Set in Chicago during the 1930's, Native Son begins with the sound of an alarm clock clanging in a one-room apartment shared by a family of four. The protagonist Bigger Thomas mumbles and his mother shouts at him to turn the alarm clock off. Bigger sleeps with his younger brother Buddy in one bed and his sister Vera sleeps with their mother, Ma, in the other. As they awake and dress, the family hears the sound of a large rat: "There he is again, Bigger" (8). Bigger grabs an iron skillet, kills the animal and then insists on shoving it in Vera's face until the poor girl passes out. Ma berates him and tells him she wishes that he had never been born. She loudly reminds him he must take the chauffeur's job that the relief agency set up and that if he refuses, the family's welfare benefits will be discontinued. Ma blames the gang that Bigger hangs out with as the cause of her son's laziness and foretells that he will go to the gallows if he doesn't change his ways. Bigger swallows his anger and leaves the apartment after his mother gives him a quarter for carfare.
Feeling frustrated and sad about his home life, Bigger leaves his building debating whether or not he should take the job. He feels extremely frustrated about the lack of options in his life and his future looks bleak. Across the street he sees two white men pasting up an election poster for State Attorney Buckley which reads: "If you break the law, you can't win." Bigger has in mind holding up Blum's, a local store, with his gang. This crime would be the first time they went up against a white man. As his sister Vera heads off to her sewing class, she also warns Bigger to stay away from his gang. Bigger's friend Gus arrives and above they watch a sky-writing airplane: USE SPEED GASOLINE. As he looks up to the sky, Bigger feels even worse about his limited opportunities in life and he says he could fly an airplane if he only had the chance. The boys play a wishful game with Bigger pretending to be the President and Gus, the financier, J.P. Morgan: "They own the world" (22).
Then they go to Doc's poolroom, where because Bigger is broke, Gus pays for the game. Bigger asks Gus if he wants to rob Blum's and includes Jack and GH in the plan after they arrive. While Gus hesitates, the others more readily agree. Suddenly, they must bring guns, Bigger demands, and they agree to meet back at the poolroom at three o'clock. Bigger leaves the poolroom with Jack and they go to the local movie theatre. Bigger agonizes whether to take the job or to rob the store and tells Jack: "I'd just as soon go to jail as take that damn relief job" (32).
During The Gay Woman, the first movie, about a wild rich young blonde woman who deceives her husband with a communist lover, Bigger changes his mind about the job. He begins to view it as an opportunity to meet and mix with the rich. He realizes the foolishness of robbing Blum's but he goes home to get his gun where he hears his deeply religious mother singing hymns while cleaning.
At Doc's poolroom, Bigger becomes increasingly agitated and kicks Gus for being late. Doc attempts to calm him down but Bigger pulls a knife. Doc draws a gun and forces them all to leave but not before Bigger makes a rip on the green felt covering the pool table. Outside he realizes that it was his own fear over robbing a white man that provoked the fight with Gus. However, he keeps the "knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him" (43).
Bigger keeps the gun with him as he goes to the Daltons' home on Drexel Boulevard. At the gate, he becomes intimidated by the grandeur of the house. An Irish housekeeper shows him into the lavish living room where he sinks into the luxurious chair. Mr. Dalton enters and asks Bigger to follow him. In the hallway they encounter Mrs. Dalton who, robed in white, appears to Bigger to be a ghost. At first Bigger doesn't realize she is blind.
Mr. Dalton owns the Southside Real Estate Company and is thus Bigger's landlord. He questions him about his criminal background, tells Bigger the relief agency gave him a good recommendation and assures him that he is eager to help. For the first time in his life Bigger will have his own room and all the food he wants.
The vivacious university student Mary Dalton comes in then and asks if Bigger is a member of a union. Immediately intimidated, the young man doesn't know what to say since he doesn't want to alienate either the girl or his new employer.
In the kitchen, Peggy the housekeeper cooks him bacon and eggs and while singing the praises of her employers instructs Bigger on how to maintain the furnace. She explains that the last chauffeur went on to finish school thanks to the Daltons.
Mrs. Dalton enters and asks Bigger how far he had gone in school. When he replies eighth grade, she asks if he has any interest in furthering his education and assures him there is no hurry when he hesitates.
Bigger's first chauffeuring duty consists of driving Mary Dalton to an evening lecture at the university. However, almost immediately after they start out, she tells Bigger to go in a different direction. When they arrive, she enters an old unpainted building and shortly returns to the driver's side of the car with a white man whom she introduces as Jan. Jan extends his hand to a shocked Bigger. The couple, intent on treating Bigger as an equal, refuse to go into the back of the car and tell him to shove over while Jan takes the wheel.
To Bigger's great shock and consternation, Jan immediately starts propagandizing his communist philosophy and insists Bigger take them to a restaurant frequented by African-Americans. Bigger can only think of Ernie's Kitchen Shack where the couple insists he eat with them. The three start drinking heavily and Bigger ignores his girlfriend, Bessie. After dinner, Jan invites Bigger to join the Communist Party and gives him a packet of leaflets. Next, they drop Jan off at the street car stop and Mary, very drunk, sprawls on the front seat next to Bigger.
When they arrive back at the house, Mary has passed out altogether and Bigger has to quietly carry her upstairs to her bedroom. The blind Mrs. Dalton walks in as he is placing her on her bed. Terrified, Bigger covers Mary's face with a pillow so she won't call out. However, he accidentally suffocates her and the disgruntled mother leaves. Bigger panics.
Next to Mary's bed is the trunk she intends to use for her early morning trip to Detroit. He stuffs her body into it and carries it to the basement. Still in an extreme state of panic, and sure he will be accused of murder, Bigger throws Mary's body into the furnace and decapitates her when it doesn't fit. He throws the axe into the furnace. Attempting to keep calm, he decides to tell the police that he left Mary with Jan and decides to take the trunk to the railway station in the morning. Then he returns home where he goes to sleep next to Buddy.
From the beginning, it is clear that Native Son sounds a warning-a wake-up alarm intended not only for the Chicago family sleeping fitfully within the one-bedroom tenement, but to America as a whole. The desperate conditions which many African-Americans endured in the 1930's must change for the better, or the structures holding society in place will explode in violence. As it is, there are very limited educational and career opportunities for young alienated African-American males who feel helpless, impotent and enraged.
Native Son presents an unsparing portrait of poverty, which is typical of urban "Naturalism," a type of literature that illustrates how human beings (i.e. characters) are governed by their instincts and passions, as well as the ways in which lives are governed by forces of heredity and environment.
In Book One, "Fear," the protagonist Bigger, whose name rhymes with the most offensive racial slur, is expected to turn off the alarm, rise and protect the family from a big black rat which has entered the family home. He is also expected to take a job as a chauffeur so the family can move to a better apartment. Clearly, at age twenty, he is the man, responsible for supporting his family. Bigger violently beats the rat to death and thereby demonstrates the anger he feels. The rat, however, also represents Bigger, who feels just as trapped and unwanted.
Bigger feels overwhelmed, powerless, and simply doesn't want to grow up. He still plays with his friends and finds escape and release at the movies. When he sees an election sign for a man named Buckley whose campaign slogan reads: "If You Break The Law, You Can't Win!" the sign constitutes a warning to Bigger. His mother, who is simply called "Ma" throughout, has also, in the style of the Ancient Greek dramatic Oracle, just prophesized his death. However, rather than give up his friends, Bigger wants to rob Mr. Blum, a white store owner. He would rather go to jail than take the proffered Dalton job.
However, at the movies, Bigger changes his mind. The first film feature, The Gay Woman features a wealthy blonde-haired woman who takes sexual risks with her communist lover. The film foreshadows much of the novel's plot line. Bigger finds this film version of the white world exciting and comes to see his job as an opportunity, however misguided, to enter that world. This also provides the ideal means for him to back out of the robbery which he fears. Indeed, it is fear that forces him to turn on his friend Gus.
Bigger is hesitant about entering this white world. He feels ill at ease even sitting inside a white person's home and his lack of poise demonstrates the dire circumstances of his life. At the interview, the hypocrisy of the Daltons, who represent the workings of the white world, is brought to light. The Daltons make their fortunes from renting poor housing to the black population and alleviate their guilt by contributing to African-American charities and by employing a black chauffeur. On one hand, Mr. Dalton proposes helping the black community, but on the other hand, he is the slumlord who makes money off poor families like Bigger's.
Mrs. Dalton, who always dresses in white, also seems to want to help the under-privileged people, but objectifies Bigger by talking about him in his presence. And, although she asks Bigger if he would be interesting in furthering his education, she doesn't take the young man's feelings into consideration.
Mary, whose virginal name is ironic, is a different matter. She runs wild and finds a way to belittle her parents' wealth by joining the Communist Party and feigning equality with Bigger. She and Jan make a point of sitting up front in the car but they cannot understand Bigger's discomfort. They are, in effect, "slumming it," when they ask to go to a restaurant where African-Americans eat. This is a game to them, a form of entertainment to be accompanied by great quantities of liquor. Mary and Jan simply have no idea that they could cause Bigger to lose his job. They don't realize how the flaunting of societal codes, however unfair, can cause Bigger serious problems with his own group of friends, with his employer and even with the police.
And, when Bigger finds himself helping the drunken Mary up to her bedroom, he viscerally realizes that he is now over the line when he becomes sexually aroused. When Mrs. Dalton enters Mary's room he realizes he could wind up dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And while the killing is accidental, the disposal of the body is graphically gruesome and releases some of the violent rage Bigger feels bottled up inside.
Native Son: Book One