About the Author
Richard Wright won international renown for his powerful and visceral depiction of the black experience. He stands today alongside such African-American luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and two of his novels, Native Son and Black Boy, are required reading in high schools and colleges across the nation. He died in 1960.
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Book One: Fear
An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman's voice sang out impatiently:
"Bigger, shut that thing off!"
A surly grunt sounded above the tinny ring of metal. Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly.
"Turn on the light, Bigger."
"Awright," came a sleepy mumble.
Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. From a bed to his right the woman spoke again:
"Buddy, get up from there! I got a big washing on my hands today and I want you-all out of here."
Another black boy rolled from bed and stood up. The woman also rose and stood in her nightgown.
"Turn your heads so I can dress," she said.
The two boys averted their eyes and gazed into a far comer of the room. The woman rushed out, of her nightgown and put on a pair of step-ins. She turned to the bed from which she had risen and called:
"Vera! Get up from there!"
"What time is it, Ma?" asked a muffled, adolescent voice from beneath a quilt.
"Get up from there, I say!"
A brown-skinned girl in a cotton gown got up and stretched her arms above her head and yawned. Sleepily, she sat on a chair and fumbled with her stockings. The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boysdressed. Abruptly, they all paused, holding their clothes in their hands, their attention caught by a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room. They forgot their conspiracy against shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor.
"There he is again, Bigger!" the woman screamed, and the tiny, one-room apartment galvanized into violent action. A chair toppled as the woman, half-dressed and in her stocking feet, scrambled breathlessly upon the bed. Her two sons, barefoot, stood tense and motionless, their eyes searching anxiously under the bed and chairs. The girl ran into a corner, half-stooped and gathered the hem of her slip into both of her hands and held it tightly over her knees.
"Oh! Oh! " she waited.
"There he goes!"
The woman pointed a shaking finger. Her eyes were round with fascinated horror.
"I don't see 'im!"
"Bigger, he's behind the trunk!" the girl whimpered.
"Vera!" the woman screamed. "Get up here on the bed! Don't let that thing bite you!"
Frantically, Vera climbed upon the bed and the woman caught hold of her. With their arms entwined about each other, the black mother and the brown daughter gazed open-mouthed at the trunk in the corner.
Bigger looked round the room wildly, then darted to a curtain and swept it aside and grabbed two heavy iron skillets from a wall above a gas stove. He whirled and called softly to his brother, his eyes glued to the trunk.
"Here; take this skillet."
"Now, get over by the door!"
Buddy crouched by the door and held the iron skillet by its handle, his arm flexed and poised. Save for the quick, deep breathing of the four people, the room was quiet. Bigger crept on tiptoe toward the trunk with the skillet clutched stiffly in his hand, his eyes dancing and watching every inch of the wooden floor in front of him. He paused and, without moving an eye or muscle, called:
"Put that box in front of the hole so he can't get out!"
Buddy ran to a wooden box and shoved it quickly in front of a gaping hole in the molding and then backed again to the door, holding the skillet ready. Bigger eased to the trunk and peered behind it cautiously. He saw nothing. Carefully, he stuck out his bare foot and pushed the trunk a few inches.
"There he is!" the mother screamed again.
A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger's trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.
"Goddamn!" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs.
"Hit 'im, Bigger!" Buddy shouted.
"Kill 'im! " the woman screamed.
The rat's belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance, its black beady eyes glittering, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly. Bigger swung the skillet; it skidded over the floor, missing the rat, and clattered to a stop against a wall.
The rat leaped. Bigger sprang to one side. The rat stopped under a chair and let out a furious screak. Bigger moved slowly backward toward the door.
"Gimme that skillet, Buddy," he asked quietly, not taking his eyes from the rat.
Buddy extended his hand. Bigger caught the skillet and lifted it high in the air. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering.
Bigger aimed and let the skillet fly with a heavy grunt. There was a shattering of wood as the box caved in. The woman screamed and hid her face in her hands. Bigger tiptoed forward and peered.
"I got 'im," he muttered, his clenched teeth bared in a smile. "By God, I got 'im. "
He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat's head, crushing it, cursing hysterically:
"You sonofabitch!"Native Son. Copyright (c) by Richard Wright . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
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What People are Saying About This
The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.
Reading Group Guide
Impoverished, angry, and poorly educated, Bigger Thomas drifts around the seedy South Side of Chicago until he finds work chauffeuring a wealthy, liberal white family named the Daltons. On his first evening of work, Bigger drives the Daltons' college-age daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone around town while the two of them get drunk. Bigger carries the intoxicated Mary to her bedroom and becomes sexually aroused while putting her to bed; when Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, comes to the door, Bigger silences Mary by covering her face with a pillow and inadvertently smothers her to death. He burns her corpse in the furnace and desperately tries to destroy evidence of the crime and frame Erlone for it, but when a reporter discovers Mary's bones in the furnace, the police quickly close in on Bigger and take him to jail.
The final section of the book recounts Bigger's trial. His lawyer, a Jewish-American Communist named Boris Max, pleads that Bigger is not responsible for his violent actions because social forces drove him to crime, and he urges the judge to spare Bigger the death penalty. The state's prosecutor responds that Bigger is a cold-hearted, depraved criminal and must die as the law requires. The judge rules for the prosecution and sentences Bigger to death. In the final scene, Max attempts to console Bigger, but Bigger rebuffs him. "What I killed for, I am!" Bigger insists, and Max leaves him to his fate.Discussion Topics
1. Wright writes of Bigger Thomas: "These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and momentsof anger--like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force." Does Wright intend us to relate to Bigger as a human being--or has he deliberately made him an unconscious embodiment of oppressive social and political forces? Is there anything admirable about Bigger? Does he change by the end of the book?
2. James Baldwin, an early protege of Wright's, later attacked the older writer for his self-righteousness and reliance on stereotypes, especially in the character of Bigger. In his famous essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," Baldwin compared Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom and dismissed Native Son as "protest" fiction with a naked and simplistic political agenda. Do you agree?
3. When Bigger stands confronted with his family in jail, he thinks to himself that they ought to be glad that he was a murderer: "Had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black?" Talk about Bigger as a victim and sacrificial figure. If Wright wanted us to pity Bigger, why did he portray him as so brutal?
4. Bigger repeatedly says to himself that the accidental killing holds "the hidden meaning of his life": "He had murdered and had created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had anything that others could not take from him." Discuss the disturbing concept of killing as a "supreme and meaningful act." Is this Wright's own view of the killing--or are we meant to see it only as Bigger's internal conclusion?
5. When first confronted with the accusation that he raped Mary, Bigger thinks: "rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out." Discuss the group's reactions to this controversial passage. Does this redefinition of rape reveal an insensitivity on Wright's part to women and the oppressions that they experience in American society? 6. How dated does this book seem in its depiction of racial hatred and guilt? Have we as a society moved beyond the rage and hostility that Wright depicts between blacks and whites? Or are we still living in a culture that could produce a figure like Bigger Thomas?About the Author
The first 20th century African-American writer to command both critical acclaim and broad popular success, Richard Wright was born on a plantation outside of Roxie, Mississippi in 1908. In 1937 he moved to New York to make his way as a professional writer and in 1938 he published Uncle Tom's Children, a collection of four short novels about the violent persecution of black men in the South. Harper and Brothers published Native Son two years later to immediate acclaim and phenomenal sales. Black Boy was even more successful when it appeared in 1945, selling more than 500,000 copies in its first year.
Despite his success, Wright continued to feel stifled by racial prejudice. Convinced that he could find greater freedom abroad, Wright moved to Paris in 1947 with his wife, an American woman of Polish-Jewish descent, and their young daughter. He quickly made contact with leading French existentialists and began reading deeply in the works of Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger. In the fiction he composed in France, Wright tried to view racial issues from an existentialist perspective.
When he died suddenly of a heart attack in Paris in 1960, Wright was considered a marginal figure - an expatriate novelist whose works had lost favor with a younger generation of African-American intellectuals. But the emergence of the black power movement in the 1960s sparked a major reassessment of Wright as both an innovative prose stylist and militant social critic. Today Richard Wright is widely recognized as one of the great American writers of the 20th century.