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.
Crime and Justice Theme Icon

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 to their original targets. Both men must come to terms with their crimes in the maw of the criminal justice system.

For Bigger, however, this system is stacked against him to an almost unimaginable degree, as Mary is a member of wealthy white Chicago society. The legal process by which Bigger is tried is contrasted with the “desires” of the Chicago community at large, especially its white community, as represented by the opinions of the State’s Attorney, Buckley. Buckley argues that Bigger’s crimes deserve to be publicized and “tried” in the community, and that the opinion of the mob, if not admissible at court, nevertheless impacts his own (Buckley’s) actions as prosecutor. Buckley asks for the death penalty, and reviews in excruciating detail Bigger’s previous gang-related activities, and his gruesome murders.

On the other side stands Max—a small beacon of hope for Bigger, that the latter might avoid the death penalty; that he might have his humanity, and the motivations for his crime, recognized in court. Max consistently describes Buckley’s argumentative efforts as attempts to turn public opinion against Bigger. Eventually, Bigger is tried, and a great deal of evidence is brought against him by Buckley, evidence that not only shows Bigger’s guilt but makes it appear that Bigger is hardly human, an “ape” who has killed out of a hatred for white people. But Max, calling no witnesses himself, makes an impassioned speech in perhaps the novel’s high-point, arguing that Bigger has never had a chance in life, that his view of white society is distorted by the difficulties of his own existence, and that, despite his horrific crimes, Bigger ought to be afforded the legal protections of due process, and the chance to learn and repent in prison for the remainder of his life.

The judge finally decides, based in part on vociferous public outrage, that Bigger must be sentenced to death, and the novel ends on a particularly somber note. But Wright also makes clear that, though Bigger’s life is lost, Max’s statements on the nature of human suffering, regardless of race, are true ones—ones that might be applied to the lives of other African Americans who have not stumbled as Bigger has.

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Crime and Justice ThemeTracker

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

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

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. 


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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. 

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. 

Listen, I just felt around in Mary’s room. Something’s wrong. She didn’t finish packing her trunk. At least half of her things are still there. She said she was planning to go to some dances in Detroit and she didn’t take the new things she bought.

Related Characters: Mrs. Dalton (speaker), Mary Dalton
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Dalton realizes that Mary couldn't have gone to Detroit after all, even though Bigger has tried to make it seem that nothing changed in Mary's plans. Mrs. Dalton knows her daughter, and knows that her desire to live well, and to live fashionably, would trump her desire to escape from the family in the middle of the night. In other words, Mary's possible disappearance after her lecture at the University of Chicago simply does not fit in with the remainder of her behavior. It is something she would not do unless she had no choice.

The Dalton family naturally distrusts Jan because of his communist sympathies, and their suspicions initially fall on him. But Bigger also realizes, in overhearing the conversations between Mrs. Dalton and Peggy, that soon they will turn their attentions to Bigger himself - and he will be forced to produce an alibi for the night before, the events of which, mixed up with alcohol, are already difficult for Bigger to narrate, even before the murder took place. 

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. 

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. 

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. 


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. 

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.