Native Son by Richard Wright
This book was written in 1940. The author, Richard Wright, is black. His books deal mostly with racism and black identity and how white people treated black people really badly. With Native Son, Wright became an important literary figure in America. He exposed worlds that had not yet been written about.
Bigger Thomas: He is the main dude of the story. He is a black guy who hates white people. He thinks white people are the reason that he is so poor. At first he is afraid of whites, but after he kills a white girl he isn’t afraid anymore. He is a quiet guy who doesn’t talk to anyone and is filled with rage and hate against whites. He dies in the end.
Mrs. Thomas: Bigger’s mother. She’s a religious nut. She worries about Bigger because she wants him to get a job and stop hanging around bad people.
Mary Dalton: She is the daughter of this rich white guy. Secretly she is a communist though. She dates some communist guy behind her parent’s back. She is nice to Bigger, but gets accidentally killed by him.
Bessie Mears: Bigger’s girlfriend. She is an alcoholic. Bigger kills her in the end.
Jan Erlone: Mary’s commie boyfriend. Even though Bigger kills his girlfriend, he forgives Bigger and helps him out by providing him with a lawyer.
Boris Max: He is a communist lawyer. He defends Bigger in the end of the book.
Mr. and Mrs. Dalton: Mary’s parents. They hire Bigger to be their chauffeur.
Buddy: Bigger’s younger brother. He looks up to Bigger and wants to be like him when he grows up.
Vera: Bigger’s younger sister. She doesn’t think Bigger is cool, and thinks he is a troublemaker.
Bigger Thomas is this dude who lives in a small apartment in Chicago with his mom, brother, and sister. The story starts out with this rat that has been annoying the family. Bigger kills the rat. Then Bigger’s mom tells him he has a job interview that night. She wants him to take it because if he doesn’t they will stop receiving welfare. Then Bigger goes to some pool hall to hang out with his friends. They are all crooks. They want to rob this white dude’s deli but are afraid to steal from a white dude. Bigger is afraid, too.
Bigger’s new job is as a driver for a rich white family. His task is to drive their hot daughter, Mary, to her college class. She tells him to drive to her boyfriend’s house instead and to not tell her parents. Mary’s boyfriend, Jan, is a communist and so is she. They ask Bigger to eat with them. Bigger isn’t used to white people being nice to him. He thinks they are making fun of him. They all get drunk. Then Bigger drives Mary home and has to carry her upstairs because she’s wasted. Mary’s blind mom comes in to check on her. Bigger gets scared that he will be found there so he puts a pillow over Mary’s face to shut her up. Then he realizes he has killed her.
Bigger remembers that Mary was supposed to go to Detroit. He thinks that the Daltons will think she left early. To hide the body Bigger cuts off her head and burns everything in the furnace. The next day Bigger is happy that he killed her. He thinks he did something against white people (he hates white people). Then he comes up with a plan to send a ransom note to the Daltons to try and get some money. He asks his girlfriend to help but she says no. So he sends a ransom note and makes it look like it came from Jan (Mary’s commie boyfriend). The kidnapping is a big story in the newspaper.
Nobody thinks Bigger could be the kidnapper because he’s a stupid black guy. But then someone finds Mary’s bones in the furnace. Bigger is afraid that Bessie will tell on him so he kills her, too. Then the police chase after Bigger and arrest him.
People lie about Bigger and make him out to be this jerk who raped and killed Mary. Jan (Mary’s boyfriend) gets a Communist Lawyer (Boris Max) to defend Bigger. Bigger confesses, gets convicted, and gets sentenced to the electric chair. He talks to Max about the murders and how they are justified. Then Biggers dies.
BOOK BY BOOK
This Book is split into three books. There are also separations in the book marked by a "***". Those will be called "Divisions" in this chapter by chapter summary.
- Bigger wakes up one day. He lives in a one room apartment with his mom, brother, and sister.
- They see a rat on the floor. Bigger kills the rat. Then he taunts Vera with it. Bigger’s mom yells at him
- They all have breakfast and Bigger’s mom tells him to get a job. She is scared that if he doesn’t start making money soon, they will lose their welfare.
- Bigger goes to the local pool hall to hang with his buddies. They talk about a robbery they planned. They wanted to knock over a store owned by a white dude (Mr. Blum).
- Bigger and his friend, Gus, talk about how being black sucks. Then they make fun of white people and complain about how the "white man is keeping them down."
- Bigger and Gus see some other friends. They all talk about robbing the white dude’s store. Bigger is scared but makes fun of the other guys because they are scared. Then Bigger and Gus argue because Gus thinks Bigger is scared. They argue but then all agree to meet later that day to rob the store.
- Then Bigger and his friend, Jack, go watch a movie. It is a movie about rich, white people.
- Bigger thinks about his new job working for rich, white people. He thinks about what kind of people they’ll be.
- Bigger meets his friends back at the pool hall to rob the store. Bigger doesn’t want to do it. Bigger argues with Gus some more. Gus gets pissed and leaves. Now they can’t do the robbery.
- Bigger goes for his job interview with the Daltons.
- Bigger is nervous. He walks around the outside of the house not knowing where to enter. He knows that a black man in a nice neighborhood could be accused with robbery or rape. He is let in by the black maid (Peggy).
- Bigger talks with Mr. Dalton. Then Mrs. Dalton comes in. She is blind.
- Mr. Dalton continues to interview Bigger. He hires Bigger as the family chauffeur.
- Then Mr. Dalton’s daughter (Mary) comes in. She starts asking Bigger if he’s in a union. She is a commie.
- Peggy feeds Bigger and tells him that Mr. Dalton donates money to the black community. Then she gives him a tour of the house.
- Bigger drives Mary to her college. But she tells Bigger to drive her to her boyfriend’s house. She also tells him to not tell her parents.
- They pick up Jan, Mary’s Communist boyfriend. They are all about racial equality. Jan and Mary treat Bigger as an equal.
- Some of the things they do that whites never do with blacks: Jan shook Bigger’s hand, Jan drove the car, and Jan told Bigger to call him "Jan", not "sir."
- They think they are being nice by treating Bigger as a human rather than as some savage. Bigger thinks they are making fun of him and he doesn’t really feel very comfortable being treated so nicely.
- They go eat at some restaurant in the ghetto. They all drink alcohol.
- Jan goes home drunk. Bigger takes Mary home and carries her upstairs because she is so wasted. He is in her bedroom and scared because black guys aren’t supposed to be in white girl’s bedrooms.
- Mrs. Dalton walks in. She can’t see Bigger because she is blind. Bigger covers Mary’s mouth with a pillow so she won’t talk.
- Mrs. Dalton leaves the room and Bigger sees that he has killed Mary.
- Bigger gets scared and thinks about how he can cover it up. He decides to burn her dead body. He remembers she has to go to Detroit the next morning, so nobody will wonder why she is not at home.
- Bigger takes her body to the furnace. It won’t fit so he cuts her head off. Then he burns her body.
- He plans to make it look like Jan killed her. He thinks Jan could be framed because he’s a Communist and everyone hates Commies.
- Bigger wakes up the next day. He throws away the knife and all the evidence.
- Bigger is no longer scared of anything. He is kinda liberated by killing a white chick.
- Bigger’s brother (Buddy) finds the money that was in Mary’s purse. He returns it to Bigger.
- Bigger stops at the pool hall to see his friends. Then he goes to work.
- Bigger is at the Dalton’s house. The family is worried about Mary, because they don’t know where she is.
- Mary’s parents figure out that she never left for Detroit. They want to ask Bigger questions but are too proud to let some black servant let know that something is wrong in the house. So Bigger gets off the hook.
- Bigger goes to his girlfriend’s house (Bessie).
- Bessie is mad at Bigger because he hasn’t visited her in awhile. He shows her the money he got from Mary’s purse and Bessie is happy. Then they have sex.
- Bessie tells Bigger some story about this guy who killed a boy and then demanded ransom money from his family (because the family thought the boy was missing not dead). This gives Bigger the idea of demanding ransom money for Mary from the Daltons.
- Bigger asks Bessie to help him out. He doesn’t tell her he killed Mary, he tells her that Mary ran off with Jan the Commie. Bessie says no, then agrees because she needs money to buy booze.
- Bigger goes back to the Dalton’s house. They see that Mary never arrived in Detroit. They ask Bigger what happened. He tells them that he dropped Mary off at Jan’s house and that was that.
- Mr. Dalton hires a detective. The Detective asks Bigger some questions and tries to ruffle him. They all finally decide that Bigger is innocent (even though he is guilty).
- The Dalton’s bring Jan to the house to ask him questions. Jan denies everything and Bigger continues to lie.
- Jan talks to Bigger outside but Bigger pulls out a gun and threatens him. Then Bigger goes back to Bessie’s house.
- Bigger writes the ransom note. He signs it "Red" so the Daltons will think it is Jan, the Communist.
- Bigger tells Bessie he killed Mary. He thinks about killing her so she can’t tell on him. But he gets her to shut up about it.
- Bigger delivers the ransom note to the Dalton’s house. The family is weird. The detective snoops around more. Nobody thinks that Bigger could have done the crime because they think blacks are too stupid.
- All these newspaper people show up at the Dalton’s house (this is a big story).
- All the detectives and reporters set up shop in the basement next to the furnace (where Mary’s body is burned up). The fire dies out. Peggy the maid asks Bigger to clean out the ashes. Bigger gets scared that somebody will find Mary’s body, so instead he adds coal. The furnace produces a lot of smoke. So one of the reporters starts shoveling the ashes out. He finds Mary’s bones and an earring. Bigger knows he has been found out so he escapes from the house.
- Bigger runs to Bessie’s house. They both run to some empty building. Bigger forces Bessie to have sex. Then he gets scared that she will tell on him, so he kills her with a brick to the head.
- Bigger tries to sleep and feels proud of himself for all the killings.
- Bigger is now running from building to building trying to escape the cops.
- Bigger reads the newspaper. The news says he is a rapist.
- He reflects a lot on what happens. He thinks about giving up, but keeps running
- He finds out 8,000 cops are searching for him. They finally catch him on a rooftop. He is arrested.
- Bigger is in jail.
- Bigger reads all the stories about him in the newspaper. They are very bad and racist.
- Bigger’s mom’s preacher comes to visit (Rev. Hammond). He tells Bigger to turn to religion, but Bigger says no.
- Then Jan the Commie comes to visit. He tells Bigger he understand the racial injustice he is suffering and understand why he killed Mary (what a weirdo)
- Bigger feels good because Jan understands his pain. Jan helps out Bigger by giving him a lawyer (Boris Max).
- Then the State Attorney visits Bigger. He tells him that they have a lot of evidence and he tells Bigger to confess.
- To make his mom happy, Bigger prays with his mom.
- Then Bigger confesses the murder to the State Attorney.
- The pretrial begins. Mrs. Dalton is the first person interviewed.
- The prosecutors interview Jan and try to implicate him in the crime. They want to bust Jan for something because he’s a Commie and they hate Commies.
- Then Boris Max (Bigger’s lawyer) interviews Mr. Dalton. He asks him questions about the crappy apartments he rents to blacks.
- The coroner brings in Bessie’s dead body as more evidence.
- Bigger is convicted for murder.
- The cops take Bigger back to the Dalton’s house. They ask him to reenact the murder. Bigger says no. Then Bigger goes back to the jail. He finds that the KKK has burned a cross in front of the jailhouse.
- Bigger is in his cell. Boris Max visits him. Bigger tells Boris why he killed Mary. He killed because of all these black/white issues he has and also because he hates whites.
- The trial begins. Max enters a guilty plea for Bigger.
- Max asks the judge to give the sentence because the jury will be racist.
- He asks the judge to just give Bigger life in prison.
- Max tries to argue in court that Bigger is the product of a racist society and that’s why he shouldn’t be given the death penalty. He tells the judge that if Bigger gets killed, more blacks like him will try to be like him.
- Max then argues that it is because of white racism that Bigger killed Mary.
- The prosecutors ask for the death penalty.
- The judge thinks it over and sentences Bigger to the death penalty.
- Max visits Bigger before he dies.
- Bigger talks to Max and really opens up to him.
- Bigger and Max talk about racism and how messed up society is.
- They talk but really don’t understand each other that much.
THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART
- Racism and anger are big parts of this book. The author makes many major and minor points throughout the book about how racist people are -- even subtle things like how they didn’t think Bigger could do a smart crime because he is black, and how they treated him like a dog.
- In this book, white look hypocritical. Mr. Dalton donates money to the black community so he feels good about himself. But me makes money renting out crappy apartments to black people and separating them from the rest of the people.
- Bigger has a lot of hate towards white people. Part of his hate is fear.
- In the beginning Bigger is afraid of whites. After the killing he feels proud and doesn’t fear them anymore.
- Notice how Bigger mistakes Jan and Mary’s niceness for ridicule. They were just trying to be nice to Bigger but because he is so used to being treated like crap by whites, he thinks that Mary and Jan are patronizing him and making fun of him.
- Books 1 and 2 portray a world where racial equality is not possible. Book 3 gives a more optimistic look.
- When in jail, Bigger opens up. Boris Max breaks down Bigger’s wall he put up to shield himself against the world.
- Notice how the people who are racist against Bigger and also want to screw Jan the Commie over. When anything is different from the mainstream, society wants to get rid of. They think blacks are different and Communism is a scary idea.