Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Native Son Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 July 2016. Web. 27 Sep. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2016, July 28). Native Son Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)



Course Hero. "Native Son Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2023.


Course Hero, "Native Son Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed September 27, 2023,

Native Son | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book One: Fear

Bigger Thomas starts his day by killing a rat in the one-room apartment he shares with his mother, brother, and sister. Bigger argues with his mother, first about scaring his sister with the dead rat and then about a job interview later in the day. He then goes to the local pool hall to meet his friends. They plan to rob a delicatessen in the afternoon, but first he and his friend Jack go to a movie.

At the theater Bigger sees a newsreel featuring Mary Dalton, the daughter of the man scheduled to interview him later. Seeing Mary's luxurious lifestyle on screen, Bigger decides he does want to work for the family and gets cold feet about the robbery. To get out of the robbery without losing face, he violently beats his friend Gus, then heads over to the Dalton home.

Mr. Dalton and his wife greet Bigger and offer him a position as a chauffeur, promising him extra pay and an opportunity to go back to school. Peggy, the Daltons' maid, orients Bigger to the premises and sends him on his first assignment: drive Mary to an evening class at the university. Instead, Mary convinces Bigger to pick up her boyfriend, Jan, and take the two of them to a restaurant in Bigger's neighborhood. Bigger becomes angry and suspicious at their attempts to befriend him and Jan's talk of communist ideals, but he does as they ask. The three of them share dinner and a bottle of rum, then Bigger drives Mary and Jan around the park for several hours.

After leaving Jan and returning home, it becomes clear that Mary is too drunk to get to her bedroom on her own, so Bigger helps her. While he is in her room, Mrs. Dalton appears at the door to check on her daughter. Fearing he will be discovered and accused of raping Mary, Bigger accidentally smothers Mary with a pillow. He disposes of her body by placing her remains in the basement furnace and makes a plan to frame Jan for Mary's disappearance, thinking he will be an easy target because he's a communist.

Book Two: Flight

Bigger goes about his morning task to take Mary to the train station for a trip to Detroit. He takes her luggage to the station and says he doesn't know where Mary is when her family can't find her. It becomes clear she did not go to the station—or Detroit—on her own.

When Mr. Dalton brings his private investigator onto the scene, Bigger casts suspicion in Jan's direction, which results in Jan's arrest. Later, during a visit with his girlfriend, Bessie, Bigger gets the idea to send the Daltons a ransom note in an attempt to profit from the situation, and he convinces Bessie to help him. However, the ransom note creates a frenzy in the press. Although he has been pouring coal into the furnace all day to dispose of Mary's remains, the ashes cause the furnace to back up while reporters are in the basement. The bone fragments are discovered when the ashes are scooped out, but Bigger escapes out a window and runs to Bessie's apartment.

Knowing they may be found, Bigger and Bessie hide together in an abandoned building. Bigger decides he can't leave Bessie behind to talk to the police, and she is too anxious to come with him. While she attempts to sleep, he kills her and dumps her body down an air vent, realizing too late that his escape money is in her dress pocket.

During the following day, Bigger attempts to avoid the police, who are searching every apartment and abandoned building on the South Side. In spite of his efforts to escape, the police corner Bigger on the roof of a building and arrest him.

Book Three: Fate

Bigger waits in jail while the prosecuting attorney builds a case against him, interviewing Bigger's family, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. In an unexpected twist, Jan is sympathetic to Bigger and feels that Bigger's actions toward Mary, himself, and the world are the result of Bigger's own bleak life as a black man in America. Jan secures a lawyer, Max, through the Communist Party, even though Bigger initially resists their help and signs a confession.

At the inquest the Daltons, Jan, and others give testimony. Bessie's body is put on display for the grand jury. Bigger is charged with the rape and murder of both Mary and Bessie. Bigger expresses no remorse for Mary but has some small regret about Bessie.

Meanwhile, the newspapers have whipped up a mob to surround the jail and the courthouse before and during the trial. Bigger has a moment of clarity while explaining his life to Max. At the trial Bigger pleads guilty, and Max pleads for the judge to spare Bigger's life. Despite Max's efforts, Bigger is sentenced to death. Moments before he is executed, Bigger talks to Max, trying to understand what he has done but unable to fully grasp the meaning of his actions or his place in the world.

Native Son Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Bigger kills a rat while his family scrambles in fear.

Rising Action

2 Bigger plans a robbery with friends but changes his mind.

3 Bigger takes a job with the Dalton family as a driver.

4 Bigger drives Mary Dalton and boyfriend on a night out.

5 Bigger accidentally kills Mary, puts her in a furnace.

6 Bigger covers up the murder and dodges questions.

7 Reporters discover Mary's remains, Bigger is on the run.

8 Bigger flees with Bessie but kills her when she panics.


9 Bigger evades the police one more day before his arrest.

Falling Action

10 Bigger is on trial for crimes against Mary and Bessie.

11 The judge issues Bigger a death sentence.


12 Bigger and Max speak a last time before the execution.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Native Son? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!