First published in 1940 as a protest novel, Richard Wright’s Native Son presents the story of Bigger Thomas, a young and impoverished black man living in 1930s Chicago. Despite being the novel’s protagonist, Bigger is considered an antihero. This classification may complicate your student’s reading, but also provides a good source of discussion. Bigger’s negative and oftentimes violent state of mind speaks to the system of oppression and racism in which he lives. The novel delves into various aspects of institutionalized racism, including socioeconomic consequences and the psychological toll of oppression on a marginalized population.

The stage of 1930s America also allows for exploration of the different political and social forces at work leading up to World War II. A brief overview of concepts such as liberalism, communism, and fascism will help your students understand Bigger’s character, as he seeks to find escape through these ideologies, regardless of morals. The relationship these socio-political themes have with systemic racism is represented in how each character reacts to their circumstances. These themes and reactions contribute to the overarching question the novel poses, which is whether Bigger’s actions are a cause or effect of his environment.

Richard Wright created Bigger and his character’s struggles based on his own experiences as a black man in the Chicago ghetto. Exploring Wright’s background will aid students in examining the realism and naturalism at work in the novel, as well as developing their broader understanding of these terms.

Keep reading to learn more about Native Son!

Summary of Native Son

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1940
  • Length: 504 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 700L
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12

Bigger Thomas lives with his mother and two younger siblings in a rat-infested, one-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Bigger’s life is shaped by his view of the world. While everyone around him is blind, Bigger is overtly aware of all of the ways in which he is oppressed, leading him to be bitter, violent, and fearful. In an attempt to better their situation, Bigger’s mother pesters him to accept a chauffeur job from a rich white man named Mr. Dalton. The same night Bigger accepts this job, he accidentally kills Mr. Dalton’s daughter, Mary. After attempting to flee, Bigger falls deeper into his fear and guilt.

Content Warning: Native Son contains racial slurs, violence, and sexual content.

What Your Students Will Love About Native Son

  • Wright’s straightforward writing style
  • The opportunities for discussing the realistic portrayal of socio-economic issues

Potential Student Struggles With Native Son

  • The brutally honest depiction of institutionalized racism
  • The vivid descriptions of violence

Learning Objectives for Native Son

  • Understand the extent of the racial divide in 1930s Chicago.
  • Analyze the symbolism of snow and its role in the novel.
  • Interpret Mrs. Dalton’s blindness and how it plagues all the characters.
  • Evaluate Bigger as an antihero archetype.
  • Discuss how oppression and institutionalized racism can affect identity.

Literary Elements in Native Son

  • Allegory
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Setting
  • Symbolism
  • Tone
  • And more!

Major Themes in Native Son

Racism — The novel deals with multiple components of systemic racism, on both the side of the oppressed and the oppressor.

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Free Will and Fate — The novel suggests that Bigger’s actions were bound to occur, that crime for a black man is inevitable. Are his actions a cause of his environment, or are they an effect?

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Identity — Bigger struggles with life as another black man working for people who see him as such. In killing Mary, he feels he can claim ownership over his identity.

Related Works:

Other Resources for Native Son

Order Native Son Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Native Son Paperback Student Edition
Native Son Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Native Son AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Native Son Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set