Native Son


Book Three: “Fate”


“Fate”- deterministic definitions of fate suggest that an individual’s situation in life results from objective causes that produce a particular result; there is no use struggling against it.

Has the racist environment in which Bigger was born and bred led him inexorably to his fate as a murderer whose being has already been extinguished? Or does our social reality permit the individual the space to exercise free will and thus assume moral responsibility for action?

In the final part of Native Son Wright dramatizes Bigger’s struggle to achieve a true birth into consciousness of who he is and what his life has meant.

Can Bigger find a way to see what he has done which will allow him to face his death with dignity? What obstacles must he overcome to achieve a true understanding not simply of what it means to be a black man in a racist society, but a human being in an existential situation?


Non-Being and Being                                       (pp. 271- 310)


-         What thought brings Bigger back to life?

-         Unless he takes action, how will the white world define him in his trial?

-         How does Rev. Hammond define him? Can Bigger achieve self-understanding through religion?

-         How can Jan excuse what Bigger has done? What view of Bigger’s crime does a Communist take?

-         What does Max (the Communist) say about the Dalton’s efforts ( Liberal) to help the poor?

-         How does Bigger react when he sees the shame of his family? How does he respond to his mother’s plea that he seek repentance?

-         How does Buckley coerce Bigger into giving his confession?

-         Are there any mitigating circumstances to Bigger’s crime? Did Bigger act with free will?


The Inquest                                                                  (pp. 310- 340)


-         How does the coroner’s inquest become a ritual of vengeance? How can we explain such virulent hatred?

-         How does Bigger respond when the coroner unveils Bessie’s ruined body?

-         Why do the press return Bigger to the scene of the crime?


Interview with Max                                                       (pp. 341- 363)


-         How does the madman placed in Bigger’s cell explain their situation?

-         How does talking about what he has done help Bigger take steps towards understanding? Why is it so hard for him to articulate his feelings?

-         Towards what understanding of his crime is Max leading Bigger? Does Bigger agree?

-         What does Bigger decide that he needs to do before he dies?


The Trial                                                                       (pp. 363- 418)


-         Why does Bigger plead guilty instead of pleading insanity? What is Max’s strategy?

-         How does Buckley make his case for Bigger’s execution?

-         Follow carefully the logic of Max’s eloquent defense of Bigger. If you disagree with Max’s conclusions, can you point to the specific place where his argument is flawed?

-         Why is Bigger unsatisfied with this defense?


Bigger Achieves Consciousness                                    (pp. 418- 430)


-         Why is Max horrified when Bigger accepts what he has done?

-         By finding something good in what he has done, has Bigger embraced complete moral relativism?

-         Or has he finally achieved a realistic vision of human responsibility?

-         How does Wright define human responsibility? Is his vision still deterministic?


Native Son


Book Three: Fate (continued)


After Bigger meets with Max for the first time (pp. 341-363), he feels for the first time in his life that there may be a way of seeing himself and his relation to the world in a manner which is not determined by racial stereotype. He starts to believe that pursuing this line of thinking might help him find a way to face his death with dignity.


The Trial         The guilty plea: not guilty by reason of insanity vs. mitigating circumstances to reduce punishment. (370)


Buckley’s case for Bigger’s execution (372-375)

He was responsible for his actions. He committed an unnatural, vile offense against God and man, an evil crime committed to satisfy bestial desires. If a man is sane enough to commit a crime, is he not sane enough to be punished for it?


Max’s case for mercy (375-77)        

Bigger’s youth, his mental and emotional life mitigate punishment

                        Why did he kill? There was no motive as motive is conventionally understood.

Max argues for the instinctive nature of his crimes.


Max’s speech (382-415)       


How does Max define Bigger’s situation?

He enlarges the context of this trial to national proportions: (382)

This case is different: a symbol of a national problem. (383)

What is the real purpose of this trial?

The trial is not a sober judgment of evidence but an act of irrational vengeance driven by mob rage. (384)… the racist, lynch mob atmosphere surrounding the case indicate that more than revenge is being sought…

Whose interest is served by the wild actions of the mob? (386)

The establishment seeks to exploit the crime for its own ends: re-election, troops against strikers, social service budget cuts. (386)

What is the secret cause of such virulent racial hatred?

“There is guilt in the rage that demands that this man’s life be snuffed out quickly!” (386) Guilt can be only dispelled by avoiding passion and using reason to understand the mechanism of racism.

                        How was the mode of Bigger’s life originally created?

There is a first wrong which was committed long ago in a situation which made that wrong understandable and from which all the force of racial hatred has developed. (387): a dislocation of life involving millions

Max will not appeal to emotions by recounting the long history of brutal crimes committed to keep blacks in bondage and then in economic subservience. That would be to appeal to feelings of guilt which are at the root of the problem. Guilt produces evasive hatred and violence. People hate when they fear as well, when the deepest feelings of their lives are outraged. (390) But that is no way out!  Instead Max will appeal to our reason. (388)

Think of Bigger not as the victim of injustice but rather seek to understand the mode of life created for him. (388)

Why does Max refer to social injustice as an accomplished fact of life?

The history of slavery: the colonists subdue a harsh land and must use lives to do it. (389) No moral condemnation. Men do what they must do to survive.

The End of Slavery: the invention of machinery made slavery economically impossible. (389)

The enslavement of Africans extended throughout vast territories, involved millions of people, and lasted over a period of two hundred years: that is not an injustice, but rather an accomplished fact of life.  What grew up under that oppression was a new form of life that produces a weed called crime. (391)

How can Max argue that the execution of Bigger would actually make the crime problem worse?

Resistance to oppression finds expression in crime. To kill Bigger would be to ensure the perpetuation of such crimes. Bigger’s crime existed long before he killed Mary. It was born of hatred bred from resentment and estrangement which finally found objective form (392)

Why do liberal efforts to address the problem of poverty make the problem even worse?

the ghetto underclass (392)

liberal efforts to salve guilt are met with violence and we are shocked?

What is so peculiar about the situation of Bigger Thomas in 1940?

Bigger’s peculiar situation: (394)

-         We keep him close because we can use his unskilled labor, but we keep him in a segregated ghetto.

-         We educate him but restrict his opportunities

-         We dangle the material rewards of civilization before him but deny him the opportunity to possess them

How can Max argue that Bigger’s killing of Mary was not a crime?

To Bigger, Mary was not human. His crime was not a retaliation against individuals, but an instinctive reflex based upon a mistaken belief that the white race is part of the natural structure of the universe. (395-96)

Bigger accepted his crime: the first full act of his life; he felt real; he feels no remorse; he killed because he felt he had to. A soldier’s motivation to kill. A normal response was impossible. Mary’s kindness was interpreted as mockery and hatred. (397)

How does the problem of racism threaten the whole American experiment?

The Negro race= Bigger multiplied 12 million times, a separate nation stunted, stripped and held captive.

What are the natural rights of man according to Max?

What do we mean by natural rights to life, liberty and happiness? Meaningful work, the capacity to be, to live, and to act; Self-realization.

Deny humans this happiness, and we create wailing ghosts, uprooted trees, and murderers

Did Bigger kill?

No. He was living, the only way he knew how, the way we have forced him to live. (400) An act of creation! (400) His very existence is a crime against the state.

Was Bigger capable of loving Bessie? (401)

Love is only possible from stable relationships, shared experiences, loyalty devotion and trust. Between Bigger and Bessie could only exist ‘fitful splurges of elation’ (402) “his whole life was one long craving for satisfaction with the objects of satisfaction denied.”

Max’s Conclusion:

The nation’s stability does not rest on firm foundations. Prison confers upon Bigger life and identity, purpose, structure, a better environment. If we kill him we might as well kill all young blacks.

Mercy honors the two fundamental concepts of our civilization:

-         The person is inviolate.

-         That which sustains him is equally so.


Bulkeley’s Final Speech:

Law embodies the will of the people.

The death penalty deters crime and protects order.

The sanctity of life and the order of society demand punishment.

Civilization itself emerged from barbarity through obedience to the law.