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.
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon

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, and the creation of profits for distribution among a small group of people, is embodied by the Dalton family, specifically Mr. Henry Dalton. Dalton is not a rapacious capitalist—he wishes to reinvest his earnings, some of which derive from real estate owned in black neighborhoods, in the community—but he still uses his wealth to insulate himself from the misery of those living in the Black Belt. Other beneficiaries of this system include Mrs. Dalton, who wishes to speak for the interests of their “black help,” but who cannot see that her desire to help is itself a manifestation of white privilege; and, of course, Mary, whose communist sympathies embody the interrelation, in the novel, between the capitalist and communist worldviews.

Both Mary and Jan, her lover, are active in the Communist Party of Chicago, and it is their desire to help Bigger as well—to “liberate” his people from the shackles of economic servitude. But Bigger nevertheless experiences a hatred for Mary and Jan despite their good intentions, or perhaps because of them: Bigger seems intuitively to recognize that Jan and Mary, despite their best efforts, are limited by a paternalistic impulse to help African Americans, who, they believe, cannot help themselves. In this way, the communism of Mary and Jan is not so different from the capitalism of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton—both these impulses of kindness lead to death and destruction.

Finally, at the novel’s end, Wright offers a portrait of Max as a sympathetic communist figure, one whose motivation to help Bigger is relatively pure (as Max himself, a Jewish member of the Chicago legal community, has felt the sting of discrimination in his own life). Although Bigger never “converts” to communism, he comes, through his conversations with Max, to understand the interdependence of human beings in a community—and this idea, which lies at the root of utopian communism, allows him to approach his death with a kind of quiet dignity. Communism, however flawed and in whatever limited a capacity, is a way for humans to recognize the humanity of one another.

Capitalism and Communism ThemeTracker

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

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

If you get that job . . . I can fix up a nice place for you children. You could be comfortable and not have to live like pigs.

Related Characters: Ma Thomas (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Bigger is still a young man, he is the oldest man in the house, and as such, his mother wants him to work, rather than wasting his energy hanging around a pool hall with this friends, as Bigger often does. The job that Bigger can get is that of a driver for a wealthy white family on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood vastly different from the collection of tenements in which Bigger currently lives.

Thus Bigger's mother wants her son to succeed, in part for his own development, and in part so that Bigger's wages can help the family, can raise his sister Vera and his brother Buddy somewhat out of poverty. Bigger's mother does not attempt to hide her aspirations for her son - indeed, she pressures him to achieve (monetarily) outside the home, so that all in the family might benefit. This desire for achievement kickstarts the sequence of dramatic events in the novel. 


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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. 

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. 

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. 

You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch! And you’re going to tell me about Miss Dalton and that Jan bastard!

Related Characters: Britten (speaker), Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton , Jan
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Britten is the first person in the Dalton household, after the investigation formally begins, to sense that Bigger might somehow be involved in Mary's disappearance. Of course, everyone knows that Bigger was the hired chauffeur, driving the car that carried Mary and Jan. Suspicions fell initially on Jan, whose communist sympathies were enough to raise a red flag to the authorities. But now Britten notes that Bigger seems nervous, that he has trouble stating exactly what he was doing the two nights previous and explaining what he knows about Mary's disappearance. 

Britten, interestingly enough, however, pegs some of Bigger's guilt on the idea that he is a communist (and the rest on the fact that he is black). Of course, Bigger only knows a very small amount of what communism is, and this he knows from a brief conversation with Jan and Mary. He did not kill because he sought, according to communist ideals, to break down a system that was economically unfair. He killed simply because he wanted to avoid trouble - because he was afraid. But naturally Bigger does not confess any of these feelings to Britten. 

Yeah; I killed the girl . . . Now, you know. You’ve got to help me. You in it as deep as me! You done spent some of the money . . . .

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Mary Dalton , Bessie
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

Bessie might have spent some of the money that Bigger stole, and in this sense she is complicit with a very small part of Bigger's crime, but she was also forced to do these things - forced to help Bigger, with the implicit threat that, if she did not, he would harm her. Bessie has had little freedom to speak of throughout the novel, which is why she's gone along with Bigger in the first place - and now, Bigger uses this to ensnare her further. 

Bessie and Mary, in this sense, are both victims of Bigger's wrath, even before Bessie dies. Because of her race and class, Bigger knows that he can manipulate Bessie in ways he could not manipulate Mary - but Bigger asserted power over Mary anyway, through physical force at least. Even though Mary's death derived from a sense only of self-preservation, Bigger nevertheless sees himself, by this stage of the novel, as someone who is willing to kill again in order to save his own life. 

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. 

Now listen, Mr. Max. No question asked in this room will inflame the public mind any more than has the death of Mary Dalton, and you know it. You have the right to question any of these witnesses, but I will not tolerate any publicity-seeking by your kind here!

Related Characters: Deputy coroner (speaker), Mary Dalton , Max
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

The deputy coroner, who is handling the prosecution in the case at this preliminary stage, does all that he can to stoke the flames of white anger in Chicago. A great many people are violently angry at Bigger for killing a white woman - and the racist elements in that city see this murder as an inevitable part of the racial violence they believe to exist in the Black Belt. In other words, the deputy coroner wants the jury, composed of white men, to see this as a crime of racial score-setting on Bigger's part - in the hopes that this race-baiting attitude will cause them to convict Bigger and sentence him to death.

Max, on his side, tries to show that Bigger is a human being who made a series of horrible mistakes and who committed terrible crimes - but that he is a human being all the same, and therefore deserving of human sympathy. But the deputy coroner disputes this in court as mere "publicity-seeking" - that is, the deputy coroner believes that any defense that Max offers is fundamentally out of line, since, to him, Bigger is indefensible. 

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. 

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. 

What I killed for must’ve been good! It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something . . . . I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em . . . .

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker)
Page Number: 429
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger, during his time in jail, tries his best to understand what he has done and why he has done it, before he is put to death by the state of Illinois. To this speech Max, his lawyer, has nothing substantive to say - Max is scared at the thought that Bigger believes he has achieved some level of insight through murder. Max is fundamentally a pacifist, even as he recognizes the events that have caused Bigger to become so violent. And Max finds, ultimately, that there is little he can do or say to Bigger to make sense of the violent mistakes Bigger has made, and through which he has brought his own life to an end.

Bigger, for his part, believes that his passions were powerful ones - that his anger against the restrictive elements of white society were themselves persuasive, even though killing is inherently wrong. He felt, in killing, that he was powerful and consequential, even if he sees during the trial that the murders of Mary and Bessie have only created more harm, more suffering, more pain in the world. At this bleak and somewhat contradictory point (at least on a moral level), the novel draws to a close just before Bigger is put to death.