Native Son

Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Analysis

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.
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon

Bigger’s entire life, leading up to the murders, is characterized by a hatred of his fellow man, and an impulse toward danger and violence. Bigger wishes to rob Blum’s grocery, and when his friends do not immediately go along with his plan, he intimidates them. Bigger wants to gratify himself physically (most notably by masturbating in the movie house before the Blum robbery); life, for him, represents only a series of deferrals of death, of small instances of physical pleasure that have no relation to any higher emotional aim.

After the murders—when Bigger claims he “felt free” (to Max), because he was in control of his own life—Bigger comes slowly to realize, through his trial and through the exhortations of Max on his behalf and of Buckley against him, that life is more than a series of disconnected physical pleasures. Life, instead, is lived for a certain goal—for making a profit, for helping others, for establishing a family. Yet Bigger has trouble coming to terms with these realities of unselfish living, until Max asks him about his own life. The paradox of Bigger’s condition is that his total selfishness, his ignorance of his family’s suffering and of the suffering of others, is combined with a total lack of self-awareness and self-interrogation.

Thus, by asking Bigger to talk about his own life, Max demonstrates the kind of care for another person he believes Bigger ought to have shown to his own friends and family. Bigger does not articulate his prison revelations in exactly these terms, but he nevertheless admits to Max, in their final meeting before his death, that Max has taken the time to see him as an individual, and that this has caused Bigger to recognize that life has value, death is not simply “another thing” that happens to human beings. Death is, instead, the cessation of life’s possibility, which is what makes death so unbearable to most. Bigger realizes life’s meaning when it is too late to change his own life—but the novel, as cautionary tale, establishes that we, who read it, still have time to correct our lives, to live with purpose, and to put off death by living for others.

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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live appears in each chapter of Native Son. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Quotes in Native Son

Below you will find the important quotes in Native Son related to the theme of Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live.
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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.