Chicago. Illinoi is largest city and the industrial center of the Midwest. Richard Wright’s family was one of thousands of southern black families that migrated to Chicago between 1916 and 1920 and eventually settled in the South Side ghetto, where Wright grew up. His protagonist, Bigger Thomas, has the same Chicago background.
Wright’s novel depicts the city as a virtual prison of brick and concrete walls and narrow streets that shut out the light in his corner of the world. The physical limits of Bigger’s world reflect the limited opportunities for black men in the white-controlled world. Bigger feels constricted by his limited space, as though he is on “the outside of the world peeping through a knot-hole in the fence.”
Three major scenes of violence show Bigger’s progressive dehumanization: his killing of a huge rat, his attack on Gus in a poolroom, and his accidental killing of Mary Dalton in her bedroom. Denied space and privacy by being forced to live in one room, Bigger’s entire family is dehumanized.
There, the young Bigger corners and kills the huge rat that terrorizes the family. The room is a death trap for both Bigger and the rat, with whom he identifies. He admires the rat’s strength and defiance even as he beats it to death.
After Bigger kills Mary, his view of the city mirrors his inner chaos. Avoiding the police, he heads for his mistress, Bessie’s, place along streets that are but “paths through a dense jungle” of black, empty buildings with “black windows like blind eyes”—a surrealistic landscape over which street lamps cast a ghostly sheen.
In Bigger’s eyes, the city is filled with rotting, tumble-down buildings that symbolize his own disintegration into guilt and fear. After involving Bessie in a plot to extort money from the Daltons, he and Bessie drive through a howling blizzard that symbolizes Bigger’s inner tumult.
When he realizes that Bessie’s knowledge could send him to prison, he rapes and kills her. Now on the run, he experiences the city as a labyrinth in which the police are closing all means of exit. When the police find him in the ghetto, he is on a water tower on a rooftop, paralyzed by the cold jets of water that the police use to immobilize him.
Chicago’s South Side. Even when the family moves from its one-room apartment to the larger world of Chicago’s South Side, Bigger still feels trapped in his environment.
As he struggles to fit in with his black cohorts, he finds himself trapped by fear again. He is afraid to join his street gang in robbing the white-owned grocery but is also afraid to confess his fears to his companions. To cover his fear, he fights with Gus in a poolroom and terrifies him with a knife.
Dalton home. Mary Dalton’s family home, located at 4605 Drexel Boulevard. Her home symbolizes the white man’s world that Bigger covets and fears. Her house is surrounded by a black iron picket fence that both constricts and excludes Bigger after he becomes the Daltons’ family chauffeur. When he drives Mary and a friend to Ernie’s Chicken Shack, he is invited to join them. Inebriated by heavy drinking at Ernie’s, Bigger loses his grip on reality. As he drives the girls back home through Washington Park, he becomes increasingly excited and follows Mary through the “dark and silent” house to her bedroom. When Mrs. Dalton enters the room as Bigger is about to make love to Mary, he accidentally smothers Mary while trying to keep her silent. Faced with his fear that he has killed Mary, Bigger loses his grip on reality. He sees the house as haunted, the room filled with hazy blue light, and the whole scene dissolving into a “vast city” of angry whites seeking vengeance.
Prison. Place where Bigger awaits execution after being convicted of his crimes. The prison becomes his place of transformation. Only when he faces the truth that he has built his own traps by his violent acts can he discover his innate sense of humanity and displace his killer instinct with acts of friendship and concern for others.
Also ,one of the major themes of Native Son is the effect of people’s environments on their behavior and personality. Thus, setting is especially important in the novel. The story takes place in Chicago in the late 1930s, when the United States had still not recovered from the Great Depression. Jobs are scarce, and Bigger and his pool-hall friends are among the many unemployed.
Richard Wright was influenced by the literary school of naturalism, whose adherents tried to observe and record their world, and especially its more unpleasant parts, with scientific accuracy. Wright knew Depression-era Chicago well and drew heavily on his first-hand knowledge. In many respects, the Chicago of Native Son is an accurate representation even in its details. For example, Ernie’s Kitchen Shack at Forty-seventh Street and Indiana Avenue was modeled on a real restaurant called The Chicken Shack, located at 4647 Indiana Avenue and owned by a man named Ernie.
Two aspects of Bigger’s environment influence him especially strongly-his confinement to Chicago’s black South Side ghetto and his glimpses of the dazzling white world, of which he feels he can never be part. Bigger’s family shares a rat-infested room, but, when he sees an airplane flying overhead or views the glamorous life portrayed in a movie, he feels teased and tempted by a different, happier world. At the Daltons, Bigger is thrust directly into that freer, white society. The striking contrast between their impressive mansion and the Thomases’ one-room “kitchenette” apartment illustrates Bigger’s frustrating predicament.
Many readers have pointed out, however, that the courtroom and jailhouse settings of Book Three are less realistic than the settings of Books One and Two, perhaps because Wright himself was less familiar with those environments. And, though few would contest that the hardships of life in Chicago’s Black Belt were as oppressive as Wright portrayed them, some readers point out that the urban ghetto was also a place of opportunity for blacks by comparison to the Deep South, from which most of them had migrated.
For example, in Chicago, Wright found the respect and encouragement that he had never experienced in rural Mississippi. But in Native Son, Wright doesn’t seem to acknowledge that Chicago could hold out any hope at all for a poor black youth. Finally, many whites in Depression-era Chicago lived in poverty too, but because Bigger does not come into contact with them, they do not form part of this novel.
Despite their realism, the settings of Native Son also function symbolically. Wright’s Chicago often has a nightmarish intensity in which external locations convey his characters’ inner emotions. Bigger’s confining apartment mirrors his feeling of being hemmed in in all other aspects of his life too. The rat that he pursues there foreshadows the hunted beast that Bigger himself will become.
Likewise, the airplane Bigger sees overhead reminds you of all his frustrated aspirations to soar away from his limited life. At the Daltons’, however, Bigger does not soar. Instead they consign him to the symbolic hell of their basement and its fiery furnace, an appropriate background for Bigger’s swelling rage. And when Bigger flees the Daltons’, the snow of Chicago’s wintry streets comes to represent the white enemy that Bigger cannot escape.