he’s embraced Jan’s friendship and recognizes that the two of them are equals. Then Max leaves and Bigger is left alone, waiting to die.
Bigger chickens out of committing robbery, finds a job, is embarrassed by his employer’s daughter (Mary) and her boyfriend’s attempts to treat him as an equal, and accidentally kills Mary. He stuffs her body in the furnace to hide the evidence of his actions.
Bigger makes plans to get ransom money from the Daltons, who are worried about their missing daughter. Mary’s body is discovered and Bigger flees, knowing the gig is up and his guilt will soon be known. He kills his girlfriend Bessie to keep her from talking to the police, then tries to hide from the men searching the city for him. Eventually he’s caught and taken to prison.
Jan arranges for Bigger to have a lawyer, Boris Max, who makes the argument that Bigger’s actions were socially conditioned responses to a situation that he couldn’t control. He tries to reduce Bigger’s sentence to life in prison instead of the death penalty, but he fails. Bigger realizes what his life is worth just as his life is ending.
Charles D. Tillman: "Life’s Railway to Heaven" (1.133)
"Lord, I want to be a Christian" – an American folk hymn (1.522)
Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin: "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" (1.547)
Jack Johnson – the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World (1.924)
Joe Louis – a black man and one of the greatest boxers that ever lived (1.924)
Jack Dempsey – extremely popular white boxer (1.924)
Henry Armstrong – a black man and world boxing champion (1.924)
Ginger Rogers – actress and singer, well known for her dancing with Fred Astaire (1.924)
Jean Harlow – actress known as the "Blonde Bombshell" and the "Platinum Blonde" (1.924)
Janet Gaynor – the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928 (1.924)
Charles D. Tillman: "Understand it Bye and Bye" (1.1009-1012)
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" – a hymn (1.1214)
"Steal away to Jesus" – a hymn (2.2199)