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.
Crime and Justice ThemeTracker
Crime and Justice Quotes in Native Son
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 . . . .
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.
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 . . . .
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.
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?
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.
You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch! And you’re going to tell me about Miss Dalton and that Jan bastard!
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 . . . .
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 offersis fundamentally out of line, since, to him, Bigger is indefensible.
NEGRO KILLER SIGNS CONFESSIONS FOR TWO MURDERS. SHRINKS AT INQUEST WHEN CONFRONTED WITH BODY OF SLAIN GIRL. ARRAIGNED TOMORROW. REDS TAKE CHARGE OF KILLER’S DEFENSE. NOT GUILTY PLEAS LIKELY.
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!
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 . . . .
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.