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Author: Richard Wright (1908-1960) Type of work: Novel Type of plot: Social criticism Time of plot: 1930’s Locale: Chicago, Illinois First published: 1940 Principal characters: Bigger Thomas, a twenty-year-old black man from Chicago’s South Side Mrs. Thomas, Bigger’s mother Buddy Thomas, Bigger’s younger brother Vera Thomas, Bigger’s sister Bessie Mears, Bigger’s girlfriend Mr. Dalton, Bigger’s landlord and employer Mrs. Dalton, the blind wife of Mr. Dalton Mary Dalton, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s boyfriend Boris Max, Bigger’s communist lawyer The Novel Native Son narrates the life and impending death of Bigger Thomas. The novel opens with the jarring sound of an alarm clock. The family’s morning ritual is interrupted by a rat, which Bigger hysterically kills. This act marks the first instance of the fear and rage that pervade the novel. The planned robbery of Blum’s store also elicits fear and rage. Blum is white, and Bigger and his gang are used to preying on other African Americans. He fights with Gus, a member of his gang, and calls the robbery off. Bigger gets a job as the Daltons’ chauffeur. His first assignment is to take Mary Dalton to the university. She, however, wants to meet her boyfriend, Jan. All three end up at Ernie’s Kitchen Shack on the South Side of Chicago, and they get drunk. Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her room. As he places her in bed, the ghostlike Mrs. Dalton enters. Panicstricken, Bigger suffocates Mary with her pillow. He decapitates her so that her body will fit into the blazing furnace and returns home to sleep. As the investigation into Mary’s disappearance begins, Bigger implicates both Bessie and Jan. Mary’s bones are eventually found in the furnace, and Bigger must murder Bessie, to whom he has confessed, for his own protection. He kills her with a brick while she is asleep after he has raped her. Bigger flees through abandoned buildings on the South Side of Chicago. He is finally captured atop a water tank and imprisoned.
questions Mr. Vera. he sees the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan. The Characters Bigger Thomas is a paradox—a “bad nigger” sympathetically portrayed. Dalton. he throws away the wooden cross given him by the Reverend Hammond and is visited by Max. He insists that he did not rape her and refuses to do anything. As he is being returned to jail. Bigger must kill her because she knows too much. however. has her own way of succumbing to white society. Max. Eventually. and she allows him to steal from her employers. Bigger’s relationship with his family is fraught with tension. As testimony continues. Bessie’s mutilated corpse is brought in. Bessie is a true victim. his communist lawyer. The deputy coroner elicits testimony from Mrs.” While in his cell. where he reads newspaper reports of himself as the quintessential “nigger. Bigger faints at the inquest and is taken back to his cell. although he looks up to his older brother. For her. Bigger’s trial begins. for his part. She is an alcoholic who no longer finds even sex satisfying. He points out that Mr. Mrs. and brother all have ways of succumbing. and Gus—are victims of their own fear. he is also visited by all those who have influenced his life.” Bessie. oneroom tenement in which Bigger and his family live. Bigger tells him about his meaningless existence. They demonstrate these negative emotions toward both themselves and white society.. Not only is his the only point of view in the novel. Mary’s bones and Bigger’s signed confession are on display at the inquest. must bear a great deal of the responsibility for his daughter’s death. his mother’s minister. hate. Back at the inquest. Each. On his return. He is then told to show how he raped and murdered Mary. Jack. Bigger is brought to Mary’s room at the Daltons’. Despite Max’s eloquence. Dalton and Jan.Native Son / wright 1199 The third part of the novel—the inquest and trial—is set in the Cook County Jail and its environs. Instead of being taken directly to Cook County Jail. They are too scared to carry out the planned robbery of Blum’s store. Max focuses on the causes of Bigger’s behavior in his defense. An appeal to the governor fails. sewing lessons at the “Y” provide a safe activity. is resolved to “stay in his place. H. as landlord of the rat-infested. Bigger’s girlfriend. The jury at the inquest decides that Bigger suffocated and strangled Mary while raping her. recognizes that the others are afraid because Blum is white. but he is also the axis around which the other characters revolve. He regards them all as “blind” and willing to accept the dehumanizing lot white society proffers. Bigger’s sister. To rob Blum is to violate the white establishment. Buddy. who gives Bigger a wooden cross. Bigger is convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Bigger gives her liquor in exchange for sex. His mother. Dalton. Thomas finds comfort in religion. does what is expected. . including the Reverend Hammond. Bigger is represented by Max. Bigger and his gang—G. Because a black man killing a white woman is one of the culture’s major taboos. He must now be returned to jail to await trial. and rage. sister.
is a seeming contradiction. Wright seems more interested in the message and less in the medium. However. Her physical and psychological blindness. he would either kill himself or someone else. he is not used to such behavior on the part of a white man. Jan Erlone. is to be blamed for the protagonist’s actions. Mary Dalton’s boyfriend. Themes and Meanings Bigger Thomas. since Bigger convinces himself after Mary’s accidental killing that he really intended to kill her. He tries to befriend him on their first meeting by shaking his hand and insisting that Bigger call him by his first name. Mr. Dalton finding him in Mary’s room that he suffocates Mary.1200 Masterplots II Bigger’s fate is sealed when he accidentally smothers Mary Dalton. On first meeting Bigger. For the first time in his life. Bigger experiences feelings of power. and Bigger toys with the police. stereotypes. he provides table tennis for African Americans but not decent housing. The protagonist is understandably uncomfortable.” Living on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930’s. she speaks about him in his presence as though he were a textbook case. Bigger’s communist lawyer. All the characters. In fact. he admits “that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into consciousness. His accidental killing of Mary and his murder of Bessie are both motivated by fear. not Bigger. the “dumb nigger” is in charge. Dalton displays a kind of missionary zeal in her relationship with African Americans. is the stereotypical “nigger. is eloquent though ineffectual. equality. His every action is predicated on his obsessive fear of the white world. however. So powerful is he that he no longer needs his knife and his gun. the death penalty.” Boris Max. He gives generously to black charities while at the same time owning the rat-infested tenement in which Bigger and his family live. He can decide how much to tell the police about Mary’s disappearance. black and white. he murders Bessie because he is afraid she will give him away to the police. since the ultimate taboo is sexual intercourse between a black man and white woman. Max succeeds in gaining Bigger’s trust. Mrs. . are. when Bigger is in prison. the murder charge against Bigger is trumped up to rape—which justifies.” As such. Mary’s father. he is somebody—a murderer. then. he might even be said to have acquired an identity. and Bigger knows it. The word “murderer” is appropriate. belie her actions. Contrived though such a defense may seem. also wants to do what is best for Bigger. he is destined to end up in jail. As Max sees it. for a while. to a degree. It is because he is panic-stricken at the thought of Mrs. Later. Very early in the novel. as she sees it. She is intent on doing what is best for him. Bigger is trapped in a hostile environment. Jan visits him and finds him a lawyer. Similarly. It is perhaps to Jan’s credit that Bigger’s final request of his lawyer is that he “tell Jan hello. white society. as his name suggests. After Mary’s death. he believes himself the equal of whites because he has destroyed their most prized possession. Similarly. Bigger included. Dalton. and freedom. Also.
His dubious epiphany seems to be that his only viable option is violence. H. rage. with two exceptions. and they seem like stereotypes. is dehumanizing submission to white society. His mother finds solace in religion. and freedom. As for Max. are not willing to go all the way to rid themselves of white oppression. hate. they will end up in jail. readers are still trying to understand Bigger. If the theme of trust comes late in the novel and causes skepticism. Gus. As the novel approaches its end. Bigger’s standard response gives way to bewilderment and later reluctant trust. Bigger’s blanket response to all whites is fear. The alternative. there is no escape. though stereotypical. His lawyer becomes his confidant.Native Son / wright 1201 Bessie is part of his limited environment. Despite his meager choices. the killing of Mary demonstrates how Bigger’s fear and its concomitant emotions of hate. and these critics find even the portrayal of Bigger unsatisfactory. is convincingly developed. but they are also motivated by fear. by destroying. Bessie. In Bigger’s view. whereas the other characters are mere stick figures. Who is to blame for this state of affairs? For most of the novel. To some. Among these stick figures are the whites in the novel. contend that Bigger’s character. and shame. all the other African Americans in the novel opt for submission to whites. his girlfriend. and his sense of an identity are all heightened. as he sees it. however. Others. Determinism. Not only do the killing of the rat and the fight with Gus foreshadow Mary’s death. black and white. Thus. his brother unquestioningly accepts the status quo. Mary’s boyfriend. On a much larger scale. The point of . and shame culminate in increasing violence. I am!” At the end of the novel. and Jack. The reader sees these characters through Bigger’s eyes. turns to alcohol and ultimately does not even find sex satisfying. what crime will justify their detention. After he murders Bessie. rage. as a result. is an important theme in Native Son. Even Bigger recognizes this: “But what I killed for. Bigger trusts him almost immediately. Bigger’s feelings of power. Bigger fights with Gus to cover up his fear of robbing Blum’s store. and he kills her because he feels he must. he has chosen violence over submission.. Bigger is listless and apathetic. Bigger’s friends. In the case of Jan. G. then. equality. Wright seems to be insisting that it is white society that is at fault. Richard Wright seems to be saying that the fate of African Americans is determined by a hostile white environment. For the Bigger Thomases growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s. critics have commented adversely on this aspect of the novel. The only question is. stereotypical character portrayal is inherently faulty. he has created. some commentators view the Bigger-Max relationship as contrived. however. Bigger has carved out an identity for himself. He and his friends are used to preying on other African Americans. By killing. readers may get the sense that Bigger Thomas is the “native son” of all Americans. and Bigger tries to sort out his feelings. the same cannot be said of the major theme—fear. In jail. his sister is excessively timid and believes in the tenets of the “Y”. but to rob a white man’s store is taboo.
the references seem to represent Bigger’s meaningless existence. The snowfalls and blizzards that occur throughout the novel represent a hostile white society. Wright manages to convince readers that this black youth who has killed twice and begins to feel only after he has murdered is worthy of understanding and compassion. viewing it as contrived. Dalton’s physical blindness is indicative of the psychological blindness of the other characters. As literature. Others concede that. Critical Context When first published in 1940. human beings are the products of their environment. the pace of the novel slows to a crawl. he found black life in America both naturalistic and existential. gives Bigger when he visits him in prison. Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). and in three weeks 215. The meaninglessness of Bigger’s existence is at one with the existential philosophy. and hence he cannot control them. Richard Wright was a prolific writer. Most critics grant a measure of effectiveness to these symbols. and The Outsider (1953). as some commentators have observed. In true naturalistic fashion. he cannot absorb the differences between the two symbols. ultimately. as the naturalist contends. Those who bother to mention it regard it as too obvious. Some critics insist that in the book’s concluding section. I am!” he is accepting responsibility for his actions—yet another attribute of existentialism. Bigger throws the cross away after seeing the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan. Bigger says. Whether it be the cacophonous sound of the alarm clock in the opening line of the novel or the clock ticking at the head of Mary’s bed. Native Son was an immediate success. Native Son is naturalistic and existential not because Wright is intent on adhering to particular philosophical systems but because. Bigger’s mother’s minister.1202 Masterplots II view is sympathetic. although perhaps too didactic in tone.” If. and his other works include Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945). but not published until 1963). This is the cross that the Reverend Hammond. at the end of the novel.000 copies were sold. his symbolism is less controversial. In discarding the wooden cross. These critics regard the final section as a major flaw in the novel. however. does not fare so well. When. has symbolic significance in the novel. Time. The wooden cross. It was a Bookof-the-Month Club selection. If critics are divided about the effectiveness of Wright’s narrative structure. the concluding section is necessary to show the extent to which Bigger’s life is fated. Bigger does not understand these forces. he is rejecting his mother’s religion and. the stereotypical “nigger. . Lawd Today (written 1935. then the very title of the novel— Native Son—seems to indicate that Bigger responds to environmental forces. Similarly. Still others argue that this material should have been integrated into the rest of the novel. Mrs. “But what I killed for. Native Son employs the tenets of naturalism and existentialism to portray Bigger Thomas. too. his mother. Wright is as true to existential tenets as he is to naturalism. however.
Ana María. 1988.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: Richard Wright’s “Native Son. Wright.” Vol. Keneth. Offers an illuminating analysis of the biographical aspects of Native Son. notes. by Richard Wright. both African Americans and whites. Skerrett argues convincingly that Richard Wright and Bigger Thomas share many attributes. _______. The author describes five Bigger Thomases. ed. 1990.. The volume.” In fact.” He vowed that his next book would be one that “no one would weep over. Williams places Wright in his historical context both at home and abroad. 2 in Works. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born. Reinstates significant cuts that were made in Lawd Today! and Native Son. John A. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. however. it has disturbed the complacency of Americans. Wright is his own best critic.” edited by Harold Bloom. Sheila J. N. New York: Library of America. Reprint.” New York: Rodopi. 1987. dating back to his childhood.” “Native Son. New York: Chelsea House. 1991. New York: Perennial Library. ed. Joseph T. Richard Wright’s “Native Son. Bibliography Fraile. Presents a thorough examination of the genesis and background of Native Son. which reads like an excellent biography.Y. Details the genesis of Native Son. Early Novels: “Lawd Today!.” In this. The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. and galley and page proofs to show how external forces influenced the writing of the novel. Kinnamon. Jr. Richard. manuscripts. Garden City. readers respond either negatively or positively to the novel. Skerrett. giving a sense of the man and his times.” “Uncle Tom’s Children. Wright kept the promise he made when he discovered that “even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about Uncle Tom’s Children.” In Native Son. Wright succeeded. “Composing Bigger: Wright and the Making of Native Son. “it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.: Doubleday. Williams. Kinnamon analyzes Wright’s own essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” along with letters. Provides a solid biography for the general reader.” New York: Cambridge University Press. 1970. Collection of scholarly studies explicating all aspects of Wright’s seminal novel.Native Son / wright 1203 Since Native Son was published in 1940. McDonald . Bigger Thomas’s raw rage cannot be ignored. 2007. New Essays on “Native Son. also deserves attention for its detailed chronology.
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