As the protagonist and main character of Native Son, Bigger is the focus of the novel and the embodiment of its main theme—the effect of racism on the psychological state of its black victims. As a twenty-year-old black man cramped in a South Side apartment with his family, Bigger has lived a life defined by the fear and anger he feels toward whites for as long as he can remember. Bigger is limited by the fact that he has only completed the eighth grade, and by the racist real estate practices that force him to live in poverty. Furthermore, he is subjected to endless bombardment from a popular culture that portrays whites as sophisticated and blacks as either subservient or savage. Indeed, racism has severely curtailed Bigger’s prospects in life and even his very conception of himself. He is ashamed of his family’s poverty and afraid of the whites who control his life—feelings he works hard to keep hidden, even from himself. When these feelings overwhelm him, he reacts with violence. Bigger commits crimes with his friends—though only against other blacks, as the group is too frightened to rob a white man—but his own violence is often directed at these friends as well.
Bigger feels little guilt after he accidentally kills Mary. In fact, he feels for the first time as though his life actually has meaning. Mary’s murder makes him believe that he has the power to assert himself against whites. Wright goes out of his way to emphasize that Bigger is not a conventional hero, as his brutality and capacity for violence are extremely disturbing, especially in graphic scenes such as the one in which he decapitates Mary’s corpse in order to stuff it into the furnace. Wright does not present Bigger as a hero to admire, but as a frightening and upsetting figure created by racism. Indeed, Wright’s point is that Bigger becomes a brutal killer precisely because the dominant white culture fears that he will become a brutal killer. By confirming whites’ fears, Bigger contributes to the cycle of racism in America. Only after he meets Max and learns to talk through his problems does Bigger begin to redeem himself, recognizing whites as individuals for the first time and realizing the extent to which he has been stunted by racism. Bigger’s progress is cut short, however, by his execution.
Critics of Native Son are divided over the effectiveness of Bigger as a character. Though many have found him a powerful and disturbing symbol of black rage, others, including the eminent writer James Baldwin, have considered him too narrow to represent the full scope of black experience in America. One area of fascination has been Bigger’s name, which seems to combine the words “big” and “nigger,” suggesting the aggressive racial stereotype he comes to embody. As Max indicates, however, Bigger does not have a great deal of choice. The title of the novel implies that Bigger’s descent into criminality and violence is an inherently American story. Bigger is not alien to or outside of American culture—on the contrary, he is a “native son.”
Mary’s importance to the novel stems not only from her death, which represents the clear turning point in Bigger’s life, but from her insidious form of racism, which is among Wright’s subtlest criticisms of white psychology. Mary self-consciously identifies herself as a progressive: she defies her parents by dating a communist, cares about social issues, and is politically and personally interested in improving the lives of blacks in America. Though Mary’s intentions are essentially good, however, she is too young and immature either to commit fully to her chosen causes or to attain a sophisticated understanding of those people she seeks to help.
Mary attempts to treat Bigger as a human being, but gives no thought to the fact that Bigger might be surprised and confused by such unprecedented treatment from the wealthy white daughter of his employer. Mary simply assumes that Bigger will embrace her friendship, as she supports the political cause that she believes he represents. She does not even think to wonder about any of his personal qualities, thoughts, or feelings, but merely seeks to befriend him automatically, because he is black. For a tragically brief moment, Mary seems to recognize Bigger’s discomfort, a sign that perhaps one day she could be capable of greater understanding. Ultimately, however, Mary never gets the chance to perceive Bigger as an individual.
Though Mary has the best of intentions, she treats Bigger with a thoughtless racism that is just as destructive as the more overt hypocrisy of her parents. Interacting with the Daltons, Bigger at least knows where he stands. Mary’s behavior, however, is disorienting and upsetting to him. Ultimately, Mary’s thoughtlessness actually ends up placing Bigger in serious danger, while the only risk she herself runs is mild punishment or disapproval from her parents for her disobedience. She does not stop to think that Bigger could easily lose his job—or worse—if he upsets her parents. Mary unthinkingly puts Bigger in the position of being alone with her in her bedroom, and her inability to understand him and the terror he feels at the prospect of being discovered in her room proves fatal.
The lawyer who defends Bigger at his trial, Max is a member of the Labor Defenders, a legal organization affiliated with the Communist Party. While it would seem natural for Max himself to be a communist, his party affiliation is never made explicitly clear in the novel. Max is certainly sympathetic to the communist cause, but, unlike Jan, never identifies himself as a member of the Party.
Of all the white characters in the novel, Max is able to see and understand Bigger most clearly. He speaks to Bigger as a human being, rather than simply as a black man or a murderer, which gives Bigger the chance to tell his own story for the first time in his life. Max’s recognition of Bigger’s humanity allows Bigger to understand for the first time that a sympathetic relationship between a white man and a black man is possible. Still, Max is unable to avoid viewing Bigger as a symbol of racial oppression—one of millions of black men just like him—and therefore is never able to understand him fully.
Critics have argued that Max is never fully defined as a character and is simply a spokesman for Wright. It is clear that Max does, in some respects, serve as a mouthpiece for the novel’s sociological analysis of Bigger’s condition. Though Bigger feels what is happening to him throughout the novel, he is often unable, sometimes intentionally, to grasp it consciously. Max, in his courtroom speech, is able to articulate many of these unexpressed perceptions that Bigger has felt. Max does not argue Bigger’s innocence: his impassioned speech is a plea for the court to recognize Bigger for who he is and to understand the conditions that have created him. In this regard, Max serves as a voice for Wright’s warning to America about the consequences of continued racial oppression.