Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


The first scene of Native Son, Book 1, takes place in Bigger's apartment. What do readers learn about Bigger's life from the setting?

The apartment shows the extremity of the Thomas family's poverty. Four family members share a single small room with two beds: Bigger and Buddy in one, Vera and Mrs. Thomas in the other. There is a kitchen of sorts, separated from the rest of the room by a curtain. The fact that the family members must turn away from each other to preserve modesty while they change clothes is strong evidence that they do not have a bathroom. The conditions are less than sanitary, too, as indicated by the appearance of a large rat shortly after the family awakes.

How does the rat that appears at the beginning of Native Son, Book 1, represent not just Bigger but all black people?

The first indication that the rat is symbolic of the black community is its black fur. It is a creature trapped in a small space, and it has few options for survival. In this way it parallels the black characters in the book. It is struggling with forces much larger and more powerful than itself—the humans in the room—in the same way the black characters struggle against the power of white society. It is being pursued, similar to how Bigger is pursued by the law. The rat may also reflect the way white society views black people, as a nuisance that must be removed or at least isolated, so that there is little to no contact between the two groups.

In the first scene of Native Son, Book 1, what do readers learn about Bigger's relationship with his family?

Bigger tolerates his family because he has to, but he does not appear especially attached or invested in them. He dangles a dead rat in his sister Vera's face, which scares her so badly she has to lie down. Although he jumps to the rescue to kill the rat when it enters the room, eager to show his strength (and perhaps express his anger), he is generally unconcerned with his family's well-being. His mother berates him for being unwilling to get a job to help support them, even with the threat that their government relief checks will be cut off. At the same time, she is concerned about his welfare, cooks for him, and worries that he will get in trouble, even though every conversation between the two of them verges on a fight. Bigger gets along well with his younger brother, Buddy, who idolizes and defends him, but the admiration is largely one-sided. When Bigger tells Buddy he got a job as a chauffeur driving a Buick, Buddy asks if he can ride with him, showing his desire to spend time with his older brother. Buddy sees his older brother somewhat as a father figure, as someone to emulate. When Bigger gets hired by the Daltons, Buddy secretly wishes he could find a similar job.

In the first scene of Book 1 in Native Son, what do readers learn about Bigger's relationship with the world around him?

When Bigger leaves his apartment, he goes down to the street with no real sense of where he will go or what he will do. This indicates his lack of direction in life. He considers his options for the day: go to a movie, shoot pool, buy a magazine, or loaf around. These activities require little to no money but provide a way for Bigger to kill time either alone or with his friends. All of this happens under the watchful eye of a campaign poster for the man who will prosecute and convict Bigger of murder within only a few weeks. Right now the poster is simply an image of a white man telling Bigger he can't win, which sums up his overall experience of the world. Knowing he will never be given the same opportunities as white people, Bigger has little incentive to try to improve his situation. He therefore engages in idle activity, loitering and trying to entertain himself as a means of coping with his bleak existence.

In Native Son, Book 1, what does Bigger's conversation with Gus reveal about the limitations of their goals?

Neither Bigger nor Gus have any specific hopes and dreams. They act out scenes in which Bigger plays a white man, either the president, a general, or a banker. On one hand this allows Bigger to pretend he is something other than what he is, if only for a brief moment. They both know that no matter how hard they work, they will never reach the status of the white men they seek to emulate. Bigger compares their situation to living in jail or peering through a hole in the fence, unable to reach the other side. A lack of money and opportunities prevent young black men like Bigger and Gus from thinking seriously about any kind of goals. In a sense their futures are already written.

In Native Son, Book 1, what do Bigger and Gus reveal about their attitudes toward white people when they "play white"?

The "play white" game begins with an imitation of a military general threatening court martial, which shows that Bigger and Gus think white people exist mainly to give orders and hand out punishment. Then Gus imitates billionaire entrepreneur J.P. Morgan issuing an order to sell 20,000 shares of U.S. Steel, and Bigger defers to him with a "Yessuh, Mr. Morgan." This indicates that white people also exist to make and keep large sums of money. Bigger and Gus play white to experience, even if just for a moment, the sense of power and authority they believe white people must feel around African Americans. Bigger and Gus also imitate a phone call between J.P. Morgan and the president of the United States. In the fake call, the president tells Morgan they have to do something about the activities in Germany, referencing the build-up to World War II. The president replies that they have to do something about the black folks in the United States first. This exchange shows that Bigger and Gus think white people, especially those with money and authority, see them as a serious threat. The overall feeling is one of subjugation and inferiority. They resign themselves to the fact that white people will never treat them as equals.

How is the slogan on Buckley's campaign posters, "If You Break the Law, You Can't Win!" an example of verbal irony in Book 1 of Native Son?

The posters threaten the residents of black neighborhoods in the expectation that they will break laws. The posters are an example of verbal irony (the use of words to imply something different than what is being said) because a black man like Bigger "can't win" whether or not he breaks the law. His opportunities in the racist society are too limited for him to be successful. At the same time, if he were to commit a crime, he is certain to lose—and after committing his crimes he does lose everything, as the novel shows. In contrast Bigger thinks that Buckley is probably taking in "a million bucks" dishonestly. Buckley is breaking the law yet is certain to win.

How do movies and other pleasure activities, such as shooting pool, function in the lives of Bigger and his friends in Native Son, Book 1?

Bigger and his friends spend their days with little to do, so movies and similar entertainment provide a means of escape from boredom or drudgery. Movies in particular are an immersive, fantasy experience for viewers, so they are especially appealing. When Bigger sees the newsreel footage of Mary Dalton and her friends in Florida, it inspires a lengthy fantasy about the fabulous lives of the wealthy that even surpasses the fantasy playing out on the screen in front of him. The movies are a way for Bigger to let his imagination run wild, to dream of being wealthy, admired, and powerful.

The moment in Native Son, Book 1, when Bigger and Jack masturbate in the movie theater is a controversial but important scene. What purpose does this scene serve?

Masturbation is a short-term pleasure that, like a movie, provides an escape from boredom and focus on the drudgery of daily life for the boys. It is also an activity that serves little purpose besides a momentary distraction. This provides a vivid example of how these characters spend their days engaged in pointless activities because they have no opportunity to do anything meaningful. Masturbating in the theater is also a way for them to rebel against the rules of society. Indeed, it is one of the rules they have found they can get away with breaking with little consequence, or so they think. Later in the book, during Bigger's trial, this "dirty trick" will be used as evidence of Bigger's depraved personality and disregard for all laws and social norms, which is also true.

When Bigger decides to pass on the robbery in Native Son, Book 1, why can't he tell his friends the truth about his decision instead of beating Gus?

Bigger is afraid his friends will think he is weak if he backs out of the robbery, and it is important for him to be thought of as strong and masculine. To confess his fear of getting caught and his fear of losing face would also mean admitting those fears to himself, something Bigger cannot do because becoming consciously aware of all his fear would render him unable to function. Bigger's way of coping with his fear is to lash out with violence. Gus is a convenient target, and their fight allows Bigger to prove he is stronger than his friends, which also helps keep the fear at bay.

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