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.
Bigger and his friends have a tentative plan to rob a delicatessen owned by a white man named Mr. Blum. The gang has committed other robberies, but never one against a white man, partly because Bigger knows that white policemen are largely unconcerned with black-against-black crimes. Robbing a white man would mean entering new territory, “a symbolic challenge” to white rule.
Bigger’s friend Gus meets him on the street and they watch an airplane write out an advertisement in white smoke. Bigger states that he could fly a plane if he were given the chance. Gus agrees that Bigger could, but only if he had some money and were not black. Bigger complains that whites will not let blacks do anything, and he feels as though he is living in prison.
Gus and Bigger playact at being white, alternately portraying a military general, the fantastically wealthy white businessman J. P. Morgan, and the president of the United States. Gus and Bigger act out a skit in which the president wants to keep the “niggers” under control. After the playacting, Bigger tells Gus he is certain that something bad is going to happen to him. Gus agrees when Bigger says that he can feel the presence of whites inside himself. Whenever he thinks of white people, he has the sensation that a fire is burning in his stomach and feels that he might do something uncontrollable and rash.
Gus and Bigger go to Doc’s pool hall to meet their friends Jack and G. H. Bigger asks them to join a game for which Gus is paying, and they all laugh. Bigger laughs along, but because he is broke he worries that the joke is on him. He brings up the plan to rob Mr. Blum and accuses his friends of being too fearful to carry out the plan. Jack and G. H. agree to do the job, but Gus keeps quiet. Bigger accuses Gus of being afraid to rob a white man and hates Gus for that fear. Inside, however, Bigger feels this fear himself. Gus remains silent until Bigger snaps, shouting and swearing at Gus. Gus blames Bigger’s bad temper for causing most of the gang’s troubles and accuses Bigger of being afraid himself. Bigger becomes furious and threatens to hit Gus. Finally, Gus agrees to the plan to rob Blum. While Bigger struggles to control his impulse to fight Gus, the four agree to meet at Doc’s at three o’clock to carry out the robbery. G. H. takes Gus away from the pool hall.
Native Son opens with the ringing bell of an alarm clock—a wake-up call not only for Bigger and his family, but also a warning to America as a whole about the dangerous state of race relations in the country in the 1930s. Wright sees a black population that, though freed from outright slavery, still lives under terrible conditions, is unable to vote, and is terrorized by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The North is somewhat more integrated, but many blacks there still live in desperate poverty. Wright believes these conditions have created individuals who are isolated not only from the white world but also from their own religion and culture—people whose only release is through violence. Bigger is the epitome of such individual: he is alienated from his family and friends, annoyed by his mother’s religious songs, and kept poor and impotent through the oppressiveness of white society.
The title of Book One is “Fear,” and that fear appears in the first pages of this section with the appearance of a large black rat. The rat is just as afraid of Bigger as Bigger is of the rat, and their reactions to these fears are the same: defiance and violence. This first book might just as easily have been called “Shame,” as Bigger also feels that emotion acutely. The suffering his family endures while living in such terrible conditions constantly reminds Bigger how powerless he is to help them. The knowledge of his family’s situation is more than he can bear, so he attempts to keep a cold and reserved attitude toward his family and himself. Bigger’s need to hide behind such a wall of toughness is one of the many ways in which we see him trapped by his circumstances. He is caught in a tiny apartment with failure, inadequacy, shame, and fear pervading his life. He has access only to menial jobs and feels he lacks any control over his existence or direction. He also feels trapped inside himself, unable to acknowledge the misery he feels without risking his own destruction. Throughout the novel, we see that when Bigger is cornered, like the rat, he is overwhelmed by shame and fear and lashes out with violence, the only weapon at his disposal.
Here, Wright begins to develop Bigger’s view of whites as an overwhelming force that sweeps him toward doom. Native Son is written in the style of urban naturalism, much like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The characters in these works are urban residents whose fates are determined by forces almost completely beyond their control. Like the main character of The Jungle, a poor Lithuanian immigrant in Chicago, Bigger perceives that the narrow boundaries of his life were already determined before his birth. A long-standing unequal division of power between white and black, rich and poor has trapped him within a disadvantaged race and a disadvantaged class. He feels watched and controlled even when white people are not present, as if white people invade his very insides. He feels like a man condemned to a degraded existence and certain doom. This sense of doom is heightened by Buckley’s campaign slogan: “If You Break The Law, You Can’t Win!” The State’s Attorney is a powerful member of the institution of white justice, and his poster foreshadows Bigger’s losing battle with white authority.