Richard Wright was determined to make a profound statement. In his novel, Native Son, he endeavors to present the “horror of Negro life in the United States” (Wright xxxiii). By addressing such a significant topic, he sought to write a book that “no one would weep over; that would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears” (xxvii). Native Son is a commentary on the poverty and helplessness experienced by blacks in America, and it illustrates the abhorrent ways that blacks were treated, describes their awful living conditions and calls attention to the half-hearted efforts offered by white sympathizers. Told from the perspective of his character Bigger Thomas, Wright crafts a story depicting the oppressive lives endured by Negroes and makes it so despicable that it grabs the attention of the reader and forces him to reevaluate the state of society. There is much in this novel that would cause a reader to cry, but, to Wright’s point, the topic is so significant that it resonates more deeply and elicits a deeper response.
Bigger Thomas is the protagonist of the novel, but, to Wright, Bigger also exemplifies African Americans of the time. He is barely educated, struggling to find meaningful work and living in an overcrowded slum with his family; just like many others around him. Bigger is frustrated with his place in life and finds it difficult to understand why the opportunities that are available to whites are not available to him. During an exchange with his friend Gus, Bigger exclaims, “Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s like living in jail” (23).
Bigger and Gus have no outlet to express their individuality or emotions. Their feelings towards whites are ingrained in them. Bigger states, “[Whites live] right down here in my stomach…Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em…It’s like fire…That’s when I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me…Naw; it ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s…It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help” (24). This statement summarizes how the everyday black man feels about his station in life and the opportunities available to him. Additionally, it foreshadows the heinous events that will unfold later in the novel.
A turning point in Wright’s story comes when Bigger is offered a job as a chauffeur for the Dalton family. Mr. Dalton is a white real estate mogul that prides himself for being a member of the NAACP. He employs young black men in an attempt to rehabilitate them. On the surface, this is an ideal opportunity for Bigger because it provides room and board and pays well enough to allow him to take care of his mother and siblings, but Wright is looking to emphasize how the trivial the actions taken by the white sympathizers do not actually address the challenges faced by the African American population.
Bigger is not overwhelmed by this opportunity or impressed that the last chauffeur had gone to night school. Moreover, this job ultimately places Bigger in a situation that he cannot control, and he accidentally smothers Dalton’s daughter, Mary. Bigger realizes, “Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in a room where a white girl had been killed; therefore he had killed her” (101). This is the “awful” event that Bigger alluded to earlier in the story.
Killing Mary elicits feelings in Bigger that he had never experienced before. Bigger acknowledges, “He was more alive than he could ever remember having been; his mind and attention were pointed, focused toward a goal” (141). Bigger embraced these feelings and continued with a scheme to make everyone believe that Mary had been kidnapped. With the assistance of his girlfriend Bessie, he plans to escape with $10,000 in ransom money. Wright uses Bigger’s emotions and his heightened sense of awareness at this point in the novel to comment on society at the time. Wright is stating that the act of murder is one of the only ways for young African American men to express themselves, to exert any independence and to get out from under the oppression of their daily life.
When the authorities realize that Bigger is the killer he flees to avoid being captured, but he realizes that “all his life he had been knowing that sooner or later something like this would come to him” (207). Survival becomes paramount to Bigger, escaping the law is his only priority, and Bessie becomes a liability. While attempting to hide from the police, Bigger realizes that it will be easier to escape without traveling with Bessie. In a tense scene, Bigger first rapes Bessie, lets her fall to sleep and finally bludgeons her. His actions are methodical as “he lifted the brick again and again, until in falling it struck a sodden mass that gave softly but stoutly to each landing blow. Soon he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton, of some damp substance whose only life was the jarring of the brick’s impact” (222). Ultimately this second murder is unnecessary, as Bigger is soon apprehended.
Bigger is arrested and indicted for the murder of Mary Dalton, and the character that Wright chooses to defend him is a white, Jewish attorney, named Boris Max. In the novel, Max takes the time to talk to Bigger and understand the actions in his life that have influenced him. For the first time in his life, Bigger has someone interested in his thoughts and feelings, which result in Bigger beginning finding hope. Max does his best to motivate Bigger to fight to save his own life. Max pleads, “Listen Bigger, you’re facing a sea of hate now that’s no different than what you’ve faced all your life. And, because it’s that way, you’ve got to fight.
If they can wipe you out, then they can wipe others out too” (320). Throughout this section of the book Bigger undergoes a transformation. By explaining his actions and feelings to Max, he finally emerges from the shell he has created around himself. Max works hard to understand the issues in Bigger’s life that culminated in his actions and the violence he exerted against Mary and Bessie, and he uses this information to form his defense. Although the crimes that Bigger committed were horrific, the reader begins to sympathize with him as he describes more about himself and his feelings to Max as the story comes to a conclusion.
Wright’s goal with this novel was to evoke empathy for Bigger and to make a statement regarding the treatment of blacks at the time. Wright uses Max’s closing statement to the judge to summarize all of the points he wants the reader to contemplate. Max combines everything that he learns about Bigger and weaves it together with the plight of the blacks during the time and eloquently argues that Bigger should be sentenced to life in prison, rather than to execution. Max argues, “This man is different, even though his crime differs from similar crimes only in degree. The complex forces of society have isolated here for us a symbol, a test symbol” (354).
Through Max’s monologue, the reader more clearly understands all of the factors that have contributed to the creation of Bigger and others like him, and he pleads with the judge to understand that there are larger forces in play, other than the specific crime that Bigger committed. Unfortunately, despite Max’s valiant attempts, the “sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third, in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state” (381). Initially, it would appear that with Bigger’s execution, Wright fails in his attempt to move people to reevaluate the racial injustice of the times, but the conclusion is actually Wright’s acknowledgement that society was not quite ready to change.