I decided to read Native Son as a result of Michael posting a notice about Jess’s Book Club at Monsters and Critics. While I’d heard of Wright before this is the first book of his that I’ve read.
The Marc’s Notes summary of the book follows:
“Bigger” Thomas, a twenty-year old do nothing is offered a relief job as a driver for the wealthy Dalton family. He is of a mind to lay about instead and is forced to take the job lest his mother, brother, and sister lose their government relief money.
On his first day on the job the socialite daughter of the family named Mary has Bigger take her to a communist party meeting, then out to eat at a slum restaurant with her boyfriend and fellow commie Jan. All get drunk and Mary passes out, forcing Bigger to carry her up to her room, whereupon Mary’s blind mother catches them. Fearing to be caught in her room, Bigger keeps Mary quiet by smothering her with a pillow and she dies.
Her mother goes away and Bigger disposes of her body in the estate’s furnace. Taking advantage of Mary’s impending trip he send her trunk ahead to her destination, plots to frame Jan for her disappearance, and returns to his job. Through a bit of bad luck and his own incompetence with the furnace he is found out. Bigger runs with the police hot on his tail.
When his sometime girlfriend Bessie proves unreliable Bigger murders her too. Soon after the police dragnet surrounds him and he is taken after injuring a cop and firing at others.
The final third of the book is devoted to Bigger’s trial, with vivid descriptions of the lynch mob salivating for a chance to get a hold of Bigger to exact their revenge, an over-eager state attorney with an inter-racial rape phobia, and Bigger’s attorney Max, an ardent communist and friend of Jan, the dead girl’s boyfriend whose ideology trumps any righteous anger he might have felt toward her killer.
In the end Bigger pleads guilty, Max offers a unique defense that claims societal forces are responsible for Bigger’s acts, and the state prevails.
Bigger’s sentence? You’ll have to read the book to find that out.
Native Son is written in 3 parts which are essentially the crime, the chase, and the trial. The first is the most interesting as it shows Bigger in his native environment, that of the hardscrabble Chicago slums. Bigger is at this point a stereotypical black ne’er-do-well who would rather steal than work, would rather talk tough about stealing than actually steal, and would rather jerk off in public theaters rather than do either. In short his character is entirely unsympathetic save for one redeeming quality: he dreams of being a pilot. However, his lack of schooling and discipline make that impossible even without the constraints of his skin color.
It’s unclear why Bigger and his gang never contemplate the idea of working to better themselves or, failing that, working to provide a better way of life for their eventual offspring. This concept seems to be far beyond them and explains much about Bigger’s eventual failure as a human being.
When Bigger accepts the job as the Dalton family’s driver and comes into contact with the white socialites his demeanor shifts to a passive-aggressive nervousness that renders him almost helpless, particularly as Mary and Jan befuddle him with their dreams of a race-neutral communist utopia. Bigger understands none of this and displays no intelligence whatever in regard to abstract concepts such as freedom, equality, and political power.
It’s only after he kills Mary that a glimmer of intellect comes out. Desperate to save his live Bigger suddenly becomes clever in the book’s second part and is shown to be somewhat resourceful in his attempts to dispose of the body and throw the police off his trail and onto Jan’s.
When Bigger is about to be discovered as the killer and slips away he becomes an animal on the run. It is not clear why he insists on taking Bessie with him as he flies and this soon proves to be a mistake. Rather than simply leave her Bigger bashes her head in with a brick, killing a second time and removing from this reader any remaining empathy for his character.
This second section of the book is dull stuff, that of an ordinary crime novel and not as well done. It’s necessary to get to the trial sequence but of no particular interest in itself.
After being caught Bigger flirts with religion and rejects it, choosing instead to turn inward to the self-loathing and paranoia that define his attempts to interact with the white world. He knows only that he wants to be something other than what he is.
Enter Max as a crusading lawyer whose desire to equalize social iniquities is manifested in his efforts to spare Bigger from the death penalty despite his obvious and self-admitted guilt.
The purpose of Native Son is to set up the trial that is the core of the third section. The trial pits Max’s crusade for social justice against the state attorney’s racist agenda of death and is an obvious condemnation of mainstream America’s implementation of justice at the time.
Max scores good points as he describes the impact of Bigger’s tough childhood and its relationship to the crime. However, in my opinion Wright goes too far when he has Max state that Bigger should be spared from death lest the black population of America rise up in another, even more ill-advised Civil War, as if this threat should stand against applying the law to a man who killed two women.
Opposing Max is a cardboard cutout of a 1930s KKK member who acts as a prosecuting attorney by day. His speeches are, to my post-baby-boomer mentality, hideously racist and offensive both to blacks and to anyone with a sense of fair play. To the modern reader these views are a flashback to a past that whites should be ashamed of and that would best be forgotten. His efforts to railroad Bigger via an overly speedy trial are disgusting, though this in fact had no relationship to the punishment ultimately handed down, the facts of the case being what they were.
In summary, I would describe Native Son as being highly derivative of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, substituting race conflict in place of class struggle, though not as well-written, suspenseful, or entertaining. The glimpse into race issues in pre-Jackie Robinson times is interesting though ultimately not compelling reading.
The Wikipedia article about Native Son says this:
Wright’s protest novel was an immediate best-seller, selling 250,000 hardcover copies in its initial run. It was one of the earliest successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society.
It is number 71 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The Modern Library named it #20 on their list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century.
In my opinion that is giving a competently-written, somewhat interesting book too much credit.