Native Son

Native Son

by Richard Wright

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Overview

Now an HBO Film!

“If one had to identify the single most influential shaping force in modern Black literary history, one would probably have to point to Wright and the publication of Native Son.” – Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.

Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.

This edition—the restored text of Native Son established by the Library of America—also includes an essay by Wright titled, How "Bigger" was Born, along with notes on the text.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061148507
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/29/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 230,883
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.36(d)

About the Author

Richard Wright won international renown for his powerful and visceral depiction of the black experience. He stands today alongside such African-American luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and two of his novels, Native Son and Black Boy, are required reading in high schools and colleges across the nation. He died in 1960.

Date of Birth:

September 4, 1908

Date of Death:

November 28, 1960

Place of Birth:

Near Natchez, Mississippi

Place of Death:

Paris, France

Education:

Smith-Robertson Junior High in Jackson, Mississippi (1925)

Read an Excerpt

Native Son

Chapter One
Book One: Fear

Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!

An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman's voice sang out impatiently:

"Bigger, shut that thing off!"

A surly grunt sounded above the tinny ring of metal. Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly.

"Turn on the light, Bigger."

"Awright," came a sleepy mumble.

Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. From a bed to his right the woman spoke again:

"Buddy, get up from there! I got a big washing on my hands today and I want you-all out of here."

Another black boy rolled from bed and stood up. The woman also rose and stood in her nightgown.

"Turn your heads so I can dress," she said.

The two boys averted their eyes and gazed into a far comer of the room. The woman rushed out, of her nightgown and put on a pair of step-ins. She turned to the bed from which she had risen and called:

"Vera! Get up from there!"

"What time is it, Ma?" asked a muffled, adolescent voice from beneath a quilt.

"Get up from there, I say!"

"O.K., Ma."

A brown-skinned girl in a cotton gown got up and stretched her arms above her head and yawned. Sleepily, she sat on a chair and fumbled with her stockings. The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boysdressed. Abruptly, they all paused, holding their clothes in their hands, their attention caught by a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room. They forgot their conspiracy against shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor.

"There he is again, Bigger!" the woman screamed, and the tiny, one-room apartment galvanized into violent action. A chair toppled as the woman, half-dressed and in her stocking feet, scrambled breathlessly upon the bed. Her two sons, barefoot, stood tense and motionless, their eyes searching anxiously under the bed and chairs. The girl ran into a corner, half-stooped and gathered the hem of her slip into both of her hands and held it tightly over her knees.

"Oh! Oh! " she waited.

"There he goes!"

The woman pointed a shaking finger. Her eyes were round with fascinated horror.

"Where?"

"I don't see 'im!"

"Bigger, he's behind the trunk!" the girl whimpered.

"Vera!" the woman screamed. "Get up here on the bed! Don't let that thing bite you!"

Frantically, Vera climbed upon the bed and the woman caught hold of her. With their arms entwined about each other, the black mother and the brown daughter gazed open-mouthed at the trunk in the corner.

Bigger looked round the room wildly, then darted to a curtain and swept it aside and grabbed two heavy iron skillets from a wall above a gas stove. He whirled and called softly to his brother, his eyes glued to the trunk.

"Buddy!"

"Yeah?"

"Here; take this skillet."

"O.K."

"Now, get over by the door!"

"O.K."

Buddy crouched by the door and held the iron skillet by its handle, his arm flexed and poised. Save for the quick, deep breathing of the four people, the room was quiet. Bigger crept on tiptoe toward the trunk with the skillet clutched stiffly in his hand, his eyes dancing and watching every inch of the wooden floor in front of him. He paused and, without moving an eye or muscle, called:

"Buddy!"

"Hunh?"

"Put that box in front of the hole so he can't get out!"

"O.K."

Buddy ran to a wooden box and shoved it quickly in front of a gaping hole in the molding and then backed again to the door, holding the skillet ready. Bigger eased to the trunk and peered behind it cautiously. He saw nothing. Carefully, he stuck out his bare foot and pushed the trunk a few inches.

"There he is!" the mother screamed again.

A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger's trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.

"Goddamn!" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs.

"Hit 'im, Bigger!" Buddy shouted.

"Kill 'im! " the woman screamed.

The rat's belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance, its black beady eyes glittering, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly. Bigger swung the skillet; it skidded over the floor, missing the rat, and clattered to a stop against a wall.

"Goddamn!"

The rat leaped. Bigger sprang to one side. The rat stopped under a chair and let out a furious screak. Bigger moved slowly backward toward the door.

"Gimme that skillet, Buddy," he asked quietly, not taking his eyes from the rat.

Buddy extended his hand. Bigger caught the skillet and lifted it high in the air. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering.

Bigger aimed and let the skillet fly with a heavy grunt. There was a shattering of wood as the box caved in. The woman screamed and hid her face in her hands. Bigger tiptoed forward and peered.

"I got 'im," he muttered, his clenched teeth bared in a smile. "By God, I got 'im. "

He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat's head, crushing it, cursing hysterically:

"You sonofabitch!"

Native Son. Copyright (c) by Richard Wright . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Arnold Rampersad
Book One
1(94)
Book Two
95(176)
Book Three
271(160)
How "Bigger" Was Born
431(32)
Chronology 463(22)
Note on the Texts 485(4)
Notes 489

What People are Saying About This

Irving Howe

The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Impoverished, angry, and poorly educated, Bigger Thomas drifts around the seedy South Side of Chicago until he finds work chauffeuring a wealthy, liberal white family named the Daltons. On his first evening of work, Bigger drives the Daltons' college-age daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone around town while the two of them get drunk. Bigger carries the intoxicated Mary to her bedroom and becomes sexually aroused while putting her to bed; when Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, comes to the door, Bigger silences Mary by covering her face with a pillow and inadvertently smothers her to death. He burns her corpse in the furnace and desperately tries to destroy evidence of the crime and frame Erlone for it, but when a reporter discovers Mary's bones in the furnace, the police quickly close in on Bigger and take him to jail.

The final section of the book recounts Bigger's trial. His lawyer, a Jewish-American Communist named Boris Max, pleads that Bigger is not responsible for his violent actions because social forces drove him to crime, and he urges the judge to spare Bigger the death penalty. The state's prosecutor responds that Bigger is a cold-hearted, depraved criminal and must die as the law requires. The judge rules for the prosecution and sentences Bigger to death. In the final scene, Max attempts to console Bigger, but Bigger rebuffs him. "What I killed for, I am!" Bigger insists, and Max leaves him to his fate.

Discussion Topics
1. Wright writes of Bigger Thomas: "These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and momentsof anger--like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force." Does Wright intend us to relate to Bigger as a human being--or has he deliberately made him an unconscious embodiment of oppressive social and political forces? Is there anything admirable about Bigger? Does he change by the end of the book?

2. James Baldwin, an early protege of Wright's, later attacked the older writer for his self-righteousness and reliance on stereotypes, especially in the character of Bigger. In his famous essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," Baldwin compared Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and dismissed Native Son as "protest" fiction with a naked and simplistic political agenda. Do you agree?

3. When Bigger stands confronted with his family in jail, he thinks to himself that they ought to be glad that he was a murderer: "Had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black?" Talk about Bigger as a victim and sacrificial figure. If Wright wanted us to pity Bigger, why did he portray him as so brutal?

4. Bigger repeatedly says to himself that the accidental killing holds "the hidden meaning of his life": "He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had anything that others could not take from him." Discuss the disturbing concept of killing as a "supreme and meaningful act." Is this Wright's own view of the killing--or are we meant to see it only as Bigger's internal conclusion?

5. When first confronted with the accusation that he raped Mary, Bigger thinks: "rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out." Discuss the group's reactions to this controversial passage. Does this redefinition of rape reveal an insensitivity on Wright's part to women and the oppressions that they experience in American society? 6. How dated does this book seem in its depiction of racial hatred and guilt? Have we as a society moved beyond the rage and hostility that Wright depicts between blacks and whites? Or are we still living in a culture that could produce a figure like Bigger Thomas?

About the Author
The first 20th century African-American writer to command both critical acclaim and broad popular success, Richard Wright was born on a plantation outside of Roxie, Mississippi in 1908. In 1937 he moved to New York to make his way as a professional writer and in 1938 he published Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four short novels about the violent persecution of black men in the South. Harper and Brothers published Native Son two years later to immediate acclaim and phenomenal sales. Black Boy was even more successful when it appeared in 1945, selling more than 500,000 copies in its first year.

Despite his success, Wright continued to feel stifled by racial prejudice. Convinced that he could find greater freedom abroad, Wright moved to Paris in 1947 with his wife, an American woman of Polish-Jewish descent, and their young daughter. He quickly made contact with leading French existentialists and began reading deeply in the works of Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger. In the fiction he composed in France, Wright tried to view racial issues from an existentialist perspective.

When he died suddenly of a heart attack in Paris in 1960, Wright was considered a marginal figure - an expatriate novelist whose works had lost favor with a younger generation of African-American intellectuals. But the emergence of the black power movement in the 1960s sparked a major reassessment of Wright as both an innovative prose stylist and militant social critic. Today Richard Wright is widely recognized as one of the great American writers of the 20th century.

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Native Son 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 176 reviews.
DeDeFlowers More than 1 year ago
I am one to shy away from books about race. A lot of times I find it hard to relate or I find them to be boring or too graphic. I read this book because it was on a list of the 100 best books ever written and it is my goal to read them all to check out the hype. I really did not want to read Native Son. From the first sentence of the first page I knew this was going to be something special. Wright's writing is captivating and the characters he builds are so real. Even if you cannot relate to this book personally, you will be able to relate to the emotions the main character Bigger Thomas is feeling. It is an amazing thing to be engrossed so deeply into a book as I was with this one. The plot is unique, especially as far as books about race go. Surprisingly this is also a very fast read. For a couple reasons: you cannot put it down and it is written very matter-of-fact. I can see why kids in high school might not want to read this. It's long and seems out of date. To be honest it might even go over a lot of the heads in a regular English class. I feel like this novel is for anyone though. It's important. This book is on my list of best books ever...which only had 11 books prior. That is a big deal! Read it :)
bluetulip18 More than 1 year ago
Along with Invisible Man, Native Son is another powerful story that has schooled me on what W.E.B. Du Bois might have meant by "double consciouness": African Americans' tendency to see themselves through the eyes of others. Bigger, the main character, judges himself by society's stereotypes, and a profound fear of whites drives his every action (including a heinous crime so vividly described I had to put the book down for awhile). It's mind-boggling and tragic to think how much a person can truly become what society expects and assumes he'll be. Difficult story to swallow; an emotional, memorable read.
ECooper-Columbus More than 1 year ago
Richard Wright¿s depiction on race relations in the 1940's was parallel to the thinking of most Black and White Americans today. We saw that with the newly elected president. I found this book a much needed read, not to conjure up racial tension but as a reminder of how we, Black and White Americans need to continue to strive for racial equality. He talked about how the price of food is higher in one section than another, how redlining occured than, which is another parallel of today¿s housing market. I, as a teacher, will use this book as a teaching tool to inspire my children to release pinned up anger by talking to an adult or someone they trust; use Bigger's lack of education to inspire them to stay in school. There are so many teaching tools that you can be pulled from this book and used as inspiration. The relevance of this book is still very useful today. It is a great read, I couldn't put it down.
rapragdoll More than 1 year ago
Native Son was the hardest book to read that I've ever read. It was so detailed about negative emotions and vile acts that I had to stop reading and found it at times hard to go on. I read it of my own free will and don't feel I wasted time but would have enjoyed another book better. It's to negative for me even if the point is very original and dramatic,it's a great debate to a side I do not agree with but see it's points.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a different read for me but I did like this book. This book goes to show that till this day life will always be hard for people of the black community .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel was both poignant and thought-provoking. I was surprised by how fast i was able to read this book-Richard Wrights' writing style is truly exceptional. This is probably one of the best books i've ever read. Once you've read this book, you'll understand as to how we can all relate to Bigger Thomas, no matter your race.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite books in the world besides black boy and autobbiography of malcolm x
ahooper04 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this in high school, but can't remember much now!
rizeandshine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I expected Native Son to be a social commentary on racism in 1940's America, and it was. But, in some ways it was not the novel I was expecting. After a somewhat predictable, start the novel took a bit of an unexpected turn and I found it to be an involving, suspenseful read. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is a poor, uneducated black man who hates the whites for being in control and is ashamed of his family¿s poverty. He is always getting into trouble and soon Bigger must make some monumental decisions. At first I sympathized just a bit with Bigger as he chooses a path of deception, but his crimes soon escalate until I had no sympathy for the main character. Bigger redeems himself slightly at the end of the novel, when he must confront his own actions and determine where social conditioning ends and free will begins. Unfortunately, instead of relying on the plot alone to make a statement about how racial inequality and social injustice create conditions for violence in urban America, the author gets a bit preachy via the final statement of a Jewish lawyer who is affiliated with the Communist Party. This portion of the tale really drags down an otherwise gripping and insightful novel. I would recommend Native Son but would not blame you for skimming over a bit of the overlong courtroom speech.
andystardust on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What I took away from this: Wright's concept of a guilt so dreadful that, in order to escape it, a man decides that the people that are the source of his guilt are something less than human. That way, they are easier to ignore. Or to kill. This novel packs a wallop. Shares an odd kinship with Dreiser's American Tragedy, another murder/fugitive from justice/courtroom melodrama in a naturalistic vein. Recommended.
CardiffGiant on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This novel successfully forces the reader to question the difference between right and wrong. Immediately, Wright gives the reader the portrait of a person (and his family) in horrible living conditions with no hope for a better life or an attempt at the American Dream. It is not long into the novel that Bigger is quickly confronted with an opportunity at upward mobility and his reaction is, naturally, distrust and rejection at those offers. Although we, as readers, are likely to question (and condemn) Bigger's actions, as the novel unfolds we find that all of these actions are part of a large problem. Wright does a masterful job of stopping short of telling us that Bigger's actions are justified in any way; instead, he focuses on why these things happen and how Bigger has been set up by a social structure that needs serious adjustment. One of the strongest political/social statements comes in the novels final 20-30 pages as Max gives his testimony in defense of Bigger. On top of all of the political and social messages that this novel has to offer, Wright has also created a character who is dealing with questions of his own existence and a strong desire to break out of that existence.
Abbsalah on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is so important.It shows a pretty ugly side of race relations in America, but it is absolutely eye-opening. This story brings tragedy to a new scale. It hit a cord with me and has stuck with me for years; I have never been able to forget Bigger Thomas and his story.
gbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book made me think and gave me insight into a different perspective, that of African Americans in 1940, a part of which has undoubtedly carried forward to today. It's intelligent, eloquent, and ahead of its time. Wright does a very smart thing in this book: he does not create a main character who is lovable and then victimized, he creates Bigger Thomas, a main character who is a monster, provides an understanding for how Bigger and many others like him come to be, and then does not apologize or justify the awful acts he commits.As a philosopher once said, do we complain when a pear tree produces pears? It's not a justification, but Wright says let's understand where violence comes from and accept it as an inevitable consequence of our society's actions. Along the line he portrays subtle and outright racism and anti-communism; it's frightening to realize just how real this was 70 years ago.It seems Wright took a lot of criticism for his style and for making the final part of the book drag on; I say it's really unfortunate that among those who did so was James Baldwin and jeez, cut the guy some slack. There are many others guilty of that kind of thing, Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, Dostoevsky, and Ayn Rand, hoo boy and Ayn Rand; moreover, it seems to me that it wasn't so much that it was overly verbose, it was that the first couple of parts were so gripping, and the latter part was a bit more predictable, and the logical aftermath of the first parts.Quotes:"As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared."On whites who sympathized but were "too nice"; along with later commentary that the rich who donate to 'boys clubs' were doing so out of a sense of guilt, and also were the first to deny renting houses to blacks in white neighborhoods, and to hire blacks in better jobs in their companies, either of which would have had more real benefit:"He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate.""Many a time he had stood on street corners with them and talked of white people as long sleek cars zoomed past. To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it; even when words did not sound its name, they acknowledged its reality. As long as they lived here in this prescribed corner of the city, they paid mute tribute to it."Quite a bit of edge ot this one:"Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day to day. That, too, was rape.""...he had felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all its fulness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and
sworldbridger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well-written and powerful. I am amazed that this was written back in 1940. A voice and expression of the disempowered.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story here is hard to take, and somewhat pathetic, but it is a fast read with a worthwhile tale, and Wright's writing makes the entire thing, characters included, seem far too real. I'd recommend it highly, but realize that it's not something I'd set for highschoolers or children, or something that will make you feel better about humanity in general.
tracyjayhawk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Loved the book, though at times it is painful. Wright is masterful in his use of theme and imagery -- the recurring themes of blindness and the snow are especially effective, as is the use very early in the book of the cornered rat that Bigger kills. The book is not only a great story, but also a great piece of American literature. Wright intended to write an honest, brutal novel, and he succeeded on a grand scale.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definately not pleasure reading. Deeply disturbing. Violent and graphic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The novel “Native Son” written by Richard Wright is a classic novel that portrays African American life through a number of different themes. The book exhibits exceptional detail and nearly allows you to walk in the shoes of Bigger Thomas, a young victim of racism. The treatment Bigger experiences throughout the novel drives him to commit unspeakable acts. It just further proves that the way you are raised has a lot - if not everything to do with your fate. I highly recommend this book, as it gives you a taste of not only African American lives, but other minority groups as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
londongh21 More than 1 year ago
Incredible!!!!
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Review of Native Son by Will on May 25, 2014 Native Son was a very powerful and inspirational book that discussed the clashes of races in America. Richard Wright, a  very controversial author wrote many books about the clash between whites and blacks. Wright was obviously a huge supporter  for desegregating the population of America. This book demonstrates the unequal treatment of blacks in the mid 1900's  and the start to  what we now know as racism. I can relate the theme of this book to the struggles of society today, dealing with cliques and the bullying that  is associated with these different groups.  This novel is broken up into three different books which separate the main issues in the novel. The first book discusses some of the  troubles and the terrible life and hardships that blacks had to face in this time period. The main character, Bigger Thomas gets into trouble  with the law in Book One. The novel climaxes in Book Two and ends with a resolution in Book Three.  This book was a very interesting read because of the perspective that was shown from a African American author.  This book is absolutely related to the racism that we have in society today. As a white person myself it truly understood the hardships that blacks had to face to get to the point where they are now. This book made me absolutely against racism and every person on this world should be treated equally. This book is a must read to be able to understand the injustices of society. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago