Wright gets inside the head of "brute Negro" Bigger, revealing his feelings, thoughts and point of view as he commits crimes and is confronted with racism, violence and debasement. The name "Bigger" both is a play of the word "nigger", and a nod to the bigger social forces behind his actions. The name also suggests a "bigger" version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's character Uncle Tom.
While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright is sympathetic to the systemic inevitability behind them. The novel is a powerful statement about racial inequality and social injustices so deep that it becomes nearly impossible to determine where societal expectations/conditioning end and free will begins. As Bigger's lawyer points out, there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American, since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be. "No American Negro exists," Wright once wrote "who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull." Frantz Fanon discusses this feeling in his 1952 essay "L'Experience Vecue du Noir," or "The Fact of Blackness. " "In the end," writes Fanon, "Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world's anticipation."
Bigger Thomas wakes up in a dark, small room at the sound of the alarm clock. He lives in one room with his brother, Buddy, his sister, Vera, and their mother. Suddenly, a rat appears. The room turns into a maelstrom and, after a violent chase, Bigger kills the animal with an iron skillet and terrorizes Vera with the dark body. Vera faints and the mother scolds Bigger, who hates his family because they suffer and he cannot do anything about it.
That evening, Bigger has to see Mr. Dalton for a new job. Bigger's family depends on him. He would like to leave his responsibilities forever but when he thinks of what to do, he only sees a blank wall. He walks to the poolroom and meets his friend Gus. Bigger tells him that every time he thinks about whites, he feels something terrible will happen to him. They meet other friends, G. H. and Jack, and plan a robbery. They are afraid of attacking a white man but none of them wants to say so. Before the robbery, Bigger and Jack go to the movies. They are attracted to the world of wealthy whites in the newsreel and feel strangely moved by the tom-toms and the primitive black people in the film. But they feel they do not belong to either of those worlds. After the cinema, Bigger attacks Gus violently. The fight ends any chance of the robbery occurring. Bigger is obscurely conscious that he has done this on purpose.
When he finally gets the job. He does not know how to behave in the big house. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife use strange words. They try to be kind to Bigger but they make him very uncomfortable because Bigger does not know what they expect of him. Then their daughter, Mary, enters the room, asks Bigger why he does not belong to a union and calls her father a "capitalist." Bigger does not know that word and is even more confused and afraid to lose the job. After the conversation, Peggy, the Irish cook, takes Bigger to his room and tells him that the Daltons are a nice family but that he must avoid Mary's communist friends. Bigger has never had a room for himself before.
That night, he drives Mary around and meets her boyfriend, Jan. Jan and Mary infuriate Bigger because they talk to him, oblige him to take them to the diner where his friends are, invite him to sit at their table, and tell him to call them by their first names. At the diner they buy a bottle of rum. Bigger drives throughout the park, and Jan and Mary drink the rum, and fool around in the back seat. Then Jan and Mary part, but Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her bedroom when they arrive home. He is terrified someone will see him with her in his arms, but he cannot resist the temptation of the forbidden and he kisses her.
Just then, the bedroom door opens. It is Mrs. Dalton. Bigger knows she is blind but is terrified she will sense him there. He tries to make Mary still by putting the pillow over her head. Mrs. Dalton approaches the bed, smells whiskey in the air, scolds her daughter, and leaves. Mary claws at Bigger's hands while Mrs. Dalton is in the room, trying to alert Bigger that she cannot breathe. Just then, Bigger notices that Mary is not breathing anymore. She has suffocated. Bigger starts thinking frantically. He decides he will tell everyone that Jan, the communist, took Mary into the house. Then he thinks it will be better if Mary disappears and everyone thinks she has gone for a visit. In desperation, he decides to burn her body in the house's furnace. He has to cut her head off in order to fit her into the furnace, but finally manages to put the body inside. He adds extra coal to the furnace, leaves it there to burn, and goes home.
When Bigger talks with his family and meets his friends, he feels different now. The crime gives meaning to his life. When he goes back to the big house, Mr. Dalton notices his daughter's disappearance and asks Bigger about the night before. Bigger tries to blame Jan. Mr. Dalton sends Bigger home for the day, and Bigger decides to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie mentions a famous case in which the kidnappers of a child first killed him and then asked for ransom money. Bigger decides to do the same. He tells Bessie that he knows Mary has disappeared and will use that knowledge to get money from the Daltons, but in the conversation he realizes Bessie suspects him of having done something to Mary. Bigger goes back to work. Mr. Dalton has called a private detective, Mr. Britten, and this time, sensing Britten's racism, Bigger accuses Jan on the grounds of his race (he is Jewish), his political beliefs (communist), and his friendly attitude towards black people. When Britten finds Jan, he puts the boy and Bigger in the same room and confronts them with their conflicting stories. Jan is surprised by Bigger's story but offers him help.
Bigger storms away from the Dalton's. He decides to write the false kidnap note when he discovers that the owner of the rat-infested flat his family rents is Mr. Dalton. Bigger slips the note under the Dalton's front door, then returns to his room. When the Daltons receive the note, they contact the police, who take over the investigation from Britten, and journalists soon arrive at the house. Bigger is afraid, but he does not want to leave. In the afternoon, he is ordered to take the ashes out of the stove and make a new fire. He is so terrified that he starts poking the ashes with the shovel until the whole room is full of smoke. Furious, one of the journalists takes the shovel and pushes Bigger aside. He immediately finds the remains of Mary's bones and an earring in the stove. Bigger flees.
Bigger goes directly to Bessie and tells her the whole story. Bessie realizes that white people will think he raped the girl before killing her. They leave together, but Bigger has to drag Bessie around because she is paralyzed by fear. When they lie down together in an abandoned building, Bigger rapes Bessie, and he decides that he will have to kill her. He hits Bessie with a brick several times, and then throws her through a window, into an air shaft, but he forgets that the only money he had was in her pocket, a symbol of her value to him.
Bigger runs through the city. He sees newspaper headlines concerning the crime and overhears different conversations about it. Whites call him "ape." Blacks hate him because he has given the whites an excuse for racism. But now he is someone; he feels he has an identity. He will not say the crime was an accident. After a wild chase over the rooftops of the city, the police catch him.
During his first few days in prison, Bigger does not eat, drink, or talk to anyone. Then Jan comes to see him. He says Bigger has taught him a lot about black-white relationships and offers him the help of a communist lawyer, Max. In the long hours Max and Bigger pass together, Max learns about the sufferings and feelings of black people and Bigger learns about himself. He starts understanding his relationships with his family and with the world. He acknowledges his fury, his need for a future, and his wish for a meaningful life. He reconsiders his attitudes about white people, whether they are prejudiced, like Britten, or liberal, like Jan.
At Bigger's trial, Max tells the judge that Bigger killed because he was cornered by society from the moment he was born. He tells them that a way to cut the evil sequence of abuse and murder is to sentence Bigger to life in prison and not to death. But the judge apparently does not sympathize and sentences Bigger to the electric chair. In the last scene, while he waits for death, Bigger tells Max, "I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em." Bigger then tells him to say "hello" to Jan. For the first time, he calls him "Jan," not "Mister," just as Jan had wanted. This signifies that he finally sees whites as individuals, rather than a looming force. During their final moments of discussion, while Bigger is on death row, Max tries to summarize how white society has conditioned great anger and effeteness into Bigger and other oppressed impoverished people, but Bigger somewhat misinterprets this and twists it into a different message in order to comfort himself. He claims that "What I killed for must've been good!" and thus exemplifies what Max has just tried to explain to him-- that white corporate society is keeping the poor people angry, and ignorant as to why they are angry. Bigger, however, does not comprehend this for exactly those same reasons, and Max becomes quite shaken and teary-eyed before the two shake hands and Max leaves, and Bigger is alone.
Henry Dalton: Father of Mary, he owns a controlling amount of stock in a real estate firm which maintains the black ghetto. Blacks in the ghetto pay too much for rat-infested flats. As Max points out at the inquest, Mr. Dalton refuses to rent flats to black people outside of the designated ghetto area. He does this while donating money to the NAACP, buying ping-pong tables for the local black youth outreach program, and giving people like Bigger a chance at employment. Mr. Dalton's philanthropy, however, only shows off his wealth while backing up the business practices which contain an already oppressed people. That is, rather than alter the real estate business which he controls, he gives the unemployed youths ping-pong tables to play with. Mr. Dalton is blind to the real plight of blacks in the ghetto, a plight that he maintains.
Mrs. Dalton: Mary Dalton's mother. Her blindness serves to accentuate the motif of racial blindness throughout the story. Both Bigger and Max comment on how people are blind to the reality of race in America. Mrs. Dalton betrays her metaphorical blindness when she meets Mrs. Thomas. Mrs. Dalton hides behind her philanthropy and claims there is nothing she can do for Bigger. She cannot prevent his death nor can she admit to her family's direct involvement in the creation of the ghetto that created him.
Jan Erlone: Jan is a member of the Communist Party as well as the boyfriend of the very rich Mary Dalton. Bigger attempts to frame him for the murder of Mary. Jan, because he has been well versed in material dialecticism (Marxism), takes the event of the murder as an opportunity to face racism. Jan had already been seeking for a way to understand the 'negro' so as to organize them along communist lines against the monied people like Mr. Dalton. He is not able to fully do so, but he is able to put aside his personal trauma and persuade Max to help Bigger. He represents the idealistic young Marxist who hopes to save the world through revolution. However, before he can do that, he must understand the 'negro' much more than he thinks he does.
Gus: Gus is another member of Bigger's gang, but he has an uneasy relationship with Bigger. Both are aware of the other's nervous anxiety concerning whites. Consequently, Bigger would rather fight Gus than shoot a white man.
Jack Harding: Jack is a member of Bigger's group of pals and the one Bigger comes closest to viewing as a true friend.
Mr. Boris Max: A lawyer from the Communist Party who represents Bigger against the State's prosecuting attorney. As a Jewish American, he is in a better position to understand Bigger. It is through his speech during the trial that Wright reveals the greater moral and political implications of Bigger Thomas's life. Even though Mr. Max is the only one who understands Bigger, Bigger still horrifies him by displaying just how damaged white society has made him. When Mr. Max finally leaves Bigger he is aghast at the extent of the brutality of racism in America.
Bessie Mears: She is Bigger's casual sex partner. She drinks often, saying she is trying to forget her hard life. At the end of Book 2, Bigger has sex with Bessie against her will for the first time in her life. Bigger then proceeds to kill her in haste, having now committed two murders.
Peggy: Peggy is the Irish-American housekeeper for the Daltons and, like Max, can empathize with Bigger's status as an "outsider." However, she is more typical of poor whites who are sure to invest in racism if only to keep someone below themselves. Like everyone in the Dalton family, Peggy hides her dislike for blacks and treats Bigger nicely.
Bigger Thomas: The protagonist of the novel, Bigger commits two ghastly murders and is put on trial for his life. He is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. His acts give the novel action but the real plot involves Bigger's reactions to his environment and his crime. Through it all, Bigger struggles to discuss his feelings, but he can neither find the words to fully express himself nor does he have the time to say them. However, as they have been related through the narration, Bigger—typical of the "outsider" archetype—has finally discovered the only important and real thing: his life. Though too late, his realization that he is alive—and able to choose to befriend Mr. Max—creates some hope that men like him might be reached earlier.
Debatable as the final scene is, in which for the first time Bigger calls a white man by his first name, Bigger is never anything but a failed human. He represents the black man conscious of a system of racial oppression that leaves him no opportunity to exist but through crime. As he says to Gus, "They don't let us do nothing... [and] I can't get used to it." He even admits to wanting to be an aviator and later, to Max, he admits to wanting to be a great number of things. He can do nothing but be one of many blacks in the ghetto and maybe get a job serving whites; crime seems preferable. Not surprisingly, then, he already has a criminal history, and he has even been to reform school. Ultimately, the greatest thing he can do is transgress the boundary the white world has set for him. He can violate what those who oppress him hold sacred and thereby meet the challenge they set in establishing their boundaries.
Buddy Thomas: Buddy, Bigger's younger brother, idolizes Bigger as a male role model. He defends him to the rest of the family and consistently asks if he can help Bigger.
Mrs. Thomas: Bigger's mother. She struggles to keep her family alive on the meager wages earned by taking in other people's laundry. She is a religious woman who believes she will be rewarded in an "afterlife," but as a black woman accepts that nothing can be done to improve her people's situation. Additionally, she knows that Bigger will end up hanging from the "gallows" for his crime, but this is just another fact of life.
Vera Thomas: She is Bigger's sister and in her Bigger sees his mother. Bigger knows that she will inevitably have the same tired look in her eyes and bear the continual strain of a family. The other option for Vera is to become like Bessie—a drunkard.
Buckley State prosecutor
Britten The Investigator
However, the book was criticized by some of Wright's fellow African-American writers. James Baldwin's 1948 essay Everybody's Protest Novel dismissed Native Son as protest fiction, and therefore limited in its understanding of human character and its artistic value. The essay was collected with nine others in Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955).
In 1991 the novel was for the first time published in its entirety by the Library of America, together with an introduction, a chronology and notes by Arnold Rampersad, a well-regarded scholar of African-American literary works. This edition also contains Richard Wright's 1940 essay How 'Bigger' Was Born.
The book is number 71 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The Modern Library placed it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
A large section of Percival Everett's Erasure (1999) contains a parody, first entitled "My Pafology," of Native Son.
Bigger Thomas is mentioned in one of the lyrical hooks of "The Ritual" in Saul Williams's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
An allusion to the story is presented in part 1 of The Second Renaissance, a short anime film from The Animatrix collection. In this film, a domestic robot named "B1-66ER" is placed on trial for murder. The name is created using Leet Speak.
The book was newly adapted and directed again by Kent Gash (in conjunction with the Paul Green Foundation) for Intiman Theatre in Seattle, WA in 2006. The production, featuring Ato Essandoh as Bigger Thomas, was a more literal translation of the book than the 1941 version and was a critical success.
Native Son has been filmed twice; once in 1951 and again in 1986. Neither version is considered to have been an artistic success, despite Wright's involvement in the earlier version. The first version was made in Argentina; the novel's relatively sympathetic portrayal of the communist characters would have made an American production impossible at the time. Wright played the title character despite being twice the age of Bigger Thomas. The film was not well received, with Wright's performance being a particular target of critics.