Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic
MLA

Bibliography

Course Hero. "Native Son Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 July 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Native-Son/>.

In text

(Course Hero)

APA

Bibliography

Course Hero. (2016, July 28). Native Son Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Native-Son/

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)

Chicago

Bibliography

Course Hero. "Native Son Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Native-Son/.

Footnote

Course Hero, "Native Son Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed April 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Native-Son/.

Native Son | Themes

Share
Share

Racism

Bigger and his friends talk often about how "white people never let us do anything." None of the black characters in the novel have an opportunity to get a real education, a good job, or a better place to live. They live in a state of hopelessness, and, overall, they accept their lot. Bigger's own thoughts turn to the lines that racism has drawn around his life and the lives of all black people, and he talks about this oppression and hopelessness in some detail with Max. Discrimination and prejudice were rampant throughout the United States in the late 1930s, and Chicago was not immune to racial inequality and segregation. It would be another quarter of a century before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would outlaw discrimination based on color or race.

The racism that permeates the novel is not just visible in the obvious lines drawn in society or even in the open hostility of characters such as Britten and Buckley, who talk about the general inferiority of black people and describe them in subhuman terms. Racism also takes a benevolent form in characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, who see themselves as fair-minded and generous contributors to black causes, even while they gain and preserve their wealth and power through a racist system they take few steps to truly change. Likewise, Mary seems friendly and committed to equality, but she treats Bigger as a novelty, saying she wants to "see how your people live."

Justice

Bigger has done terrible things, and justice demands that he answer for them. At the same time, his entire life has been marked by the injustices of segregation, which have prevented him from getting an education and offered him few opportunities for meaningful work even if he did. He and his family live in a tiny, shabby space for which they pay too much to a man who is swimming in money. None of this is "just."

Bigger murders Mary because of the injustice baked into his society. He knows black men left alone with white women are accused of rape, with or without evidence. That is simply reality for black men. Thus, Mary's accidental death results from his attempt to avoid a potentially unjust accusation. Nevertheless, this ends up being the central accusation at his trial, which is heavily influenced by the press and public. The verdict seems to be a given from the moment of Bigger's arrest. Although Bigger is guilty, the hasty process and obvious prejudice reveal the trial is more for show than any real desire to determine and deliver real justice.

Escape

Everyone in the "Black Belt" is trying to escape in one way or another. Even the name of the neighborhood implies something constrictive that demands release of some kind, usually in the form of some sort of short-term gratification. However, it also implies a degree of physical mastery in the martial arts, a sign of being able to fight if need be. Trapped by her tiny apartment, her children, and her backbreaking work as a laundress, Bigger's mother turns to religion for escape. Similarly, Bessie is trapped by her loneliness and a life of hard labor as a housekeeper, so she turns to alcohol and, to a lesser extent, sex with Bigger to forget her own suffering.

Bigger and his friends escape through the acts of petty violence and robberies they commit together in the Black Belt. They also frequently go to movies, the films providing a different kind of escape. Jack and Bigger masturbate in the theater prior to the robbery, and testimony during Bigger's trial reveals this is a habit for them. While somewhat perverse, even this act of self-pleasure provides an escape, both in the temporary physical sense and in terms of rebellion against society's rules.

After Bigger kills Mary, and again after he kills Bessie, Bigger has the strong feeling that he has escaped the constraints of his society, even though this freedom, like the freedom of his other activities, is short-lived because he ends up in prison with a death sentence from which there is no escape.

Isolation

Racism and segregation have isolated Bigger, and the entire black community, from the rest of American society. Even within the black community, Bigger is isolated and disconnected from everyone he knows. He feels little connection to his family, seeing his mother as a nag he just wants to keep out of his business and his sister primarily as an object of torment. After his arrest and sentencing, Bigger sends his family away and has no more contact with them.

Bigger's friends are not so much true friends as just a group of guys who hang out together. On Saturday morning Bigger and Gus have a meaningful conversation about white people, but only a few hours later Bigger nearly beats Gus to death in order to save face in front of the other guys because he can't tell them about his real fears. Similarly, Bigger sleeps with Bessie and spends time with her when he feels like it, but he doesn't hesitate to kill her when she becomes inconvenient.

At the same time, Bigger seems to want to have a connection with someone. After he opens up to Max about his life, he feels good about that connection and wants to recapture the feeling before his execution. His final words to Max, "Tell Jan hello," also reveal this desire to communicate and connect, but Bigger still doesn't know how to communicate, and Max only understands Bigger's experience in an abstract way. Bigger's story ends with him facing death alone in his cell.

Documents for Themes

View all

Questions for Themes

View all
What does "blindness" symbolize in our culture? How does Raymond Carver's story Cathedral, reinforce or undermine that symbolism?
I need help write an essay about this topic," The Marshall School District is planning to eliminate music from the district because of financial restrictions. Using what you know about Howard Gardner’
THE WATCHER AT THE GATE by Gail Godwin I first realized I was not the only writer who had a restraining critic who lived inside me and sapped the juice from green inspirations when I was leafing throu
Legacy of Racism Reflection Essay Identify your earliest exposure to people who were racially or culturally different from you through movies, television shows, or music. What was your age? Who was th
Cite This Study Guide

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

Ask a homework question - tutors are online