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Native Son Summary, Characters and Themes

Richard Wright’s Native Son is a groundbreaking novel published in 1940, depicting the life of Bigger Thomas, a young Black man in 1930s Chicago. 

It explores the systemic racism and poverty that shape Bigger’s life, leading to his tragic involvement in the accidental death of a white woman. The novel delves into Bigger’s internal struggles, fear, and alienation from both white and Black society. Native Son is a powerful indictment of social injustice and a landmark work of American literature.

Summary

In 1930s Chicago, twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas, a Black man suffocated by poverty and racial oppression, reluctantly accepts a job as a chauffeur for the wealthy Dalton family. 

The Daltons, seemingly benevolent, are oblivious to the deep-rooted inequalities that shape Bigger’s life.

On his first night, Bigger is tasked with driving Mary Dalton, the daughter, a well-meaning but naive communist sympathizer. 

A night out with Mary and her boyfriend Jan, who treat Bigger as an equal, leaves Bigger uncomfortable and intoxicated. Driving Mary home, Bigger finds himself alone with her in her room. 

Overwhelmed by fear and a lifetime of ingrained prejudice, he accidentally suffocates Mary with a pillow.

Panic-stricken, Bigger disposes of Mary’s body in the furnace, a desperate attempt to conceal his crime. He concocts a ransom scheme with his girlfriend, Bessie, but the plan unravels when Mary’s remains are discovered.

Bigger flees, becoming a fugitive. Desperation and fear drive him to murder Bessie, viewing her as a threat to his survival. As the city-wide manhunt intensifies, Bigger is consumed by the headlines, realizing the magnitude of his actions.

Captured and imprisoned, Bigger faces charges of rape and murder. Jan, surprisingly, forgives Bigger and introduces him to Boris Max, a communist lawyer. 

Through Max’s persistent questioning, Bigger confronts his suppressed emotions and experiences a profound self-awakening. He begins to understand how his entire life has been shaped by the fear and injustice inflicted upon him by society.

Max, in a passionate plea, argues that Bigger’s crimes are the inevitable consequence of a racist system. He urges the court to consider the broader social context that led to this tragedy. 

Despite Max’s efforts, Bigger is sentenced to death. In their final encounter, Bigger shares his newfound understanding of himself and his place in the world, leaving Max deeply disturbed by the revelations.

As Bigger faces his execution, he has finally found a sense of clarity and acceptance, though the cost has been devastatingly high. 

His story serves as a stark indictment of the destructive power of racism and its profound impact on individuals and society.

Native Son Summary

Characters

Bigger Thomas

The protagonist of the novel, Bigger is a young Black man trapped in a life of poverty and racial discrimination in 1930s Chicago. He is filled with anger and frustration due to the limited opportunities available to him. 

His actions, though reprehensible, stem from a lifetime of fear and internalized oppression. The accidental killing of Mary Dalton becomes a catalyst for a series of destructive events, revealing the deep-seated psychological wounds inflicted by societal injustice. 

Bigger’s journey is one of self-discovery, as he grapples with his identity and the forces that have shaped him.

Mary Dalton

Mary is the daughter of Bigger’s wealthy white employer. She is portrayed as naive and idealistic, attempting to bridge the racial divide through her communist beliefs. However, her actions often come across as condescending and tone-deaf, as she fails to understand the realities of Bigger’s life. 

Her death, though accidental, symbolizes the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and the failure to address systemic inequalities.

Jan Erlone

Mary’s boyfriend, Jan, is a communist activist who genuinely believes in racial equality. However, like Mary, his approach is often misguided and fails to acknowledge the deeply ingrained prejudices within society. 

His interactions with Bigger highlight the complexities of interracial relationships and the challenges of overcoming deeply rooted biases.

Boris Max

Max is Bigger’s communist lawyer, who offers a unique perspective on the events. He recognizes that Bigger’s actions are not isolated incidents but a product of a society that systematically oppresses and dehumanizes Black individuals. 

Max’s defense of Bigger is a powerful indictment of systemic racism and an appeal for understanding the root causes of violence and desperation.

Bessie Mears

Bessie is Bigger’s girlfriend, caught in a cycle of poverty and despair. She represents the marginalized and vulnerable members of society who are often exploited and discarded. 

Her tragic fate underscores the destructive consequences of societal neglect and the limited options available to those trapped in poverty.

Mrs. Dalton

Mary’s blind mother, Mrs. Dalton, embodies the obliviousness of the privileged class. She is unaware of the racial tensions and injustices that permeate her household and society at large. 

Her blindness serves as a metaphor for the willful ignorance of those who benefit from the existing social order.

Themes

The Destructive Power of Racism and Oppression

Richard Wright’s book serves as a harrowing exploration of how systemic racism and oppression can warp an individual’s life and choices. Bigger Thomas, the protagonist, is a product of a society that systematically denies him opportunities and dignity. He is trapped in a cycle of poverty and discrimination, which fuels his anger and resentment. 

This simmering rage, coupled with the constant fear of violence and humiliation, creates a pressure cooker within Bigger, eventually leading to his violent actions. 

Wright’s novel forces readers to confront the uncomfortable truth that Bigger’s crimes, while horrific, are the tragic consequences of a society that has failed him from the start. 

He is a “native son,” born into a system designed to suppress and dehumanize him, and his story is a stark reminder of the urgent need for social change.

The Search for Identity and Agency

“Native Son” delves into Bigger’s desperate struggle to find his own identity and agency in a world that constantly defines him by his race. 

He is trapped between two worlds: the white world that fears and rejects him, and the Black community that expects him to conform to certain roles and behaviors. 

This leaves Bigger feeling alienated and adrift, with no clear sense of belonging or purpose. He yearns for control over his own life but finds himself constantly at the mercy of others.

Through his violent acts, Bigger attempts to assert his own power and autonomy, however misguided and destructive. 

His journey is a tragic one, but it also highlights the fundamental human need for self-determination and the devastating consequences of denying individuals that right.

The Cycle of Fear and Violence

Native Son depicts a vicious cycle of fear and violence perpetuated by racism. 

Bigger’s world is filled with constant threats of violence, both from white authority figures and from the desperation of his own poverty-stricken community. This environment breeds fear and paranoia, which in turn fuels his violent actions. 

Bigger’s act of murdering Mary, for instance, stems from his terror of being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, a fear rooted in the racist power dynamics of the society he lives in. 

The novel suggests that this cycle can only be broken by dismantling the racist system that creates it.

The Burden of Choice and Responsibility

While Bigger’s actions are undeniably tragic, Wright also grapples with the question of individual choice and responsibility. 

Bigger is not simply a victim of circumstance; he makes choices, some of them horrific, that have devastating consequences. 

The novel forces the reader to confront the complexity of Bigger’s situation. We see the ways in which racism limits his options and shapes his worldview, but we are also reminded that he is not absolved of his choices. 

This tension between determinism and free will is a central theme of the novel, prompting readers to consider the role of agency in a society rife with inequality.

Final Thoughts

“Native Son” remains a challenging yet essential read, a raw and unflinching portrayal of racial injustice in America. While uncomfortable and at times disturbing, Wright’s unflinching prose forces introspection on the dehumanizing effects of systemic racism. 

Bigger Thomas, a tragically flawed figure, is both a victim and perpetrator, highlighting the complex interplay of individual agency and societal forces. 

The novel’s power lies in its unflinching depiction of a nothing but broken system, where justice might never be served to those who deserve it.