Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Notes | Barron's Booknotes
SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Native Son begins in the one-room home of the Thomas family, Mrs. Thomas and her three children, Bigger, Vera, and Buddy. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, has a job interview that afternoon at five thirty. His mother worries that he will refuse to go to the interview. The family's government relief will be cut off if he does not get a job. After a morning of family disputes, Bigger leaves his apartment and joins his friends to hang around the drug store and the pool parlor. He plans a plot to rob the delicatessen of a white man with his three friends who are to all meet back at the pool hall later in the afternoon. He goes to a double-feature movie with one of his friends and then they go back to the pool hall to meet the others. The movies have made him want the job after all and he dreads planning the robbery.
When one of the members of the gang does not show up until it is almost too late to rob the delicatessen, he beats and humiliates this man severely, knowing that he is doing this to avoid the robbery. He goes to the job interview and gets the job as a chauffeur for a very wealthy white family. That evening he is assigned to drive the daughter of the family, Mary Dalton, to a college lecture.
While he drives her, she orders him to pick up her boyfriend, Jan Erlone, instead. Her boyfriend is a communist and believes in the social equality of blacks and whites. He and Mary treat Bigger with familiarity as if he were a social peer. Bigger has been taught all his life to maintain extreme social distance from white people, especially white women. Jan drives the car and insists that Bigger sit in the front seat with him and Mary. They insist that Bigger eat dinner with them at a diner in the African American part of town where Bigger sees his own girlfriend and her friend. They drink heavily and share the alcohol with Bigger.
After dinner, Bigger drives them around the park while they kiss and fondle in the back seat. Bigger is told to drive Jan to his car and before Jan leaves he gives Bigger a number of communist party pamphlets on the relations between blacks and whites. Mary rides in the front seat with Bigger on the way home. She is very intoxicated and lays her head on his shoulder. When he arrives at her house, he cannot get her to get out of the car on her own power. He must carry her upstairs, violating every taboo of his society restricting his proximity to white women. In her room, as he is putting her to bed, he becomes sexually aroused, kisses her and touches her breast. As he is about to leave her, her mother, who is blind, comes into the room to check on her. Bigger is so terrified that Mary will give him away as being in her room, that he holds the pillow over her face to quiet her.
When Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger realizes he has inadvertently killed Mary. In a panic, he puts her in her half-filled trunk and carries her to the basement, where he stuffs her body in the heating furnace. Her head will not fit in the trunk and he has to decapitate her to fit her body inside. He returns to his own home to sleep.
When he wakes up, he eats breakfast with his family. His younger brother finds the roll of money Bigger has taken from Mary but promises not to tell. Bigger returns to the Dalton's house and cleans up evidence of the night before. He tells the housekeeper, Peggy, that Mary told him to leave the car outside and to carry her trunk downstairs. Peggy tells him to take Mary to the train station at eight thirty. Bigger follows the order as if Mary will come downstairs. When she does not, he tells Peggy, who finds that Mary has not slept in her bed. Bigger is told to take the trunk to the station and send it to Mary's destination, Detroit. When he returns, he is questioned by Mrs. Dalton about Mary's evening. Mrs. Dalton finds out that Mary did not finish packing her trunk and cannot understand why she would have ordered Bigger to carry it downstairs. Bigger tells her it was Jan who ordered him to leave the car outside and to carry Mary's trunk downstairs. Bigger is dismissed for the day.
He goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie Mears. She mentions a kidnapping case, Loeb and Leopold, in which two men sent a ransom note to the family of a missing boy. Bigger gets the idea to do the same so he can get money from Mary's death and go to Harlem to live well. He tells Bessie that Mary is missing and that he wants to send a ransom note to her family and collect the money. Bessie is uncomfortable with his plan and resists going along. They have sex and Bigger leaves. He returns to the Dalton's house. The next day, Bigger finds that Mr. Dalton has hired a private investigator, Mr. Britten, to find his daughter. This man has found the communist pamphlets in Bigger's bedroom. He suspects Bigger and Jan are working together. Bigger throws the suspicion on Jan. Later that day, Jan arrives at the Daltons' and confronts Bigger to tell the truth. Bigger refuses to change his story.
When Bigger is leaving to return to his home, Jan confronts him and asks him why he is lying. Bigger pulls a gun on Jan and makes him run away. Back at Bessie's, Bigger writes a ransom note and convinces Bessie to be the one to watch for the car that will drop off the ransom money. He returns to the Daltons' to find the house full of reporters. The reporters are stationed in the basement, where the furnace becomes clogged with excessive ashes and smokes out the room. One reporter takes the shovel from Bigger and clears the furnace of ashes. When the smoke clears, he finds bits of bone and an earring. Bigger escapes out his bedroom window and runs to Bessie's apartment. He finds her extremely resistant to go with him. He convinces her that she is already implicated in the crime and makes her gather her bedclothes and come with him to hide out in an abandoned building. Once there, he rapes her and then bashes her head with a brick. He throws her body down an air shaft. The next morning he goes from building to building waiting to be captured. He is finally taken into custody that night.
Three days later he wakes up to find himself badly beaten. Jan visits him and brings a lawyer, Mr. Boris Max, to defend him in his trial. The prosecutor is the State's Defender, David Buckley, who paints Bigger as a bestial rapist. Max argues that the social conditions of Bigger's life, his deprived body and mind, have conditioned him to act as he did. Bigger is convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. On the day of his death, Bigger speaks to Max one last time. Max tries to make him see the context of his murders. Bigger misses Max's point and finds that he was justified in the killings.