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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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Max enters a guilty plea for Bigger and requests a sentence of life imprisonment. He blames Bigger's crime on oppressive social conditions. The judge sentences Bigger to death.

* * *

As he awaits trial, Bigger wishes he could again hide behind his curtain of indifference, but he no longer can. He realizes that two battles are raging, Max's battle in the courtroom and his own inner struggle over his attitude toward life and death.

Bigger's trial begins. The spectators are shocked when Max enters a guilty plea. Max has decided that a jury will be too biased. He will argue before the judge that Bigger should receive life imprisonment. Buckley, the prosecutor, fears that Max will try to prove that Bigger is insane. Thus, Buckley calls sixty witnesses to testify to Bigger's sanity.

The next day the defense presents its case. Bigger arrives in the courtroom before Max, and his brief wait makes him realize how dependent he has become on Max.


The famous lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) was attorney for the defense in the Leopold-Loeb case. As you already know, the Leopold-Loeb murder was Bigger's inspiration for sending the Daltons a ransom note. Wright later told friends that he used Darrow's plea in that case for some of the material in Max's speech to the judge.

In his plea to the judge, Max speaks of the public hostility to Bigger. Then he reviews the history of slavery and of black oppression. He emphasizes that he does not want to evoke sympathy for Bigger and that he does not see him as a victim, a point to remember in deciding whether you consider Bigger a victim. Max issues a warning: Bigger is the product of black oppression, and killing him will only produce new Biggers and more black violence. Given the conditions under which he lived, Bigger's crime was "instinctive," Max says, adding that Bigger's psychology is "the Psychology of the Negro people." Then he discusses Bigger in more detail. For Bigger, he says, killing was an "act of creation" and Bigger's attitude is itself a crime. But this attitude is a product of white civilization. Love is impossible for a man like Bigger, says Max, and he concludes with the specter of millions of Biggers rising up against their white oppressors. Max urges the judge to send Bigger to prison, where he could begin his life anew.

Max's speech raises several questions. Given its repetition of much that has gone before, why did Wright include it at such length? Is it a credible speech for an attorney to use in defense of such a client? Does it represent the interpretation of Bigger Thomas conveyed by the novel as a whole? What is your opinion?

You may wonder whether such a controversial plea would be the best way to save a client from the electric chair. But other considerations may have been more important to Wright than credibility. Some readers feel that having presented the murders exclusively from Bigger's point of view, Wright needed to go outside Bigger to clarify his own attitude toward his major character. Though Mary's killing may have been instinctive, after the killing, Bigger felt that he was taking charge of his own destiny. So Max's interpretation of Bigger's behavior is not exactly the same as Bigger's interpretation of his own behavior. But if Wright agrees with Max that Bigger is merely a passive product of his environment and that Bigger is representative of all blacks, then why has he made Bigger behave so differently from the novel's other black characters?

Buckley sums up the prosecution's case. He says that the main crime was rape, and he calls for the death penalty. The judge recesses the court for an hour and returns with a sentence of death.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Chapter Summary

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