Study Guide

Native Son Themes

  • Fate and Free Will

    Native Son suggests that we are only partially in control of or responsible for our own actions. In part, the environment in which we are raised creates certain knee-jerk reactions and also presents us with life options. Some people have more options (and better options) than others.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How much free will—or freedom of choice—do the characters in Native Son have? Does the amount of choice differ from character to character or does each find his actions determined by social conditions and culture?
    2. What role does society play in determining people’s choices or lack of them, according to Max? Do you agree with his assessment?
    3. Is Bigger fated to kill Mary, given the situation he found himself in? What other choices does Bigger have throughout the book as he faces each new problem?

    Chew on This

    Because of the environment that Bigger grew up in, he lacked free will and was fated to become a criminal.

  • Fear

    Fear is the dominant emotion that the novel’s protagonist Bigger feels. Fear results from the lack of power to control one’s own situation. The protagonist  of Native Son is especially fearful of white people and the power they wield over him—ordinary white people, wealthy white people, white people who control the legal and justice system.

    As the novel progresses, we realize that Bigger’s fear is symbolic of similar fear felt by much of black society. Fear also leads to terrible and unintended consequences; the protagonist’s fear leads him to hurt his friends and even murder two women.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Which characters feel fear and why do they feel it?
    2. What does fear motivate each character to do?
    3. To what extent is fear a factor in racial tensions? To what extent are other emotions a factor in racial tensions?

    Chew on This

    Fear is the motivating factor for Bigger Thomas’s crimes.

    Fear always leads to negative consequences in Native Son.

  • Race

    Everything Bigger does in Native Son has a relationship to the color of his skin. Why? Because whites control the labor, legal, religious, educational, and social institutions that dictate where and how the protagonist, a black man, can live, where he can work or go to school, and what he can or cannot do with his life. The protagonist feels like whites live in the pit of his stomach, because his stomach is where he feels fear, shame, hopelessness – and whites are the ones who control these emotions since they control his life.

    Questions About Race

    1. Native Son suggests several things that contribute to ongoing racial tension. What are those factors and how do they contribute?
    2. What do whites know and what do they not know about black culture and lifestyle in this novel?
    3. How do Bigger and Gus show their ignorance of white culture and lifestyle in the early part of the book? What assumptions do they have about whites and what does that reveal about their own lives?
    4. What surprises Bigger about the life and culture of whites when he actually starts his job at the Daltons?
    5. Which characters in this novel do you consider to be racist? Why?

    Chew on This

    Although black and white characters in this book live very different lives, deep down, all of the characters are alike in feelings and reactions.

  • Power

    The world in Native Son is divided between those who have power (white people) and those who do not (black people). Power is intimately connected to race. However, it is also connected to wealth, as we see clearly with the Capitalist vs. Communist fight played out in the courthouse and in society at large.

    So who rules the roost? Wealthy white people, of course. Much of this novel highlights the injustice of power being wielded by this single, privileged group.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who has power and who lacks power in this novel? What personal attributes is power associated with? Why?
    2. Is there ever a moment when Bigger feels powerful? Is he actually powerful at those moments or not?
    3. When Bigger feels powerless, what is his response? Why is it significant? Do other characters have a similar response when they feel powerless?
    4. Think about the characters in the book that seek power. Why do they want power? Do they all want power for the same reasons?

    Chew on This

    The white characters in the book, like the Daltons, are ignorant about the power they possess.

  • Shame

    Next to fear, shame is the emotion that the protagonist of Native Son feels most frequently. Shame is associated with his family’s poverty, the color of his skin, his own powerlessness, and the powerlessness of his family and friends. Like fear, shame leads the protagonist to feel rage, and this anger makes him want to kill others.

    Questions About Shame

    1. Which characters feel shame and why? What does shame cause them to do?
    2. How is shame related to violence, rage, and fear?
    3. Is shame different from guilt? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Even though Bigger feels shame, he feels it about things over which he has no power: his family’s poverty, the squalor of their living conditions, the color of his skin, how white people treat him.

  • Criminality

    This novel asks who is to blame for criminality—the criminal or the society that the criminal lives in? Native Son suggests that the society creates the criminal. A lawyer in the novel implies that punishing (or giving the death sentence to) a murderer, doesn’t solve the larger problem.

    Society must change in order to end criminality. In addition, the storyline in Native Son suggests that a mob mentality influences the justice system, and thus justice is also operating under a criminal mentality.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. What environmental, social, and physical factors lead to criminal behavior, according to ideas suggested in Native Son?
    2. Who are the criminals in this novel and what did they do to be called criminals? Is this fair?
    3. According to Jan Erlone, who is guilty of murder and why? Do you agree with what he says?

    Chew on This

    According this book, although Bigger is responsible for his own actions, his criminal behavior was a product of the environment in which he was raised. Thus, the judge should have been more lenient on Bigger.

    Even though Bigger’s crimes are understandable, they are still reprehensible and he should be punished to the full extent of the law. The judge’s decision was still the right decision to make.

  • Religion

    Religion provides comfort for some of the characters in the book, but the protagonist comes to believe that religion contributes to the exploitation of black people by making them satisfied with their treatment here on earth in expectation of better treatment in the afterlife. Religion is compared to alcohol; it makes life easier to bear but doesn’t solve the actual problem.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Who practices religion in this book and why?
    2. Who rejects religion and why?
    3. What is the purpose of religion, according to Bigger? Do you agree with him? Bigger thinks this purpose is bad. Do you think he’s right?
    4. What is Reverend Hammond’s role in the novel? Does he serve an important role?

    Chew on This

    Even though Bigger rejects religion at the end of the novel, the novel doesn’t promote the idea that religion is a bad thing.

    In the novel, religion provides Bigger with nothing but false hope.

  • Family

    Though Bigger has a mother and two siblings, he believes he’s alone in the world for most of Native Son. It takes him being in jail and learning that his infamy has narrowed his little sister’s life opportunities to realize that his actions affect his family. However, the protagonist prefers to separate himself from his family. His family reminds him of his own shame.

    Questions About Family

    1. Who is Bigger’s family? How does Bigger define family? How do they act towards each other? Is this a good relationship or a dysfunctional one? Why?
    2. How does Peggy define family and why? Do you think she’s right?
    3. Why does Bigger push his mother, brother, and sister away?

    Chew on This

    Although Peggy describes working for the Daltons as being part of their family, this is true only for her because she is white; the Daltons’ underlying racism means that Bigger could never be part of the family.