Native Son

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Native Son Book 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The alarm clock rings, and an African-American family of four, living on the South Side (in the “Black Belt”) of Chicago gets up. The family lives in a single room in a tenement building, and consists of a mother and three children: Bigger, the oldest; Vera, the middle child; and Buddy, the youngest. As is their custom, the two boys turn their heads so that Ma and Vera can get dressed with some small amount of privacy.
One of the novel’s primary characteristics is the manner in which it compresses time and the activities of its protagonist, Bigger. Thus, the alarm clock rings on this, the first day of the novel, which is also the first day of Bigger’s job; Bigger will meet Mary this evening, and by the next day, his entire world will have changed.
Themes
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Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
Ma and Vera spot an enormous rat, running around the one-room apartment, and begin to scream, begging Bigger to do something about it—to kill the rat. Bigger tells Buddy to block off the rat’s hole in the room with a wooden box; the rat jumps and holds onto Bigger’s pant-leg, and the women scream again; Bigger throws the skillet and misses the rat.
The feeling of being chased—of having nowhere to go—and of being expected merely to “disappear” in some hole or another, is intended by Richard Wright as a clear parallel to Bigger’s situation. His apartment, after all, is not much larger than a single room.
Themes
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But on a second throw, Bigger aims at the rat, which is near the wooden box looking for its hole and its escape to safety; Bigger hits the rat squarely with the thrown skillet, and kills it. Bigger then beats the rat with a spare shoe, making sure it’s dead. His mother and Vera ask him to take the rat, which is nearly a foot long, outside, but before doing this, Bigger taunts Vera by swinging the dead rat in front of her face. Vera, asking Bigger to stop, faints out of fear. Ma yells at Bigger for doing this, and the family lays Vera out on the bed to recover.
A great deal of foreshadowing occurs in this first scene. Bigger kills the rat, but in this case he does so on purpose—his murder of Mary is very much an accident, an outcome of a series of events that appear, to Bigger, to be beyond his control. In this larger world Bigger is like "the rat", though in the span of 12 hours he will become a killer.
Themes
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Ma chastises Bigger, wondering aloud why she even gave birth to him, and tells Buddy to put newspaper over the bloody spot on the floor where the rat was killed. Bigger, far from apologizing for taunting Vera, tells his mother that maybe he shouldn’t have been born at all—Ma chastises Bigger again for his anger and his defiant attitude toward her authority.
Ma’s sentiment here will be echoed, in a way, by Bessie, who wonders, when Bigger has confessed to his crimes, how she has had bad enough luck to fall in with a man who has brought her only torment and suffering, despite her hard work.
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Ma also worries, aloud, that Bigger will get into trouble running around with his “gang.” Vera, who is now somewhat recovered from her fainting spell, announces that she has to get ready for her sewing lessons at the YWCA, which she takes in order to be able to support the family one day as a seamstress. The family has a quick breakfast, prepared by Ma, and Ma reminds Bigger that he has an appointment with a Mr. Dalton that evening at 5:30, about a job. Ma reminds Bigger that this job would provide extra income for the family, and would make their circumstances far more comfortable.
Bigger’s “gang” is, to a certain extent, a red herring in the novel—something that seems important in the beginning, that turns out only to point to events of greater importance. Bigger will not get in trouble with the authorities because of the gang’s activities—instead, he kills only by accident, after panicking. Bigger then ascribes importance to his murder of Mary and Bessie only while in custody.
Themes
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Bigger wolfs down his breakfast, as Vera and Ma remind him of the importance of the job, and of the fact that, if Bigger doesn’t take it, the family will be removed from the relief rolls, which will further impoverish them. Buddy seems to support Bigger and tells Ma and Vera that Bigger will do the interview, and that Bigger doesn’t need to be nagged by the two women. But Ma replies that she gets enough “sass” from Bigger, and that Buddy should be quiet. Bigger asks Ma for some tram-car fare, and leaves the apartment.
Mr. Dalton participates in something like a “work-to-welfare” program in the city of Chicago—in order for Bigger’s family to stay “on the register,” Bigger, who is of working age, must work a certain number of hours each week. Thus, Bigger’s money will not only support his family directly, it will also enable them to collect their government-sponsored assistance.
Themes
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Outside the apartment, Bigger contemplates his fate: he can either take a job he hates, and help support his family, or he can refuse the job and cause himself and his family to starve. Bigger believes that his life consists of just these choices, between two equally upsetting and unpleasant alternatives. Bigger watches two workers paste up a poster of Buckley, a man who is running for re-election as State’s Attorney. When the workers leave, Bigger looks at the poster, thinking that, if he were in Buckley’s position, he would have real power and could make extra money through graft—which he presumes Buckley, a politician, to engage in. Bigger feels that the eyes of the Buckley poster “follow him” as he walks away from the picture.
Bigger tends to see life in these discrete, binary terms. This case presents only two alternatives, and both are unpleasant. Bigger does not want to work for anyone—he wants to live a life that is free and unencumbered. And so the idea of working to support his family is odious to him. But Bigger also knows that a great deal of misery, for himself and for others, will ensue if he does not take the job with Mr. Dalton. It is not clear, however, that Bigger is concerned with his family’s well-being as such: rather, he hopes to make money so they will not keep “asking him” to do so.
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Bigger, still standing on the street corner near his apartment, realizes he has enough money either for a magazine or a movie, but not both—Bigger “hungers” for the escape sitting in a movie-house might provide. Bigger runs through the day’s “plan,” which he has arranged, or talked about, with the other members of his gang—boys named Gus, G.H., and Jack. The plan is, the group intends to rob Blum, the owner of a deli in the neighborhood, between three and four that afternoon, when the policemen on the block are taking their break.
What Wright does not make clear is whether Bigger was seriously contemplating this robbery before the scheduling of his job interview, or whether the interview itself has conditioned the “need” Bigger feels to rob Blum’s deli. The other members of the gang seem to think that they do not have to rob Blum that very day, that there is no need to rush a crime that will require careful planning.
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While thinking about this plan, which would provide quick money for the group, but which would mark the first time the gang had robbed a white, as opposed to a black, merchant, Bigger runs into Vera, who is exiting the apartment on her way to her sewing lesson. Vera reminds Bigger, once again, that it is very important Bigger take the job with Mr. Dalton, as the family needs the money. Bigger curses Vera under his breath as Vera walks away.
Vera is in every sense a good, well-natured character—she does everything she can to support the family, and her work as a seamstress is intended only to help Ma’s financial troubles. Bigger appears to have special difficulty listening to Vera’s advice, perhaps because she is so unimpeachably good, and in her mother’s favor.
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On his way to the pool-hall, where the gang normally meets, Bigger runs into Gus, the gang-member who had initially planned the robbery of Blum’s. Bigger and Gus loiter on the sidewalk, smoke cigarettes, and talk to one another. Gus and Bigger see an airplane in the sky, writing an advertisement against the blue day, and Bigger remarks that he would love to fly a plane if he could, and that he feels he’s not permitted to have a chance to fly, because the military is segregated, and because most flying jobs go to white men.
A notable scene of serenity. Much of the novel, especially its middle portion, after the commission of the crimes, is a chase, but here, Bigger has a chance merely to relax, enjoy the beautiful day, and think about what he would like to do, if he could choose from anything in the world. Although Bigger dreams of being a pilot, he seems to think this dream so impossible as to be exactly that: a passing fancy.
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Still looking wistfully at the sky, Bigger and Gus walk toward the pool-hall and play a game with each other called “white,” in which the two pretend to have jobs that are available only to white men. Bigger and Gus pretend to be generals in the US Army, JP Morgan and a stock-broker, and the president of the United States and his Secretary of State. They laugh, with some bitterness, at the outlandishness of these pretend conversations; these occupations, they realize bitterly, could never be filled by a black man from the South Side of Chicago. Unfair labor practices make it impossible, or highly improbable, for African Americans to climb to such professional heights.
Another notable “game.” Bigger and Gus both seem, without really mentioning it, to equate whiteness with power, authority, and privilege. For the most part, the text of the novel bears out this racial relationship: African American characters tend, in the novel, to work in subservient positions, and white characters tend to wield power over Bigger. Although there are benevolent white characters (Jan, Max), there are few to none powerful, politically-influential African American characters, though Max later makes passing mention to civil rights leaders.
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Bigger, finally, remarks aloud to Gus that “white folks” don’t allow the African-American population to do anything—and Gus tells Bigger he’s surprised that Bigger hasn’t figured this out sooner. Bigger, however, goes on to say that sometimes, this inability for black Americans do to anything makes him extremely angry. The two watch a pigeon fly by, and Bigger says that he wishes he, like the pigeon, could simply fly, over the city and away from his problems—and though Gus finds this silly of Bigger to say, Bigger goes on to add that the pain white people create for him lives in his stomach, and that he fears that something will go wrong in his life—that he will be forced to lash out, violently, against this pain.
The second book of the novel is entitled “Flight,” and it becomes apparent very quickly that flying is a dominant metaphor for Bigger. In his current world, he can only walk, indeed crawl (as he does over the roofs of Chicago, while being pursued by the police). In his ideal life, however, Bigger would be able to avoid the difficulties of daily drudgery simply by soaring above them at a high altitude, as from a bird’s-eye view.
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Gus agrees with Bigger, to an extent, about the anger they both feel for white people, although Bigger seems to think he is going to “do something” about this anger, something he can’t control, and Gus does not say something similar. Gus and Bigger head to the pool-hall and begin playing a game of pool, after saying hello to the owner of the establishment, named Doc. Bigger brings up, to Gus, the plan to rob Blum, a plan which Gus originally concocted but which the gang hasn’t talked about for over a month. Bigger wants to pull the heist off that day, but Gus now expresses worry that they can get away with it, or that Blum might shoot them before they get away. Bigger taunts Gus, saying Gus is scared of robbing a white man. Gus denies this angrily.
Gus, in these scenes, is very much the novel’s voice of reason. Although he recognizes the same racial and power dynamics that Bigger does, Gus is not guided by his emotions, by his rage, the way Bigger is, and so Gus is more willing to wait, to find the best moment to pull of the robbery, to ask questions, to make a plan with the other members of the gang. Bigger’s anger at Gus’s hesitation—which Bigger calls cowardice—probably stems, in part, from the fact that the other gang members seem to agree with Gus’s prudent approach.
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Jack and G.H. arrive at the bar, and Bigger continues to talk to the three of them about the robbery at Blum’s. Jack says he’s “in,” but G.H., like Gus, expresses dismay at the thought of robbing a man with a gun, and a white man, no less. Bigger, angry that the group is not willing to take action, finally asks each man whether he’s “in.” Jack repeats that he is; G.H. says he’ll do it if everyone else does. Only Gus does not respond, and Bigger continues to taunt Gus, calling him “yellow” and a coward. Finally, despite being held back by the other two, Bigger leaps on Gus and considers stabbing him or beating him up, in order to force him to go along with the heist.
G.H. and Jack are not described in the same narrative detail as is Gus, but nevertheless, some facts about their characters emerge: Jack seems more willing to hang out with, and listen to, Bigger, and G.H., like Gus, tends to want to plan the gang’s activities in more detail—to act with his head, and not with his heart. Bigger’s attack, here aimed at Gus, will not be the first time he leaps at him, nor the first time he refers to him as a coward.
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G.H. and Jack pull Bigger and Gus away, and Doc warns the boys, from the front of the pool-hall, not to fight inside. Gus agrees, after a long spell of silence, to go along with the heist, but he says he is not willing to take orders from Bigger any longer. G.H. takes Gus outside so that Gus can “cool off,” and Jack stays in the pool-hall with Bigger; they all agree to meet up at three to pull off the heist. Jack and Bigger realize that they ought to do something to kill time before three, and decide to go to a movie playing at a nearby cinema. They buy tickets with their small amount of remaining change and go inside the cool, dark theater.
Bigger greatly enjoys the movies, and a number of critics have stated that the entire novel has a “cinematic” quality, especially in the speed and directness of its scenes. In a sense, the narrator of the novel might be understood as taking psychological cues from Bigger, its protagonist—Bigger thinks of the world in “quick cuts,” at film speed, and so the narrator tells his story in this manner.
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Bigger and Jack have a competition to see who can masturbate the fastest in the darkness of the theater. They each masturbate, ejaculate, then move to other seats to watch the movie. The show begins with a news reel, depicting a Chicago heiress in Florida and her young lover—the heiress is Mary Dalton, daughter of Mr. Dalton, the man with whom Bigger is to interview later that day; and her friend, a known Communist sympathizer, is named Jan. The newsreel is a kind of “popular” or human-interest story about the “outrageous” young Ms. Dalton, who associates with Communists and others believed to be outside her social circle.
One of a great number of coincidences in the novel, that appear to downplay the element of verisimilitude, or life-like-ness. One might wonder, here, what the chances are that Bigger would see a film-reel of the woman he is to meet, and then murder, in the space of a few hours. Many critics, and indeed Wright himself, in an essay on the novel (“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”), have taken up this aspect of the work, arguing that its “convincingness” derives from its emotional force, and not from the order of its events (what Wright calls its “surface reality or plausibility”).
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The feature presentation begins, a movie titled Trader Horn, which seems to be about black natives in Africa, and their interactions with the white colonizers who come to observe them. Bigger and Jack watch the movie for a while, as Bigger turns over in his mind what it would mean to rob Blum, and the kind of money he could make working for the Daltons; aroused from his reverie by Jack, Bigger realizes that it is close to their appointed meeting-time for the Blum robbery. Jack and Bigger leave the theater.
Although very little time is given to a description of this film, it goes to show just how prevalent depictions of African Americans as “savages” were in 1930s America. Bigger and his friends have been inundated with these images since birth, and so their feelings of rage and humiliation toward the dominant white culture are best understood in this context.
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On their way back to the pool hall, Bigger leaves Jack, briefly, telling him he will meet him at Doc’s; Bigger goes inside his apartment building (which is on the way from the theater to Doc’s), gets his gun from under the mattress, where it’s hidden in the small apartment, and is nearly “caught” by his mother, who is singing in the kitchen, preparing lunch. Bigger bounds back outside and heads to Doc’s, where he meets back up with Jack and G.H. Bigger and the rest of the gang wait for Gus to arrive, and when Gus comes in late, Bigger kicks him, angrily, yelling that Gus is too scared to go along with the robbery, as evidenced by the fact that Gus has arrived late to their three o’clock rendezvous.
No mention is given as to how Bigger was able to acquire a gun, or how he is able to keep it in such a small apartment without anyone in his family ever noticing it. The narrator never states, either, whether Bigger has had occasion to use the gun previously, or whether he really intends to shoot someone with it on the first day of the novel. Notably, Bigger does not use a gun to kill either Mary or Bessie; he suffocates Mary and bludgeons Bessie, brutally, with a brick.
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Jack and G.H. attempt to hold Bigger back, but Bigger falls on Gus and begins to beat him up, showing that Bigger is the “bigger man” and that Gus is merely a coward, one who wants the Blum robbery not to go off as planned. While still on top of Gus, pinning him to the ground, Bigger forces Gus to lick the exposed blade of Bigger’s knife; when Bigger allows Gus to rise, Bigger mimes what he would do if here were to cut out Gus’s belly button. Gus and the other members of the gang are rattled by Bigger’s aggression; Bigger himself seems not to understand, fully, why he is so angry with Gus about being late for their rendezvous.
Another scene in which Bigger uses a different implement to attack—this time, a knife. The scene of humiliation, in which Bigger forces Gus to lick the blade of his knife, also has a kind of submerged sexual innuendo that is never taken up—although the previous scene in the movie theater, in which Jack and Bigger masturbated separately while speaking to one another, points to a certain openness regarding at least the discussion and sharing of sexual experiences.
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After Jack and G.H. finally pull Bigger away from Gus, Gus runs out the back door of Doc’s pool hall; Jack and G.H. accuse Bigger of foiling their plot to rob Blum’s, and even seem to believe that Bigger has done this on purpose, because Bigger himself secretly was too afraid to carry out the robbery. This enrages Bigger even more, and when Doc tells Bigger to calm down, Bigger takes out his knife again and begins slicing up the green felt of the pool table. Doc shouts at Bigger and the gang to leave and never come back; Bigger believes he could fight and kill Doc, but decides to leave the pool hall, and walks alone, leaving the rest of the gang, to collect his thoughts.
Bigger finally acknowledges to himself, while leaving Doc’s, that it was he who was afraid—and that, perhaps, fear is the defining characteristic of his life, the manner in which he interacts with all sorts of authority figures, including his mother, Doc, and, eventually, the Dalton family. This fear causes Bigger not to cower alone, however; it creates in him an even more pronounced rage at society, which he regards as the cause of his fear—thus establishing a cycle of fear and anger that propels Bigger throughout.
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Bigger returns home to his small apartment, and his mother asks why he came into the room earlier; Bigger says he did so “for no reason,” and does not mention the gun he picked up. Bigger lies down on the bed and realizes that, once the plan to rob Blum’s became a reality, he became agitated and scared, and he took this frustration out on Gus in order to avoid the robbery altogether; Jack and G.H. were right about Bigger’s rebellion and cowardice. He continues to turn over these thoughts while lying on the bed.
Ma seems to understand that Bigger behaves in a furtive manner around her, but she cannot quite put her finger on anything that he’s doing wrong. Ma, once Bigger has been captured, wants desperately to believe that Bigger was not capable of committing Mary’s murder—she knows that Bigger is upset, but hopes he is incapable of true violence.
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Bigger’s mother rouses him at five, as it is beginning to grow dark outside; she says it is time for him to walk to the Daltons’ house in Hyde Park, near Bigger’s “Black Belt” neighborhood, but in the “white” section of the South Side. Bigger makes his way through the adjacent white neighborhood, with the gun still under his shirt and tucked into his pants; he has heard that, on occasion, African Americans walking around these neighborhoods have been harassed by white residents.
The racial geography of this part of Chicago is quite disturbing, and unequal: the South Side, which once contained a large number of mansions owned by white industrialists, is now dominated by a group of African American Chicagoans charged high rents by those same industrialists, who live mostly in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
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Bigger walks up to the Daltons’ house and, not knowing where the “service” or back entrance is located, decides, nervously, to knock on the front door. These he is met by a white maid, who asks if he is Bigger Thomas, here to talk to Mr. Dalton; Bigger says that he is, and the maid lets Bigger inside. After waiting awkwardly in a sitting room for Mr. (Henry) Dalton to appear, Henry finally does, and he leads Bigger back through the house’s long, ornate corridors to his office. En route to the office, Bigger briefly meets Mrs. Dalton, and is surprised to find out that she is rather old, frail, and blind.
Another choice of symbolic importance: Bigger knows that it is, or could be, rude to walk into the front of a white person’s house as an African American, yet he is not sure where else to enter. Luckily, in this case, he has chosen “correctly,” and Peggy sees him inside; but this choice is indicative of just how many rules governing the behavior of African Americans reinforce social distinctions between groups in Chicago.
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Henry asks Bigger for his “relief paperwork,” or the document given by the Chicago workers’ relief agency discussing Bigger’s qualifications for the job. Henry asks Bigger to sit and make himself comfortable, but Bigger is nervous around Henry, calling him “Mr. Dalton, sir”; Bigger’s nervousness, additionally, frustrates Bigger, as he is not sure why he is so intimidated by the wealth and kindness of the Daltons, seeing as how Henry appears only to want to offer Bigger a job. Henry reveals that the specific position would be chauffeuring: Bigger would drive the Daltons’ car around Chicago.
Bigger’s anger/fear relationship, here, is very visible. On the one hand, he is afraid of Mr. Dalton, because of the power Dalton wields, and not necessarily because Dalton is intimidating (indeed, Dalton seems relatively kind). On the other, Bigger senses that his fear is itself a kind of liability, and this makes him angry and ashamed. He will continue to have these feelings throughout the remainder of his evening with Mary and Jan.
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Henry, consulting the paperwork, sees that Bigger is a “hard worker” if given a job he enjoys. Bigger concedes that this is true. Henry goes through the nature of the chauffeuring job: Bigger will make 25 dollars a week, 20 of which he can send to his family, who, as Henry cross-checks via Bigger’s paperwork, live in an apartment owned by the South Side Real Estate Company—a company owned, in turn, by the Daltons. Bigger will sleep in a small room in the Daltons’ home; his meals will be prepared by Peggy, the maid who let Bigger into the house; and his driving will mostly consist of errands needed by the family, and of Mary Dalton’s trips to her lectures at the nearby University of Chicago.
What is not really mentioned as Dalton goes over the nature of the job with Bigger, is that the job will essentially require Bigger to abandon his social life, to give himself over entirely to the care of the Dalton family. In this way, although the job pays well, it also serves to reinforce the notion that African Americans are inferior to whites in Chicago, that servants must care for their bosses absolutely, and that the social life of a servant is beneath consideration—it simply does not matter to the Daltons.
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At this, Mary walks into the office, as if on cue; Bigger recognizes her from the news-reel he saw with Jack earlier that afternoon. Mary introduces herself to Bigger and asks immediately if he belongs to a union; Bigger, confused as to what a union is, and as to what to say to Mary, says nothing, and Henry tells his daughter not to grill Bigger about his political views at this first meeting. Mary calls her father, half-jokingly, “Mr. Capitalist,” and leaves, asking if Bigger will be driving her to her university lecture that night. Henry says that Bigger will, and dismisses Mary from the office.
Mary, though she is the beneficiary of a great deal of “capitalist” success—her family’s money was, after all, earned in real estate—has come to be sympathetic with the cause of labor, and she wonders whether Bigger is, too. What Mary does not realize, however, is that her knowledge of the labor movement is a result of her education, one that Bigger, in his poverty, has not had a chance to acquire.
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After Mary leaves, Bigger worries that he has said something wrong about unions and capitalism, but Henry, perhaps sensing Bigger’s unease, tells Bigger that he (Henry) is a supporter of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and that the jobs he offers as part of the relief program, to young men from the Black Belt, are designed to aid young African Americans in their search for work. Bigger is too nervous to allow this information to sink in fully, and Henry shows Bigger the kitchen, where Peggy will prepare his meals. Before leaving Bigger, Henry also informs him that it will be part of Bigger’s duties to stoke the furnace and keep the house warm.
Here Wright shows that Dalton’s motivations for helping Bigger, if myopic, misguided, and paternalistic, nevertheless stem from a place that is good. Dalton understands that grave inequalities exist in Chicago, and he wants to address them; but he does not realize that the real way to do so would be to change the structural problems keeping young African Americans from finding long-term employment. Instead, Dalton can only offer Bigger a position, essentially, of servitude.
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Peggy tells Bigger more about the Dalton family as he eats bacon and eggs in the kitchen, after Henry has left—Bigger has not eaten since early morning and is famished. Peggy says that the man who was chauffeur before Bigger, an African American man from the South Side named Green, worked for the family for ten years, and was “treated very well” by the Daltons. Peggy goes on to say that Henry is rich now, but that his goodness and charity derive from his wife, who was afflicted with blindness ten years before, and who was wealthy when Henry married her some time ago. Henry then used his wife’s money to make even more money in Chicago’s real estate market.
Again, Peggy reinforces the comments Dalton has made to Bigger, by arguing that others, like Green, who were “good workers,” were given benefits, like an education. What Peggy seems to miss here, as does Dalton, is the fact that Green’s subservience to the Dalton family allowed him to gain an education only through extreme effort—whereas Mary is free to skip her lectures as she pleases, without fear, since her father is paying for her (expensive) education.
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Peggy also tells Bigger that Mary is a good child but “wild,” that she runs around with a crowd the Daltons don’t really approve of (mostly Communist sympathizers). Peggy takes Bigger down to the basement and shows him the furnace, where he is to burn the trash, rake out the coals, and sweep the ashes to keep the house warm. Peggy then leaves Bigger to rest until his 8:30 appointment that evening, to drive Mary to her lecture at the University of Chicago.
This is Bigger’s first interaction with the furnace, which will come to play an important role in the story. The furnace is central for many reasons, but Bigger seems to sense that the furnace can be used to obliterate things. He will therefore try to burn away Mary’s body, and when this does not work, the furnace will be the key piece of evidence pointing to Bigger’s guilt.
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Bigger lies on his new bed in the Dalton house for a moment, and thinks about the things, including a gold watch, he’ll be able to buy with his new job and income. He realizes he’s thirsty and goes downstairs for a glass of water in the kitchen; en route, through the hallways, he nearly runs into Mrs. Dalton, who speaks to him briefly, asking if his accommodations are OK, and if he needs anything else. Bigger replies in nervous, short phrases—similarly to how he behaved with Mr. Dalton—and when Mrs. Dalton asks if Bigger would like to go to night school while employed in the house, the way Green did, Bigger says he’s not sure, that he hasn’t thought about it.
Mrs. Dalton, throughout the narrative, is described in ghostly terms, and her blindness plays an important part in this—she appears to glide through her house, she is frail, and she does not see with her eyes, but rather perceives things through touch, smell, and occasionally intuition. Bigger is afraid of Mrs. Dalton, and it is perhaps this fear of her that causes him to put a pillow over Mary’s head, in her bedroom, accidentally suffocating her.
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After getting and drinking his water, Bigger realizes it’s about time to take Mary to her lecture. He checks out the car he will drive—a dark, late-model Buick, and when he gets in the front seat, Mary gets in the back. He begins to drive her to the University—whose location Bigger knows already—but as Mary is directing him, she asks that he pull over to the side of the road and wait for a moment. She asks for a match and lights a cigarette, then announces to Bigger that she won’t be heading to her lecture. Instead, she directs Bigger to drive her to the outer part of downtown (the “Loop”), to pick up a friend of hers. Mary says that Bigger should do this and act as though, if the Daltons question him, he has driven her to her lecture. Bigger is nervous, but does what Mary tells him.
From the beginning, especially after the news-reel discussing Mary’s “questionable” activities with Jan while the two are on vacation, one might be inclined to think that Mary will not, after all, be attending her lecture that evening. It is perhaps a testament, again, to Bigger’s fear of people in positions of authority that he does not question Mary’s desire to skip her lecture, nor does he feel particularly torn about what to do—he simply takes Mary where she wants to go. Only when Jan and Mary begin talking to Bigger as an equal does Bigger find that he is ashamed, and, paradoxically, that he is made aware of his inferior social station.
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They arrive at an apartment in the outer Loop, and Jan, the man Mary was with in the news-reel Bigger saw earlier that day, comes out to introduce himself to Bigger, and to greet Mary. Jan offers Bigger his hand to shake, but Bigger is so confused by Jan’s politeness and informality that it takes him a while to shake it back. Mary tells Bigger that it’s all right, that Jan is a Communist and a “friend to all.” Jan tells Bigger to call him by his first name, and not by “sir.” Jan then asks to drive the car, and tells Bigger to slide over to the middle of the Buick’s long bench seat; Bigger is sitting squeezed between Jan and Mary, and, nervous once again, Bigger realizes he has never been this close to a white woman before.
Because Jan insists on communicating with Bigger as though the two are friends, Bigger realizes—or it is made clear for Bigger—the extent to which his world is defined by the power relations between whites and blacks. In other words, Bigger is only made aware of his inferiority when confronted with the prospect that there are some who do not consider him inferior. In this way, it is not Jan’s fault that he is kind to Bigger, but Jan’s kindness is also a trigger that causes Bigger to feel angry and ashamed.
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Bigger is also confused and angry at Jan’s informality—paradoxically, Bigger feels even less comfortable in his skin, and with his blackness, since Jan has drawn attention to the perceived racial differences between them, even though Jan is attempting to make up for these differences. Bigger stews on these thoughts as Jan continues driving the car around Chicago. Jan and Mary say that want to eat somewhere in “Bigger’s neighborhood,” meaning the Black Belt, and after not knowing where to direct them, Bigger finally tells Jan about Ernie’s Kitchen Shack, a “black” establishment near where Bigger lives.
Mary and Jan’s desire to eat at an African American establishment, however, probably does not derive solely from a desire to help Bigger—rather, it also contains a certain amount of social “tourism,” or the idea that Mary and Jan will learn something about the Black Belt simply by eating with Bigger at one restaurant. Mary and Jan can simply walk into the diner, but Bigger will later have to explain why he was eating there with a white couple.
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While en route to the diner, Mary remarks that, although she has traveled to many parts of Europe, she does not know how “the people” live in the Black Belt, which is very close to her own Hyde Park neighborhood, the latter of which is an island of wealth amidst the poverty of the South Side. The car reaches Ernie’s, and Bigger believes that Jan and Mary will go inside to eat while Bigger remains in the Buick. But Jan insists that Bigger join them for the meal, and though Bigger hesitates, Jan eventually convinces him to come inside and eat with them.
Mary’s comments regarding her travels in Europe serve only to underscore these feelings of “tourism.” Bigger, for his part, does not feel like a tourist when he leaves the Black Belt and travels to Hyde Park—instead, he feels like someone who is no longer in a neighborhood where he belongs. It is a sign of Mary’s privilege that she can belong anywhere, that everything is a “trip” for her, a “tour.”
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Jan asks Bigger what he likes to eat, and Jan offers, without listening to Bigger’s reply, to buy him fried chicken and beer. Bigger assents to this, and Bigger notices his “girl,” Bessie, sitting on the other side of the diner—he does not wave to her, but they each notice that the other is there, and Bessie seems confused at Bigger sitting at a table with a white man and a white woman. While the three eat their fried chicken, which Bigger has trouble choking down (because of his nervousness, which has caused his throat to become dry), Mary and Jan ask about Bigger’s upbringing. Bigger speaks in monosyllables, saying that he was born in Mississippi, that he lives with his mother and two siblings, and that his father was killed in a race riot in the South when Bigger was very young.
Jan also, in an attempt to buy for Bigger the kind of food “he likes,” orders fried chicken and beer, without realizing that it might be considered offensive to Bigger, the very fact that Jan assumes Bigger likes these foods because they have been associated, stereotypically, with the African American community. Bigger notably has very little appetite when eating with Jan and Mary, perhaps because the very idea of sharing a table with them has been tainted by their good intentions and by the unfortunately racist way in which these intentions are made plain.
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Jan then tells Bigger that he (Jan) is a member of the Communist party, with which Mary sympathizes, and that the Communists are working for the betterment of all people, especially those who have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Bigger does not know much about Communism, but feels that, although what Jan is saying seems “good” to him, “Communism” itself is a politically fraught word—the kind of word white politicians tend to throw around and fight over. During this conversation, Mary tells Bigger that she’s going to Detroit at nine in the morning the next day, and that Bigger should deliver Mary’s trunk to the train station for her. In the meantime, Jan has ordered more beer and a fifth of rum for the table.
Because Bigger has very little interaction with the political system of his day, he knows only that Communism is opposed to Capitalism, and that the former is “bad” while the latter is “American” and therefore “good.” Bigger will only learn as the novel progresses that there are those who consider themselves good American who nevertheless support Communist causes—in fact, they consider themselves good American because they support these causes. Max is an example of this kind of progressive patriotism.
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Bigger, Mary, and Jan are all fairly drunk from the significant amount of alcohol they’ve consumed while eating dinner. Jan brings the rum with them and they pay the bill; Jan tells Bigger to drive the three of them around the park, while he and Mary are in the back seat together. Bigger drives slowly, and listens to what Jan and Mary are talking about in the back—Mary says she’ll pay Jan a certain amount of money for help with legal fees, probably having to do with the Communist party, and Jan says that his friend Max is the best lawyer the party has in Chicago. Bigger does not understand much about their conversation, but he notices that Jan and Mary are getting very drunk on rum in the back of the car.
After dinner, once the three of them are fairly intoxicated, racial boundaries, and boundaries of servitude, become more apparent. Jan and Mary now sit in the back of the car, Jan no longer wishes to drive, and in fact Jan asks that Bigger simply drive them around so they can talk to one another. Bigger has returned to his position as servant for the Dalton family, and though Jan probably still thinks of Bigger as his equal, he has no trouble asking him to “do his duty” while he and Mary have a conversation.
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After briefly trying to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and asking Bigger to sing along, Mary and Jan decide that it’s probably time to call it a night—Mary has to get back to her parents’ house, so that they don’t think she’s a “bad girl.” Bigger drinks two big gulps of the rum, and Jan and Mary finish the bottle; Jan worries that perhaps Mary has had too much to drink, and might pass out; Mary says that’s she OK, and that Bigger will get her home safely.
Bigger’s intoxication, though not as severe as Mary’s, will nevertheless have consequences for the remainder of the evening. Perhaps, if Bigger were not so drunk, he would not have panicked when in Mary’s room, and would have chosen another means of silencing her, as opposed to accidentally suffocating her.
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At the edge of the park, Jan gets out of the car, shakes Bigger’s hand once again, and offers him some pamphlets of Communist literature. Jan says he would like to discuss the pamphlets with Bigger the next time they meet. Jan says goodbye to Mary, who at this point is quite intoxicated but is still conscious; Mary gets into the front seat with Bigger, Jan leaves to catch a Loop train back to his apartment, and Bigger and Mary drive back to the Daltons’ house. When they arrive, Bigger parks the Buick in front of, but not inside, the detached garage, although it appears it’s going to snow overnight. He helps Mary to grab her hat and walk, slowly, inside; Mary can barely support herself, and is on the verge of passing out.
The events of this section will be matters of much dispute, once the investigation commences. Jan gives Bigger Communist pamphlets for “good reasons,” namely, because Jan wishes that Bigger become educated about the Communist Party, but Bigger later realizes that these pamphlets will make the evening look like a recruitment event arranged by Jan, which will cause investigators, like Britten, to believe that Jan himself is responsible for Mary’s disappearance.
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Bigger half supports, half drags Mary upstairs, up the back staircase, and when he reaches the second floor, he asks her several times which is her room, although she is too drunk to answer. Bigger realizes he is going to have to guess Mary’s room, and, picking one, opens the door with one hand while attempting to keep Mary upright with the other arm. He carries Mary into the room, lays her down onto her bed, and, briefly overcome by her beauty and unconscious state, leans over to kiss her several times, on the mouth. Mary does not respond, and Bigger lies over her—though he stops before assaulting Mary.
Although this sequence becomes a focal point in the novel—what exactly Bigger did when in Mary’s room—Wright makes it clear that Bigger, at least for a moment, considers assaulting Mary while she is unconscious. His kiss is not returned, nor is it welcomed; but Bigger stops before taking the assault any further. He does not do so in his later interaction with Bessie—causing the reader to believe that either he is stopped by Mary's race or that, once he has killed Mary, Bigger no longer has compunction about committing any crime whatsoever.
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Bigger hears a sound as he lies atop Mary in Mary’s bedroom—it is Mrs. Dalton, who has heard the commotion on the stairs and who has come to Mary’s room to see if everything is OK. Bigger realizes that he must remain completely still, and so must Mary—if Mrs. Dalton finds out that Bigger is in Mary’s bedroom with her, and that they are both drunk, he will be kicked out of the Dalton house and perhaps turned over to the police. To keep Mary from making any noise, Bigger quickly takes a pillow and pushes it down over Mary’s face, keeping her quiet but, also, beginning to suffocate her.
Here, Mrs. Dalton’s blindness does not help Bigger at all, and in fact probably serves only to heighten Mrs. Dalton’s other senses (as Bigger intuits upon meeting her earlier that day)—especially her sense of smell. Although Mrs. Dalton does not spot Bigger in the room, she clearly senses that something is wrong, and it is Mrs. Dalton’s conversation with Peggy, the following day, that causes the family to believe Mary has been harmed.
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Mrs. Dalton walks over to Mary, smells the rum on her body, and, remarking that she’s “drunk,” walks quickly back out of the room; apparently, Mary has come home drunk many times before, and Mrs. Dalton does not sense that Bigger is in the room with her, nor that anything else untoward has happened to Mary. Meanwhile, with the pillow over Mary’s head, Bigger realizes that Mary is no longer struggling against the pillow, nor is she breathing. Bigger pulls away the pillow, relieved that Mrs. Dalton has left the room, but he quickly realizes that Mary is not moving and not breathing—he wonders whether she is still alive, and, checking for her pulse, realizes, with an enormous shock, that he has accidentally killed her in his attempt to keep her subdued and quiet.
The crucial murder scene. Bigger does not intend to kill Mary, although it is hard to imagine how he thought he could put a pillow over her head for so long a period of time without injuring her seriously. But Bigger was also inebriated during the crime, making it further likely that he simply didn’t comprehend, in the moment, the consequences of his actions. From this point forward, the narrative will revolve entirely around Bigger’s actions here at this moment.
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Bigger realizes, through a series of rapid reactions, that he will need to concoct a story to explain how this has come about. He thinks frantically and decides that the best course of action is to blame the murder on Jan, whom he can say came back to the Daltons’ house (instead of being dropped off, as he was, downtown near the park); Bigger can then create an alibi, in which Jan was the last person to speak to Mary alive. This will turn all suspicion onto Jan. Bigger also remembers that Mary was to go to Detroit the next day, and that Bigger was to drop her trunk off at the train station. Bigger realizes that he can stuff Mary’s body into the trunk and ship it, over rail, to Detroit, thus putting the Daltons off the scent of Mary’s murder for several days, buying himself more time to figure out an escape plan.
Bigger frantically snaps to attention, realizing not just that he has killed the daughter of his employer, but that he was in her room late at night, and that now, the authorities will stop at nothing to find him and kill him. Bigger is of sound enough mind to realize that people like Mr. Dalton already suspect communists, like Jan, of foul play, meaning that Jan is an obvious choice for Bigger to frame. Bigger considers immediately running away but reasons that it is perhaps safer to stick around, shift the blame onto Jan, and monitor the situation from within the Daltons’ home.
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Bigger, with great effort, manages to fold Mary’s body in half and stuff it into the trunk; he then pulls the latch of the trunk. On the way downstairs, carrying the trunk with Mary’s body inside, Bigger realizes, however, that the trunk is extremely heavy, and that he can instead burn Mary’s body in the furnace. Bigger puts Mary body about halfway in and begins pushing it into the fire; he body goes in most of the way, but stops near the head region. Bigger attempts to cut off the head using his pocket-knife, but it won’t go through the neck bone; he then picks up a hatchet, in the corner of the furnace room, and uses it to chop off Mary’s head, which he then pushes into the furnace along with the hatchet and the rest of the body. Although Bigger worries that the coal-fire might not burn Mary’s body entirely, he figures this is the best plan to guarantee his own escape.
Ironically, Bigger’s first interaction with the furnace—a part of his job—is to load Mary into it, and burn her body so that it cannot be found. This scene is particularly gruesome, and is perhaps intended by Wright to remind readers of the equally gruesome sequence in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov bludgeons the pawnbroker in the head, filling her apartment with blood and gore. And, like Raskolnikov, Bigger will only realize the amount of incriminating evidence he has left behind the next morning, after realizing, in the light of day, that he has killed.
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Bigger leaves the trunk in the basement and goes back outside, where he sees that the door to the Buick is still open, with Mary’s purse inside. He decides to leave the Buick there, with the door ajar, but takes a wad of bills from Mary’s purse, and the purse itself, and begins concocting his plan—that Jan came back to the house with Bigger and Mary; that Bigger went to bed; that Jan must have killed Mary in the night; and that Bigger himself would deny any further knowledge of the event.
The status of the Buick—where it was parked, and why—will show the Daltons that the previous night was an anomalous one. The reader might infer, here, that the Buick is simply always to be parked inside, regardless of the circumstances, and the fact that this simple rule was not followed the night previous indicates that something terrible has taken place.
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Bigger, in a half-daze, walks outside toward his own apartment, deciding to sleep there tonight. He comes in silently, takes his gun out and slides it under his pillow, and goes instantly to sleep next to Buddy, leaving until the next day the remainder of his planning, and the crafting of his alibi. The first book ends.
It is also intriguing and paradoxical to note that Bigger carried the gun with him the entire evening, and did not fire it—he did not rob Blum—but he wound up, despite this, killing Mary and disposing of her body by especially gruesome means.
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