Wright, Richard. Native Son. Harper & Brothers, 1940.
Summary of Work
Bigger Thomas wakes up in the one bedroom, small kitchenette flat that he and his family of four share. There is a rat, and his mother has him and his brother attempt to kill it. In killing the rat with a cast iron pan, Bigger breaks a box. He then scares his sister Vera to fainting as he approaches her with the dead rat. His mother gets after him, and continues to tell him that he is good for nothing and ask him why he won’t work rather than cause trouble. She reiterates that she has him a job opportunity from the relief center, and that they are living on the grace of others and God because they have so little money. He sits and eats as she says this, and then asks for money. She gives him twenty five cents, and he heads out.
He knows his interview isn’t until the evening, and he has time. He wants to do something, but doesn’t have the money. So he goes to the pool house and waits for his crew to arrive: GH, Jack, and Gus. They start planning to rob a white man’s deli down the street at 3 PM because the cops aren’t around and no one will yet be shopping. Bigger says that with a couple of guns they could do it in three minutes flat. They, after some argument from Gus, decide to go through with the plan. In the meantime, they go to the movies and masturbate while watching a group of young heiresses frolick on the beach in Florida. He sees Mary Dalton on the screen, and tells the other men that it is the Dalton family who might give him the job this evening.
Bigger is getting more and more nervous about robbing the white man’s store. What if they get caught? He also has a chance for a job, and what would the robbery do to those chances? He decides he has to go through with it because the other boys are going to. He goes and gets his gun and goes back to the pool hall. Gus is later than everyone else, and Bigger uses that as an excuse to start a fight. He has a knife at Gus’s throat and makes him do humiliating things. When the pool house owner, Doc, tells him that’s enough and to stop, he damages the pool tables with his knife, and Doc pulls his gun out and tells Bigger to leave and never come back.
He leaves, goes home, and then nearly immediately has to leave for the interview and doesn’t have time to eat. His mother gives him a little money to buy dinner on the way. He goes directly to the Dalton home and rings the bell on the front door because he cannot find a way to the back entrance. He is let in and led into Mr. Dalton’s study. After an interview where Bigger feels very uncomfortable, he is hired to be the Dalton family chauffer. Mary Dalton walks in just after that and starts asking him questions like if he is part of a Union, and it makes Bigger dislike her immediately because he doesn’t know how to answer the questions and doesn’t want to because he is afraid of associating with white women for fear of being lynched or murdered or put in jail for it.
Mr. Dalton tells Bigger to go out to Peggy, who will show him where he will be sleeping. He is told that he will have $25 a week, five of which will be for spending money for him each week. He is also told that he needs to drive Miss Dalton to the college that evening. He sees his room, gets food in the kitchen, and Peggy also tells him that he is to tend to the furnace while he works there. Then goes back home quickly to collect his things. When he returns, he overhears discussion when he sits in his closet. He pretends to be putting away his clothing when he is doing this so if he is caught it won’t look unnatural for him to be in the closet.
He then goes down for a drink of water and Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, is in the kitchen. She talks to him about their previous chauffer and how he got an education and now has a good government job. She asks him if he would like an education and he says no, that he doesn’t have time or opportunity. She says if they were to afford him the opportunity, would he go, and he replies no. She tells him they will talk about it later, and that it is time to get Mary to college. He goes and gets the car out, a Buick, and she comes out the front. About halfway to the college she tells him to go someplace else, and they go to the Communist headquarters and she brings out a man, Jan Erlohn. He forces Bigger to shake hands with him, and then Mary says that they are all going to get in the front seat, Jan is to drive, and that they’d like to eat where black people eat.
Bigger tells them about a fried chicken place on the South side, and when they get there, he is astounded that they won’t eat there without him despite his saying that he is not hungry and would rather wait with the car. Feeling forced, he gets out, and his step away from Mary makes her cry, and Jan comforts her. They eat, and everyone is staring at Bigger. His girlfriend Bessie comes over and he won’t speak with her for fear of the white people being with him. She is offended and leaves. Jan orders beer and then a bottle of rum, and they take the bottle with them when they leave. Jan and Mary get in the back seat of the car and tell him to go drive around the park. They get drunk in the back seat, occasionally letting Bigger have a swig of liquor. He drives for two hours while they are kissing and spooning in the back seat, and they drop Jan off just about 2 AM. Jan lets Mary take one more very large drink, enough to make her very drunk.
When Bigger drives her back, she is again in the front seat, she cannot walk on her own and keeps falling unconscious. He takes her around the back, her purse left in the car, the door ajar. He carries her up the stairs, hoping that no one will notice. When he puts her in her room, he looks at her, and kisses her and grabs her breasts. But as he is doing this as she is in bed, Mrs. Dalton walks in the room. He freezes. She is calling out to her daughter, and in fear of her saying anything to indicate that he is in the room, he puts his hand over her mouth. When she keeps calling and Mary keeps trying to answer and take his hand off of her mouth, he puts the pillow over her and keeps an iron hand down on it. She struggles, and then the struggle stops so he lets go and backs away as Mrs. Dalton gets close to the bed. Mrs. Dalton just expects that her daughter has passed out from the drink, so she leaves the room.
When Bigger takes the pillow off of her face and looks at her, he realizes he has killed her. He is panicked and doesn’t know what to do. It was an accident, but he knows no one will believe it and that people will say he raped her. He also knows that Mary is supposed to go to Detroit in the morning, so he decides to try and stuff her in her trunk. She fits, and he carries her down the stairs in it to the basement. And when he passes the furnace he has the thought that he can dispose of her body in the furnace. So he takes her out of the trunk and pushes her in, but her head won’t fit in. He spreads newspapers under her body and cuts her head with his knife. But the knife won’t cut the bone, so he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head with that, blood falling all over the newspapers. He then puts her head and all the newspapers into the furnace and covers the body with coal, hoping it will burn. He closes the trunk and leaves, deciding to take Mary’s purse with him as he does so and leave the car out.
As he goes home, he decides that he will frame Jan for the murder when it comes to light, but hopes that it will not come to light for some time because she is supposed to be traveling. He looks through her purse and finds a roll of bills, which he takes, and he disposes of the purse. He also disposes of his knife. When he wakes up at his home in the morning, his mother asks him why he got in at nearly 3 AM. He claims that he got in around 2 so insistently that she gives up. His little brother also insists that he got in late. He eats breakfast with them quickly but says he has to go back to his job. As he runs out of the house, his brother follows him, holding the rolled bills in his hand and asking if he is in any trouble. He tells his brother no and hands him a bill as payment for his silence about having the money.
Then he goes to a local eatery and buys himself a pack of cigarettes with the money, and as his friends Jack, GH, and Gus come in, he buys each of them a pack of cigarettes as well. For the first time ever, Bigger is feeling powerful and free because he knows things others do not and he is making his own course. He goes back to the Daltons’ home and takes the trunk to the station. As he gets back and sits and waits for the never coming Miss Dalton, Peggy asks if she is out to be taken yet, and when he says no, she gets worried because Miss Dalton is also not in the home. Peggy has known Miss Dalton since Miss Dalton was two years old, and has nothing but love for the family who gave her, an Irish immigrant, a good job to last her life.
When Bigger goes back in the home, he goes to his room after eating and then listens in as Mrs. Dalton and Peggy talk about Mary being gone. They think it is one of her tricks. But more and more, especially when the trunk comes back, they genuinely worry about her being missing. Mr. Dalton calls a private investigator, Briton, and he questions Bigger about the missing girl. He talks about the evening previous, and says that Jan came home with them that evening and went upstairs with Mary. He says Jan told him to take the trunk down and he left her with him, and that Jan also told him to leave the car out and that he’d take care of it, which is why it had sat outside all night in the snow. After, he goes to his girlfriend’s house, and after he sleeps with her, he gets an idea that he can, like a previous case, make a kidnapping note and get a ransom and then leave town. He brings Bessie in on the plan, telling her she will be the one to pick up the money.
In the meantime, the police question Jan, who is incredulous and thinks that because he is a communist and loves his daughter, Mr. Dalton is out to get him. He confronts Bigger about it, thinking that they have paid him and forced him to lie, and Bigger pulls a gun on him and tells him to stay way. He then gets paper and pen and writes a ransom note and signs it Red, knowing they will think communism and more suspicion will be on Jan. He slips the note in the front door as he is walking toward the back door of the house. All the while, Bigger is worried about the furnace. Peggy has told him that it needs cleaning, and he know that there is a good chance the bones have not burned in it. By evening, the press has got wind of the story, and everyone is soon there asking questions about the missing girl and about how Mr. Dalton feels about the communist boy he’s had locked up.
Mr. Dalton has by this time received the ransom letter, and decides to make a statement to the press that he intends to pay the ransom and that he would like them to publish that the police are not to interfere because he wants his daughter back. Bigger is somewhat excited, but also worried because he is thinking about the bones in the furnace. The furnace isn’t working properly, so he has to do something. He pours more coal on, but it creates a plume of smoke, and before he can properly get the ashes out of the furnace, a newspaper man takes the shovel from him and does it. Everything seems fine, but the newspaper man, when the dust clears, keeps staring at the ashes. He slowly pulls out bones. All the men gather round, and as Bigger looks over them, he sees the bones, panics, and runs.
He runs to Bessie and forces her to go with him with some bedding to an abandoned building. There, he rapes her, and then when she is asleep, he realizes that he must kill her. He finds a brick, bashes her head in, and drops her down an air shaft. But she had the roll of bills in her pocket, and he forgot to take it out, and so now he is penniless as well. He hides in different buildings, stealing newspapers to see the headlines. He is all over in the headlines, and there is a manhunt on for him. He buys bread with the little money he has left and searches for places to hide. The manhunt for him has damaged the lives of people across the black community in the South side of Chicago. Men have been let go from their work and every black home is being raided in search of him. He cannot escape, so he hides in a kitchenette building. When they go to search that, he hides on the roof. He is almost clear when a man comes on the roof, and he decides to hit the man on the head and knock him out with the gun. He does so, but the man’s partner sees his body and sounds the alarm. Bigger climbs atop a water tower and has his gun at the ready, shooting at anyone who tries to get near him. In response, they bring a fire hose up and douse him with water, getting him to drop the gun and fall. They drag him down the stairs, and he wakes in jail.
He will not eat or speak, and when his accusers are brought before him after Bigger has fainted at the arraignment hearing, he is sickened and wants them to go way. When his family preacher comes, he feels the same, and he wishes his family and friends would not be there either. Jan also comes in, and Jan talks to him, telling him that he doesn’t understand, but he forgives him for trying to frame him and that he wants to help him by getting him a lawyer to work with. Max, the lawyer, tells him to not sign a confession or speak to the DA. But when Buckley, the DA, comes in and talks to him, he speaks and tells him what happened, and it is written down and he signs the confession. At the arraignment, he listens to them discuss his crimes and sees the evidence: bones, metal, his knife, and Bessie’s mangled body. Going out of the arraignment, he is forced in a car, and as he is getting in, he sees a burning cross on a building. He recognizes it after some time as the KKK’s burning cross, and in his fear and anger he rips the cross the preacher gave him off of his chest and refuses to put it back on or take it, associating it with the burning cross above him.
They drive him to Mr. Dalton’s house and put him in Mary’s room, which hasn’t been touched since the night of the murder. They corner him and tell him that he should show them how he killed her and what he did, how he raped her. And Bigger, furious, refuses their insistent demands. The DA decides that he doesn’t need him to do that and doesn’t want to fight with Bigger to get him to do that. Then he is put back in jail. And Max comes to him and discusses the arraignment and what will happen at the indictment and the trial.
Max, a Jew, gets Bigger to talk to him, and Bigger doesn’t understand why this man is helping him when it will make all these white men hate him too. But he decides, against his mind, to trust Max to a point, and discusses his life and how he wanted to be an aviator but couldn’t get the training and that the Navy and Army only wanted blacks for menial work so he really had no chance at life to be happy or work in a way he wanted to. He discusses the murders and says that he hated Mary for her whiteness and her behavior toward him, and that he killed Bessie out of need for survival, and he never really loved Bessie even though she was his girlfriend. After discussing things with Max, Max leaves and tells him that they will plead not guilty at the indictment and then change the plea during the trial, and he will then plead the case for mitigation of sentence so that Bigger can spend life in prison rather than die in the electric chair. Bigger doesn’t have any real hope that this is the case, but there is a small spark of hope in him because Max believes.
In the meantime, he reads the newspapers and sees that the white community has accused him of many more murders and rapes and essentially has made him out to be a beast. He knows that he will be put on trial for rape and murder even though it was not rape, just murder, of Mary Dalton. He also knows that Bessie’s body is simply evidence, and that he isn’t being tried for her murder, just the white woman’s. At the trial, the DA is upset thinking that Max is trying to make an insanity plea, and in the prosecution, he brings forth sixty witnesses to testify to both Bigger’s crimes and his sanity. The next day, Max gives an account of more than just Bigger’s life: he gives an account of the conditions that white people have created for black people that disallow them to live in quality conditions or to grow, and that it is what causes these crimes; fear of whites causes these crimes; and whites’ fear of blacks causes these crimes because they accuse blacks of these crimes before they even commit them. The prosecution rebuts the argument, saying that Bigger never really wanted a chance even when he got one and that he never wanted to work, and that the defense is just communist jargon.
An hour later, they reach a sentencing verdict. The judge sentences Bigger to die for his crimes. Max says that it is not over yet, and he will appeal to the governor. But Bigger has resigned himself. He purges himself of emotion and eats simply to stave off hunger. He doesn’t have it in him to get a gun from an officer and kill himself. His family comes to visit him once, but he doesn’t want to see them, and tells them not to come again. He doesn’t write to anyone despite having the opportunity to. On the day of his execution, Max comes to tell him he is sorry, that the plea to the governor failed. Bigger tells him he is alright, and it is fine, and that he is glad to have got to know Max. He also tries to tell Max how he felt, and Max tells him that he needs to believe in himself and the chance for freedom and equality, even though it is too late for Bigger now because of the decisions he made. And Bigger says that he does believe in himself, and that is why he did what he did: he finally found something worth believing in enough to kill for, to die for. Max, crying, says his goodbyes. Bigger tells him to tell his mother and family he is alright, and to tell Jan hello. Then the door closes behind Max, and the story ends.
Brief Note on Themes
Black-white relations is on overarching, major theme for this novel. How have racist superstructures, long in place, molded and changed black and white minds so that they deal with each other in very specific ways? What happens when those social mores are broken or trespassed? The criminal justice system is another central part of this story. Max points out that similar murders do not cause such a riot, and yet the murders committed by black men are treated that way because of race. The system itself already labeled him a criminal, and might have taken Bigger in anyway for some perceived crime. If blacks people are already labeled as criminal, is there anything we can say but that white minds created them to be criminal (kind of like the line from Thomas More’s Utopia about thieves)?
Wright also takes a lot of time to vividly describe living conditions for black people in the South side of Chicago, discussing in detail the kitchenettes, the unsanitary living conditions and exorbitant rent they pay for them, the tough time for black business owners and black men, and the life struggles of black women. He does this in great detail in his work 12 Million Black Voices, but this work, combined with the fictional narrative of Bigger Thomas, shows just how much of an effect those living conditions have on the entire community. This is a social element to the fiction. Another social element is the discussion of communist party designs on black people and their votes and influence. The characters in the communist party come off as very well meaning in the story, and yet given the literature that Jan gives to Bigger to read, people are left wondering what uses this has for the largely white-run party. It feels very similar to how the Brotherhood functions in Invisible Man.
Economic relations are another large part of this book. Mr. Dalton is the landlord for the building where the Thomas family lives. The poverty of the Thomas family is stark against the wealth of the Dalton family. The Daltons are large donators to black education and other social programs for black people, but they do so on their own terms and at a distance, where they never have to see that they are part of the cause of black suffering with their indifference and price gouging. This is the fact that the communist lawyer tries to exploit in the trial, but fails. The story reveals how the superstructures of racist power are largely upheld by economic and political means rather than simply social custom. The power behind the racial prejudice in the form of the justice system and the capitalist system keep white supremacy as the governing system.
Religion as a blinding force and power is briefly discussed in the narrative. Rather than be an aid and comfort to Bigger, Christianity is a thorn in his side, because he recognizes that the religious system just plays into racist power: if poor black people can be focused on a better life in the afterlife, they will not focus as much on their miserable living conditions on Earth. The system asks for meekness and nonviolence and for trust in God and Jesus to answer prayers and set them free, meaning that it can be a system of control; no violence to the white supremacist system can ever occur if the people actively believe that change can come from prayer and fasting and church attendance. The narrative Wright wrote shows how intertwined and complex racist superstructures are and how hard they are to dismantle, even impossible to dismantle. It showed black rage and fear to a reading public in a way that is shocking even today.