Native Son was the first novel by an American writer to deeply explore the black struggle for identity and the anger blacks have felt because of their exclusion from society. Many black American voices would echo Wright-James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, to name a few-in telling the story of an alienated protagonist whose search for self-identity and the freedom it brings must be achieved at all costs. Violence, drugs, and even religion serve as escape mechanisms for blacks who cannot face the fact that society considers them non-beings.
Native Son’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is searching for the power that will enable him to break free of the trap society has set for him. In the first section of this three-part novel, Bigger is forced to work for a rich family, the Daltons. Mr. Dalton earns his wealth as a slum lord for black real estate; Mrs. Dalton is blind. Their daughter, Mary, is a member of the Communist party, a fact she conceals from her parents by pretending that the meetings she attends with her lover, Jan Erlone, are university classes. Bigger not only chauffeurs Mary and Jan to the meetings but is required to escort them into black ghettos where Wright satirizes their supposed liberal attitudes toward blacks. After one such foray into the ghetto, Bigger helps an intoxicated Mary to bed, thinks momentarily of taking sexual advantage of her, decides against it, but is interrupted by Mrs. Dalton, who cannot see what is happening. Bigger accidentally suffocates Mary in an attempt to silence her and keep his presence secret. Bigger, who often wanted to kill whites, has become a victim of chance. He responds by putting Mary’s body in the furnace, but the smoke gives him away and he is forced to flee with his girlfriend, Bessie Mears. When Bessie becomes a burden he cannot bear, he kills her as well. Bigger is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in a trial that turns into a political farce.
In the novel’s last section, while Bigger is waiting execution, Wright works out his themes: that both Bigger and his white captors must understand and take responsibility for the conditions of black life; that Bigger’s execution must spark recognition in the legal system that there is no justice for blacks; and that self-identity is the most important element in the search for meaning in life.