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Literature / Native Son

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Native Son is a 1940 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.

Orson Welles directed the first stage adaptation of the novel on Broadway in 1941, starring Canada Lee as Bigger, and later adaptations were staged in 2006 in Seattle and 2014 in Chicago. The novel has three film adaptations: one released in 1951 (starring Wright as Bigger Thomas), another in 1986 (starring Victor Love, Matt Dillon, and Oprah Winfrey), and another in 2019, re-imagined in modern times and 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 to keep her from crying out. She's dead before her mother even leaves the room.
  • Adaptational Sympathy: In the 1986 film adaptation, Bigger doesn't rape and murder his girlfriend Bessie, so the only death he's responsible for is unintentional - his accidental smothering of Mary. This is part and parcel of the film greatly downplaying Bigger's Then Let Me Be Evil mindset.
  • 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 society where black men aren't allowed to do much of anything.
  • 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.
  • Beneath Suspicion: Bigger is not the prime suspect for Mary's disappearance, simply because the police and Mr. Dalton think he's too stupid to have had anything to do with it. Bigger tries to take advantage of this to pin the blame on Jan and get a ransom out of it, but he bungles it so badly that it doesn't work out.
  • Commonality Connection: Boris Max, the lawyer hired to defend Bigger, sympathizes with him because Max himself is Jewish, and is better equipped to understand Bigger than Jan or any of the Daltons.
  • 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.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Max Boris is one of the lawyers for the Labor Defenders and, according to Jan, quite the workaholic. He tries to use Bigger's trial to draw attention to the severe racial problems in Chicago, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: It's all but said that Mary finds Jan appealing because it pisses off Mr. Dalton. That's not the only reason they're together, as they clearly love each other, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
  • Dirty Communists: Invoked by the police when they try to finger Jan for Mary's murder. And then again at the coroner's inquest where he's painted as a dangerous radical for...wanting to shake a black man's hand.
  • Dirty Coward: Beneath all his scheming and bravado, Bigger is ultimately a timid man who thinks (or perhaps knows) that the world is out to get 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.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: At the end, Max tries to explain Bigger's misdirected anger in terms of systemic racism, but the whole thing goes completely over his head, and Bigger simply concludes that he's satisfied with the murders he committed. Max is understandably non-plussed by this.
  • 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.
  • Furnace Body Disposal: After Bigger accidentally suffocates Mary with a pillow, he decides to burn her body in the home's furnace and set it up to look like she just left on a trip she was planning to take. This ends up going wrong when he's compelled to tend the furnace with witnesses present (after not cleaning it out for much longer than usual due to him wanting to let Mary's body burn as completely as possible) and visible residual bone fragments are revealed in the ash, forcing him to flee.
  • 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 insecurities.
  • Hope Spot: Bigger's job at the Dalton's house starts out well enough. By the end of his first day, it all comes crashing down.
  • Hot-Blooded: Bigger, though why he makes most of his dumb decisions is repressing the thought, over-thinking, and worry over getting caught.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Jan and Mary mean well, but completely lack the self-awareness necessary to know how patronizing they are to Bigger and to black people in general. Their admission that they've never even met a black person before seems almost redundant in light of the way they act.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Killing Mary was unintentional, if not unavoidable. Bigger then shoves her body into the furnace, 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.
  • Nice Guy: Jan, despite his naivete, is a real stand-up guy. His attempts to befriend Bigger, while clumsy and awkward, are genuine. And even knowing that Bigger accidentally killed his girlfriend and tried to pin the whole thing on him, Jan makes a point of telling him that there's no hard feelings, that he's sorry for his earlier behavior, and that he wants to help.
  • Not Helping Your Case: By burning Mary's body, Bigger unwittingly destroys all the evidence that would have supported his story, allowing the investigators to draw their own conclusions of a much worse scenario than what actually happened, as well as undermining his story of it being an accident by making it look like he has something to hide (in reality, he just didn't think anyone would believe him).
  • 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.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Massively deconstructed. Bigger lacks the understanding necessary to parse the way he's stereotyped and why it makes him angry, so he decides to embrace it and take pride in all of the bad things he's done.
  • 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.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: When Bigger realizes he's killed Mary, he panics and goes overboard trying to avoid being implicated, digging himself in deeper and deeper in the process. The real tragedy is, if he'd just walked away and left her in her bed after realizing she was dead, her death might well have been mistaken for an accident.
  • Tragic Mistake: Bigger's accidental killing of Mary.
  • The Team Benefactor: Mary bankrolls the Labor Defenders when they need bail money and other things.
  • Villain Protagonist: Bigger doesn't do anything heroic. He's a self-serving petty crook when the story starts and only gets worse from there.
  • Wealthy Philanthropist:
    • Deconstructed. Mr. Dalton donates a great deal of money to worthy causes, and takes a special interest in the black community, but at core he's just as racist as anyone else. His wealth is sustained by the exploitation of Chicago's black community, he redlines the properties he owns because "it's old tradition," and he clearly scoffs at the idea of social equality between the races.
    • Mary is more of a straight example, as she believes in equality to a greater degree than her father does (even trying to treat Bigger as an equal, much to his confusion) and uses her money to support her causes, although she's a bit too sheltered and naive to fully recognize how deep some of these issues run.
  • 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.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Jan and Mary both, but especially Jan. Jan can't help dreaming what life will be like after The Revolution, which leaves him just a little blind to class and racial differences as they are.