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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Online Summary
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THE NOVEL

THE PLOT - SHORT CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

It's a typical morning in the one-room apartment where Bigger Thomas lives with his mother, younger brother, and sister in the central black section of Chicago. A foot-long rat has been terrifying the family, and Bigger traps and kills it. When he's done, his mother reminds him that he has a job interview that evening. She begs him to take the job. If he doesn't, the family will be dropped from public assistance.

Bigger goes to the pool hall to hang around with his buddies, Gus, Jack, and G. H. He suggests that the four rob Blum's Delicatessen. Though they have already committed several other petty robberies, Bigger's friends are afraid to steal from a white man. Bigger is scared too, but he won't admit it. So he backs out by picking a fight with Gus. Bigger decides never to return to the gang. He is looking forward to his new job.

Bigger's new employers, the Daltons, are a rich white family. Both their luxurious house and the Daltons themselves make Bigger feel fearful and extremely self-conscious. But he is hired as a chauffeur, and his first assignment is to take the Daltons' daughter Mary to her university class.

To Bigger's surprise, however, Mary does not want to go to the university. She asks him to drive her to meet her boyfriend and requests that he not tell anyone about this visit. Bigger is shocked to find out that Mary's boyfriend, Jan, is a Communist and that Mary is a Communist sympathizer. He has heard that Communists are crazy and violent. Both Jan and Mary insist that Bigger eat with them at a restaurant in his own neighborhood. Unaccustomed to such friendliness from whites, Bigger thinks they are ridiculing him. He feels ashamed and angry.


On the way home all three drink heavily. Jan gets out to catch a streetcar. When Bigger and Mary arrive at the Daltons', Mary is so drunk that Bigger has to carry her to her bedroom. Then Mary's blind mother comes in to check on her, and Bigger fears being discovered there. He holds a pillow over Mary's head to prevent her from making a sound. When Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger discovers he has killed Mary.

Fighting panic, he remembers that Mary was planning to leave for Detroit in the morning and hopes that the family will merely assume that she left early. He decides to burn her body in the furnace downstairs and has to cut her head off to make her fit.

The next morning Bigger starts to feel excited about the killing. Though it was accidental, he sees it as a defiance of the white people who have made him so miserable. Then he thinks of sending the Daltons a ransom note. Perhaps he can collect some money by making them think that Mary has been kidnapped. He tries to talk his girlfriend, Bessie, into helping, but she is afraid.

The Daltons are worried about Mary. Bigger has cleverly directed the investigators' suspicions to Jan and continues to do so by signing his ransom note "Red." The story is front-page news, and reporters crowd into the Dalton house.

No one thinks that a young, uneducated black man like Bigger would have had the intelligence or audacity to carry out such a plan. But the situation changes dramatically when one of the reporters discovers Mary's bones among the furnace ashes.

Now Bigger must flee. Because he fears that Bessie will betray him, he crushes her skull with a brick and leaves her to die in an abandoned building. Then, penniless, tired, hungry, and cold, Bigger flees from one empty building to another, while the Chicago police, searching door to door, close in on him. Finally, they capture Bigger on a rooftop.

The newspapers portray Bigger as a sex criminal, a primitive black man who raped and murdered a white woman. Bigger's mother's preacher advises him to pray to God and to turn to religion, a course Bigger rejects. Jan visits Bigger and urges him to defend himself with the aid of a Communist lawyer, Boris Max.

Bigger signs a confession, but Max, who has Bigger plead guilty, argues that the circumstances of Bigger's oppressed life justify a sentence of life imprisonment instead of death. As a mob outside demands Bigger's execution, the judge sentences him to the electric chair.

Knowing that he will die, Bigger's last desperate wish is to communicate his feelings to Max. He tells a shocked Max that his murders were meaningful acts that came from deep within. The two men say good-bye, and Bigger is left to face death alone.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-Native Son by Richard Wright-Free Chapter Summary
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