The novel Native Son begins in the Thomas apartment in 1930s Chicago, where Bigger, his sister Vera, his mother (Ma), and brother Buddy all live, in one room, together. Ma and Vera spot a rat, and Bigger kills it with a frying pan, before heading out for the afternoon—a day in which, as his mother and Vera remind him, he has an interview with Mr. Dalton, a rich, white real-estate magnate in the South Side of Chicago. On his way to Doc’s pool hall, Bigger runs into his friend Gus, and the two talk about jobs they might enjoy doing if it weren’t for the fact that they are African American, and therefore essentially barred from many professions. Bigger tells Gus that he would be an aircraft pilot, if it were possible.
Gus and Bigger go into the pool hall and meet up with Jack and G.H. The four plan the robbery of Blum’s deli, with Gus the least willing to perform it, since the gang has never before robbed a white man, and Gus worries about retaliation. Jack and Bigger go to see a movie, in which a newsreel of Mary Dalton, Mr. Dalton’s daughter, and Jan, her Communist boyfriend, is shown. Bigger and Jack go back to Doc’s, and Gus arrives later than the other three; Bigger threatens Gus with a knife, and Gus runs out of the pool hall, putting an end to the group’s robbery plan. Angry, Bigger cuts up a pool table, and Doc kicks them out of the hall.
Bigger goes home for an hour or two, then leaves for his interview at the Daltons’. Mr. Dalton tells Bigger he is to be a chauffeur for the Dalton family; his first job will be to drive Mary to her lecture that evening. Peggy, the Daltons’ maid, welcomes Bigger and tells him his other job is to feed the house’s furnace. Bigger drives Mary that evening, but she instead says she wants to meet with her friend Jan; Jan and Mary have dinner with Bigger, and though they wish to be nice to him, they only embarrass him with their kindness. The three get drunk, and Bigger drives Jan and Mary around the park before dropping off Jan and taking Mary back home.
Bigger carries Mary, who is unconscious, upstairs and puts her to bed; while he is in her room, Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, comes in, smells alcohol, and believes only that Mary is intoxicated once again. Bigger puts a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her from saying that Bigger is in the room, and Bigger realizes, when Mary’s mother is gone, that he has accidentally killed Mary. Bigger takes her body downstairs, burns it in the furnace, and goes home, in a daze, to sleep in his apartment.
The next day, Bigger realizes that he really killed Mary, and goes back to the Dalton house to develop an alibi. Bigger realizes it is most feasible that Jan is the murderer, so Bigger begins to tell Mrs. Dalton, Mr. Dalton, and Peggy, who have realized that Mary is gone, that Jan stayed late at the house the previous night. Mr. Dalton calls Britten, a private investigator, to ask Bigger questions, and Britten also calls over Jan to the Daltons’. Jan denies that he came over the previous night, and wonders what has happened to Mary. When Jan asks Bigger why Bigger is lying, Bigger threatens Jan with a gun downstairs, in the furnace room, and Jan leaves.
Reporters gather at the house, and hear a statement from Mr. Dalton, who says, in the interim, that he has received a ransom note, forged by Bigger (unbeknownst to Mr. Dalton), demanding 10,000 dollars for Mary’s return. Dalton says he intends to pay the ransom. But when Bigger is asked to rake out the furnace, which is full of ash, he spills ash on the floor, and the reporters see Mary’s white bones inside; Bigger sneaks out of the furnace room, but at this point he is a fugitive from justice. Bigger goes to his girlfriend Bessie’s house, tells her he killed Mary, and makes it seem that Bessie can only go along with Bigger’s ransom plan, now, since she is an “accessory” to the crime. Bessie, horrified, leaves with Bigger and goes to an abandoned warehouse, to hide.
Bigger rapes Bessie in the warehouse, then kills her with a brick, to keep her from speaking to police. Bigger then roams around the city, incognito, hoping to avoid the thousands of police officer searching for him. Bigger is eventually found on the roof of another building in the Black Belt, and is shot with a high-powered hose, debilitating him. He is brought into the police station amid shouts from the gathered crowds, who call him, among other things, a “black ape.”
In prison, Bigger meets with Buckley, the State’s Attorney, his family, the Daltons, Jan, and his lawyer, Max, a friend of Jan’s. Bigger also meets with a preacher, who asks Bigger to pray for his own soul. Buckley takes down Bigger’s confession, which Bigger signs, and after Bigger sees a burning cross in Chicago, set up by the Ku Klux Klan, he tells the preacher that he does not believe in his immortal soul, and that Christianity has no use for him.
Max interviews Bigger, asking about the circumstances of his life, and in the ensuing trial, although Buckley demands the death penalty, Max claims that Bigger’s upbringing, and the difficult living conditions of African Americans in Chicago and elsewhere in the country, should persuade the jury to give Bigger only life in prison.
But the jury decides that Bigger will be executed, and Max’s appeal to the Governor of the state fails. The final scene of the novel, between Max and Bigger, shows Bigger thanking Max for listening to him, earlier, although Max is shocked that Bigger is still largely unrepentant for his crimes. Bigger tells Max goodbye, and, as the novel ends, asks Max also to tell Jan “goodbye” from him as well.