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Book Review

Native Son by Richard Wright has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Bigger Thomas, a 21-year-old black man, wakes up in the one-room apartment he shares with his younger siblings and their mother. Bigger and his brother must catch the rat that is scurrying around the room. When the rat bites him, Bigger loses his temper. He kills it with a skillet and then crushes its head. His mother orders him to throw it out, but Bigger can’t resist dangling the bloody carcass in front of his sister until she faints.

Bigger’s mother reminds him of the job interview he has scheduled for that afternoon. In 1930s Chicago, the opportunity to be a rich white man’s driver is rare. Bigger resents her pressuring him and does not want the job.

Feeling trapped, Bigger leaves to find his friends. They have made tentative plans to rob a white man’s store later that day. Until now, they have only robbed properties owned by black proprietors, as they know the police do not investigate those crimes. Bigger argues with his friend Gus, who is having second thoughts about the robbery. Bigger will not admit he is frightened, and Gus’ fear only stokes his anger. Eventually, Gus agrees to help with the crime.

Bigger goes to the movie with another friend, as they wait to commit the robbery. While watching a newsreel, the two men masturbate. One of the stories is about a young woman, Mary Dalton. She is the only child of millionaire Henry Dalton, with whom Bigger is to interview with for a job.

Mary has scandalized her family by taking up romantically with a known communist. Bigger, who had been dreading the job, now daydreams what it would be like to work for such people. He regrets agreeing to the robbery, as it might prevent him from getting the job with the Dalton family. In the end, he sabotages the robbery plans by attacking Gus for being late to meet up with the rest of the gang.

Bigger arrives at the Dalton mansion for his interview and is intimidated by its size and beautiful furnishings. Bigger is agitated with himself because he can’t seem to say anything but “Yessuh” and “Nawsuh” to Mr. Dalton. Mary Dalton enters the room. Seeing Bigger, she asks if he is part of the union. Bigger knows only that unions are supposed to be bad, and he finds himself angry with Mary for making him even more nervous. Eventually, Mary leaves, and Mr. Dalton offers Bigger the job. His first outing will be to take Mary to a class at the university that evening.

Peggy, the Daltons’ maid, shows Bigger the room where he will be staying. It is larger than the apartment he and his family share. After serving him dinner, Peggy shows Bigger the furnace he must also tend to as part of his duties. She shares how nice the Dalton family is to their employees.

Their former driver, also black, was encouraged to go to night school and further his education. He then got a better job with the government. Mrs. Dalton, the blind matriarch of the family, also encourages Bigger to go back to school. The Daltons unnerve Bigger. He feels they must have ulterior motives, as white people never try to help blacks.

That evening, Bigger picks up Mary to take her to her class, but once in the car she informs him she is going elsewhere and asks him to keep it a secret. Bigger agrees, as she is white and he must do as she asks. He drives her to meet her boyfriend, Jan, the communist from the newsreel Bigger watched earlier.

Jan insists on shaking hands with Bigger and driving the car. Bigger’s anger sparks again when Mary climbs into the front seat with them. Although Mary and Jan are being friendly, Bigger is thrown into a state of near panic. The white world has been off-limits to him, and he doesn’t know how to act. He believes Mary and Jan are making fun of him when they insist he eat with them at a black restaurant.

Bigger finally agrees to be their guest, but it is only when Jan encourages him to have several rum drinks that Bigger relaxes. Jan tells Bigger how the communists want to help black people gain equality in America. Mary insists they want to be his friends. After dinner, Bigger drives them around the park while the two make out in the back seat. He then drops off Jan and takes Mary home.

Mary is too intoxicated to walk without Bigger’s help. Terrified, as he knows it violates every social taboo, he brings her up to her bedroom. As she swoons against him, he gives in to temptation and kisses her. He lays her down and gropes her breasts but is stunned when Mrs. Dalton enters the room. Knowing she is blind, Bigger thinks that if he can keep Mary quiet, her mother will leave without discovering him. In his panic, he accidently smothers Mary. Mrs. Dalton kneels by the side of the bed and smells alcohol. She prays for Mary, and then leaves the room.

Bigger frantically tries to cover his crime. He puts Mary’s body into the trunk she had asked him to take to the train station in the morning as she was supposed to go to Detroit. As he passes the furnace, he decides to decapitate her and burn the body. He plans on telling the family that Mary left on her trip as expected. He will also say that Jan accompanied Mary up to her room, so that if anything is amiss they will suspect the communist. Bigger takes money from Mary’s purse and goes to his family’s apartment, hoping to use them as an alibi.

In the morning, Bigger returns to the Daltons’ home with a sense of invincibility. He has killed a white woman, and no one knows. He has money in his pocket to escape. For the first time in his life, he feels alive. He enjoys watching the Daltons and Peggy wonder about Mary’s whereabouts until Mrs. Dalton remarks that her daughter would not have gone away without all her new clothes. Bigger realizes he forgot to pack her trunk.

After being questioned by the family, Bigger goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. He shows her the money, and after she questions him, he tells her that Mary ran away, and he took the cash from her room. He comes up with a plan to get more money by writing a ransom note and making it look like communists kidnapped Mary. Bessie reluctantly agrees to help him.

Bigger returns to the Dalton house and is questioned by Mr. Dalton and a private investigator named Britten. Bigger plays the part of an ignorant, subservient black man and repeats the story that Mary and Jan went up to her room. Britten suspects Jan and Bigger are partners, but Mr. Dalton tells him to leave Bigger alone. They bring in Jan for questioning, and he denies everything but is surprised Bigger is implicating him. Jan confronts Bigger on the street. Bigger pulls out a gun and chases Jan away.

Bigger visits Bessie and admits he killed Mary. She begs him to leave her out of the ransom plans, but he cannot risk her telling anything to the police. He writes a ransom note and slips it under the Daltons’ front door. The press arrives and is kept in the basement with the furnace. When Bigger is ordered to sweep out the ashes, one of reporters spots pieces of bone and an earring. As they swarm to investigate, Bigger slips out of the house and flees to Bessie. He forces her to hide in an abandoned building with him. When she falls asleep, he beats her head with a brick. He throws her body down an airshaft. Too late, he realizes she had all Mary’s money in her coat pocket. The police and vigilantes search for Bigger throughout the night. Innocent black people are terrorized during the hunt. Bigger is finally caught the following night.

Bigger is visited in jail by his family, friends and the Daltons. Bigger’s mother begs the Daltons for mercy, but their hands are tied. The court will decide his fate. Mr. Dalton promises to speak to the Thomas’ landlord, to keep them being evicted from their apartment. Jan also visits, and for the first time, Bigger sees a white man as an individual, not an entity that seeks to keep him confined. Jan introduces him to Mr. Max, a lawyer who wants to defend him. After everyone leaves, the state’s attorney talks to Bigger. Bigger confesses to killing Mary and Bessie.

Bigger is indicted for his crimes and pleads guilty. Mr. Max argues for the opportunity to relate the extenuating circumstances of Bigger’s life in order that the judge might give him life in prison, rather than the death penalty. Max argues passionately about the poverty and degradation Bigger has endured at the hands of white Americans. The court’s rush to judgment is a symbol of its own guilt. White people know they have victimized and abused blacks since shackling them in slavery. Even now, when they are supposed to be free, black people are segregated and kept in poverty. Killing Bigger will not help the problem but only fuel the anger within the black community. In prison, at least, Bigger would be given a number, an identity, for the first time in his life. Although Bigger does not understand everything Max says, he is proud that a white man fought hard for his life.

The state’s attorney argues that Bigger is nothing more than an animal, filled with lust. He charges Bigger raped Mary and killed her to cover up his crime. The judge sentences Bigger to death. Max visits him in jail after he fails to obtain a pardon from the governor. Bigger has spent many hours contemplating his life. He believes that his killing must have been a good thing, because for the first time he felt alive. Max is horrified, but Bigger argues it makes sense to him. He asks Max to tell his mother not to worry and then asks him to tell Jan hello. In his last moments, he is able to break social taboo and call a white man by his first name.

Christian Beliefs

Bigger’s mother has a strong Christian faith. She says grace before meals and prays for her children. She often sings spirituals. His mother’s faith irks Bigger. His friend jokes that God will fulfill Bigger’s dreams to fly when He gives him wings to fly up to heaven. Bigger wishes God would send Mary’s soul to hell when he thinks she is making fun of him.

Peggy tells Bigger that the Daltons are a Christian family. They do not put on airs but live modestly, compared to their wealth. They are generous with their fortune, giving money and donations to black schools and community centers. Mr. Max argues they do it not out of obedience to their faith, but out of their feelings of guilt.

A preacher evangelizes to Bigger in jail. He prays for Jesus to show mercy to Bigger. Bigger remembers his mother trying to teach him about God and faith when he was younger. The memories spark a sense of guilt in him. The pastor prays for his salvation. He gives Bigger a wooden cross to wear around his neck to give him comfort. Bigger’s mother begs him to accept God’s grace and forgiveness before he dies for the crimes he has committed. God is the only one who can help him now. She begs him to accept God so that they might one day see each other in heaven.

Ku Klux Klan members set a cross on fire so Bigger can see it as he is being transported. The sight makes Bigger remember what the preacher said about Jesus wanting him to love others. The fiery cross makes him angry, and he begins to doubt what the preacher told him.

In the police car, Bigger tears off the wooden cross the preacher gave him. The men in the car tell him that God is his only hope, but Bigger tells them he does not have a soul. Later he tells the preacher that he does not want him or Jesus. Bigger throws the cross out of his cell when the preacher tries to give it back to him.

Bigger tells Mr. Max that he was never happy going to church. It was something white folks wanted because it helped them keep black people in line. Bigger felt church offered a false happiness. It was fake hope for gullible people. He does not want to die, but he does not believe in eternal life and so has no reason to want God.

Mr. Max argues that white men enslaved the black people because they had convinced themselves it was the will of God. The state’s attorney says that people should not judge Mary’s disobedience to her parents; that it is for her and God to settle.

Although the black preacher who visits Bigger speaks biblical truth, his dialect and mannerisms are such that the man sounds ignorant and foolish. He seems to exemplify what Bigger hated about church, which is that only subservient black people believed in God.

Other Belief Systems

At one point, Bigger thinks of Mr. Dalton as a god because he lives so high above where Bigger and his family live. In jail, Bigger dreams of a different reality. A place of magic that would lift him up and help him live so intensely that it would not matter that he was black. The state’s attorney tells the judge that the court’s laws are holy.

Authority Roles

The white police officers, prosecuting attorney and judge are all seen as racially prejudice against Bigger. They do not want to hear Mr. Max’s arguments that the treatment Bigger received from white society could possibly have motivated his behavior.

Bigger’s father was killed in a riot when Bigger was very young. His mother is a religious woman who pray for her children, goes to church and sings religious songs. Bigger resents her faith because he feels it is an example of her subservience to the controlling white society.

Profanity/Violence

The Lord’s name is taken in vain throughout the book. It is used alone and in phrases such as: Have mercy, only knows and oh. God is used alone and with Honest to, Good, swear to, by, sake and d--n. Jesus is also used as an expression as is Chrissakes. The words h---, d--n, b--tard, b--ch and sonofab--ch are also used. The n-word is used throughout the book.

The book opens with Bigger violently killing a rat in his family’s apartment. He hits it with a skillet and then crushes its head with his shoe.

Bigger and his friends plan on robbing a white man’s delicatessen by holding him up with a gun. Bigger sees it as a symbolic challenge to the white people’s rule over him. When his friend Gus comes late to the pool hall where they are to meet before the robbery, Bigger kicks him. He then punches him in the side of the head and chokes him. In a fit of rage, Bigger holds a knife to Gus’ throat and makes the boy lick it. Gus throws a pool ball at him, but Bigger deflects it with his hand. Bigger slaps Bessie when she cries over having to help him with his crime.

The newspaper tells how vigilantes beat innocent black men while they searched for Bigger after Mary’s body was found. Bigger hits a man searching for him in the head with the butt of his gun. The man falls unconscious. Police shoot at Bigger in an effort to bring him down from a rooftop water tower, but the bullets miss. He knocks down teargas canisters they lob up at him. Frozen from the snow and cold, Bigger finally comes down. He can barely move, so the men drag him feet first, allowing Bigger’s head and body to hit against the stairs as they pull him outside.

Bigger accidently smothers Mary in order to keep her from alerting her mother that he is in her room. In order to fit her body into the furnace, he decapitates her. The act is described in detail. When questioned by Britten, Bigger imagines splitting the man’s head open with an iron shovel. That night Bigger dreams he opens a package and inside is his own severed head. The dream is graphically described. Bigger waits until Bessie is asleep and then repeatedly beats her head with a brick. He throws her body down an airshaft. Later, Bigger learns from the prosecution that she had not been dead, but had struggled to get out of the airshaft before succumbing to her injuries and the cold.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Mary and Jan share several kisses, and they make out in the back of the car while Bigger drives around the park. Bigger can see Mary lying on the seat as Jan is bent over her. He has to turn away as he starts to get an erection.

Bigger and his friend masturbate in a public movie theater. They comment about their “progress.” After they ejaculate, they change seats so they will not put their feet in the emission. The newsreel plays a story about the Dalton family. Bigger’s friend says that rich white women will go to bed with anybody, including the family dog. They will even sleep with their black drivers. Bigger kisses Mary when she is drunk and he is putting her to bed. He gropes Mary’s breasts while she is unconscious.

Bigger forces Bessie to run away with him and hide in an abandoned building. Although she repeatedly tries to stop him, Bigger rapes her. Bigger’s thoughts during the rape are described in detail, but the act itself is not graphically described. Later, as he hides from the police, he sees a family in the opposite building. Three small children sit on a bed and watch their parents having sex in the bed across the room. Bigger remembers seeing his own parents when he was younger.

The state’s attorney repeatedly makes accusations that Bigger, and many black men, are filled with sexual lust for white females. Mr. Max argues that sex is a tool for Bigger and other black men. It is merely a release from all the pent up tension they have in their lives. They have never known it as an expression of love and intimacy because they have been denied the ability to share their dreams with a woman.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Tobacco: Many characters, including Bigger, smoke cigarettes.

Alcohol: Jan and Mary buy drinks for themselves and Bigger at dinner. Jan has a bottle of rum that they take turns drinking in the car. Bessie uses alcohol to help her cope with her sadness. She and Bigger drink together.

Prejudice: Bigger’s attitude is prejudiced toward whites, and there is white prejudice against blacks.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

17 and up

Author

Richard Wright

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Originally published by Harper & Brothers in 1940. Perennial Library, Perennial Classics and Harper Perennial Modern Classics have also published editions. The edition reviewed was published in 2005.

Released

On Video

Year Published

1940

Awards

Unknown

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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