Native Son Summary

The “Native Son” is a social drama that goes from bleak to bleakest in three parts called “Fear”, “Flight” and “Fate”. It shows the readers the last days of Bigger Thomas - a young black man who undergoes a series of misfortunes because of his own fears and low moral standards caused by his position in the society.

Bigger lives in a tiny one-room flat with his mother he calls Ma and his younger siblings Vera and Buddy. Their father is nowhere to be seen. The district they live in is called “The Black Belt” and is inhabited by mostly black people. It is one of the poorest and most criminal parts of Chicago. The story opens with the foreshadowing of some dark events that will happen later. Bigger wakes up because of frightened screams of the women - it’s his sister and mother. They saw a huge rat with ugly yellow protruding teeth and now scream in panic, waking up the whole apartment. Bigger and Buddy try to corner the rat, but it suddenly jumps and bites Bigger’s pants, tearing a big hole but, luckily, leaving his leg intact. Bigger finishes the rat for good, smashing its head by his heavy boot.

The beginning of the first part depicts the life of Bigger and his family. We know nothing about the fate of Bigger’s father, but we see that Ma constantly reminds Bigger that he is the breadwinner of the family and always questions his manhood when he fails to support her and his siblings. But this task isn’t easy. Bigger lives in America of 30’s where all the dark-skinned people are considered inferior. Once he dreamt to become an aviator but the dream has perished long ago. The pressing of the society and the overall prejudice has already convinced the young man that his life doesn’t belong to him and he doesn’t deserve anything better than temporary job and occasional robbing of the neighboring stores. Everyone believes he is a criminal, right? So why don’t he get the only advantage of it he can? 

Actually, Bigger looks pretty depressed in medical sense. He has no drive to change his life anymore. It’s his mother who pushes him to go get a job that is ultimately proposed to Bigger by an agency. It is a job of a driver in the household of a rich white man named Mr. Dalton. The work is humiliating and low-waged, but Ma still hopes that the real work will make her son change. Ma constantly warns him to quit his gang and stop being a criminal, reminding him about the love of God and his duty as a man. But Bigger chooses to participate in another robbery instead, to rebel against his mother and to make himself forget his sorrow in another crime. He goes to his gang’s gathering place - the pool hall of a man named Doc - and offers his gangmates a plan to rob a white man. It is unusual and even terrifying - they have never robbed anyone white before. White men are seen as something distant, more like a different specie living a separate life, so such a crime is something they never thought of.

One of the gang members named Gus calls him off for it, but that is enough for Bigger. He is overwhelmed by wrath. His anger isn’t directed to a particular white man or to his gang who is too cowardly to rob a white. He is protesting against the force of social pressure, the inequality itself he sees and feels but can’t neither describe nor stand for. This anger makes Bigger to violently attack the member of his gang for reminding him of this pressure. The other members, shocked by this sudden outburst, are late to stop him and Bigger. The fight starts. Bigger is considered guilty of it by any other member of the gang and Doc forever bans him from his pool hall for his unpredictable and offensive behaviour. So, Ma’s wish is fulfilled: being banned from the hall Bigger is effectively banned from the gang itself. Now he has no other choice than to accept the work the agency offers. He goes to have an application interview.

Bigger is still not impressed with the work, but the huge, luxurious mansion of Mr. Dalton amazes him. Still he doesn’t have no other choice. Bigger fears everything in this so alien and beautiful place: the ancient clock, the pretty Irish maid named Peggy and finally the rest of Mr. Dalton’s family, his blind wife and his daughter of stunning beauty named Mary. Mary suddenly seems familiar to him and soon Bigger remembers that he saw her photo in the newspaper, above the article that depicted the vacations of a spoiled millionaire daughter. Some facts of her biography mentioned in the newspaper were that she skipped her school to have fun in Florida with her boyfriend named Jon Erlone. What was even more scandalous - Jon is a Communist while Mary is a descendant of one of the most conservative families in all the America.

But these fact don’t bother Bigger. He learns another one while working for Mr. Dalton. Mr. Dalton owes a big share in a company that owns the apartments in the Black Belt. So he is also a landlord for Bigger’s family. He and the rest of company owners support the current state of affairs, effectively preventing black people from moving into “white” districts, causing artificial overpopulation and growing crime rates in the “black” districts. It allows them to use the increasing need of new places to live to raise prices and rob the inhabitants of the Black Belt and similar places. Mr. Dalton portrays himself as a benevolent philanthropist. He invest some of the money he receives from rent to the building of schools for black people. But still he treats them as inferior and feels that it is “white man’s burden” - to take minimal care about poor inferior beings. It gives him the moral right to rob them and soothes his conscience. It fills Bigger with hatred but there is nothing he can do with it.

Mary takes it even further. She breaks all the rules that are acceptable in the society, speaking to Bigger in a friendly manner that freaks him out even more. He doesn’t understand Mary and doesn’t trust this unusual behaviour. Bigger doesn’t understand such a complicated matter as Communism and the fact that Mary is influenced by her boyfriend and tries to emphasise her equality. Soon she asks Bigger to drive her and Jon to one of the black districts to have fun in black style. Bigger doesn’t have the right to object but he still feels that it is an awful idea.

In the black district Mary and her boyfriend stay in Charlie Kitchen Sink, trying to show how “local” they are. The real local people, of course, don’t buy that but let the white outsiders play their game to evade possible troubles. Bigger becomes more and more embarrassed of them and angry to be with them, because he feels that what is happening is just not right and neither Mary nor Jon are welcomed there. Finally Mary gets so drunk that she passes out in the car and, when Jon leaves the car near his house, Bigger have to take care of rebellious daughter of Mr. Dalton by himself.

At the middle of the night he carries Mary, still unable to walk, to her bedroom. Holding her in his arms Bigger suddenly gets aroused. The fact that the white girl who was so friendly to him is now so close, alone with him in the dark luxurious bedroom, turns him on so much that Bigger starts kissing her. When he places the girl on her bed and is hesitating what to do next, her mother, Mrs. Dalton, enters the room. Though she is blind she heard the door opening and comes to check if her daughter made it home safely. Suddenly Bigger has another panic attack: he knows that he didn’t do anything wrong (yet) but can’t do anything with his fear of whites and what they can do to him if they only decide that he is guilty of harassing Mary.

He takes a pillow and places it onto Mary’s face to keep her silent while Mrs. Dalton is listening to the sounds in the room. Finally she goes away, but when Bigger takes off the pillow he understands that it was too long for poor Mary: she was smothered to death. Terrified even more, Bigger takes her body to the basement. In desperate attempt to cover his tracks and dispose of the body he firstly cuts Mary’s head off and then burns her in the house furnace. He decides to use Mr. Dalton’s superstitions and prejudices to frame Jon for everything, pretending to be an obedient and a bit dumb black driver who has no motifs to go against his white master.

At first it seems to work. Mr. Dalton believes Bigger that he drove both Jon and Mary to Jon’s place. He also hates Communists enough to suspect Joe of kidnapping Mary out of political motifs. Bigger, who outwitted a white rich man for the first time in his life, suddenly feels a strange power. This event returned him his confidence and self-esteem. At work Bigger still plays a humble and grateful poor fellow, but at home he finally feels like a man his mother always wanted him to be.

Once he tells to his girlfriend named Bessie about the Daltons still looking for their daughter. Bessie accidentally says that someone can use it to demand a ransom from them and suddenly Bigger, who isn’t satisfied with the sum of money he found in Mary’s purse, takes this idea seriously. He writes a letter, demanding a ransom, signing it “Red” - Bigger hopes that it is blatant enough to still point to Jon. Then he asks Bessie to assist him in his scheme, but the girl doesn’t want to be involved with such a huge crime. Bigger doesn’t mind just threatening his girlfriend into obedience.

But when they proceed with the plan, Bigger learns that Mary’s bones are finally found inside the furnace. He immediately tells Bessie that they have to run and flees with her to an abandoned building at the outskirts of Chicago. There he tells her that it was he who killed Mary. Now Bessie is outright freaked out. She thinks that Bigger has crossed the line big time and calls him out.

But still she now has no option than to stay with him: she is a criminal too now. Finally Bessie goes to sleep. Angered by her disobedience Bigger violently rapes her, despite her protests. After that he has another panic attack - the situation was too similar to Mary’s last night and also now he is afraid that Bessie, who has nothing to lose, will go to the police. So he smashes the girl’s head with a brick lying around and runs away.

When the police tracks Bigger, they find also Bessie’s body with the signs of rape on it. She didn’t die immediately. The girl managed to crawl out of the building and tried to seek help, but no one was around and Bessie died of hypothermia in the morning. The newspapers immediately publish the warning about a black rapist and murderer breaking loose. A massive mob gathers for a manhunt - mostly they are racist white men. They wreak havoc in all the Black Belt, using the case to inflict terror in all its inhabitants and just outright enjoy the “justified” violence. With such a support tracking Bigger down is an easy task. But capturing him is not: Bigger resists, injuring several policemen before he is finally arrested.

Jon visits him in the jail, berating Bigger for trying to frame him, but still treating him as equal. Jon says that he understands why Bigger was so afraid and angry and he will try to help him (subsequently using this case to show the flaws of American society and, possibly, make the people more interested in the Communist way of things). Jon contacts his friend, a lawyer named Boris A. Max and asks him to defend Bigger in the court free of charge. Max, who also shares the Communists ideals, agrees. He comes to Bigger and he and Jon help him to build the strategy of defence. For the first time in his life Bigger is treated truly as an equal and he slowly starts building a relationship full of respect and trust with them. He even starts hoping that there is still a chance for him for better life. 

Another person who cares about Bigger is Reverend Hammond, the prison priest. He talks to him, urging Bigger to devote his life to God, because there is nothing better he can do. Reverend Hammond gives Bigger a wooden cross to remember about it and Bigger, remembering also his mother’s faith and warnings, almost agrees. But when he is transferred to the court, Bigger sees the Ku Klux Klan representatives with their symbol - a burning cross. Afraid of that symbol, Bigger throws his own cross away, now seeing it not as a sign of faith but as symbol of white oppression.

The court starts. Max tries his best to defend Bigger. He says that he is indeed guilty, but mostly the guilt lies on the society. Bigger is the product of the system that made his existence absolutely bleak and hopeless from the very birth. He was treated as inferior, criminal, dangerous animal - and instead of becoming a pilot as he always dreamed Bigger became a criminal, who committed his crimes because of anger and fear. He is a native son of the bigoted and racist society that surrounds him.

Max’s speech is brilliant, but the angry mob of white men have already decided that Bigger must die. The judge supports them completely, so Bigger is quickly condemned. Max makes the last desperate attempt by writing to the Governor and brings the letter to Bigger’s cell to read it together, but the hope is futile. The Governor refused to do anything.

Sitting in his cell Bigger remembers all his life, step by step, full of broken dreams, misery, fear and absence of hope. Despite he still fears, Bigger feels a strange relief that his life is finally coming to an end.