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.”