Native Son by Richard Wright tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year old impoverished African American youth living with his family on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s. He wants to do what is best for his family and finds himself a job as a driver for a wealthy white man, Mr. Dalton, and his blind wife. Their daughter Mary is also part of their household, as is the cook, Peggy.
Bigger could take this new opportunity and use it as a step in the right direction in being able to take care of himself, his mother, and his siblings. He will make a good salary, have his own room for the first time, and meet others who could help him progress further. However, on the first night of his new position, Mary asks Bigger to drive her and her boyfriend Jan, a communist sympathizer, around as they paint the town. This sets off a course of events that sees Bigger committing a crime, which begets more crime to cover the first one, which begets even more crime.
At every turn of the page I just wanted to tell him “stop!” Stop and take stock of what you are doing. I felt deeply for his plight and for his struggle, but his decisions were just shocking at every turn.
This text was one of the first to successfully describe the racial divide in America and the social conditions in which African Americans like Bigger lived. Wright kept up the momentum of the narrative with quick, powerful phrasings. I highlighted quite a number of them throughout the course of this standout novel:
“He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them.” (loc 417)
“The silence irked Bigger; he was anxious to do something to evade looking so squarely at this problem.” (loc 564)
“But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness.” (loc 1070)
“All day long it had been springlike; but now dark clouds were slowly swallowing the sun.” (loc 1077)
“He did not know just how to take her; she made him feel that she would judge all he did harshly but kindly.” (loc 1444)
“He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led.” (loc 2369)
“Events were like the details of a tortured dream, happening without cause.” (loc 4088)
“The sun came out, suddenly, so strong and full that it made him dodge as from a blow; a million bits of sparkle pained his eyes.” (loc 4875)
“He was not so much in a stupor, as in the grip of a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything.” (loc 5393)
“The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being…” (loc 5668)
“A small hard core in him resolved never again to trust anybody or anything.” (loc 6679)
“They draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line. They don’t care if there’s no bread over on your side. They don’t care if you die.” (loc 6867)
“Bigger felt that he was caught up in a vast but delicate machine whose wheels would whir no matter what was pitted against them.” (loc 7244)
“They hate because they fear, and they fear because they feel that the deepest feelings of their lives are being assaulted and outraged.” (loc 7610)
“And they do no know why; they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces.” (loc 7511)
“It was the first full act of his life; it was the most meaningful, exciting and stirring thing that had ever happened to him.” (loc 7708)
“There was no common vision binding their hearts together; there was no common hope steering their feet in a common path.” (loc 7806)
“Even though they were intimately together, they were confoundingly alone.” (loc 7807)
“His entire existence was one long craving for satisfaction, with the objects of satisfaction denied…” (loc 7815)
“He was hugging the proud thought that Max had made the speech all for him, to save his life. I was not the meaning of the speech that gave him pride, but the mere act of it.” (loc 7885)
“Oh, what a fool he had been to build hope upon such shifting sand!” (loc 8196)
I give this book an for its content and social importance, but the reader needs to know going in that it is graphic in nature.