Native Son is divided into three books entitled Fear, Flight and Fate, depicting the final days of Bigger Thomas. The story is set in the Depression-era and Bigger is the novel's twenty-year-old protagonist, a resident of the "Black Belt," a Chicago ghetto that is predominantly black. Bigger lives in a one-room apartment with his mother ("Ma") and younger siblings, Vera and Buddy. The depressing mood of the novel is set in the opening scene: Bigger is awakened by the screams of his sister and mother. An overgrown, yellow-fanged rat is prowling around the room. Bigger and his brother back the rat into a corner and as the rat strikes back, tearing a gash in Bigger's pants, Bigger strikes the rat dead, crushing its head with a heavy iron skillet.
Bigger's life is miserable and after a stint in a reform school, he remains bitter and angry about poverty and racism. Bigger's dream is to become an aviator but instead he is given a job through the relief agency-a chauffeur for a white millionaire-philanthropist named Henry Dalton. Ma warns Bigger to avoid his gang and set aside his criminal habits, lest he end up in the "gallows." Ma is unable to relate to Bigger and he is unresponsive to her religiosity and her overtures on "manhood." When Ma asserts that Bigger would go out and get a job if he "had any manhood in him," Bigger resents his mother for her dependence upon him. While he sincerely cares about his family, Bigger knows that he will never be offered the type of job that would allow him to offer his family substantial support.
Despite Ma's prophetic warning, Bigger goes to Doc's pool hall to meet his gang and he suggests that they rob Blum's Deli. Bigger is inwardly afraid to rob Blum and so he projects his fear onto Gus, another member of the gang, hoping that the argument will prevent the gang from organizing themselves to attempt the heist. Bigger suggests the robbery because he wants to appear tough but when Gus calls his bluff, Bigger gets angry and pulls a knife. The stir that Bigger causes does more than prevent the gang from robbing Blum's; Bigger's raucous behavior gets him thrown out of Doc's pool hall. Bigger slowly comes to understand that since the pool hall is the "hang-out" spot of the gang, he will no longer be able to participateespecially considering the fact that none of his friends were willing to defend his violent behavior.
After he is effectively "kicked out" of the gang, Bigger struggles to clear his head of angry thoughts as he prepares for the interview at Mr. Dalton's mansion. Bigger is not excited about taking the job from the relief agency, but he is stunned by the wealth of the Dalton home and even if the employment is not the greatest, Bigger realizes that his opportunities are scantnow that he no longer has his gang.
Bigger fumbles the interview and is frightened by everything and everyone in the house: the booming grandfather clock; Mr. Dalton's blind wife; the stereotypical Irish maid, Peggy; and Dalton's blond daughter, Mary. Bigger remembers seeing Mary in a newsreel from a movie early in the day. The newsreel featured a story detailing the winter vacation of the millionaire heiress. Apparently, she skipped class and took her boyfriend, Jan Erlone, to Florida. As it turns out, Jan Erlone is a Communist and Mary, for all of her wealth and conservative upbringing, is a Communist sympathizer.
Upon meeting Bigger, Mary asks him if he is unionized and Bigger simply does not understand Mary's politics. He does see the consternation on Mr. Dalton's face though and he is afraid that Mary's argument will cost him his job before he has it. After Bigger is hired, his first assignment is to drive Mary to her evening lectures at the university. Instead of going to school, Mary has Bigger take a detour to pick up her boyfriend, Jan Erlone, a member of the Communist party. Bigger is uncomfortable with the two patronizing whites and he is asked to take them to a "joint" in the South Side where they "experience" black life by getting drunk and eating fried chicken at Charlie's Kitchen Shack. Bigger is only increasingly hostile, offended and worried when Mary has drunkenly passed out in the car and he has little option but to carry her into the house and upstairs to her bedroom. Mrs. Dalton enters the room and Bigger panics, accidentally suffocating Mary with a pillow that he put over her face so that her drunken moans would not arouse the attention of the blind woman. After Bigger realizes that Mary is dead, he takes her body to the basement. In a frenzy, he decapitates the body and burns it in the furnace.
The next day, Bigger tries to cover his tracks but he is clumsy and rather than taking the opportunity to leave town with the money that was in Mary's purse, Bigger drags his girlfriend Bessie Mears into his plot to fabricate a ransom note signed "Reds," hoping that the Daltons will believe that the Communists have her daughter. Bigger expects to net $10,000 in this manner. His convoluted plot quickly unravels after the ash of Mary's body is found in the furnace. Suddenly, Bigger is on the run. Bessie is horrified when she learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton and she is frightened by the gruesome details of the crime. Bessie is sure that Bigger is a changed person and by the end of the night, Bigger rapes and kills her, bludgeoning her in the head with a brick.
The following day, all of the newspapers and police authorities are well attuned to the story of the dead heiress and the "Negro murderer/rapist," for Bigger is sure to be the murderer and rapist of Mary Dalton. A white vigilante mob has formed, thousands of private citizens invading black neighborhoods to terrorize homes. Another vigilante mob has formed to assist the five thousand police officers who were deployed into the Black Belt to track Bigger Thomas down. Starting from one end of the Black Belt and progressing rapidly, the police and adjunct mob easily track Bigger to the roof of a dilapidated building. Bigger is violent and he wounds several of the officers before he is finally brought down and savagely beaten.
Bigger wakes up in a prison, to discover that he is has been severely injured and he faints at the inquest. He is on trial for a litany of offenses as the police have easily tracked down the body of Bessie Mears, who did not die from Bigger's brick-blows. After Bigger threw her body down an air-shaft, Bessie managed to crawl away but she died of hypothermia, freezing to death. Ma visits Bigger in prison and urges him, with the exhortations of Reverend Hammond, to devote his soul to God, for surely there was nothing left for him. Bigger knows that he is going to die in the electric chair and the State Attorney, David Buckley, obtains a signed confession from Bigger even though there is more than enough evidence to convict Bigger.
Jan Erlone is hurt by Bigger's crime and also insulted that Bigger tried to pin the crimes on him, but Jan overcomes his feelings of hate and repulsion and sees the opportunity to further devote himself to his ideals. Jan visits Bigger and urges him to accept the legal aid of a man named Boris A. Max, a Public Defender who is closely connected to the Communist Party. Max makes a serious and committed effort to defend Bigger, but his self-righteous and long-winded soliloquy is no match for Buckley's sharp phrases and mob-inciting rhetoric. Reverend Hammond re-appears in Bigger's cell to make another attempt to save Bigger's soul. Hammond gives Bigger a necklace with a wooden cross to wear as a reminder and perhaps, in this, Bigger might be redeemed from his sins. Bigger is willing to wear the wooden cross until the next morning when he is escorted to the court and apprehended by the sight of the Ku Klux Klan and their burning cross. Bigger is horrified by the image of the cross and he throws his necklace away.
The judge easily convicts Bigger and condemns him to die by the Friday, the narrative course of the novel having elapsed in a matter of days. Bigger sits in his prison cell and Max makes a few visits, bringing hope of a last-minute rescue but the Governor refuses to offer Bigger a stay of execution. In his final moments, Bigger reflects on his miserable life and even though he is frightened of the electric chair, he is relieved to be dying.