THEMES / THEME ANALYSIS
The following are themes of Native Son.
Table of Contents
Native Son is an indictment of racism. Racism affects Bigger’s life at home, at the Daltons, and in police custody. The Thomases must live in their rat-infested apartment partly because no one will rent to blacks in any other section of town. At the same time, blacks are charged higher rents than whites. When Bigger goes to the movies, one of the films portrays blacks as jungle savages. After his arrest, Bigger finds that the press and the public are using racial stereotypes to portray him as a sex criminal and brutal mass murderer. And despite their best intentions, even the liberal Daltons and the radical Jan and Mary act toward Bigger in a racist manner by failing to recognize him as an individual.
Bigger Thomas is angry. You first see him in conflict with his mother and sister. Later he turns in fury on one of his best friends, Gus. Jan and Mary also enrage him. He frequently thinks of “blotting out” the people around him. And some of his moments of greatest exhilaration occur when he vents his hostility in violence.
Bigger’s anger seems to be closely connected to his sense of racial identity. He is often furious at other blacks for their passive responses to the limitations placed on their lives by whites. And he is frequently enraged at whites for making him feel ashamed and self-conscious. Does Wright share and approve of Bigger’s fury or does he present it as a tragedy? Your answer to this question will depend on whose views you think Wright shares. By narrating the novel from Bigger’s point of view, Wright draws you into sympathy with Bigger. You can also argue, however, that Wright identifies more with Boris Max, who seems shocked and upset by Bigger’s attitude toward violence. What is your response to Bigger’s fury?
Although his mother is religious, Bigger decides that she is blind to the realities of her life. He sees his mother’s need for religion as parallel to Bessie’s for whiskey. Both, he thinks, are passive, escapist responses to racist conditions. At the end of the novel, Reverend Hammond tries to convince Bigger to pray. But Bigger appears to reject the black church, and presumably all religion, when he throws away the crucifix given him by Reverend Hammond. Bigger identifies the crucifix with the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan.
Wright seems to be sharply critical of the black religious establishment and its representative, Reverend Hammond, who even objects to Jan’s suggestion that Bigger try to fight back and save his life. You might argue, however, that Bigger’s rejection of the cross and of religion is not necessarily the author’s rejection. Do you find the views of either Reverend Hammond or Mrs. Thomas appealing? Or do you agree with Bigger’s repudiation of them?
COMMUNISM AND RADICAL POLITICAL IDEAS
Jan Erlone is a Communist, Mary Dalton is a Communist sympathizer, and Boris Max is a lawyer who works closely with causes supported by Communists. Even before any of these characters appears in the novel, Bigger has seen a movie that portrays a Communist as a maniacal bomb thrower. Native Son contrasts the media image of Communists with Communist characters who are decent, warm human beings. Some readers think Wright’s portrayal of his Communist characters is too idealized. On the other hand, Wright also shows that neither Jan nor Mary understands Bigger and that, despite their professed concern for black people, neither can relate to a black man as an individual human being. As a result, you might maintain that the novel criticizes Communists even while portraying them as victims of unfair stereotyping.
In Book Three, Wright uses Boris Max to present a radical social critique. Max argues before the judge that Bigger’s violence is a predictable response to society’s racism, which is the real criminal. Max also tells Bigger that young unemployed blacks like him should work with other blacks and with trade unions and radical movements. Many readers think that Max speaks for Wright and that Max’s arguments are those of the Communist Party of Wright’s time. You might question whether Max ever really understands Bigger, however. If you feel he doesn’t, this limitation might be evidence that he isn’t a completely reliable spokesman for Wright. Do you agree with any of Max’s arguments?
DETERMINISM AND FREEDOM
Bigger feels happier and freer after he kills Mary. His violence against a white woman gives him a sense of power. At the end of Native Son, he even implies that his killings expressed his deepest self. You could argue that through his violent rebellion, Bigger has transcended or risen above the passivity of the other black characters. From this point of view, Bigger’s violence is an assertion of his freedom and a rebellion against society’s constraints.
But Bigger’s lawyer Boris Max suggests that Bigger is only a passive product of his society. Bigger’s violence, he says, is a reflex created by the oppressive conditions of his life. From this viewpoint, Bigger is at least as blind, passive, and self-destructive as the novel’s other black characters, and perhaps even more so.
The relationship between men and women is another of the themes of Native Son. Bigger’s affair with Bessie is affected by the difficult conditions of their lives. Each uses the other as a means of escape, but genuine love between them doesn’t seem possible. Bigger is attracted to Mary, and she may be attracted to him, too, but the racial barrier prevents Mary from even understanding Bigger and makes Bigger fear and hate Mary.
Another theme is Wright’s critique of the criminal justice system in the U.S. Wright suggests that the court’s verdict is predictable and perhaps even that the court is carrying out the will of the mob. Alienation (isolation) is an additional theme of Native Son. Bigger is isolated from whites and blacks alike, and his acts of self-assertion cut him off from humanity even further. Black family life is another of the novel’s concerns.
Bigger’s father was the victim of a Southern lynch mob. And Bigger’s family lives in such crowded conditions that they get on each other’s nerves. Finally the novel considers media stereotyping. Both the movies and the newspapers stereotype minorities, Communists, rich people, and criminals.
Bigger Thomas – The novel’s protagonist, Bigger is involved with a gang at the beginning of the novel, but his run-ins with the law, and his illegal activities, are minimal. Nevertheless Bigger is defined by his rage: against his mother, the rest of his family, his friends, and those whom he believes have not given him a chance in life. Bigger is hired to work at the Dalton house—home of a wealthy, white communist-leaning Chicago family—and on the first night of his job, after spending time with Mary Dalton and her friend Jan, Bigger accidentally kills Mary, then begins covering up the crime. This cover-up includes Bigger’s later murder of Bessie, his girlfriend, and leads to his trial and conviction for rape and homicide. Bigger is sentenced to death at the end of the novel, although his interactions with his sympathetic lawyer, Max, cause Bigger to gain some insight into why he chose to kill in the first place.
Ma Thomas – Bigger’s mother, Ma does her best to keep the family going—to feed her children, and to encourage them, namely Bigger and Vera, to help provide for the family. Ma Thomas is spiritually crushed by Bigger’s murder, and asks him, while in prison, to pray for his soul.
Vera Thomas – Bigger’s only sister, Vera takes classes at the local YWCA in order to become a seamstress. After Bigger’s imprisonment, Vera also tells Bigger he ought to pray for his soul and for redemption in the next life.
Buddy Thomas – Bigger’s brother, Buddy tends to take Bigger’s side when Vera and Ma tell Bigger he must find a job. Buddy, younger than Bigger, looks up to his older brother, and, after Bigger’s arrest, Buddy even says he will help Bigger to violently escape the prison, if necessary—although this is, of course, impossible.
Mr. Dalton – Father of Mary and Bigger’s employer, Mr. Dalton is a wealthy real-estate magnate in the South Side of Chicago, and his company owns the apartment building in which Bigger and his family live. Mr. Dalton claims that he donates a good deal of money to African American charities, and that he hires black workers in order to help them. But as Max points out in the trial, Mr. Dalton’s help is paternalistic, at best, and serves only to make life marginally better for African Americans while continuing to funnel the meager incomes of the Black Belt toward Dalton’s highly profitable real-estate company.
Mrs. Dalton – Mrs. Dalton, like her husband Henry, believes that the Dalton family is helping African Americans in Chicago by offering them jobs and by donating to charities in the Black Belt. Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness—she has been blind for ten years—is a counterpart to what Bigger and Max consider to be her metaphorical “blindness” toward the plight of African Americans in Chicago.
Mary Dalton – Daughter of the Daltons, Mary is driven by Bigger on the night of her murder, and the two of them pick up Jan—although Bigger does not want to socialize with Mary and Jan, because their niceness makes him ashamed of his blackness and lack of familiarity with Communism. Bigger then murders Mary, by accident, while trying to “keep her quiet” while Mrs. Dalton is in Mary’s bedroom later that night. Bigger disposes of Mary’s body by putting her in the Dalton family furnace, thus prompting a city-wide search for Mary, and leading, later, to Bigger’s imprisonment and sentencing to execution for his crimes.
Jan – A Communist active in Chicago, and Mary’s boyfriend, Jan meets up with Mary and Bigger the night of the murder, and does all he can to treat Bigger with kindness—although Bigger resents Jan’s attempts. Bigger then implicitly blames Jan for Mary’s murder, hoping that authorities will be fooled, and although some believe that Jan might have “made a pact” with Bigger in order for Mary to be killed, Jan’s name is later cleared. Jan has his friend Max, a lawyer for the Communists, represent Bigger at his trial, and Bigger’s last words to Max, at the novel’s end, are to tell Jan that he says goodbye.
Max – Bigger’s defense attorney at his trial, Max is a Jewish-American Communist who believes that the oppressive white majority of Chicago does all it can to “keep down” people of color and members of trade unions. Max sympathizes with Bigger because he, too, is a victim of discrimination, based on his political and religious beliefs. Although Max does not succeed in helping Bigger avoid execution, Bigger is nonetheless grateful to Max for speaking to him as a human being.
Buckley – The State’s Attorney and prosecutor of the case against Bigger, Buckley is very much a representative of the city’s ruling white majority—he calls Bigger an “ape” and a “savage,” and makes it seem that Bigger killed out of a generalized blood-lust, directed particularly against white women. Buckley succeeds at trial in getting the judge and jury to agree to Bigger’s execution.
Bessie – Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie tends to go along with what Bigger wants, although when Bigger asks her to help generate a ransom from the supposed “kidnapping” of Mary, Bessie breaks down and worries that her life is ruined. Bigger later rapes and murders Bessie, fearing that she will tell the authorities of Bigger’s guilt; Bessie’s body is found by the police and exhibited at the inquest, causing Bigger to faint.
Gus – A member of Bigger’s gang, Gus comes up with the idea to rob Blum’s deli, at least initially, but has hesitations about it later on. Bigger takes out his frustration on Gus, choking and attacking him at Doc’s pool hall. Gus later visits Bigger in prison.
G.H. – Another member of Bigger’s gang, G. H. says that he will go along with the robbery of Blum’s deli, but also seems somewhat sympathetic to Gus’s side—feeling, perhaps, afraid that the group will get caught if they rob a white man.
Jack – The third member of Bigger’s gang, Jack goes with Bigger to the movies on the supposed day of the Blum robbery, and watches, with Bigger, the news-reel starring Mary Dalton and Jan.
The preacher – An African-American preacher from the Black Belt, the preacher, named Hammond, does all he can to convince Bigger that he will receive salvation for his crimes only in the next life. But after Bigger sees a burning cross, set up by the Ku Klux Klan, in the South Side during his incarceration, Bigger rejects absolutely the preacher’s teaching, believing that God can offer Bigger no support or succor in this life or the next.
Blum – Owner of a deli in the South Side, Blum, a white man, is the target of a planned robbery executed by Bigger’s gang. The gang decides against robbing the deli, however, once Bigger attacks Gus and ruins the group’s sense of shared purpose.
Doc – Owner of a pool hall in the South Side, Doc seems, at first, to enjoy the company of the gang, but later kicks them all out of his bar after Bigger cuts up the green felt of the pool table with his knife.
Peggy – The head maid of the Dalton house, Peggy is kind to Bigger, cooks for him, and shows him how to stoke the furnace. Peggy betrays very little suspicion of Bigger, even after Mary’s disappearance.
Britten – A private investigator hired by Mr. Dalton, Britten believes from the start that Bigger might have had something to do with Mary’s disappearance. He is later called by Buckley to appear at Bigger’s trial, and testifies as to his interactions with Bigger immediately after the murders.
Green – A former employee of the Daltons’, and also from the Black Belt, Green, as Mrs. Dalton tells it, used some of his time and money during his employment at the Dalton home to get an education at night school.
Deputy coroner – The man presiding over the inquest, in front of the grand jury, the deputy coroner insists that Bessie’s body be laid out before Bigger and the remainder of the group assembled. Max objects that this is being done only to incite the mob against Bigger, but the deputy coroner claims Bessie’s body is necessary to establish the fact of her murder.