This novel is the story of Bigger Thomas, a Mississippi-born young black man living in the Black Belt of Chicago, who over the course of the novel kills a young white woman, rapes and kills a young black woman, stands trial for the murder of the white woman, and is sentenced to death. It is divided into three sections: Fear, Flight, and Fate. The “Fear” section opens with a long scene of a rat attack first thing in the morning. Bigger is awakened by the alarm clock in the one room apartment that he shares with his mother, sister, and brother. A giant rat is loose in the room, and his brother and he chase it and finally kill it with a frying pan, though not after being attacked by the monstrous creature. Bigger then goes to the pool hall, where he and his friends have planned to assemble before robbing a white jewelry store; in keeping with this section’s theme, Bigger is able to talk his friends out of the heist, realizing that their plan was too dangerous. He then goes to the home of the Dalton’s, a rich family (who, it is revealed, are the ultimate owners of the dilapidated building in which he lives) who are big supports of Negro uplift programs, who have offered to hire Bigger as their chauffeur, as Bigger’s family is about to lose their relief money for food.
One of Bigger’s first duties is to drive the college-aged Mary Dalton allegedly to a university lecture, though once in the car she insists that he instead pick up her friend Jan Erlone, a member of the Communist party who, along with Mary, tries to show Bigger solidarity through sitting in the front of the car with him and insisting that he eat with them in a restaurant, “one of those places where colored people eat, not one of those show places” (69). Mary’s and Jan’s behavior toward Bigger confuses and upsets him, as his conditioning of strict deference to white people has taught him to fear what they intend as human kindness as a possible trick. Though their intentions are well-intended, they still come across as not only condescending but racist, in Jan’s request for “authenticity” and Mary’s claim that “[Negros] have so much emotion!” and her insistence on hearing Bigger sing. Mary gets so drunk during their night out that Bigger has to carry her to her bedroom; once inside, her blind mother comes in to check on her before Bigger can escape. In his attempt to keep Mary quiet with a pillow, he accidently smothers and kills her. Bigger, in his terror at having killed Mary, covers up his murder by stuffing her in the furnace (which it is his job to tend), chopping off her head with an axe in the process in order to make her corpse fit.
In the “Flight” section, Bigger tries to capitalize on his situation by attempting to blackmail the family after they discover Mary’s absence. Bigger tries to implicate Jan in her disappearance, as he knows Jan’s Communism is as damning as his own black skin. Mary’s body is discovered, however, by reporters who find her bones and an earring in the furnace after it starts smoking, and Bigger escapes into the Black Belt section of town. An enormous police and vigilante search for Bigger targets this part of the city, as thousands of white men harass, arrest, assault, and attack black men (and the black part of town more generally) as part of their search for Bigger. Bigger hides out for an evening with his girl Bessie, and tries to include her as part of his extortion and escape plan. However, at Bessie’s refusal to participate, Bigger rapes her and then kills her in her sleep by bludgeoning her to death with a brick. He then drops her body down an air shaft, realizing too late that the money he had stolen from Mary’s purse was still with Bessie. The rest of this section consists of Bigger’s attempt to flee as the captors move in tighter and tighter.
The final section, “Fate,” describes Bigger’s stay in jail and his trial. Jan reappears and provides Bigger with his attorney, Max. Max tries valiantly to portray Bigger as a victim of circumstance: in Max’s words, “I shall endeavor to show, through the discussion of evidence, the mental and emotional attitude of this boy and the degree of responsibility he had in these crimes” (371). Max’s devotion to justice evokes just enough hope in Bigger as to make his inevitable sentencing more poignant and painful, as Max is the first person Bigger has ever felt has seen him as a man.
In the essay “How Bigger Was Born” included as an addendum of sorts to the novel, Wright explains his motive for writing Native Son in reaction to the response to his 1938 collection of short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children. Wright states,” I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears” (454). Indeed, Native Son is unflinching and “hard,” in that it forces the reader to identify with Bigger’s point of view. Just a few pages before raping Bessie, for example, Bigger reflects on how being black in America is itself a form of rape: “But 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, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one” (227-8).