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Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


Why in Native Son, Book 1, does Bigger think taking a gun to his job interview with Mr. Dalton is a good idea?

Bigger feels safer having the gun on him, even though he is going into a situation that offers no physical danger. At this point violence is such a part of who he is that the gun is an extension of his personality. He is going into a situation in which he will have no power, and, as he demonstrated when he beat Gus, Bigger needs to feel powerful and in control to keep his fears in check. Bigger needs to feel safe in the company of white people.

Bigger meets the Dalton family in Native Son, Book 1. How does his behavior toward them contrast with the attitude toward white people he expresses to his friends?

When Bigger and his friends talk about white people, they make fun of them freely. They talk openly about how white people have everything while they have nothing. They can give voice to their resentments. But the rules are different when white people are actually present, and Bigger knows he has to obey, keep quiet, and reveal nothing about his true personality in order to be accepted for this job that might let him move up in the world. Bigger never feels free because of the limits white society has placed on him, but he feels more free to be himself when the people placing those limits on him are not in the same room.

In what ways in Native Son, Book 1, do Mr. and Mrs. Dalton show their blindness to the real problems black people face?

Mr. and Mrs. Dalton live in a place that is far removed from the world Bigger occupies, one with plush carpets and soft lighting. They seem friendly and helpful, but they are also distant from their employees' experiences. Mr. Dalton's talk about giving Bigger a second chance after his time in reform school seems sincerely helpful. Mrs. Dalton's talk about him going back to school and his siblings staying in school comes across as mildly judgmental, as if Bigger is somehow totally to blame for his lack of education. This may or may not be the case—it is never confirmed why he left school. The Daltons' charitable contributions and help to individuals appear kind, but they do little to change the overall conditions so many black people like the Thomas family live in day to day. Mrs. Dalton's real blindness is a physical manifestation of the "blindness" of white people toward the plight of African Americans throughout the novel.

How do Mary and Jan support racial equality in Native Son, Book 1?

Mary and Jan support racial equality in different ways and to different degrees. Jan is focused on the plight of the worker and appears committed to his communist ideals, including racial equality. Yet he isn't interested in Bigger as a person; everything is political for him. Mary's desire to see how black people live firsthand sounds like novelty seeking with her use of the phrasing "your people" and her reference to her trips abroad. Still, she goes on to talk with a sad voice about how black people and white people live near each other and know nothing about one another. She views Bigger as an individual in the sense that she is concerned about him and his "people." To Mary, Bigger is not just an anonymous black man.

Why does Bigger become angry with the way Mary and Jan treat him in Native Son, Book 1, when they go out together?

As much as they talk about being on Bigger's "side," Mary and Jan have little thought about how intrusive they are. Their insistence that he sit in the front seat with them is a nice idea, but it does not account for his physical comfort or personal space. In the same way, their invitation for him to join them for dinner seems polite, but it does not take into account Bigger's obvious discomfort with the situation. They may be trying to treat him as an equal, but they are still issuing orders to him. Bigger gets no say in the matter, just as he has no say in any matter, so this taps into the anger he feels all the time toward white people. Wrapping these orders in a friendly demeanor and talk of equality only confuses Bigger about their intentions and magnifies his anger.

In Native Son, Book 1, Mary and Jan have Bigger drive them around the park. How does their behavior during this drive reveal their hypocrisy?

It is implied, but never stated directly, that Mary and Jan engage in some kind of sexual activity while Bigger drives them. At any rate, what they are doing is very private and personal, not the sort of thing couples would generally do in front of other people, especially during this time period. Their willingness to engage in whatever they're doing in the backseat while Bigger is there shows that, in spite of their talk of equality, they view him as part of the background, not a full person whose comfort matters. They also are taking advantage of the fact that he won't tell anyone what they are up to because his race prevents him from speaking freely. Their behavior, though unspoken, shows that they place Bigger squarely into the role of chauffeur after pretending that he was "one of them."

Mary is too drunk to get herself upstairs after going out with Jan in Native Son, Book 1. Why is Bigger reluctant to help Mary to her room?

Even before Mrs. Dalton wanders to the door and Bigger's fear of being caught there causes him to smother Mary, he knows going into Mary's bedroom alone with her is a risky proposition. He is new to the job, so the Daltons don't know him very well. He has no reason to think they would trust him, because he is black and they are white. The belief is that any black man found alone with a white woman is going to rape her, so Bigger wants to stay away from that situation, which is the exact situation he gets caught up in.

It is clear Bigger feels anger and hate toward Mary in Native Son, Book 1, so why does he kiss and touch her while helping her get into bed?

Bigger's anger toward Mary is the thing that drives him to violate her, in a small way, while she is drunk and helpless. She has spent the entire evening encroaching on his space, telling him what to do, making him feel powerless, and he feels he has to obey because of their racial differences. Now that he is in a position of power over her, he takes advantage of that. It has been established, too, that Bigger is someone who seeks escape from stress and fear through physical acts. By kissing Mary he is able to find escape in the purely physical pleasure of that moment.

At the end of Native Son, Book 1, Bigger has killed Mary, cut off her head, and burned her remains. Why doesn't he feel guilty?

In the same way that Mary and her family, as wealthy white people, do not see Bigger as fully human, Bigger does not see Mary as a real person. He feels even less connection to Mary as a human being than he feels toward most people, so it is easy for him to treat her as an object. He hates her because she represents a level of privilege and power he will never have. The only way he can assert power over her and over the situation is through physical action, and those actions force him to ignore his feelings. If he allows himself to experience guilt, then he will feel more fear. If he lets the fear take over, he puts his own survival at risk.

At the beginning of Book 2 in Native Son, Bigger has a chance to leave town before Mary's disappearance is discovered. Why doesn't he take his chance and run?

Bigger is convinced that he can cover up his crime if he remains in town, keeps working for the Daltons, and acts naturally. On the other hand, if he runs, that is an admission of guilt. He thinks no one will believe that a poor, young black man would be brazen enough to do what he has done to Mary, so he won't be a likely suspect. Bigger acts on the common belief by white people at the time that African Americans were of inferior intelligence and incapable of thinking and planning ahead. He uses this misconception to his advantage and decides to stay rather than to run.

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