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.
Anger and Charity Theme Icon

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 giving him a room and a job, for treating him as someone in need of charity; and, perhaps most importantly, Bigger hates and rejects his mother and siblings, feeling that, although they love him, they can only crowd in on him and demand things of him. Bigger’s anger is his default emotional state—his natural way of viewing the world.

But others in Bigger’s life wish to combat this anger. Jan and Mary seem genuinely to want to get to know him, and though the night they spend together goes horribly awry, and Bigger attempts to blame the murder on Jan, Jan nevertheless takes Bigger’s side, and hopes, even during the trial, that Bigger might escape the death penalty. Bessie, Bigger’s girlfriend, is a foil for Bigger’s mother: both are women afraid of Bigger’s anger, hoping that he will somehow realize that, although white society might attempt to thwart Bigger and his aspirations, that there exists, too, a society in that Black Belt willing to support and love Bigger.

This all contrasts with the charity offered by the Daltons, who take in members of the black community to work for them, and who give money (evoked most pointedly by the “ping-pong tables”) to the Black Belt community. Unfortunately, the Daltons are not capable of understanding that their efforts infantilize and continue, however implicitly, to support the oppression of African-American Chicagoans. Max, on the other hand, is a person outside Bigger’s community who, through genuine concern for Bigger’s life, and for the plight of all African Americans, shows Bigger compassion, makes a case for Bigger’s difficult circumstances, and hopes to avoid the death penalty for his client and friend. At the novel’s end, although it is a small victory, Bigger realizes that Max’s attempts to understand the story of Bigger’s life and circumstances have provided a model for genuine human engagement: a charity of the heart and mind, a form of human communion. Their conversation is not enough to save Bigger’s life, but the small smile Bigger gives at the close of the book seems tacit, and poignant, recognition of the possibility of human kindness.

Anger and Charity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Anger and Charity appears in each chapter of Native Son. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Anger and Charity Quotes in Native Son

Below you will find the important quotes in Native Son related to the theme of Anger and Charity.
Book 1 Quotes

You scared your sister with that rat and she fainted! Ain’t you got no sense at all
? Aw, I didn’t know she was that scary.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Ma Thomas (speaker), Vera Thomas
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning of the novel, Bigger is portrayed as someone who causes, rather than alleviates, trouble. He is anxious and already on the verge of small (though significant) violence when he is at home, cooped up in a small apartment with his sister and brother and mother. Bigger knows that his behavior with the rat, whom he views as an invader to the home, will cause his mother and sister to become frightened - but what counteracts this knowledge is Bigger's overwhelming desire to act, and to act with force, upon the world at large.

Thus Bigger is not, even at the beginning of the novel, unaware of the consequences of his actions. But the narrator points out that consequences and an awareness of them are not enough for Bigger. His impulsiveness, his energy, and his anger at the world push him out of the apartment and into a situation from which there is no easy means of escape. 


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God, I’d like to fly up there in that sky.
God’ll let you fly when He gives you your wings up in heaven.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger is attracted to the sky, and to the planes in the sky, because he sees them as symbols of freedom and escape. The plan can seemingly soar above whatever petty problems are taking place on the earth. And planes, of course, are filled with people who can fly, who have the professional opportunity to take to the air. Bigger wants the skills of a pilot, and he wants to leave the neighborhood in which he was raised. And yet this is impossible for him to achieve, because as a black man he would never be allowed the education and opportunity to become a pilot. Thus for Bigger, flying a plane is even less likely to happen than flying around as an angel in heaven (as Gus says here).

Because of this, the plane as symbol is not an unknown thing to Bigger. He is aware that, in looking at the sky, he is looking at an object of special fascination for himself. The question of what Bigger knows, and does not know, about himself is an interesting and important one. No reader could argue that Bigger is unaware of his anger, nor of his own ambition. The question is what Bigger does to help, or to hurt, himself as the novel progresses - to alter his life for the better or the worse. 

You’re scared ‘cause he’s a white man?
Naw. But Blum keeps a gun. Suppose he beats us to it?
Aw, you scared; that’s all. He’s a white man and you scared.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Gus (speaker), Blum
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger takes Gus to task in this scene. He does so because, as the acknowledged leader of the group, Bigger believes it is his responsibility to make sure everyone is in line with, and on board with, a potential robbery of the pool hall. Because Bigger notes that Gus is reluctant to go ahead with the idea, he angrily calls out Gus's masculinity, and argues that Gus is only willing to harm those whom he believes to be socially equal to himself - in other words, other people of color.

Thus the fact that the pool hall owner is a white man causes Bigger to argue that Gus is afraid of committing a crime against exactly that population that Bigger believes is most deserving of young criminality - the white population, that group of people who own many of the businesses in the region, and whose economic power often disenfranchises people of color. 

At least the fight made him feel the equal of them. And he felt the equal of Doc, too; had he not slashed his table and dared him to use his gun?

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Doc
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the novel, Bigger believes that violence is a way of "evening the score" with those around him, of showing that he is up to any challenge and can make a mark upon life, that he can prove himself when confronted. Bigger does not believe that there are other meaningful ways of interacting with the world. He is, as the narrator describes him, a young man who moves on impulse, who wants to see what he can ask the world for, what he can take from it.

This scene in the pool hall, then, shows how quickly and easily Bigger can come to violence - and how his friends in the small group, who typically do not shy away from acts of petty criminality, are nonetheless afraid of Bigger, worried what he might do. Bigger has no motivation for his outbursts other than the vague feeling that the world isn't fair, and that he must do something serious and abrupt to change or stop that unfair world. 

He hated himself at that moment. Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mr. Dalton
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

During his meeting with Henry Dalton, Bigger is terrified he will say the wrong thing - that he won't know how to behave around a man with so much money and power. Indeed, Dalton owns the very apartment building in which the Thomas family lives. But Bigger is struck by another impulse - that he is angry at Mr. Dalton for causing him to feel the way he does, for forcing Bigger, through no overt exertion of power, to be silent, to stumble for his words.

Thus Bigger realizes, in his interactions in the Dalton house, just how power can operate outside the "Black Belt" community in which he was born and raised. There, violence is a major way of effecting power, of getting people to do what you want. But in this part of the South Side, where the Daltons live, power is exercised in an entirely different way - with persuasion, with money, with the idea that certain activities are reserved for certain higher levels of society. 

First of all . . . don’t say sir to me. I’ll call you Bigger and you’ll call me Jan. That’s the way it’ll be between us.

Related Characters: Jan (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Jan is an avowed communist, who works for the betterment of all people - so he says. He is involved with Mary Dalton, who, despite her family's enormous wealth and privilege (based on capitalistic success), has committed herself also to certain communist ideals - or at least to learning more about those ideals. Jan's and Mary's communist ideology, at this point in the novel, makes very little sense to Bigger.

This is, in a way, because Bigger lives the life that Jan and Mary study from the outside. Jan and Mary do not understand what it's like to grow up in a shabby tenement, without any privacy. They are educated, and they are afforded other privileges (beyond those of money) by being white, by moving in a society that is entirely removed from that of Bigger. For all this, however, their desire to get to know Bigger is genuine - even if, at base, they cannot really know him, and can only spend time with him and condescendingly project onto him what they think he is, and what his life is like. 

The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger does not mean to kill Mary Dalton - indeed, he has nothing against her. He and Jan and Mary have had a strange though not a bad time on the evening of the murder. Jan and Mary have gotten to know Bigger, and Bigger has observed them as people who are sympathetic to his life but fundamentally different from it - as do-gooders who wish to know more about the world beyond the white communities of the South Side.

Bigger kills Mary, ironically enough, because he is afraid of what Mrs. Dalton and others might think of him in her bedroom at night. He kills, then, because he already expects a white family to think he is doing something wrong, or criminal, with Mary - that he has gotten her drunk and tried to take advantage of her, or has persuaded her into the vice of drinking itself. Bigger therefore kills because he feels he has no way out - only to realize that, in killing, he has sealed his fate, forcing himself to live permanently on the run from an entire "city of white people."

He was not crying but his lips were trembling and his chest was heaving. He wanted to lie down upon the floor and sleep off the horror of this thing. . . . Quickly, he wrapped the head in the newspaper . . . then he shoved the head in. The hatchet went next.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton
Related Symbols: The Furnace
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most gruesome scenes in the book. Again, Bigger does not chop up Mary because he wants to do this, or because he derives any pleasure from it. Rather, he believes he must do so in order to hide the body. The line of reasoning is, for him, perfectly logical - he must dispose of the body so that no one finds out about the murder - and he must do it quickly and efficiently. But in a context removed from this one, of course, Bigger's behavior is enormously irrational. He has, after all, killed out of fear, and now he is burning the corpse out of fear. His desire not to be caught causes him to commit further and further criminal acts, from which, fearfully, he feels he must run. The book is now structured as a series of consequences of Bigger's fatal, tragic  act, the accidental killing of Mary - and the manner by which he eludes, for a time, the authorities who zero in on him. 

Book 2 Quotes

You’ve got a good job, now . . . You ought to work hard and keep it and try to make a man out of yourself. Some day you’ll want to get married and have a home of your own . . . .

Related Characters: Ma Thomas (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Ma Thomas's words here are, of course, sickeningly ironic - for Bigger has no future, and there is no potential life of marriage and stability for him. He is a killer, now, and a fugitive, who has returned home not knowing where else to go - and who realizes that, after a short while, the Daltons will realize that Mary is missing, and will attempt to find her by any means necessary. Bigger has a sense, as his mother is speaking, that his life has changed entirely, and that his future - which only the day before lay in the Daltons' hands - is now one of ceaseless running, the life of a lonely fugitive.

Ma Thomas, at this point in the novel, has not abandoned the hope that Bigger will "reform" himself, that he will take on familial responsibilities and settle into a calmer, less violent life. Of course, this is not the path that the novel takes over the ensuing sections. 

Bigger stepped back, thunder-struck. He felt in his pocket for the money; it was not there. He took the money from Buddy and stuffed it hurriedly in his pocket.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Buddy Thomas
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Bigger begins making mistakes (apart, of course, from the series of enormously horrific acts he committed at the Daltons, not least of which was murdering and dismembering Mary Dalton). That is - he becomes less and less adept at covering up the traces of his crime. One of those is the money he has taken from the Dalton family, which he knows he must conceal. And yet, at the crucial moment, when he is to walk out the door and head back to the Dalton house, he leaves this money behind, and his innocent and unsuspecting brother, Buddy, finds it.

Bigger knows that it is unlikely Buddy will tell anyone about the money - at least on purpose. But Bigger also senses that the mistakes he's making here are mistakes he might make in other venues - if, say, he has to talk to the Daltons or to the police. He worries, then, that he will reveal his guilt without meaning to. 

Ultimately, though, his hate and hope turned outward from himself and Gus: his hope toward a vague benevolent something that would help and lead him, and his hate toward the whites; for he felt that they ruled him, even when they were far away and not thinking of him . . . .

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Gus
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger is a changed man when he sees his friends the day after the murder. Naturally, he is changed because of the crime he has committed - but his friends believe he is changed because he is now working for the powerful Dalton family. The narrator plays on this irony - that Bigger's friends do not know what he's done, and are in awe of him - and Bigger himself feels that, perhaps, as he stands with his friends, he might imagine some future that is beyond his immediate circumstances, beyond the crime and the difficulty of living in Chicago's Black Belt.

But this dream only lasts so long. Although Bigger enjoys feeling that his friends are in awe of his new-found money (in relative terms), he knows he must go back to the Daltons, and at this point, things will become much more difficult. He will have to pretend he knows nothing about Mary's disappearance - and because Bigger is so easily flustered around the Daltons, it is precisely this kind of pretending that will be difficult for him to manage. 

A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away. He had read of how men had been caught because of women, and he did not want that to happen to him. But, if, yes, but if he told her, yes, just enough to get her to work with him?

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Bessie
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

On the one hand, Bigger knows that Bessie will support him, that she cares for him and - most importantly, in his mind - that she is afraid of him. Bessie seems to sense that, for Bigger, there is an anger welling up inside, a hatred of oppressive white populations and also of people more generally. Bessie knows that Bigger is capable of violence, perhaps even horrible violence.

Thus, when Bigger tells Bessie part of the truth, that he wishes to take a ransom for Mary and Jan, Bessie feels that there is little she can do. She is worried that, if she opposes Bigger, he will try to harm her. And she perhaps senses that Bigger is not being totally honest with her, that he is only tell her a part of the story. Bessie, even more so than Bigger, is hemmed in - unable to make a free choice. She can only do what she must do in order to survive.  

He was confident. During the last day and night new fears had come, but new feelings had helped to allay those fears. The moment when he had stood above Mary’s bed and found that she was dead the fear of electrocution had entered his flesh and blood. . . . As long as he could take his life into his own hands and dispose of it as he pleased . . . he need not be afraid.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an important scene in the novel. Bigger is, at this moment, still largely under the influence of alcohol, which he has consumed with Bessie. When Bessie drinks, she becomes more and more amenable to Bigger's plan, if only as a means of survival. When Bigger drinks, he finds that he is more and more confident, that he no longer worries that he will be caught and executed - that, perhaps, he can even profit off of Mary's death by collecting a ransom and running away with Bessie.

These thoughts flood Bigger's consciousness and nearly cause him to forget what he has done, that he has committed murder. Bigger vacillates between fear on the one hand and anger on the other, between a certainty that he will be caught and a certainty that he will be able to trick all those involved. Bessie, for her part, continues only to worry, to sense that danger is just around the corner - and to attempt to save herself in the process, while realizing that she cannot escape from Bigger while he is still alive and a free man. 

There was silence. Bigger stared without a thought or an image in his mind. There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas
Related Symbols: The Furnace
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

In the furnace room, surrounded by members of the new media, Bigger has a sense, even before Mary's bones are discovered not totally burnt in the furnace, that he is now no longer able to escape. He knows that, even if he were innocent, even if he had not killed Mary, even if he had managed to work peaceably in the Dalton house for many years, that there is something in his very blackness that would cause white people to suspect him of wrongdoing.

That Bigger himself has committed a heinous crime is, of course, true. But that Bigger has been a victim, throughout his life, of terrible acts of violence, large and small, implicit and explicit, is also true. Bigger has a sense, now, that the latter point can never justify the former - that no judge will look at his life and view his difficult circumstances as "making up" for murder. But Bigger also realizes how unfair the system is, how all its mechanisms, supposed to produce justice, would have been stacked against him even if he had done nothing out of the ordinary. 

Book 3 Quotes

And yet his desire to crush all faith in him was in itself built upon a sense of faith. The feelings of his body reasoned that if there could be no merging with the men and women about him, there should be a merging with some other part of the natural world in which he lived. Out of the mood of renunciation there sprang up in him again the will to kill.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

In jail, Bigger has an opportunity to consider, in a more abstract and philosophical sense, the crimes he has committed, and the society in which he has committed them - and, before that, the environment in which he lived with his family. Bigger knows now that part of his wish, above all, was to be a part of a community larger than himself, to bond with the men and women around him. Distant from his mother and siblings, distant also from his friends, although he spent a great deal of time with them, Bigger sought for something beyond his own life - something large, a set of ideas or acts according to which he could live. This was Bigger's ambition, even if he did not know it.

Killing Mary was the signal mistake of Bigger's life, and it was deeply wrong. But that killing, and the acts that followed, were also the means by which Bigger's life began to change - at least, the means that caused Bigger to recognize the larger social forces at work in his life, and in the lives of those around him. 

Bigger, I’ve never done anything against you and your people in my life. But I’m a white man and it would be asking too much to ask you not to hate me, when every white man you see hates you . . . .

Related Characters: Jan (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

Jan, for his part, seems immensely understanding at this juncture in the novel, even though Bigger has essentially tried to tell the authorities that Jan murdered Mary, or was at least responsible for her disappearance. Jan understands that the circumstances of Bigger's life have been difficult, far more difficult than he could ever imagine. In contrast to his behavior the night that Bigger killed Mary, Jan now seems more willing to speak to Bigger directly, man to man. He no longer sees Bigger as an abstract representation of what it means to be "black" in Chicago, or of what it means to be a "worker" in a city where so much wealth is concentrated in so small a part of the population. In one of the novel's grander ironies, it is only after Mary's death that many of the characters are able to understand themselves and one another - and it is a bitter, bitter irony, too, for it has come at an immensely steep cost in innocent human lives. 

Isn’t it true that you refuse to rent houses to Negroes if those houses are in other sections of the city?
Why, yes.
Well, it’s an old custom.

Related Characters: Max (speaker), Mr. Dalton
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

Max exposes what he believes to be Mr. Dalton's hypocrisy when it comes to the African American populations in Chicago. Mr. Dalton professes that he has done, and continues to do, all that he can to help those in the Chicago community - that his life, outside his business interests, is one of a philanthropist. But, as Max reveals, this life is far more complicated. Dalton charges African Americans very high rents, and tends not to rent to black families in his "white" buildings. He sees nothing wrong or contradictory in this, either.

In essence, Mr. Dalton's views on race are separatist, if not segregationist. He believes that white and black communities are fundamentally different - they may not always be opposed - but he does what he can to offer a "helping hand" to black families. Even this, again, he only does within limits - he does not believe in putting black families on any sort of equal footing with white families. But Dalton does believe that his efforts to help charitably in the city, both in white and black populations, have been sincere ones. 


Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton , Bessie
Page Number: 341
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an example of the kinds of headlines that the narrator and novelist imagine for Bigger's trial. It is obvious that Bigger is not afforded any kind of fair trial in the press - after all, he is a "killer" and not an "alleged killer" right in the headline, and the reporting of his dismay at the sight of the girl's body seems to show that, though he was capable of doing what he did, he is no longer capable of facing up to it. This, the newspapermen believe, is a sign of Bigger's underlying cowardice.

For the media and many parts of the white Chicago community at large, Bigger's trial is a means of placing further blame on African American populations. Crime, according to these mainstream white viewpoints, is a black problem because African American families do not care to protect their neighborhoods, or because criminality is somehow "inherent" to them. The newspaper thus does all it can to fan the flames of racial hatred in the city. 

Speaking for the grief-stricken families of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears, and for the People of the State of Illinois, thousands of whom are massed out beyond that window waiting for the law to take its course, I say that no such quibbling, no such trickery shall pervert this Court and cheat this law!

Related Characters: Buckley (speaker), Mary Dalton , Bessie
Page Number: 374
Explanation and Analysis:

Buckley, the prosecutor, does what he can to make it seem that he must prosecute aggressively, and ask for the death penalty against Bigger, because the "community" (meaning the white community in Chicago) will rest for nothing less. This, by implication, means that the white community might feel it necessary to take justice into its own hands if Bigger is not sentenced to death. This threat of extra-legal violence is a chilling one, and is a sign that the nature of violence in a racially-polarized society, like Chicago at this time, does not operate equally. Members of white society are more or less allowed to threaten certain members of black society with violence outside the legal system, and without consequences - assuming that the legal system does not step in first to put Bigger to death. Buckley's words are chilling ones, and they are calculated to make the jury feel obligated to vote for execution, so that Bigger gets what white Chicagoans (essentially, bowing to racist mob rule) feel to be his just punishment.