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 bully who alienates nearly everyone he knows. The novel focuses on why Bigger acts the way he does: almost all of Native Son is written from his point-of-view, showing his decision making process in detail. The narration often contrasts Bigger's 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 three film adaptations: one released in 1951 (starring Wright as Bigger Thomas), another in 1986, and another in 2019, starring Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, and Nick Robinson.
Native Son presents examples of:
- Accidental Murder: Bigger kills Mary Dalton out of dumb panic. He carries the drunken girl to her bedroom after a night on the town. When upstairs, he kisses her. 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. While full of guilt at first, Bigger eventually takes pride in murdering Mary. To him, killing a white girl is so unspeakable that he regards it as his crowning accomplishment in a country where black men aren't allowed to do much of anything.
- Angry Black Man: There are several examples throughout the novel, but the most prominent are Bigger and his doting younger brother Buddy.
- Belief Makes You Stupid: Bigger, like Richard Wright, rejects the Christian doctrine his mother taught him, feeling that religion is merely a distraction from black people's miserable lives.
- 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, believing nobody can see them. 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 his crippling fear of the world around him. Even the first chapter of the book is titled "Fear".
- Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Shortly before the murder, Bigger is assigned to chauffeur Mary and Jan around Chicago. They speak to Bigger casually, seem genuinely interested in his life and problems, and treat him as a social equal. Unused to this kind of treatment from white people (and suspecting that they're teasing him), Bigger grows resentful of them.
- Ethical Slut: Mary Dalton is portrayed as kind, considerate, and progressive (especially for the 1930s). She and her boyfriend Jan also have no problem knocking boots in the back of a car while the driver is right there.
- 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. The trapped rat attacks Bigger, leaving a gash in his pants. After Bigger finally overkills it, the family marvels at how deadly and desperate it was. The whole scene is just a metaphor for what happens to Bigger later; the rat represents him.
- His Own Worst Enemy: Bigger's characterization, in a nutshell. Everything bad that happens to him is his own fault and is ultimately the result of his fearfulness and insecurity.
- 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.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: As mentioned, Bigger rapes his girlfriend while on the run from the cops. It's also invoked during the trial, because while Bigger did not rape Mary, he is charged with it. He realizes that whatever chance he had at sympathy or clemency disappeared when he was labeled a rapist.
- 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.
- Tragic Mistake: Bigger's accidental killing of Mary.
- Villain Protagonist: Bigger doesn't do anything heroic. He's a self-serving, cowardly petty crook when the story starts and only gets worse from there.
- 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.