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Native Son

Richard Wright


Book One (part one)

page 1 of 3

From the opening through Bigger’s argument with Gus at the pool hall


An alarm clock rings in a dark Chicago apartment. Bigger Thomas, a young black man, shares the apartment with his mother, his sister Vera, and his brother Buddy. The apartment has only one room, which forces Bigger and Buddy to turn their backs to avoid the shame of seeing Vera and their mother dress.

A huge black rat runs across the floor. Vera cowers and Mrs. Thomas jumps on the bed while Bigger and Buddy frantically try to kill the rat. The rat attacks Bigger, biting a hole in his pant leg before it is cornered. Bigger smashes the rat with a skillet and then crushes its head with a shoe, cursing hysterically. Before disposing of the rat, Bigger holds it up by the tail in front of Vera, taking pleasure in her fear until she faints.

With the immediate danger gone, Mrs. Thomas turns all her attention on Bigger, first asking him why he has frightened his sister, then blaming him for the family’s poverty and accusing him of thinking only of himself. She warns him that if he does not change his ways and stop associating with his “gang,” he will end up in the gallows. Bigger tries to shout his mother down, but his voice is filled with nervousness and irritation, and he longs for silence.

Bigger hates his family because of their poverty and suffering and because he feels there is nothing he can do to help them. He believes that he cannot afford to let himself feel their shame and misery too strongly without also feeling the urge to kill himself or someone else. He has cultivated a façade of outer toughness to protect himself from the unbearable pressure he feels as a result of his family’s social position.

Bigger’s mother sings a spiritual while preparing breakfast—a song that annoys Bigger. She begins to prod Bigger about a job he has been offered with a man named Mr. Dalton. She tells him that if he takes the job, the family will be able to move to a nicer apartment. If he does not, he will lose his relief money and the family will starve. Resentment builds in Bigger, as he feels that his family is tricking him into giving up. Frustrated by his narrow range of choices, he storms out of the room and into the building’s vestibule, where he broods while watching the traffic through the window.

Across the street, men are putting up campaign posters for the State’s Attorney, a man named Buckley. Bigger imagines the millions of dollars Buckley makes through corruption, and longs to be him for a day. The words “If You Break The Law, You Can’t Win!” adorn the top of the campaign posters. Bigger knows, however, that a man can win if he can afford to pay Buckley off. Bigger checks his pocket and finds he has only twenty-six cents.

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