Literature / Native Son

Native Son (1940) is a novel by Richard Wright, best known as the author of Black Boy. It is a prime example of the naturalist movement which uses realistic portrayals of society to suggest that environment shapes who we are.

Set in 1930s Chicago, Native Son follows Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old African American man living with his family in the "Black Belt" of the South Side. The Thomases are forced to share a small, rat-infested, one-room apartment with just the bare necessities. Bigger, a notorious petty criminal, accepts a chauffering job from rich, white philanthropist Henry Dalton. During his very first night at work, he does the unthinkable and kills Dalton's young daughter, Mary. After failing to cover up his crime and escape the police, Bigger is put on trial for both murder ''and rape'', putting him at the mercy of a society and legal system that damns his name and skin color.

Native Son is a character study framed as Crime Fiction. Before he ever commits the act, Bigger is presented as an angry, disrespectful young punk on a violent road to jail. But the novel focuses on why Bigger acts as he does: most of Native Son is written from Bigger's point-of-view, often showing his bewildered reactions to critical moments. For instance, the narration often contrasts Bigger's constant fear of society at large with his burning desire to make something of himself.

While Wright never justifies Bigger's actions, the novel poses the idea that his or a similar fate would befall many Black American men due to their horrible quality of living.

The novel has two film adaptations: one released in 1951 (starring Wright as Bigger Thomas) and another in 1986.

Native Son presents examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Bigger kills Mary Dalton out of dumb panic. He carries the drunken girl to her room and, in the worst decision of his life, begins to fondle and kiss her. To keep her from talking when her blind mother enters the room, he covers her face with a pillow. She's dead before her mother even leaves the room.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Deconstructed as we learn how Bigger feels about what he has done. While full of guilt at first, he soon takes pride in his murder: killing a white girl, in his mind, is so unspeakable that he regards it as a crowning accomplishment...the only accomplishment that he, as a black man, believes he could ever lay claim to.
  • Angry Black Man: There are several examples throughout the novel, but the most prominent are Bigger and his doting younger brother Buddy.
  • Anti-Hero: While Bigger is the protagonist, he makes MANY questionable choices, and eventually kills two people out of fear.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Bigger, like Richard Wright rejects the Christian doctrine his mother and society taught him, feeling that religion is merely a distraction from the squalor of Black American life.
  • Chummy Commies: Mary and her boyfriend Jan Erlone both embrace Communism (though Mary isn't officially in the Party) and are among the few white characters portrayed sympathetically. Author Richard Wright was an outspoken Communist himself.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Yes, this is used as a plot point. Bigger and his friends enjoy masturbating in a local movie theater. This is later used against him when he is charged with raping Mary.
  • Dirty Coward: Two things drive the novel above all else: Bigger's horribly misguided ambition, and Bigger's crippling fear of the world around him. Even the first chapter of the book is titled "Fear".
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: While chauferring them around Chicago Bigger comes to resent Jan and Mary because they seem genuinely interested in his life and treat him as a social equal. This resentment stems from Bigger's sense of pride, his unfamiliarity with whites who aren't racist, and the nagging fear that they're teasing him.
  • Ethical Slut: Mary Dalton is portrayed as kind, considerate, and progressive (especially for the 1930s). She and her boyfriend Jan also have no problem getting it on in front of a complete stranger.
  • Foreshadowing: The beginning of the novel depicts the Thomas family dealing with a vicious black rat in their house. As Mrs. Thomas and Vera panic, Buddy and Bigger set out to kill it. Quivering fearfully, the trapped rat attacks Bigger, leaving a gash in his pants. When Bigger finally kills it, the family marvels at how deadly and desperate the rat looked. The passage is clearly a microcosm of Bigger's life.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: Bigger in a nutshell. An early passage sees him sabotage a heist he planned with his friends because he's too scared to go through with it. They see through his tough-guy posturing almost immediately.
  • Hot-Blooded: Bigger, though why he makes most of his dumb decisions is repressing the thought, over-thinking, and worry over getting caught.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Killing Mary was unintentional, if not unavoidable. Bigger then tries to exploit her family with an anonymous ransom note, and follows that up by raping and killing his girlfriend when he thinks she'll turn him over to the police.
  • Rousing Speech: Boris Max tries to give one as his closing speech, noting that Bigger's very existence is a crime against the state, and that he doesn't deserve the death penalty.
  • Shaming the Mob: Max tries to do this with the jury during Bigger's trial. It doesn't work.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Explicitly averted. The entire novel is told from Bigger's perspective, and Wright intentionally avoids giving insight into other character's perspectives.
  • Three Act Structure: The novel is split into three sections, "Fear", "Flight", and "Fate".
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Invoked on Mary's behalf during Bigger's trial, as you would expect.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Bigger is well aware that most whites think this of black men, also being the reason he smothered Mary; he didn't want her to speak and reveal to her mom that he was in her room.