Native Son

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Themes and Colors
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Native Son, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Native Son is a meditation on racial relations in 1930s Chicago, told from the perspective of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man who, enraged at society, accidentally kills Mary Dalton, whose body he later burns in a furnace; and Bessie, his “girl.” The novel’s author, Richard Wright, drawing in part on his own experiences as an African-American male growing up in the South and moving to Chicago, describes the sensation of…

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The novel is also a detailed examination of the nature of “capitalism” and “communism” in 1930s Chicago—a time and place known for agitation in the workforce, over who ought to control “the means of production.”

Bigger is often caught between these competing worldviews, and though he expresses frustration at the societal status quo, he is not capable, until far later in the novel, of articulating these frustrations in economic terms.

On the one end, capitalism…

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The novel turns on Bigger’s crimes: his murder of Mary, which incites so much protest in the white community of Chicago; and his murder of Bessie, an African-American woman—which, tellingly, does not set off the same firestorm of anger. Native Son is a take on the fundamental story of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: two lonely young men, Raskolnikov and Bigger, kill for reasons they cannot explain, and also kill innocent individuals unrelated…

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Wright attempts to tease out, in Native Son, the nature of Bigger’s anger—his hatred of humanity—and the extent to which charity toward man, as espoused by Max, Jan, Mary, and others, is a preferable way of life. Bigger is defined and enveloped by his hate. He hates the white people he believes have kept him out of school, out of the profession (aircraft pilot) he desires; he hates the Daltons for…

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Bigger’s entire life, leading up to the murders, is characterized by a hatred of his fellow man, and an impulse toward danger and violence. Bigger wishes to rob Blum’s grocery, and when his friends do not immediately go along with his plan, he intimidates them. Bigger wants to gratify himself physically (most notably by masturbating in the movie house before the Blum robbery); life, for him, represents only a series of deferrals of death, of…

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