The protagonist of the novel, Bigger Thomas is twenty years old, living in one of the many slum apartments of Chicago's predominantly-black South Side. The rough conditions of South Side life are dramatized at the beginning of the novel when Bigger is roused awake by his mother and younger siblings so that he might kill a yellow-fanged rat. Bigger's anger and pride alternate to determine much of the novel's beginning. While Bigger is willing to brutalize his fellow gang members, his killing of the multi-millionaire heiress, Mary Dalton, is purely accidental. Midway through the novel, Bigger's rape/murder of his girlfriend, Bessie Mears, seals his fate and he is soon apprehended by the authorities. The flight motif, developed during Book Two, hearkens back to the rat that Bigger kills in the opening scene and by the novel's end, Bigger's fate is equally grim. Doomed to the electric chair, Bigger's lot in the judicial system is little improved despite the assistance of the Communist "Public Defenders." Nonetheless, the defense attorney, Boris A. Max, is on hand during Bigger's final hours, assisting him in his final struggle to find worth in his existence.
A young communist, Jan is the boyfriend of Mary Dalton. His idealism is naïve to a fault; often times, Jan's orthodoxy and reliance upon images and "symbols" get in the way of his well-meaning attempts to produce a real change. Jan's idealism is nearly shattered in the wake of Mary's murder, but he comes to a facile understanding of Bigger's crime, purely in terms of Communism and racist poverty. In the end, Jan commissions his friend, Boris Max, to defend Bigger.
Bessie is Bigger's alcoholic girlfriend. She is reluctantly dragged into Bigger's criminal activity and Bigger ultimately rapes and kills her. Throughout her interactions with Bigger, Bessie is frightened and her attempts at a seductive beauty are fairly transparent. Despite her alcoholism and general apathy, Bessie is prophetic when she warns Bigger that his violent crimes will inevitably cost him his life.
The mother of Bigger, Buddy and Vera, "Ma" is increasingly unable to support her family and she relies upon Bigger to help put food on the table. From the beginning of the novel, Ma is clearly concerned that Bigger's gang involvement is prevented him from finding a respectable job that will allow him to provide for his family. When Ma faces the prospect of her oldest son's execution, she relies upon her religious beliefs as the only consolation.
The State Attorney who prosecutes Bigger for the murders of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears. Buckley is a racist, bloodthirsty politician and his re-election relies upon Bigger's conviction and execution. Throughout Bigger's trial, Buckley fashions his rhetoric to appeal to the emotions of the violent white mob, hoping to intimidate the defense.
Mr. Henry Dalton
The millionaire landlord and father of the murdered Mary Dalton. Mr. Dalton hires Bigger as a chauffeur, hours before Bigger kills Mary. Mr. Dalton is also Bigger's landlord, part-owner of the South Side Real Estate Company. Despite Mr. Dalton's philanthropy to the NAACP, it becomes clear that he has little understanding of racism and poverty.
The daughter and heiress of the Daltons. Mary is both a Communist-sympathizer and a truant. After spending an evening with her boyfriend Jan, Mary passes out in a drunken stupor. In a rather convoluted, compromising scene, Bigger accidentally kills Mary, suffocating her with a pillow. After this, Bigger decapitates Mary and burns her body in the basement furnace.
The wife of Henry Dalton and mother of Mary, Mrs. Dalton is physically blind. The wealth of the Dalton family is largely hers and Mrs. Dalton is responsible for much of Mr. Dalton's philanthropy. She is unstinting in her support for the NAACP and she hopes that Bigger, like her previous chauffeur, will consider going to night school. Despite her genuine sympathy for Bigger's mother, the horror of Bigger's crime renders Mrs. Dalton unable to defend the boy.
Boris A. Max
Serving as the Public Defender on Bigger's behalf, "Mr. Max" comes under attack mainly because he is a Communist as well as a Jew. From his own experiences, Max is better able to understand Bigger in comparison to the other characters. Nonetheless, Max is initially motivated to defend Bigger for purely political reasons. He ultimately comes to "see" Bigger as an individual and their relationship at the novel's end is the closest that Bigger ever comes to sharing himself with another person.
Bigger's younger sister, Vera faints at the sight of the dead rat. In contrast to her older brother, Vera is enrolled in sewing classes at the YWCA, but she drops out after Bigger's arrest because of her classmates' teasing.
A private detective hired by Mr. Dalton soon after Mary is murdered. Britten's racism, anti-Semitism and fear of Communists, prevent him from properly understanding what has happened. Throughout his investigations, Britten is unswerving in his conviction that Bigger is a Communist spy.
An older black man, Doc owns the South Side pool hall where Bigger hangs out with his friends Gus, GH and Jack. At the end of one of his violent outbreaks, Bigger cuts a gash into the felt of a billiard table. After this, Doc forbids him to return, effectively ending his membership in the gang.
GH, Gus and Jack
GH, Gus and Jack are Bigger's fellow gang members who plan to rob Blum's deli at the beginning of the novel. After Bigger attacks Gus, the Blum heist is called off. When Bigger takes the job as the Dalton's chauffeur, they are impressed with his new-found wealth. When Bigger's friends visit him in his prison cell, they assure him that they will take care of his mother.
At Ma's request, Reverend Hammond visits Bigger in prison. He offers Bigger a wooden cross but Bigger throws it away, fearing it as a trick when he sees the larger, flaming cross of the KKK. Hammond plays the role of a "holy fool," and his syrupy sermons, told in a southern drawl, fail to win Bigger's soul.
The Irish maid of the Daltons, who considers herself to be a member of the family. She is patronizing in her treatment of Bigger and she tricks him into performing her furnace chores.
Bigger's younger brother. He admires Bigger's boldness, covering his brother's tracks when he discovers Mary's purse. Even after he finds that Bigger has deceived him, Buddy remains loyal to his older brother. In comparison, Buddy is the more sensible, deferential brother and son.
Native Son Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Native Son is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
James Baldwin's, Notes of a Native Son, is a social critique on being black in America. Written at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin chronicles his views on white oppression, as well as the violence and political attacks on black...