Literature Study GuidesNative SonFear Book 1 Home To Street Summary

Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Fear, Book 1 (Home to Street) | Summary

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Native Son does not follow the typical chapter structure found in most novels. Rather, it unfolds in three books: Fear, Flight, and Fate. This study guide breaks the books down by locations and critical scenes for further analysis.

Summary

The Thomas family awakens to the sound of an alarm clock in their one-room apartment. As the family dresses for the day, a large black rat appears in the room. Bigger, the novel's protagonist, and Buddy, his brother, scramble to kill the rat while Ma and Vera try to avoid being bitten. The rat does manage to bite Bigger's pant leg before he crushes it with a skillet. Bigger then taunts his sister, Vera, with the dead rat, makes her cry, and starts an argument with her and their mother. While the family eats breakfast, things remain tense as Ma asks Bigger about a job he has been offered through the relief agency. She reminds him that the government will cut off their relief if he doesn't go, so he agrees to the interview to get his mother off his back.

After breakfast Bigger storms out of the apartment, and the first thing he sees on the street is a campaign poster for State's Attorney Buckley. Bigger mumbles about Buckley's own corruption as he stands in the street, smoking a cigarette and thinking about how to spend his day. He mulls over the idea of robbing a delicatessen when Vera steps out into the street and cautions him to stay out of trouble before heading off to a sewing class.

Analysis

In his introduction to Harper Perennial's restored edition of the text, Princeton University's Arnold Rampersad calls the sound of the alarm a wake-up call to America about "the reality of race relations in the nation." The appearance of the rat shortly after—black, not gray or brown—serves as a symbol, demonstrating how any living creature pushed into a corner can be both vulnerable and dangerous. The rat also illustrates the appalling conditions in which the Thomas family lives: one room, infested with vermin, with little space for the men and women in the family to change clothes in private. To preserve modesty, very important to Mrs. Thomas, they must turn away from one another while they change.

The hardship Bigger's mother faces in supporting a family of four on the money she makes as a washerwoman is also clear in the family's lack of even the basic necessity of safe housing. She says, "I can't last many more years living like this." Her frustration with Bigger is justified, as he is the only other member of the family old enough to work. His thoughts once he leaves the apartment show he's used to idling away his days, committing petty crimes. Only the threat of the government taking away their relief checks moves him to consider work, and even then he is reluctant.

Bigger's feelings about work may stem from the lack of good jobs available to him and those he knows. His mother does laundry. His younger sister's big aspiration is to become a seamstress. Even the job Bigger is offered as a chauffeur lacks much pay and prestige. His assistance to his family would help, but only by a small degree. The campaign poster looming over Bigger in the street, a white man's face with the words "YOU CAN'T WIN," makes it clear that white society is a prime source of the Thomas family's hopelessness.

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