Analysis of Native Son by Richard Wright: Plot, Themes, Context, Characters, Settings, and Criticism

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General Introduction 

"N(caps)ative Son" is a groundbreaking novel by Richard Wright, first published in 1940. Set in Chicago during the 1930s, it follows the life of Bigger Thomas, a young African American man trapped in poverty and oppression. The novel explores themes of race, power, and the impact of societal forces on individuals. Through Bigger's experiences, Wright confronts the racial prejudices and injustices prevalent in American society, offering a powerful critique of systemic racism. "Native Son" is considered a classic of American literature and continues to be studied and discussed for its profound insights into race relations and the human condition.


Book One

Book One of Richard Wright's "Native Son" introduces readers to the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African American man living in the impoverished and racially segregated South Side of Chicago. Bigger resides in a cramped apartment with his family, including his mother, brother, and sister. Their living conditions reflect the systemic oppression and poverty faced by many African Americans in the 1930s.

The narrative unfolds as Bigger secures employment as a chauffeur for the wealthy Dalton family, who are white. This opportunity offers him a glimpse into the stark contrast between the lives of the affluent white elite and the struggles of his own community. However, Bigger's interactions with the Daltons also exacerbate his feelings of unease and inferiority, as he navigates the racial tension and power dynamics inherent in his position.

One fateful evening, Bigger is tasked with driving Mary Dalton, the daughter of his employer, to meet her boyfriend, Jan Erlone, a communist sympathizer. As they spend time together, drinking and socializing, Bigger becomes increasingly paranoid about Mary's behavior towards him. His anxiety is compounded by the realization of the social and racial boundaries that separate them.

When Mary becomes too intoxicated to make it to her room unassisted, Bigger helps her upstairs. However, their encounter takes a tragic turn when Mary's blind mother unexpectedly enters the room. In a panic, fearing the consequences of being caught alone with a white woman, Bigger inadvertently suffocates Mary to silence her. The gravity of his actions dawns on him as he grapples with the horror of what he has done.

In a desperate attempt to cover up Mary's disappearance and his involvement in her death, Bigger decides to dispose of her body by burning it in the furnace. The act of destruction serves as a metaphor for the erasure of evidence and the attempt to suppress the truth of what transpired. Consumed by fear and desperation, Bigger resorts to writing a ransom note, feigning Mary's kidnapping in a misguided effort to divert suspicion away from himself.

Thus, Book One of "Native Son" sets the stage for the unfolding tragedy that will shape Bigger's fate and explore the complex interplay of race, power, and societal forces in his life. As readers delve deeper into the narrative, they are confronted with the stark realities of racism, injustice, and the consequences of one man's actions in a hostile and unforgiving world.

Book Two

Book Two of Richard Wright's "Native Son" delves deeper into the aftermath of Bigger Thomas's heinous crime, exploring the escalating consequences of his actions and the relentless pursuit of justice by the authorities.

1. With Bigger's crime making headlines, the media sensationalizes the case, amplifying the racial tensions and societal fears surrounding the incident. As the spotlight intensifies, the police are spurred into action, launching a thorough investigation to apprehend the perpetrator and bring him to justice. Bigger's life becomes a spectacle, scrutinized by the public and dissected by the press, highlighting the pervasive racism and prejudice that permeate society.

2. Amidst the chaos, Bigger's girlfriend, Bessie, learns of his involvement in the murder of Mary Dalton. Initially, she pledges to keep silent, perhaps out of fear or loyalty to Bigger. However, as the weight of her knowledge becomes unbearable, Bessie's resolve wavers, and she contemplates going to the authorities with the truth. Her betrayal looms large in Bigger's mind, fueling his paranoia and desperation to protect himself at any cost.

3. Faced with the prospect of Bessie betraying him to the police, Bigger makes a chilling decision to eliminate her as a witness. He lures Bessie to an abandoned building, a grim and desolate setting reflective of the bleakness of his situation. There, consumed by fear and desperation, Bigger viciously beats Bessie to death, extinguishing her life in a brutal act of violence. Her body lies abandoned, a haunting symbol of the collateral damage left in the wake of Bigger's crimes.

4. The discovery of Bessie's lifeless body sends shockwaves through the community, further intertwining Bigger's fate with the unfolding tragedy. The police, connecting Bessie's murder to Mary Dalton's disappearance, intensify their efforts to capture Bigger, launching a massive manhunt to track him down. Every corner of the city becomes a battleground in the pursuit of justice, as law enforcement agencies mobilize their resources to apprehend the fugitive and restore order to the streets.

5. Despite his attempts to evade capture, Bigger's luck runs out, and he finds himself cornered by the relentless pursuit of the police. Forced into hiding, Bigger lives in constant fear of discovery, haunted by the specter of impending arrest and the grim inevitability of facing the consequences of his actions. Ultimately, his efforts to escape justice prove futile as he is apprehended by law enforcement, marking the end of his desperate flight and the beginning of a new chapter in his harrowing journey through the criminal justice system.

In Book Two of "Native Son," Richard Wright masterfully navigates the complexities of guilt, fear, and the inexorable march of fate, painting a vivid portrait of a society gripped by racial prejudice and injustice. Through Bigger's relentless descent into darkness, Wright exposes the inherent brutality of a world that condemns individuals like Bigger to a life of despair and violence, offering a searing indictment of systemic racism and the dehumanizing effects of poverty and oppression.

Book Three

Book Three of Richard Wright's "Native Son" delves into the climactic conclusion of Bigger Thomas's journey, as he confronts the full weight of his actions and grapples with the harsh realities of the criminal justice system.

1. Bigger's trial unfolds as a spectacle, magnified by the sensationalism of the media and the sensationalized portrayal of him as a savage and menace to society. The courtroom becomes a stage where the intricacies of race, class, and power play out, as Bigger's fate hangs in the balance. The public's perception of him is shaped by deeply ingrained racial prejudices, fueling the narrative of Bigger as a dangerous criminal deserving of punishment.

2. Amidst the fervor of the trial, Bigger's defense attorney endeavors to present a compelling argument that his actions were a product of the societal forces and oppression that have plagued him his entire life. The defense seeks to humanize Bigger, painting a picture of a young man trapped in a cycle of poverty and discrimination, driven to desperate measures by the oppressive weight of his circumstances. However, the prosecution counters with a portrayal of Bigger as a cold-blooded killer, devoid of remorse or humanity, seeking to sway the jury with their depiction of him as a menace to society.

3. Despite the efforts of his defense team, Bigger is ultimately convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. The verdict sends shockwaves through the courtroom, cementing Bigger's fate and sealing his tragic downfall. The weight of the sentence hangs heavy on Bigger's shoulders as he grapples with the realization that his life will soon come to an end, a stark reminder of the irreversible consequences of his actions.

4. Confined to the confines of his prison cell, Bigger is forced to confront the harsh reality of his situation as he wrestles with feelings of guilt and remorse. Behind bars, he reflects on the systemic injustices that have shaped his life, recognizing the ways in which racism and poverty have conspired to push him towards a path of violence and despair. In the solitude of his confinement, Bigger grapples with the enormity of his crimes and the profound injustice of his situation, wrestling with his conscience as he struggles to come to terms with his impending fate.

5. As the novel draws to a close, Bigger reaches a moment of reckoning, coming to terms with his fate and accepting responsibility for his actions. Despite the systemic injustices that have contributed to his downfall, Bigger acknowledges the role he has played in his own demise, recognizing the consequences of his choices and the impact they have had on those around him. In a moment of clarity, Bigger finds a measure of peace amidst the chaos, embracing the inevitability of his fate and finding solace in the knowledge that his story, though tragic, serves as a powerful testament to the enduring struggle for justice and equality in a world fraught with inequality and oppression.

In conclusion, Book Three of "Native Son" serves as a poignant exploration of guilt, redemption, and the pursuit of justice in a society plagued by racial prejudice and systemic injustice. Through Bigger's harrowing journey, Richard Wright offers a searing indictment of the pervasive inequalities that continue to define American society, challenging readers to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and the enduring legacy of racism and oppression that continues to shape our world today.


"Native Son" explores several profound themes that resonate throughout the narrative, offering readers a powerful examination of race, poverty, power dynamics, and the human condition. Some of the key themes include:

1. Racial Prejudice and Oppression: At the forefront of the novel is the pervasive influence of racial prejudice and oppression in American society. Through Bigger Thomas's experiences, the novel exposes the systemic racism that permeates every aspect of his life, from his interactions with white individuals to his struggles within his own community. Richard Wright delves into the psychological and emotional toll of living under the constant weight of racial discrimination, illustrating how it shapes Bigger's identity and influences his actions.

2. Poverty and Social Injustice: "Native Son" paints a vivid portrait of the poverty and social injustice faced by African Americans in 1930s Chicago. Bigger's impoverished upbringing and limited opportunities serve as a lens through which Wright explores the cyclical nature of poverty and the barriers that prevent individuals from breaking free from its grip. The novel sheds light on the systemic inequalities that perpetuate social and economic disparities, highlighting the harsh realities of life for marginalized communities.

3. Power Dynamics and Control: Throughout the novel, power dynamics and control play a central role in shaping the interactions between characters and driving the narrative forward. From Bigger's employment as a chauffeur for the wealthy Dalton family to his desperate attempts to assert control over his own life, "Native Son" examines the ways in which power operates along racial, economic, and social lines. Wright illuminates the complexities of power dynamics, revealing how they influence behavior, shape relationships, and perpetuate cycles of oppression.

4. Violence and Despair: As Bigger's story unfolds, the novel confronts readers with the stark realities of violence and despair in a society marked by injustice and inequality. From the brutal murder of Mary Dalton to Bigger's desperate flight from the law, "Native Son" explores the consequences of unchecked violence and the ways in which it becomes intertwined with the struggle for survival. Wright depicts the raw brutality of Bigger's actions and the profound despair that accompanies his realization of the consequences of his choices.

5. Identity and Alienation: Bigger Thomas grapples with issues of identity and alienation throughout the novel, struggling to define himself in a world that seeks to marginalize and dehumanize him. As an African American man living in a predominantly white society, Bigger navigates the complexities of identity formation, grappling with feelings of alienation and displacement. Wright explores the existential angst that accompanies Bigger's search for selfhood, illuminating the internal conflicts that arise as he confronts the limitations imposed upon him by society.

Overall, "Native Son" is a rich and multifaceted work that delves into the complexities of the human experience, offering readers a profound exploration of race, poverty, power, and the enduring struggle for justice in America. Through its powerful themes and compelling characters, the novel continues to resonate with readers, challenging them to confront uncomfortable truths and engage in critical dialogue about the social and political issues that continue to shape our world today.


"Native Son" by Richard Wright is set in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the United States. The novel takes place primarily in Chicago, a city deeply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines, where African Americans faced widespread discrimination and limited opportunities for social and economic advancement.

During this period, African Americans endured systemic racism and oppression, with discriminatory laws and social norms enforcing segregation and denying them basic civil rights. The Great Depression exacerbated existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities and deepening the cycle of poverty and despair.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, Richard Wright crafts the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African American man trapped in the confines of poverty and racial prejudice. Through Bigger's experiences, Wright illuminates the harsh realities of life for African Americans in 1930s America, exploring the psychological and emotional toll of living under the constant threat of violence and discrimination.

Wright himself was intimately familiar with the struggles faced by African Americans during this period, having grown up in poverty in the racially segregated South. As a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Wright was deeply committed to exposing the injustices of racism and inequality through his writing, using "Native Son" as a vehicle to challenge the prevailing social and political norms of the time.

"Native Son" was published in 1940, at a time when the civil rights movement was beginning to gain momentum in the United States. The novel's searing indictment of racism and oppression struck a chord with readers, sparking widespread controversy and cementing Wright's reputation as a leading voice in African American literature.

Today, "Native Son" remains a seminal work of American literature, revered for its unflinching portrayal of the complexities of race, poverty, and power in America. Wright's powerful narrative continues to resonate with readers, offering a timeless exploration of the human condition and the enduring struggle for justice and equality.

Characters and Characterization 

"Native Son" features a diverse cast of characters, each playing a distinct role in the unfolding narrative. Richard Wright employs nuanced characterization to breathe life into these individuals, offering readers a multifaceted exploration of the complexities of human nature, race, and society. Here are some of the key characters and their characterization:

1. Bigger Thomas: The protagonist of the novel, Bigger is a 20-year-old African American man living in poverty on Chicago's South Side. He is characterized by his intense feelings of rage, fear, and alienation, stemming from the systemic racism and oppression he faces. Bigger's actions are driven by a desperate desire to assert control over his own life, leading him down a path of violence and despair.

2. Mary Dalton: The daughter of Bigger's employer, Mary represents the privileged white elite. She is depicted as rebellious and idealistic, challenging the racial norms of society through her interactions with Bigger. However, her attempts at empathy are ultimately misguided, leading to tragic consequences.

3. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton: Mary's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, are wealthy white liberals who espouse progressive ideals but remain blind to the racial inequalities that pervade their own household. They are characterized by their superficial attempts at philanthropy and their ignorance of the struggles faced by African Americans like Bigger.

4. Bessie Mears: Bigger's girlfriend, Bessie, is a fellow resident of the South Side. She is depicted as loyal and caring towards Bigger, but ultimately becomes a victim of his violence when she threatens to expose his crimes. Bessie's character serves as a tragic reminder of the collateral damage wrought by Bigger's actions.

5. Jan Erlone: Mary's communist boyfriend, Jan, is a white activist who sympathizes with the struggles of African Americans. He is characterized by his genuine empathy and desire for social justice, but his idealism is ultimately ineffectual in the face of entrenched racial prejudice.

6. Hannah Thomas: Bigger's mother, Hannah, is portrayed as a devoutly religious woman who struggles to provide for her family in the face of poverty and discrimination. She serves as a moral compass for Bigger, urging him to seek redemption and atonement for his sins.

7. Jack and Gus: Bigger's criminal accomplices, Jack and Gus, are depicted as opportunistic and amoral individuals who exploit Bigger's vulnerability for their own gain. They represent the predatory nature of the criminal underworld and the ways in which systemic injustice can push individuals towards a life of crime.

Through these characters and others, Richard Wright paints a vivid portrait of life in 1930s Chicago, exploring the intersecting forces of race, class, and power that shape the lives of his protagonists. Each character is imbued with depth and complexity, challenging readers to confront their own assumptions and prejudices while grappling with the profound injustices of American society.


"Native Son" by Richard Wright is primarily set in 1930s Chicago, providing a vivid backdrop against which the narrative unfolds. The settings within the novel play a crucial role in shaping the characters' experiences and reflecting the broader social and political context of the time. Here are some key settings in "Native Son":

1. Chicago's South Side: The South Side of Chicago serves as the primary setting for much of the novel, particularly Bigger Thomas's neighborhood. Characterized by its poverty, overcrowding, and racial segregation, the South Side becomes a microcosm of the systemic injustices faced by African Americans during the 1930s. The squalid living conditions and pervasive sense of hopelessness underscore the challenges confronting Bigger and his community.

2. The Dalton Mansion: The home of the wealthy Dalton family, where Bigger is employed as a chauffeur, serves as a stark contrast to the South Side. The mansion represents wealth, privilege, and power, highlighting the stark disparities between the affluent white elite and the marginalized African American community. Despite its opulence, the Dalton mansion is also a site of tension and conflict, as Bigger navigates the racial dynamics of his employment.

3. Bessie's Apartment: Bessie's apartment, located in the same neighborhood as Bigger's, provides a glimpse into the lives of the working-class residents of the South Side. The apartment serves as a refuge for Bigger and Bessie, offering a brief respite from the harsh realities of their surroundings. However, it also becomes a site of violence and tragedy as Bigger's desperation reaches its peak.

4. Abandoned Building: The abandoned building where Bigger murders Bessie serves as a symbol of urban decay and despair. Desolate and foreboding, the building reflects the bleakness of Bigger's circumstances and the moral abyss into which he descends. It becomes a haunting reminder of the violence and desperation that permeate his world.

5. The Courtroom: The courtroom where Bigger stands trial for his crimes becomes a battleground where the complexities of race, class, and power come to the fore. The courtroom setting serves as a microcosm of society, where Bigger's fate hangs in the balance as he confronts the prejudices and injustices of the legal system.

Through these settings, Richard Wright creates a vivid portrait of 1930s Chicago, exploring the intersecting forces of race, poverty, and power that shape the lives of his characters. Each setting serves to deepen our understanding of the social and political context in which the novel is set, illuminating the complexities of the human experience in a society marked by inequality and injustice.

Reception and Criticism 

"Native Son" by Richard Wright received both acclaim and criticism upon its publication in 1940, and its reception has continued to evolve over the decades. Here's an overview of the reception and criticism of the novel:

1. Initial Reception: Upon its release, "Native Son" was met with widespread critical acclaim, earning praise for its unflinching portrayal of race, poverty, and power in America. Many critics hailed Wright's raw and uncompromising depiction of the African American experience, recognizing the novel as a groundbreaking work of literature that shed light on the harsh realities of systemic racism and oppression.

2. Controversy: Despite its critical acclaim, "Native Son" also sparked controversy due to its graphic depictions of violence and its exploration of taboo subjects such as race and sexuality. Some critics accused the novel of perpetuating negative stereotypes about African Americans, while others condemned its portrayal of white characters as one-dimensional villains. Additionally, the novel's explicit language and themes of sexuality were considered provocative and controversial for the time.

3. Legacy: Over the years, "Native Son" has come to be regarded as a seminal work of American literature, celebrated for its profound insights into race relations and the human condition. The novel has been studied extensively in academic settings and continues to be a subject of critical analysis and interpretation. Its influence can be seen in subsequent works of literature, film, and art that grapple with similar themes of race, identity, and social justice.

4. Criticism of Bigger Thomas: One of the central points of criticism surrounding "Native Son" revolves around its protagonist, Bigger Thomas. While some readers sympathize with Bigger's plight and view him as a victim of systemic oppression, others criticize him for his violent actions and lack of remorse. Critics have debated whether Bigger is a product of his environment or a morally culpable individual, with some arguing that Wright's portrayal of him reinforces negative stereotypes about African American men.

5. Literary Analysis: "Native Son" has been the subject of numerous literary analyses, with scholars examining its themes, characters, and narrative techniques in depth. Critics have explored the novel's use of symbolism, its exploration of existential themes, and its portrayal of the American Dream as an unattainable ideal for African Americans. Additionally, scholars have analyzed Wright's narrative structure and use of language, as well as the novel's historical and cultural significance within the broader context of African American literature.

Overall, while "Native Son" continues to be celebrated as a landmark work of American literature, it also remains a subject of debate and discussion among critics and scholars. Its complex portrayal of race, power, and identity ensures that it will remain relevant and influential for generations to come.


"Native Son" by Richard Wright stands as a seminal work of American literature, offering readers a searing exploration of race, poverty, and power in 1930s America. Through its vivid characters, evocative settings, and powerful themes, the novel challenges readers to confront uncomfortable truths about the systemic injustices that pervade society and the enduring legacy of racism and oppression.

Wright's unflinching portrayal of the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, serves as a lens through which to examine the complexities of the human experience, from the psychological toll of living under the constant threat of discrimination to the moral ambiguity of individual agency in the face of systemic injustice. Bigger's journey from alienation to acceptance serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of overwhelming adversity.

"Native Son" continues to resonate with readers today, its themes and characters remaining as relevant and urgent as ever. Its legacy as a groundbreaking work of literature is evident in its enduring influence on subsequent generations of writers, artists, and activists who continue to grapple with the issues of race, identity, and social justice that Wright so eloquently addressed.

In conclusion, "Native Son" stands as a testament to the power of literature to provoke thought, inspire empathy, and challenge the status quo. Its enduring significance lies in its ability to confront readers with uncomfortable truths about the human condition, encouraging them to confront the injustices of the past and work towards a more equitable future. As we continue to reckon with the legacy of racism and oppression in America, "Native Son" serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in our society.

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  1. Discuss how the concept of foregrounding helped to project the themes of the text, the Native son

    1. In Richard Wright's "Native Son," foregrounding, a literary technique that brings attention to certain elements in a text, plays a crucial role in projecting its themes. One prominent theme is the dehumanizing effects of racism and poverty on individuals, particularly through the lens of the protagonist, Bigger Thomas.

      1. Narrative Style: Wright's use of a third-person omniscient narrator allows readers to delve into Bigger's thoughts and emotions, highlighting the complexities of his character. This foregrounds the internal struggles of a young Black man trapped in a cycle of poverty and oppression, emphasizing the psychological impact of racism.

      2. Symbolism: The novel is rich in symbolism, with elements like the rat, the furnace, and the snow representing different facets of Bigger's life and the society he lives in. By foregrounding these symbols, Wright underscores the oppressive nature of Bigger's environment and the inevitability of his tragic fate.

      3. Setting: The gritty, impoverished South Side of Chicago serves as a backdrop that foregrounds the harsh realities of urban life for African Americans in the 1930s. The dilapidated buildings, overcrowded tenements, and lack of opportunities underscore the systemic inequalities that shape Bigger's life.

      4. Characterization: Each character in the novel serves a specific purpose, whether as a foil to Bigger or as a representation of societal attitudes towards race and class. By foregrounding these characters, Wright effectively critiques the racial prejudices and injustices prevalent in American society.

      5. Dialogue and Language: The use of dialect and colloquial language in the dialogue not only adds authenticity to the characters but also foregrounds the cultural and societal norms of the time. This serves to highlight the challenges faced by Bigger and other African Americans in navigating a predominantly white society.

      In essence, by employing foregrounding techniques such as narrative style, symbolism, setting, characterization, and language, Richard Wright effectively projects the themes of racism, poverty, and oppression in "Native Son," providing readers with a compelling portrayal of the African American experience in the early 20th century.

  2. Thank you very much for this wonderful piece. God bless you sir.

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