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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST AND ANALYSIS

MAJOR CHARACTERS

BIGGER THOMAS

Bigger is a young black man who wants to be able to do all the things white people do but who knows he has no such chance. He is usually afraid, especially of humiliation. His ignorance and poverty make him ashamed, but he doesn't want to reveal either his shame or his fear because such a disclosure would be humiliating too. So Bigger keeps his feelings raging inside him, and he is furious at those who provoke these overwhelming emotions. He is especially furious at whites, not only because they are responsible for the oppressive conditions of his life but also because they scare and embarrass him. But he is also often angry at his fellow blacks, sometimes for their passivity and sometimes for their ability to see through his poses.

Bigger changes during the novel. After killing Mary, for whose family he works as a chauffeur, he begins to feel he has the power to retaliate against whites and to make them take him seriously. And after meeting Boris Max, his lawyer, Bigger finds, for the first time in his life, that he can release his feelings by talking about them, as well as by acting them out violently.

When reading Native Son, you will have to decide whether Bigger is merely a passive product of his oppressive environment or whether he learns to assert himself meaningfully against that environment. Certainly Wright shows you conditions that may have made Bigger the surly, hostile person you see in the novel. Discriminatory housing practices force him to share a one-room apartment with his mother, brother, and sister, and he has little opportunity for employment. Possessing only an eighth-grade education, Bigger cannot compete, and he feels hopeless. That hopelessness can easily turn into anger in a city where the possibility of a better life dangles so tantalizingly before Bigger's eyes.

But you can also argue that Bigger learns to assert himself against this oppressive environment. The novel begins with an alarm clock waking Bigger. And throughout, Wright contrasts two conflicting tendencies of Bigger's. One is to fall back into sleepy passivity. The other is to awaken to the world around him, to stand up against it, and to chart his own course. This awakening begins when he kills Mary. Do you think Bigger can achieve a sense of self-worth only through brutality and violence? Do you think he ever wakes up, or is he living in a world of illusion throughout the novel?


How does Wright himself feel about Bigger? He certainly portrays Bigger's brutality in such gory detail that you may well feel that he is trying to turn you against Bigger. But by letting you know Bigger's state of mind, does he make you sympathize with Bigger anyhow? Some readers suggest that, while Bigger's violence is self-destructive, it is no more self-destructive than more passive responses to oppression. Through the character of Boris Max, however, Wright appears to imply that political action would be a more constructive path. What do you think?

Bigger dominates the novel. He is a fully drawn individual, but you may also see him as a symbol or representative of something larger. Note the possible symbolism of Bigger Thomas's name: his first name suggests "big nigger," and the second may be an ironic reference to "Uncle Tom," a term for blacks who are eager to win white approval. At the very least, he may represent one rebellious black response to a racist society. Wright indicated that he modeled Bigger on a Bigger Thomas he knew as a child and on at least four other similar men he met later in life. The first Bigger terrorized Wright and his playmates, but Wright secretly admired him. Likewise, the other "Biggers" were also tough loners who defied both white society and the more passive blacks around them. But their rebellions ended in self-destruction.

Some readers see Bigger as a symbol of the predicament of all black Americans of Wright's time. Perhaps Wright encourages such an interpretation by calling Bigger a "native son." Even blacks who would never have considered acting like Bigger were products of the same society and may have felt the same feelings and faced the same choices. And you might even maintain that Bigger represents the plight of modern humanity, regardless of race. Isolated and misunderstood, Bigger must give his own life a value that none of society's institutions will give it. Note that Wright emphasizes Bigger's separation from black society almost as much as his antagonism toward whites.

MRS. THOMAS

Mrs. Thomas is a hard-working black woman who does all she can to keep her family together. Her main worry is her eldest son, Bigger. She thinks he's a troublemaker, doesn't like the gang he hangs out with, and wants him to get a job so her other two children can stay in school. Mrs. Thomas is also a religious woman who finds emotional support in prayer, and she fears that Bigger's rowdy life will lead to disaster.

Though Mrs. Thomas seems like a fine and decent person, by nagging Bigger to improve himself, she makes him angry. After Bigger kills Mary, he sees his mother as blindly and passively accepting the conditions of her life. This passivity enrages Bigger, and he feels humiliated when his mother begs the Daltons to help save him. Do you find his criticism of his mother justified? Is Mrs. Thomas's religion a source of strength or of weakness?

BESSIE MEARS

Bessie Mears is Bigger's girlfriend, who works long, hard hours, six and a half days a week, in the hot kitchen of a white woman's home. She finds relief at night by drinking. Although neither of them admits it to the other, Bigger and Bessie use each other. Bigger gives Bessie money to buy liquor, and in return she gives him sex. At times, however, Bessie seems to feel genuine affection for Bigger and to be emotionally dependent on him. She talks of marrying him, and, despite her fear and better judgment, she considers going ahead with Bigger's ransom scheme, if only to prevent him from walking out on her. Does she really care for him, or is this affectionate behavior just an act?

Bessie may represent one black response to an oppressive environment. You could view her drinking as a self-destructive reaction that does not challenge the conditions under which she lives. But Wright portrays Bessie sympathetically enough that you may see her as a victim. Note how Bigger uses her drinking to control her, forces her into his ransom plan, and when the plan fails, kills her. Do you sympathize with her plight, or do you identify more with the contempt her cowardice and passivity provoke in Bigger?

MARY DALTON

Though a millionaire heiress, Mary Dalton is a Communist sympathizer. A headstrong young woman, she defies her parents by dating a Communist. You don't get to know Mary well enough to decide whether her political convictions are solidly grounded or whether she simply enjoys the romance and excitement of a secret life with her radical boyfriend. She is likeable, though, and her desire to help blacks like Bigger is certainly sincere. But she is unaware of Bigger's feelings, and, despite her good intentions, she acts in a racist manner. She treats Bigger not as an individual whose friendship must be earned, but as a representative of the black race; and she seems to think her political views guarantee her the right to his companionship.

Because the character of Bigger Thomas is so central to Native Son, Mary is important mainly for her effect on Bigger. While she means only to help him, her whiteness and wealth make Bigger feel self-conscious about his blackness and poverty, and her treating him so familiarly confuses him, then makes him feel ashamed at his confusion. From that shame springs hate. In addition, Bigger knows that white women are forbidden to black men and that association with white women can invite accusations of rape. This potential danger makes Mary's friendship even more threatening to Bigger. Though Bigger kills Mary accidentally, he knows that he felt like murdering her anyhow.

Some readers think the white characters in Native Son are drawn less vividly than the black characters. Others suggest that such a discrepancy is appropriate because Bigger, from whose point of view the novel is written, would perceive the white characters less clearly and more stereotypically than he perceives the black characters. But Mary, who arouses particularly strong feelings in Bigger, seems more alive than some of the other white characters.

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