66 pages 2 hours read

Richard Wright

Native Son

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide


Richard’s Wright’s debut novel Native Son was an immediate success upon its publication in 1940, selling 250,000 copies in three weeks. Today, it is widely recognized as not only Wright’s greatest work, but as one of the most significant American novels of the twentieth century.

In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” (1940), Wright explains that he based the protagonist of the novel on five young Black men he had known as a child. These five Biggers had been hardened and angry at white people and the systemic oppression that kept them down, sometimes turning that anger inward and bullying other Black youths. They flouted Jim Crow laws and lived their lives with the conviction that asserting their humanity and equality by refusing to comply was more important than the consequences. Wright hoped that Native Son would shock and horrify the white liberals who read his books, course-correcting what he felt was the sentimentality of his earlier book of short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children. Native Son was the first major American novel that looked deeply and unflinchingly into the rage and fragmentation of Black identity that resulted from oppression.

Plot Summary

Bigger Thomas, a twenty-year-old Black man, wakes up early in the squalid one-room apartment he shares with his mother and two siblings. Mrs. Thomas begs Bigger to keep his appointment for a job interview that evening lest the family lose the relief money that is supporting them. Bigger relents, but he is full of anger and frustration about his limited life. The job interview is with Mr. Dalton, a wealthy white man who hires Bigger as his family’s driver. Bigger meets Mrs. Dalton, his blind wife, and Mary Dalton, their twenty-year-old radical communist daughter, who Bigger sees as dangerous. That evening, Bigger is to drive Mary to the university campus. Instead, Mary directs Bigger to pick up her communist boyfriend, Jan. The couple makes Bigger uncomfortable by treating him like an equal. They sit next to him and coax him to take them to a restaurant where Black people eat, coercing him to eat with them. They share a bottle of rum and get drunk. Jan gives Bigger some pamphlets about the Communist Party’s anti-racist stance.

Jan leaves and Bigger drives Mary home. Mary is drunk, so Bigger carries her to her room. He is constantly aware that being caught alone with and touching a white woman would likely get him killed. Mary kisses him and he kisses her back. Blind Mrs. Dalton interrupts, entering to chide Mary for the late hour. Terrified of being detected, Bigger silences Mary by pressing a pillow over her face. When Mrs. Dalton finally leaves, Bigger discovers that Mary is dead. In a panic, he takes her body to the furnace and burns it, decapitating her to force her to fit. When it is discovered that Mary is missing, Bigger enlists his girlfriend, Bessie Mears, in a plot to extract ransom from the Daltons and then run away. Bigger casts suspicion on Jan and his communist friends. But when Mary’s bones are discovered, Bigger runs away. Bigger goes to Bessie but decides that she is a liability, and he rapes and kills her. A fugitive, Bigger follows the story in newspaper headlines as an 8,000-strong manhunt closes in on him, finally capturing him.

In jail, Bigger stands accused of both raping and murdering Mary, although the state of Mary’s body makes it impossible to prove sexual assault. Jan comes to see Bigger and forgives him, introducing him to Boris Max, a communist attorney. Through Max’s probing questions about Bigger’s motives, Bigger begins to understand himself and unravel an identity that has been buried under the fear and shame that has dictated his entire life. Max helps Bigger to plead guilty, giving an impassioned speech about the way racial oppression created a society that alienates people like Bigger, shaping their fear and desperation until murders like the ones he committed become inevitable. Max hopes to sway the judge toward life imprisonment instead of execution, but Bigger is sentenced to die. On the day of the execution, Max visits Bigger. Bigger describes the revelations about himself that he has mulled over since Max’s questions, which Max finds disturbing. After an emotional goodbye, Max leaves.