Study Guide

Native Son Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Richard Wright

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Rat

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.

The Pigeon Flying Away

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.

Mary’s Severed Head

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.

Bigger’s Dream

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 Blindness

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.

The Wooden Cross

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.

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