Key Facts

Full Title · Native Son

Author · Richard Wright

Type of work · Novel

Genre · Urban naturalism; novel of social protest

Language · English

Time and Place written · 1938–1939, Brooklyn, New York

Date of first publication · 1940

Publisher · Harper and Brothers

Narrator · The story is narrated in a limited third-person voice that focuses on Bigger Thomas’s thoughts and feelings.

Point of view · The story is told almost exclusively from Bigger’s perspective.

Tone · The narrator’s attitude toward his subject is one of absorption. The narrator is preoccupied with bringing us into Bigger’s mind and situation, using short, evocative sentences to tell the story. Though the narrator is clearly opposed to the destructive racism that the novel chronicles, there is very little narrative editorializing, though some characters, such as Max, make statements that evoke a secondary tone of social protest in the final part of the novel.

Tense · Past

Setting (time) · 1930s

Setting (place) · Chicago

Protagonist · Bigger Thomas

Major conflict · The fear, hatred, and anger that racism has impressed upon Bigger Thomas ravages his individuality so severely that his only means of self-expression is violence. After killing Mary Dalton, Bigger must contend with the law, the hatred of society, and his own destructive inner feelings.

Rising action · The planned robbery of Blum’s deli; Bigger’s trip to the movies; Bigger’s night with Mary and Jan

Climax · Each of the three books of the novel has its own climax: Book One climaxes with the murder of Mary, Book Two with the discovery of Mary’s remains in the furnace, and Book Three with the culmination of Bigger’s trial in the death sentence.

Falling action · Bigger’s trial and his relationship with Boris A. Max

Themes · The effect of racism on the oppressed; the effect of racism on the oppressor; the hypocrisy of justice

Motifs · Popular culture; religion; communism

Symbols · Mrs. Dalton’s blindness; the cross; snow

Foreshadowing · Buckley’s campaign poster; Bigger’s occasional premonitions that he will do something violent and impulsive



Born…Richard Nathaniel Wright…September 4, 1908…Plantation, Roxie, Mississippi, U.S.

Died…November 28, 1960 (aged 52)…Paris, France

Occupation…Novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer

Nationality…American, French

Genre…Drama, fiction, non-fiction, autobiography

Notable works…Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, Black Boy, The Outsider

Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960) was an American author of sometimes controversial novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerns racial themes, especially those involving the plight of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. Literary critics believe his work helped change race relations in the United States in the mid-20th century


Title…Native Son

Author…Richard Wright

Country…United States


Genre…African American literature, Social protest novel

Publication date…March 1, 1940

About the Novel…Native Son (1940) is a novel by American author Richard Wright. The novel tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black American youth living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s.

While not apologizing for Bigger’s crimes, Wright portrays a systemic inevitability behind them. Bigger’s lawyer makes the case that there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American, since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be. “No American Negro exists”, James Baldwin once wrote, “who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” Frantz Fanon discusses this feeling in his 1952 essay “L’Expérience Vécue du Noir”, or “The Fact of Blackness”. “In the end”, writes Fanon, “Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.”

Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright’s novel is just as powerful today as when it was written — in its reflection of poverty and hopelessness, and what it means to be black in America.

True crime influence…Wright based aspects of the novel on the 1938 arrest and trial of Robert Nixon, executed in 1939 following a series of “brick bat murders” in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Title…Native Son was the original title of Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s first novel Somebody in Boots, based on a piece of doggerel about the first Texan. Algren and Wright had met at Chicago’s John Reed Club circa 1933 and later worked together at the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago. According to Bettina Drew’s 1989 biography Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, he bequeathed the title “Native Son” to Wright.

Other Tidbits…After publishing Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, author Richard Wright was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939. This fellowship helped him finish writing Native Son, which was published the following year.

Native Son became the first best-selling novel written by a Black American. It sold about 215,000 copies in the first three weeks of publication. Pretty impressive, if you asked us

Regents English Prep Online


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