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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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 . . . .