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One of the major themes of Native Son is the effect of people's environments on their behavior and personality. Thus, setting is especially important in the novel. The story takes place in Chicago in the late 1930s, when the United States had still not recovered from the Great Depression. Jobs are scarce, and Bigger and his pool-hall friends are among the many unemployed. Richard Wright was influenced by the literary school of naturalism, whose adherents tried to observe and record their world, and especially its more unpleasant parts, with scientific accuracy. Wright knew Depression-era Chicago well and drew heavily on his first-hand knowledge. In many respects, the Chicago of Native Son is an accurate representation even in its details. For example, Ernie's Kitchen Shack at Forty-seventh Street and Indiana Avenue was modeled on a real restaurant called The Chicken Shack, located at 4647 Indiana Avenue and owned by a man named Ernie.
Two aspects of Bigger's environment influence him especially strongly-his confinement to Chicago's black South Side ghetto and his glimpses of the dazzling white world, of which he feels he can never be part. Bigger's family shares a rat-infested room, but, when he sees an airplane flying overhead or views the glamorous life portrayed in a movie, he feels teased and tempted by a different, happier world. At the Daltons, Bigger is thrust directly into that freer, white society. The striking contrast between their impressive mansion and the Thomases' one-room "kitchenette" apartment illustrates Bigger's frustrating predicament.
Many readers have pointed out, however, that the courtroom and jailhouse settings of Book Three are less realistic than the settings of Books One and Two, perhaps because Wright himself was less familiar with those environments. And, though few would contest that the hardships of life in Chicago's Black Belt were as oppressive as Wright portrayed them, some readers point out that the urban ghetto was also a place of opportunity for blacks by comparison to the Deep South, from which most of them had migrated. For example, in Chicago, Wright found the respect and encouragement that he had never experienced in rural Mississippi. But in Native Son, Wright doesn't seem to acknowledge that Chicago could hold out any hope at all for a poor black youth. Finally, many whites in Depression-era Chicago lived in poverty too, but because Bigger does not come into contact with them, they do not form part of this novel.
Despite their realism, the settings of Native Son also function symbolically. Wright's Chicago often has a nightmarish intensity in which external locations convey his characters' inner emotions. Bigger's confining apartment mirrors his feeling of being hemmed in in all other aspects of his life too. The rat that he pursues there foreshadows the hunted beast that Bigger himself will become. Likewise, the airplane Bigger sees overhead reminds you of all his frustrated aspirations to soar away from his limited life. At the Daltons', however, Bigger does not soar. Instead they consign him to the symbolic hell of their basement and its fiery furnace, an appropriate background for Bigger's swelling rage. And when Bigger flees the Daltons', the snow of Chicago's wintry streets comes to represent the white enemy that Bigger cannot escape.