The central theme of Native Son is the central theme of much black American writing, the duality of black existence in the United States. Bigger expresses his sense of exclusion as he and his buddies stand idly on a street corner watching a plane fly overhead: “They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail.” As in Uncle Tom’s Children, the central movement of Native Son is toward the development of self-awareness. Bigger’s development is warped by environmental pressures that make him feel that violence is his only way to escape the stifling limitations imposed on blacks.
Native Son is a psychological as well as a sociological novel, and the three sections of the novel-“Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate”-outline Bigger’s development. “Fear” documents Bigger’s life of poverty and hopelessness with his mother and sister. His entire existence is based on fear, and his greatest fear is to let this fear show. “Flight” shows the expansion of Bigger’s sense of self in proportion to the personal danger he faces. He enjoys the independence and power of confusing the white authorities and is exhilarated by his brutal murder of Bessie Mears because, unlike his accidental suffocation of Mary Dalton, it is a consciously willed action that earns him the freedom to “live out the consequences of his actions.” In “Fate,” the novel becomes more expository. In his lengthy summation, Bigger’s lawyer Boris Max argues that all of society shares the guilt for Bigger’s crimes, and Max’s efforts awaken in Bigger a desire for human trust.
Native Son is not a simple rejection of white America, for the novel shows that behind Bigger’s violence lies the hope of acceptance. The real tragedy of Native Son is that Bigger can find no way other than violence to express his potentially healthy desire “to merge himself with others and be part of this world, to lose himself so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.” In Bigger Thomas, Wright creates one of the most disagreeable characters in American literature, yet he manages to portray him sympathetically. Wright’s task is complicated by Bigger’s inarticulateness, a limitation that compels the author to communicate Bigger’s condition through authorial intrusions, symbolism, and an action-filled narrative.
Wright carefully shows how Bigger is shaped by the conditions of his existence. In fact, Bigger’s situation is so hopeless that he must avoid recognizing it or be led by self-awareness to violent and probably self-destructive actions: “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” Bigger’s whole existence is conditioned by fear, and Bigger hates what he fears, including, for a large part of the novel, self-knowledge. The sense of self that Bigger develops after he commits murder is, therefore, too psychologically valuable for him to accept the friendship offered by Boris Max in the final section of the novel.
Bigger, of course, is more than a sociological case study. He embodies the notion, put forth by nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, of the modern man so alienated from traditional mores that he must make his own rules of behavior. In this sense Bigger is a metaphysical revolutionary, intuitively rebelling against the very conditions of his life. He sees a world of suffering, and if he cannot make this world match his innate sense of right, he will imitate its injustice: “He attacked a shattered world in order to demand unity from it.” In doing so, Bigger becomes a monster. But Bigger will embrace even this identity because he has lived too long in a world that denies him any sense of self.
Wright’s efforts to portray sympathetic white characters fail. The idealistic Jan Erlone and Mary Dalton never escape the shallowness of Wright’s treatment. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton exist more as symbols of misguided white liberalism than as individuals. Boris Max is so overburdened with the responsibility of functioning as Wright’s spokesman that his own personality is lost.