Native son

by Richard Wright

Paper Book, 1998


Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright's novel is just as powerful today as when it was written -- in its reflection of poverty and hopelessness, and what it means to be black in America.



Call number



New York : Perennial Classics, 1998.

User reviews

LibraryThing member .Monkey.
Native Son follows Bigger Thomas in his conflicted and troubling experience of being black in a world where to be black means to be poor and hungry; to be looked at with scorn, derision, and hatred; to be judged guilty, stupid, and ignorant; to constantly battle with overwhelming fear and roiling
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Richard Wright does an excellent job at pulling us in to Bigger's world, his constant fears and his ocean of anger. When Bigger makes bad choices, we feel for him, we can understand how he is compelled to do these things, why they almost have to happen. We want to yell out, Stop! Wait! Just please think first!, but instead we are dragged right beside him through his downward spiral, through his confusion, panic, anxiety, elation, resignation.

"Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was to act just like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted. They would never know."

Wright's writing is impeccable. I don't believe I have ever felt so tied in alongside a character before. I literally had to put the book aside for a few hours because I was so anxiety-ridden with him about what was going to happen "now," it was making me jittery. Wright had the desire of "'enclosing' the reader's mind ... to blot out all reality except that which" he provided us, and beyond a shadow of a doubt he succeeded.

"There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness."

Bigger's world is still out there today. It may not be as easily seen, the Black Belt may not exist in such distinct lines, but Bigger's problems haven't left. The police still round up black men for crimes they didn't commit, mob mentality when a person of color commits (or is merely arrested for) a crime is still an ordeal, as is the reverse of letting a white man off for violence against a black. Wright manages to paint a vividly clear picture of the problems and the emotions underlying them. He did not give us an easy book, he gave us a clear hard look at some very difficult things, and more people ought to read, and reread, this stark masterpiece of literature. Maybe it would help more eyes to open wider.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
""There he is!" the mother screamed again.

A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger's trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.

"Goddamn!" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and
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it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instandly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs. "

Chicago’s South Side, sometime in the 1930s. This is our introduction to Bigger Thomas and his family. They live in a rat-infested room in a tenement building, Mrs. Thomas, Bigger, and his younger brother Buddy and little sister Vera. They've just been woken up by a loud alarm-clock in the dark hours before dawn, and the long-tailed terror has made its appearance, scaring the women who screech and stand up on the bed, while the brothers, equally terrified, must deal with the foot-long vermin. Eventually Bigger gets the better of the beast and squashes it dead with the heavy skillet. Then he grabs it by the tail and dangles it in front of his terrified sister's face, just for the fun of it, and she faints. We are made to understand that this is normal behaviour for Bigger, who is normally sullen and temperamental and given to ignoring his family and seeking ways to amuse himself with regular trips to the cinema and occasional gigs robbing black neighbours with his little gang of friends. But on this morning, Mrs. Thomas is pressuring Bigger to go to a job interview. They need the money badly, and if he doesn't take the job, the family will be cut off from government relief payments which they rely on to put food on the table. But Bigger wants to do things his own way, and he's got a big plan to rob a local Jewish grocery shop owner for a really big payoff. He's scared though, as are his three partners in crime; this would be their first time targeting a white man, and they know the consequences if they get caught will be dire. But Bigger, conscious of his own fear, decides he won't be seen as a coward, and his solution for avoiding the whole plan that day is to violently assault one of his friends on the merest provocation.

We've just begun the story, and already Wright has made us hate this 20-year-old boy. The reader is made uncomfortable. Here is a book denouncing racism, but our protagonist is violent, cruel to his own family and friends, and prideful to the point of murderous impulses to protect his sense of self. He seemingly has no redeeming features; is he a psychopath? Perhaps. At this point, I go back and read the introduction by Arnold Rampersad I had avoided initially, fearing the all too frequent spoilers usually found there. I find my feelings towards Bigger are vindicated. There are Biggers of every colour, everywhere in the world, he says. That's the part that sticks to my mind anyway, and now I feel freed from any obligation to sympathise with him.

Bigger goes to the job interview. He meets Mr. Dalton in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city. An impressive house. They are very wealthy. Mr. Dalton is one of the most respected citizens of Chicago, a multi-millionaire who owns real-estate and thus incidentally and indirectly, the tenement building Bigger and his family live in. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife have a social conscience though, and they've given millions of dollars in aid to the city's black citizens. Bigger is to be their chauffeur, to replace the last black chauffeur, who was encouraged by Mrs. Dalton to attend night school in order to get a better job. Bigger is suspicious. He is suspicious of all white people, who have always held him back, crushed him down, prevented him from attaining his dreams. But the Daltons are different, and this troubles him deeply. Their daughter Mary barges into his interview with his future employer and starts demanding whether he is with a union; calls her father a capitalist. Bigger decides he hates the young woman. She is pretty, very pretty, but she is already making trouble for him. He's not quite sure what capitalism or communism is, but he's pretty sure she is one of them and he fears Mr. Dalton won't give him the job if he thinks Bigger is one of them too. But he does get the job, and his first task is to drive Mary to university that evening. But Mary doesn't want to go to university. Instead, she wants Bigger to drive her to her boyfriend's, who as it turns out, is a notorious Communist agitator. The couple wants to befriend Bigger, encourage him to call them by their first names, they are curious about his life, they want to better the condition of blacks in America. That evening, they force him to sit down and eat a meal at a local black hangout and get drunk with them. Things turn out badly. By two in the morning, Mary is dead, and Bigger is responsible. To cover up his tracks, he makes the situation much worse. Now he's on the run for murder. Being responsible for the death of a white woman means capital punishment for him, so he must stay in hiding, and by the evening after Mary's death, he's murdered another woman to prevent her from denouncing him. This is all terribly dark and his acts are abominably violent. But Wright has formed a taut, stark tableau that reads like the best kind of suspense thriller. You can't keep racing along to find out what will happen next.

Bigger is caught, of course. You figure this out before you've even begun to read the book. Book 1 is called Fear. Book 2: Flight. Book 3: Fate. Nothing so far has given any indication that Bigger is on the right track or likely to see the light. This part of the book was the most problematic for me. The physical violence in Book 2 was revolting, sickening. But now in Book 3, Wright shows us racism in full force, and Bigger finally starts to become human. His defences are broken down, and he isn't a mere brute anymore, he questions himself, he seeks to be understood by someone. But the problematic part here is that this is also were Wright gets preachy in his attempt to drive home his point about the kind of world the blacks have been living in till now and what few choices and hope they've been given since their arrival in America, and now, in a Jim Crow nation. We are given to understand that Bigger is the symptom of a sick society. Of course, an enlighten reader can only agree with this. But there is too much rhetoric here. There is a long speech, many pages long, and if we already know that Wright was an active member of the Communist party, we can't help but feel that he is advancing Communist theories. I have nothing against Socialism, or even Communism where these ideologies meet with humanitarian concerns, in that sense I feel they are a powerful and necessary forces in the world, but for the problem that these ideologies go so deeply into the fabric of life and reframe everything in the light of us vs. them. Bigger doesn't understand a word of this speech, but he understand it's intent. I understood a little bit more than he did, but mostly I felt like I'd been hit over the head with a lot of theoretical jargon that only distanced me from what until then had been a visceral experience. No matter. This is an essential novel. It was relevant and necessary and groundbreaking when it was first published, and though many black writers have expressed their individual voices since then, it remains an essential novel today. This is the kind of book that marks you for life. I can't say I'll necessarily want to read it again, and for that reason it probably won't make the list of my favourite books this year, but it was an important read and a challenging one, and frankly, pretty gripping too, and one I feel has made me grow as a person and as a reader.
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LibraryThing member CardiffGiant
This novel successfully forces the reader to question the difference between right and wrong. Immediately, Wright gives the reader the portrait of a person (and his family) in horrible living conditions with no hope for a better life or an attempt at the American Dream. It is not long into the
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novel that Bigger is quickly confronted with an opportunity at upward mobility and his reaction is, naturally, distrust and rejection at those offers. Although we, as readers, are likely to question (and condemn) Bigger's actions, as the novel unfolds we find that all of these actions are part of a large problem. Wright does a masterful job of stopping short of telling us that Bigger's actions are justified in any way; instead, he focuses on why these things happen and how Bigger has been set up by a social structure that needs serious adjustment. One of the strongest political/social statements comes in the novels final 20-30 pages as Max gives his testimony in defense of Bigger. On top of all of the political and social messages that this novel has to offer, Wright has also created a character who is dealing with questions of his own existence and a strong desire to break out of that existence.
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LibraryThing member DowntownLibrarian
A powerful novel about the downward spiral that is the life of Bigger Thomas, a young black man. Several decades later, the opening passage is still with me. Highly recommended.

N.B. Wright was inspired by another great American writer, Theodore Dreiser, whose American Tragedy tells the story of
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another poor young man's downfall.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
The story here is hard to take, and somewhat pathetic, but it is a fast read with a worthwhile tale, and Wright's writing makes the entire thing, characters included, seem far too real. I'd recommend it highly, but realize that it's not something I'd set for highschoolers or children, or something
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that will make you feel better about humanity in general.
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LibraryThing member pugterranian
The story of a black man who accidentally kills a white woman and runs from the law, it is both an intense page-turner and a classic of 20th century American literature. Written in the 1930s, the novel beautifully captures race relations and the brutality of daily life in the black ghetto. I did
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not want to put this book down.
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LibraryThing member gbill
This book made me think and gave me insight into a different perspective, that of African Americans in 1940, a part of which has undoubtedly carried forward to today. It's intelligent, eloquent, and ahead of its time. Wright does a very smart thing in this book: he does not create a main character
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who is lovable and then victimized, he creates Bigger Thomas, a main character who is a monster, provides an understanding for how Bigger and many others like him come to be, and then does not apologize or justify the awful acts he commits.

As a philosopher once said, do we complain when a pear tree produces pears? It's not a justification, but Wright says let's understand where violence comes from and accept it as an inevitable consequence of our society's actions. Along the line he portrays subtle and outright racism and anti-communism; it's frightening to realize just how real this was 70 years ago.

It seems Wright took a lot of criticism for his style and for making the final part of the book drag on; I say it's really unfortunate that among those who did so was James Baldwin and jeez, cut the guy some slack. There are many others guilty of that kind of thing, Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, Dostoevsky, and Ayn Rand, hoo boy and Ayn Rand; moreover, it seems to me that it wasn't so much that it was overly verbose, it was that the first couple of parts were so gripping, and the latter part was a bit more predictable, and the logical aftermath of the first parts.

"As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared."

On whites who sympathized but were "too nice"; along with later commentary that the rich who donate to 'boys clubs' were doing so out of a sense of guilt, and also were the first to deny renting houses to blacks in white neighborhoods, and to hire blacks in better jobs in their companies, either of which would have had more real benefit:
"He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate."

"Many a time he had stood on street corners with them and talked of white people as long sleek cars zoomed past. To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one's feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it; even when words did not sound its name, they acknowledged its reality. As long as they lived here in this prescribed corner of the city, they paid mute tribute to it."

Quite a bit of edge ot this one:
"Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day to day. That, too, was rape."

"...he had felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all its fulness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and say, 'I'd like to know how your people live.'
But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know.
...never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness. Sometimes, in his room or on the sidewalk, the world seemed to him a strange labyrinth even when the streets were straight and the walls were square...
He did not want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed to live like others, even though he was black."

On the historical backdrop:
"Each of them - the mob and the mob-masters; the wire-pullers and the frightened; the leaders and their pet vassals - know and feel that their lives are built upon a historical deed of wrong against many people, people from whose lives they have bled their leisure and their luxury! Their feeling of guilt is as deep as that of the boy who sits here on trial today. Fear and hate and guilt are the keynotes of this drama!
And we must deal here with the hot blasts of hate engendered in others by that first wrong, and then the monstrous and horrible crimes flowing from that hate, a hate which has seeped down into the hearts and modled the deepest and most delicate sensibilities of multitudes."

"They were colonists and they were faced with a difficult choice: they had either to subdue this wild land or be subdued by it. We need but turn our eyes upon the imposing sweep of streets and factories and buidlings to see how completely they have conquered. But in conquering they used others, used their lives. Like a miner using a pick or a carpenter using a saw, they bent the will of others to their own. Lives to them were tools and weapons to be wielded against a hostile land and climate."
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
I listened to this on audio and turned it off a couple dozen times. Disturbing, How disturbing? It makes "Crime and Punishment" read like "Chicken Soup for the Soul". The graphic plot morphs into some very long sermons and finishes with a stunning literary scene. Stick with it.
LibraryThing member bookworm12
This landmark classic is hailed as one of the greatest American novels. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago in the 1940. He begins a job working for a wealthy white family and by the end of his first day his life is in chaos. The book is broken into three parts,
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Fear, Flight, and Fate.

The first section introduces us to Bigger and we watch him commit a murder. From there his world spirals as everything comes crashing down around him. What might be interpreted as an accident soon becomes something darker and begins to taint everything in his life. Once he crosses that line he doesn’t look back and murder is no longer taboo. It releases something dark and evil inside of him and he finds himself being tempted to commit murder again. The brutality of one single act seeps into the rest of his life.

The cyclical nature of black men’s lives during that time period parallels many of the poverty stricken areas in America today. One thing is expected from them and they react to that expectation. If they are judged before they have a chance to live it’s that much harder to make the right decisions, so instead one bad decision leads to another, violence leading to more violence. They are trained to hate other races from a young age. When someone shows them unexpected kindness they are taught to treat it with suspicion and resent it.

“These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence.”

One disturbing element in the book is the effect his actions have on the rest of the black community in Chicago. They are all being persecuted because of him. Many lose their jobs because their white employers are terrified of what they might do. Some want to protect Bigger; others want to turn him in. His actions are dividing the whole community.

I wasn’t sure about this book until about ¾ of the way in. It just seemed to have no overarching lesson. It really clicked for me during Bigger’s trial. In the “Fate” section of the book we get to see a discussion of the expectations and opportunities for men like Bigger. I think one of the most interesting choices the author made was to make Bigger’s lawyer a Jew. Though he was still a white man, it was 1940 and as a Jewish man, Max could understand being persecuted for just being who you are better than most people.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s hard to describe precisely how deeply haunting this story. It holds a mirror up to some of the ugliest aspects of human nature. It reminds us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. It breaks your heart and makes you angry all at the same time. It’s a difficult novel to read, but it’s an important one.

“For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him and the reality off Jan’s humanity came in a stab of remorse. He had killed what this man loved and had hurt him.”
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LibraryThing member marti.booker
Painful, painful in the telling, in the reading, and in knowing that things aren't much different now. Seems like a book like this should have made more of a difference.
LibraryThing member electrascaife
Powerful, tense, and moving, this story of a young black man in 1950's Chicago stumbling from a life of petty crimes into one of a wanted and then convicted murderer via a series of tragically bad decisions is unbelievably stark and bleak and, above all, heart-breakingly relevant still. This is one
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of those books that should be required reading for everyone. Everyone.
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LibraryThing member andystardust
What I took away from this: Wright's concept of a guilt so dreadful that, in order to escape it, a man decides that the people that are the source of his guilt are something less than human. That way, they are easier to ignore. Or to kill. This novel packs a wallop. Shares an odd kinship with
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Dreiser's American Tragedy, another murder/fugitive from justice/courtroom melodrama in a naturalistic vein. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member nandrews
Excellent read using the restored version. Wright gets long-winded during the trial scenes. The story is a vivid reminder of socio-political effects within our cultural history. Great fodder for ethical discussions about capital punishment.
LibraryThing member valentipoetry
I have this book in the Historical Section of my library because the book truly made history.
LibraryThing member ahooper04
I loved this in high school, but can't remember much now!
LibraryThing member andyray
The long, drawn out leccture of Bigger Thomas's attorney in the third section of the novel ("Fate") ruined what up to then had been a cohesive and well-paced novel. Interestingly, when I first read this in 1971 at FAMU in Tallahassee, I remember empathizing with BGigger's hate and fear. However,
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some 38 years later, all I can feel for him is a faint disgust, probably because I have met ,since I first read the book, quite a few individuals who had it as rough as Bigger and much rougher, actually, who havent killed anyone and who function (although narrowly in some cases) within socierty.
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LibraryThing member Abbsalah
This book is so important.

It shows a pretty ugly side of race relations in America, but it is absolutely eye-opening. This story brings tragedy to a new scale. It hit a cord with me and has stuck with me for years; I have never been able to forget Bigger Thomas and his story.
LibraryThing member rizeandshine
I expected Native Son to be a social commentary on racism in 1940's America, and it was. But, in some ways it was not the novel I was expecting. After a somewhat predictable, start the novel took a bit of an unexpected turn and I found it to be an involving, suspenseful read. The protagonist,
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Bigger Thomas, is a poor, uneducated black man who hates the whites for being in control and is ashamed of his family’s poverty. He is always getting into trouble and soon Bigger must make some monumental decisions. At first I sympathized just a bit with Bigger as he chooses a path of deception, but his crimes soon escalate until I had no sympathy for the main character. Bigger redeems himself slightly at the end of the novel, when he must confront his own actions and determine where social conditioning ends and free will begins. Unfortunately, instead of relying on the plot alone to make a statement about how racial inequality and social injustice create conditions for violence in urban America, the author gets a bit preachy via the final statement of a Jewish lawyer who is affiliated with the Communist Party. This portion of the tale really drags down an otherwise gripping and insightful novel. I would recommend Native Son but would not blame you for skimming over a bit of the overlong courtroom speech.
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LibraryThing member allison.sivak
I thought about systems of thought and belief while I read this book. I thought it was brave for Wright to have written Bigger's crime to be absolutely horrifying, in order to sidestep potential pity on the part of readers. I thought about a question of whether an injust system can create an
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sociopathic person; and I'm not satisfied with this, fully. I didn't read this so much as a novel, but as a political polemic; to me, it suggested that anything less than full equality is perverse, and therefore the attempts by Mary and her family to help Bigger resulted in a perverse crime.

I'm looking forward to reading Erasure by Perceval Everett soon. He apparently satirizes Native Son in this work.
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LibraryThing member poetontheone
Wright's Native Son is a novel embodying a purely American existentialism. Bigger Thomas is a creature scrutinized and driven to rage by the nearly subconscious experience of his otherness. His actions are defined by the possible reactions of white people and the white establishment. His sickness
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in violence, and his rebellion is also violence. He cycles through feelings and attitudes of power, guilt, despair, and finally understanding. His true liberation is his final realization regarding the causation of his actions and what they mean, however horrendous. This is a novel that unflinchingly explores humanity, beyond color or class, by revealing the sickness of hatred on all sides.
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LibraryThing member kishields
I'm pretty sure most readers would agree that the first part of the book is what has kept its reputation intact over the years since it was written. The depiction of Bigger Thomas's personality, thoughts, emotions and crimes is vivid and shocking, even while understandable, at least to a degree.
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The first half of the book is astonishingly relevant today, as we continue to struggle with racial understanding and conflict, all these years later.

However, the book's vitality comes to something of a halt once Bigger is captured. At that point, a didactic plea for a Communistic view of society takes place through the mouth of the Jewish Communist lawyer, who takes on Bigger's case to prove a point.

The ending feels true again as Bigger returns to his visceral experience of what it is to be young and black in racist Chicago and asserts his right to exist as exactly what he is - and, the author would have us believe, as society has created him. Well worth reading today, despite the preachiness of the second half.
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LibraryThing member MichaelDC
Fantastic and important novel, bogged down a bit by a lengthy courtroom speech towards the end. The speech is important, don't get me wrong, and there are still plenty of people who need to read it (the whole "just work hard and you'll be successful" crowd), but it just dragged on what was a
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relentlessly intense and troubling book. I don't think there was any work of fiction like this before it was published in 1940, and I am certain it influenced more than a few civil rights leaders and activists in the 50s and 60s. I found Bigger's final realization about race relations to be especially compelling, and perhaps why the left fails to reach a good part of the white lower class (I don't want to give too much away.)
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LibraryThing member AlCracka
Here is the scariest character in literature. Even Wright is terrified of him. I had this thought as I finished Native Son: I thought, "This is the bravest book I've ever read." I've read a lot of protest books, a lot of warnings, but most authors give you a way out: "Look out, but here's what you
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should maybe try to do." With Bigger Thomas, Wright says, "Well, here's what you got." And...holy shit, man.

He's such a powerful force that Wright spends the entire last third of his own book basically saying "Holy shit!" Which is why this only gets four stars from me; that "Holy shit" is much weaker than the first two thirds, and I can't recommend this book to you without the caveat that the last 150 pages is pretty tough going.

So listen, I'm not gonna tell you to skip the last third because I'm not really important enough to say something like that, but in case you do, here's what happens: Bigger is not going to win that court case. There.
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LibraryThing member Michael.Rimmer
The unfolding of this story has the inevitability of a car stuck on a railway line with an express train hurtling towards it. You know what's going to happen, you don't want it to happen, you can't look away while it happens. When the smash comes, it's still a massive shock. I caught myself
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muttering, "No, no, no, don't do it." as I was reading.

A very affecting and intense book.
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LibraryThing member scote23
The only book I have ever chucked around a room and into a trashcan. I was required to read it for Honors English freshman year. I don't think it's a good choice, as I've heard that numerous classmates of mine had done the same thing. Maybe if I re-read it I would like it better, since it is a
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Original publication date



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