Wright, Richard. Native Son.
Book I: Fear
Morning in a Black Slum: The book opens in a one-room tenement in Chicago, Illinois, early in the morning. The black family of the Thomases is getting up. The mother and the daughter Vera are frightened by a rat. The sons Bigger, aged twenty, and Buddy manage to kill the rat. Bigger, who did most of the killing job, picks the dead rat and thrusts it into Vera's face. She faints out of fear. There is the usual strained atmosphere during breakfast. The mother laments the conduct of Bigger while Vera tries to comfort her. Bigger assumes a curtain of indifference towards his family. He tries to suppress the thought that they suffer because of him and that he is unable to help them. He hates his family for this. The family apparently misses the father for support, who was killed in a riot when they yet lived in Mississippi.
(Not) Robbing a White Man's Shop: Bigger spends the day with his buddies Gus, G.H., and Jack, just hanging around, smoking, and dreaming about what they would do if they had the choice and the opportunity of whites. They spend their money on playing pool and going to the pictures. They are planning to rob Old Blum's shop, which is to be a ground-breaking action. Until now they have been robbing just fruit and newspaper stalls of blacks, this is the first time they plan to rob a white man. They shrink from fear, Bigger perhaps most of them but he masks his fear with violent speeches and actions. The gang agrees on robbing Blum's shop. Gus, the one who most hesitated to undertake the job, is the last to arrive to the meeting point from where they are to set off to do the robbing. Out of fear that now he must perform what he suggested, Bigger assaults Gus and there is a fight. Bigger professes that it is now too late to do the job, though he knows it is not so.
Accepting a Chauffeur Job: Bigger sees Mr Dalton about the job offered to him by the relief. He behaves clumsily and feels deeply embarrassed in the white man's house, but he gets the job. He is to work as a chauffeur. As he learns from Peggy, the Irish servant, the family supports the NAACP. Miss Mary Dalton, the daughter, even sympathizes with the Communists. She regards blacks as normal human beings and is intent on fighting for their rights by joining the Communist party and working for the blacks as soon as she leaves her school. Mary is a wild creature and behaves in an unexpected way which startles everyone, but Bigger the most. He hates Mary for fear of her making him lose the advantageous job.
Killing a White Woman: The first day he is to take Mary to the university but she asks him to be taken to a Communist club instead. She makes him meet her boyfriend, the Communist Jan Erlone, whose friendly behaviour makes Bigger feel highly uncomfortable. Mary asks Bigger to take them to a black eating place. They all have a dinner and get drunk. Bigger and Mary return to the house late in the night. Mary is too drunk to walk and Bigger must carry her to her room. In the room they are surprised by Mrs Dalton, who is blind, so Bigger tries to keep himself and Mary silent so as not to betray his presence. He pushes a pillow against Mary's face to prevent her from babbling. Mrs Dalton smells alcohol, realizes Mary is not ill but drunk, and leaves the room. Bigger discovers Mary is dead. He desperately plots how to get rid of suspicion. Finally he shoves the body into the furnace, chopping off the head so that it would fit in, and leaves the house.
Fear, Hatred, & Violence: For Bigger, his fear and hatred towards whites combine into an output of violence. He approaches the world with the mask of an outward indifference but there is rage underneath which is as often as not released in a seemingly unmotivated violent action. A crucial aspect in his hatred is also self-hatred, he hates whites but he also hates himself and by extension, his family, because he is unable to improve their poor living conditions. Bigger tellingly connects hatred to fear, he naturally fears the unknown which he consequently comes to hate. Such is the case with Mary. She does her best to help Bigger and blacks in general, but Bigger cannot comprehend her motives, therefore he fears her and hates her.
Christian Submission & Obedience: Whereas Bigger acts as the rebel, his mother and sister accept and adapt to the circumstances of their birth as blacks and as impoverished people. The women work hard to improve their condition and unlike with Bigger, they are not divided by hatred but drawn together by family affection. Bigger's refusal to submit is an unexplainable puzzle to them.
A Victim of Circumstances: Bigger has finished his education in the eighth grade for lack of money. When he is offered the chance to study by the Daltons, it is too late for him and he does not see the advantage of education. He reacts to the unsatisfying situation of blacks in a very primitive way, by using instinctual violence. Apparently no other means of protest ever occurred to him, therefore he cannot come to terms with the basically intellectual revolt of the Communists. The behaviour of Mary and Jan seems to Bigger as strange and incomprehensible as his own behaviour seems to them. When Bigger kills Mary, it is obviously by accident and not by an evil intention. Bigger simply reacts on impulse to the social construct of how it is perceived when a black man is found alone with a white woman and desperately tries to avoid his being found like this.
Book II: Flight
Starting a Double Life: Bigger returns to his home and falls sound asleep. In the morning he realizes the blindness of other people, including his family, who would never tell that an humble black boy murdered a rich white woman. Bigger carefully constructs a version of Mary's elopement with the reds and this version is generally accepted. Detective Britten suspects Bigger from being allied with the reds in Mary's elopement, but Bigger manages to persuade everyone of his ignorance. Jan is the chief suspect and is taken to custody.
Demanding Ransom Money: Bigger pays a visit to his girlfriend Bessie. He gives her the money he took from Mary's purse to save it for him. He hints at what happened but does not reveal that he has murdered Mary. Bessie recalls a case in which a girl was kidnapped and her parents were sent a note demanding ransom money. This inspires Bigger to write a kidnap note asking for $10,000. He takes Bessie as an accomplice to help him.
Mary's Bones Discovered: Press learns about the case and surrounds the house of the Daltons. Mr Dalton confirms that he does not wish to contact police and intends to pay the ransom money. Pictures of all the involved, including Bigger, are taken by the press people. Bigger has failed to clear ashes from the furnace and he is told to do so in the presence of the reporters who gathered in the cellar to warm themselves. Bigger is clumsy, the cellar fills with smoke, and a man takes the spade from Bigger to do the job himself. Accidentally, remains of Mary's bones, her earring, and the hatchet blade, which Bigger used to cut off Mary's head, are discovered. Bigger flees.
Murdering Bessie: Bigger seeks out Bessie and confesses what happened in order to bind Bessie to himself. Bessie cannot be left behind for she already knows too much, so Bigger takes her with him. They hide in an abandoned building. Bessie breaks down and despite her feeble protests, Bigger rapes her on impulse, unable to control his desire. Bessie is too weak and too frightened to be taken further. Bigger can neither take her, nor can he leave her, so he must kill her. He smashes her head with a brick and drops her body into an air shaft.
Being Captured: In the morning he learns from the newspapers that black households and abandoned houses in the black part of the city are systematically searched for him. Bigger's flight confirms him as the murderer and Jan is released. There is a wave of hatred against Bigger and by extension against all blacks. Some blacks lose their jobs, many are assaulted by whites in the streets. Bigger hides in an abandoned flat in a tenement house. When police come to search the house, he flees to the roof. Police searches even the roof and after desperate attempts to escape on the adjoining roofs, Bigger is captured.
Apprehension, Shame, & Guilt: Bigger feels most uncomfortable when he is made aware of his colour. He becomes painfully apprehensive of his being black when confronted with the kind manners of Mary and Jan towards him. They accept Bigger as a human being but Bigger finds this concept so unfamiliar and strange that he is unable to come to terms with it. Instead of evoking Bigger's trust and affection, Jan makes Bigger feel shame and guilt when he presses him to shake hands. Mary also makes Bigger self-conscious and earns his hatred when she makes Bigger sit squeezed between herself and Jan in the front seat of the car.
Freedom, Power & Pride: In the morning following the murder, Bigger feels free for the first time in his life. He was never given the chance to do anything he wanted: as a black he could not become an aviator, neither could he obtain a satisfying position in the army which he once wished for. Bigger powerfully perceives the new choices that are open to him: he can choose to return to the Daltons or to escape at once, he can keep his secret to himself or confess it. Bigger gains new self-confidence, enjoys his power, and takes pride in Mary's murder as an act of rebellion against the oppressive white society. Bigger feels he has just won a life belonging to no one but himself.
Book III: Fate
Court Inquest: The press vilifies Bigger and describes him as a non-human being resembling an ape. There are crowds surrounding the prison and crying for Bigger's death. Bigger is assumed not only to have killed but also to have raped Mary. Several earlier unexplained cases of rape and murder are also inscribed to him. For the first three days in prison, Bigger experiences a stupor and is unable to drink, eat, or move. He has to be carried to the inquest and he faints when facing the angry white crowd.
Prison Visits: In his cell Bigger is visited by Reverend Hammond who tries to force on him the Christian vision of world. Reverend makes Bigger wear a small wooden cross but Bigger is unable to believe in religion. Bigger is also visited by Jan who recognizes that Bigger has been ensnared in a racist world and claims not to feel any hatred toward him. Jan brings Bigger the lawyer Max and Bigger eventually accepts Max's help. Bigger is visited by his family and Bigger realizes how much he destroyed his family's life. Finally the Daltons pay Bigger a visit and prove that despite their attempts to improve the situation of blacks, they fail to understand the core of the problem.
Court Trial: Bigger is betrayed into trust to the State Attorney Buckley and he signs his confession to the crime. On Max's advice, he first claims himself not guilty at the trial and then he changes to guilty. Bigger refuses to re-enact the scene of murder in the Daltons' house when requested to do so. At the final session of the court of law, Max argues that Bigger's murder was actually an act of creation. He tries to explain Bigger's motives in the larger context of the race. Buckley on the other hand argues that Bigger acted as a deliberate murderer.
Death Sentence: Max hopes to win for Bigger a life imprisonment, but Bigger is sentenced to death. Max, an elderly man, exhausted all his energies on defending Bigger and he fails to visit him in his cell until the day of the execution. It is the 3rd of March and Bigger is to be put to death at about midnight. Bigger is anxious to communicate all his feelings, but Max is too tired to respond properly. Bigger realizes that his life is about to end without his having achieved any kind of meaning, but Max feebly urges for belief.
Exclusion: Bigger has felt a sense of exclusion from society all his life. He acted as if he were standing alone in the world and realized only too late that his conduct heavily influenced the lives of other people. Bigger not only made the life of his family more difficult but also was the cause of exalted racism and public unrest. Bigger is connected with Communists who are viewed negatively by the society throughout the novel and therefore also tend to be excluded. Bigger's lawyer Max suffers from a sense of double-exclusion, being both a Communist and a Jew, and so comes the closest to the comprehension of the complexity of Bigger's motives.
AuthorRichard Wright. (1908 - 1960).
Full TitleNative Son.
First PublishedNY: HarperCollins, 1940.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1950.