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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES

BOOK ONE: FEAR

Though Wright uses no chapter divisions, he occasionally separates sections with a line of dots. This study guide follows Wright's divisions and gives each one a title to make the narration easier for you to follow.

BIGGER IN THE GHETTO

The first part of Book One introduces you to Bigger Thomas and to his family and friends. It portrays Bigger's fear, his desire to escape, and his violence.

* * *

Native Son begins with the sound of an alarm clock. Like much of the novel, this scene shows the realistic details of Bigger's life and environment. But it can be read symbolically too. The opening paragraphs depict Bigger's literal awakening in the morning, and your first glimpse of him is of a man hovering between sleep and wakefulness. Later you will learn that Bigger's life alternates between sleepy indifference and angry, often violent, activity. Many readers interpret Bigger's development of his own sense of self-worth as a movement toward greater awareness, a gradual awakening. According to this interpretation, the opening of Native Son both foreshadows Bigger's future (his eventual awakening) and illustrates his present emotional state (half-asleep, half-awake).

Bigger, his brother Buddy, his sister Vera, and his mother dress. The boys have to look away while the women dress; then the women look away while the brothers dress. The apartment contains only one room, and this scene illustrates the close quarters in which this family lives. But it also introduces the shame that results from being looked at. Later Bigger will burn with shame under the gaze of Mary and Jan. But the tiny family apartment makes being looked at an issue even at home.

Before they have finished dressing, the family notices a rat scurrying along the floor. Bigger orders Buddy to block off the rat's hole. Then he corners the rodent and kills it by beating its head in with a skillet.

NOTE: THE RAT SCENE

In the essay "How 'Bigger' was Born," Wright says that when he began writing Native Son, he could not think of an opening scene. He decided to proceed without one, and when he had almost finished the novel, this opening came to him. Note how much it accomplishes. Of course the rat illustrates the miserable conditions under which the Thomases live. But in addition, Bigger's killing the rat helps reveal his character: he enjoys the violent clash. The rat is the first of many animal images in this novel. And the fate of the cornered, hunted rat foreshadows Bigger's eventual fate, just as the crushing of its head foreshadows Bigger's murder of his girlfriend Bessie in Book Two.


Bigger teases his sister with the dead rat and makes her faint. His mother is upset, and she says that she sometimes regrets having given birth to Bigger. She calls him "black crazy." Bigger's relationship with both his mother and his sister seems quite tense. He feels that a wall separates him and his family. Over breakfast, Mrs. Thomas urges Bigger to take a job that he has been offered. If he refuses, the family will be removed from public assistance. Her nagging angers Bigger.

Bigger leaves the house and heads for the pool hall to visit with his friends, Jack, Gus, and G. H. He sees workers putting up a campaign poster for the State's Attorney, Buckley, who will be important in Book Three. Bigger thinks about a robbery he and his friends had once considered. Although they have held up some small black businesses in the past, this store is run by a white man named Blum. Robbing Blum's would be a big step for Bigger and his gang.

At the pool hall, Gus and Bigger stand outside and talk. They see a plane circling overhead. It is a skywriting plane, and the two young men watch the wispy white smoke gradually spell out the words, "Use Speed Gasoline," a message that only highlights the fact that neither Bigger nor Gus has any chance of owning a car. Like the opening scene in which Bigger kills the rat, this scene accomplishes several objectives. You learn that the black ghetto is not completely shut off from the outside white world, which intrudes teasingly, reminding Bigger and his friends of the possibilities denied them.

But the plane also becomes a symbol. It represents Bigger's desire to fly, not simply literally, by being an aviator, but also by soaring beyond all the limitations of his environment. Perhaps the airplane's white smoke adds to the symbolism by associating the freedom of flying with the color white. This scene ends with Bigger turning his fantasy of freedom into one of violence. He imagines using the plane to drop bombs on whites.

Gus and Bigger then play at being white. They pretend to be a general, a big businessman, and the president of the United States.

NOTE: J. P. MORGAN

John Pierpont Morgan (1867-1943) was a financier and the son of John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), whose holdings he inherited. The Morgans had used their banks to gain control of a huge empire of industries, railroads, and insurance companies. They financed corporate mergers and in return gained major roles in the merged companies. One of the most important companies they controlled was
U.S. Steel. Of course, the Morgans' economic power gave them tremendous political power as well. But to those who were opposed to such concentrations of wealth, the name Morgan became almost synonymous with what they saw as big business's excessive power.

Bigger and Gus continue to talk, and Bigger says that being black is "just like living in jail," an ironic statement in light of what eventually happens to him. Bigger feels that the white folks live in his stomach, where they burn like fire. Foreshadowing what is to come, he says that he expects that "something awful" will happen to him or that he will do "something he can't help." Gus understands, adding that the feeling is like one of falling. You may want to return to this conversation after you finish Books One and Two.

Bigger and Gus enter Doc's pool hall, where Jack and G. H. soon join them. Bigger reminds his three friends of their plan to rob Blum's, but the others are hesitant. Though Bigger taunts them for being scared, he is afraid too. Jack and G. H. agree to go along. As Bigger awaits Gus's decision, he begins to hate Gus because he knows that if Gus decides to go, the robbery will take place, and Bigger will have no excuse to back out. Finally, Gus accepts the plan, but he rightly accuses Bigger of being scared and of using his anger to disguise his fear. Bigger curses Gus, and the two almost fight. The four friends leave the pool hall and agree to return at three o'clock for the robbery.

Bigger realizes that he has emerged from his "curtain of indifference" and that he now feels an intense, violent energy. Note that he usually alternates between moods of indifference and violent anger. He seems to feel that viewing a movie will release some of the angry energy that has seized him.

Bigger and Jack go to a double feature. In the first movie, The Gay Woman, a rich young white woman meets secretly with her boyfriend, while her millionaire husband is busy at work. But one evening when the lovers are at a night club, a wild-looking man enters and throws a bomb at them. The boyfriend catches the bomb and throws it out the window before it can explode. It's revealed that the bomb-thrower was a Communist who thought he was attacking the millionaire husband.

Like the airplane trailing white smoke, the movie is another example of the way the white world teases Bigger and his friends with a dazzling freedom that they can never achieve. Because Bigger's new job will be at a white family's house, Bigger and Jack joke about the loose lives these whites seem to lead. During the next feature, a film about blacks dancing naked in the jungle, Bigger fantasizes about his new job at the Daltons'. Maybe Mr. Dalton will be a millionaire with a "hot" daughter who will want him to take her to the South Side. Maybe she'll have a secret boyfriend, and Bigger will drive her to see him.

NOTE: THE SOUTH SIDE

The South Side black ghetto of Wright's Chicago was a rectangle, one-and-one-half miles wide and seven miles long. Its western border was the tracks of the Central and Western Illinois Railroad, on the other side of which lived Mexican, Polish, and Irish immigrants. To the east was the University of Chicago and to the north a newly constructed white residential neighborhood. Though there were a few black enclaves outside the South Side and though the ghetto was gradually pushing further south, the South Side was almost a black city within the larger white city around it. It had some 200,000 residents, but just about the only jobs available within the ghetto's borders were for shopkeepers and gambling house owners.

When you finish Book One, you will see just how ironic this fantasy becomes. It comes true, but not in the pleasant way that Bigger hopes for. Note also that the movie presents the first Communist to appear in the novel. Bigger has no idea what a Communist is, and the movie portrays the Communist according to the popularly held image, or stereotype, of Communists, just as the other movie stereotypes blacks.

Thinking about the job at the Daltons' makes Bigger more uneasy than ever about the risk of robbing Blum's. When Bigger returns to the pool hall, Gus hasn't arrived yet, and when he finally does, Bigger, furious, picks a fight with him for being late. Gus runs off, and without him the robbery can't take place. On his way out, Bigger slashes Doc's pool table.

What does this incident tell you about Bigger? You've learned that he's afraid, that his fear turns easily into anger and violence, and that his violence turns more readily against other blacks than against whites. You may also have found him to be a loner, ill at ease with both his family and friends.

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