Reading Native Son
The story of Bigger Thomas, a sympathetic character shaped by insurmountable environmental factors and driven by uncontrollable forces, takes place during the 1930s in Chicago –a depressing and discriminating time to be black in America.
Bigger’s life was tragic, but understanding Richard Wright’s classic novel doesn't need to be. Here's a teen-friendly refresher course in the plot of this work of literature, as well as SAT vocabulary your teen can use to describe what happens for his or herself.
The first action in the story comes when Bigger kills a huge rat that scurries across the floor of the one-room apartment he shares with his mother, brother, and sister. In an incredible display of big brother immaturity, he dangles the bloody, mangy rat in front of his sister until she screams for their mother. Not only does his mother scold him for tormenting his sister, she also criticizes him for not supporting the family better - because if they had more money, they could afford a nicer apartment. His mother rants on, telling him that he needs to stop hanging out with those “no account” friends of his and go see Mr. Dalton about a job.
Mr. Dalton is a pioneer of his time, really. One of the very first slumlords, he owns the building that Bigger and his family live in, charging an outrageous rent for the one room apartment. To soothe his own guilty conscience, he occasionally hires black boys to work for him at his huge mansion or tosses the local boys club a few ping-pong tables for the recreation room. Here’s the problem - Bigger doesn’t want to go begging Mr. Dalton for a job. (Can you blame him?)
Useful vocabulary in a conversation about Mr. Dalton’s generosity:
- Penury - Poverty
- Degradation - Deprivation, poverty
- Resplendent - Shining, glowing
- Opulent - Luxurious
- Largess - Generosity
Instead. Bigger would rather continue pulling off small robberies with his gang. For the first time, they are supposed to be robbing a white man’s store that night, and Bigger is nervous. In fact, Bigger is so nervous that as the day wears on he becomes less and less enthusiastic about the robbery, and more and more convinced that it’s time he got a real job. He is even more certain when he and his friends see a newsreel featuring Mary Dalton, Mr. Dalton’s beautiful young daughter. Maybe he should go and see Mr. Dalton after all, but how does he get out of the robbery?
Easily, in fact. It’s as simple as starting a fight with the guy who is late. Because of his tardiness, Bigger says they can’t possibly go through with the plan – the robbery is off! Instead, Bigger goes to interview with Mr. Dalton, and is given the job of chauffeur. Bigger cannot believe the incredible luxury of Mr. Dalton’s house; it’s unlike anything he has ever seen. Bigger meets Mrs. Dalton, whose blindness and incredible paleness make him even more nervous. And he is introduced to Peggy, the housekeeper. Everyone is quick to say how generous and sympathetic Mr. Dalton is to “Bigger’s people".