The protagonist of Native Son. A poor, uneducated black man, Bigger comes from the lowest rung on the American social and economic ladder. As his lack of education has left him no option other than menial labor, he has felt trapped his whole life, resenting, hating, and fearing the whites who define the narrow confines of his existence. Bigger views white people as a collective, overwhelming force that tells him where to live, where to work, and what to do.
The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, Bigger’s wealthy employers. Mary identifies herself as a progressive, dates an admitted communist, and interacts with Bigger with little regard for the strict boundary society imposes between black men and white women. Mary’s transgression of this boundary leads to her death and the resulting development of Bigger’s character.
A white millionaire couple living in Chicago. Mrs. Dalton is blind; Mr. Dalton has earned a fortune in real estate. Although he profits from charging high rents to poor black tenants—including Bigger’s family—on Chicago’s South Side, he nonetheless claims to be a generous philanthropist and supporter of black Americans.
A member of the Communist Party and Mary Dalton’s boyfriend—a relationship that upsets Mary’s parents. Jan, like Mary, wants to treat Bigger as an equal, but such untraditional behavior only frightens and angers Bigger. Jan later recognizes his mistake in trying to treat Bigger this way and becomes sympathetic toward his plight. Jan becomes especially aware of the social divisions that prevent Bigger from relating normally with white society.
A Jewish lawyer who works for the Labor Defenders, an organization affiliated with the Communist Party. Max argues, based on a sociological analysis of American society, that institutionalized racism and prejudice—not inherent ethnic qualities—create conditions for violence in urban ghettos.
Bigger’s girlfriend. Their relationship remains quite distant and is largely based upon mutual convenience rather than romantic love.
Bigger’s devoutly religious mother. Mrs. Thomas has accepted her precarious, impoverished position in life and warns Bigger at the beginning of the novel that he will meet a bad end if he fails to change his ways.
Bigger’s younger brother. Buddy, unlike his brother, does not rebel against his low position on the social ladder. In fact, he envies Bigger’s job as a chauffeur for a rich white family. As the novel progresses, however, Buddy begins to take on a more antagonistic attitude toward racial prejudice.
Bigger’s younger sister. Vera, like Bigger, lives her life in constant fear.
Bigger’s friends, who often plan and execute robberies together. G. H., Gus, and Jack hatch a tentative plan to rob a white shopkeeper, Mr. Blum, but they are afraid of the consequences if they should be caught robbing a white man. At the beginning of the novel, Bigger taunts his friends about their fear, even though he is just as terrified himself.
A white man who owns a delicatessen on the South Side of Chicago. Mr. Blum represents an inviting robbery target for Bigger and his friends, but their fear of the consequences of robbing a white man initially prevents them from following through on their plan.
A racist, anticommunist private investigator who helps Mr. Dalton investigate Mary’s disappearance.
The incumbent State’s Attorney who is running for reelection. Buckley is viciously racist and anticommunist.
An Irish immigrant who has worked as the Daltons’ cook for years. Peggy considers the Daltons to be marvelous benefactors to black Americans. Though she is actively kind to Bigger, she is also extremely patronizing.
The black owner of a pool hall on the South Side of Chicago that serves as a hangout for Bigger and his friends.
The pastor of Mrs. Thomas’s church who urges Bigger to turn toward religion in times of trouble.