Native Son

Native Son Summary and Analysis of Book Three

Book Three: Fate


Book Three opens in the 11th Street Police Station where Bigger Thomas is detained. Bigger has not eaten, his eyes are sunken and he is trying to assert "his own will" despite the horrible situation that his accidental murder has produced. Musing over his fear of death, Bigger decides that he was "born unlucky" and amid the crowd that surrounds him in the police station, Bigger is easy to find the faces of Jan, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. Bigger's overriding emotion is a feeling of shame and as he struggles in and out of consciousness, he notices that his fingernails have been ripped out. After he is fully conscious, Bigger wishes he were already in the electric chair.

An angry white mob has invaded the police station and when Bigger is taken to his inquest, they deride him as an "ape" and a "jungle beast." Everyone is well aware of the reality that Bigger Thomas will definitely suffer under the death penalty. Soon after arriving at the inquest, Bigger faints and this only stokes the hysteria that the journalists are fueling. Bigger awakens to find that he is again behind bars and his mother's minister, Reverend Hammond, arrives to visit Bigger in his prison cell‹at Ma's request. The Reverend urges Bigger to "turn to Jesus!" and in his rambling sermon, Hammond hopes to offer Bigger some hope of salvation and heaven, for he will surely be executed and in not very much time. Bigger resists the Reverend's invitation to salvation and after becoming frustrated with Bigger's obstinate antics, the Reverend intends to leave the boy, but not before setting a wooden cross necklace around Bigger's neck.

As Reverend Hammond prepares to leave, Jan Erlone arrives and Bigger is surprised that Jan is willing to talk to hi and is also willing to "apologize" to Bigger. Even though Jan does not understand Bigger's emotions and motives, he does understand that Bigger is partially reacting to his social condition. Jan explains that as a result of lynching, so many black families have suffered and he and his Communist friend Max want to help Bigger. Jan knows that Bigger simply sees him as a "white face" but he hopes that Bigger might also see him as an "honest face." Certainly, the Reverend is impressed with Jan's candid apology.

Soon after Jan tells Bigger that the Communist lawyer, Max, is willing to work for free, State Attorney Buckley arrives in the cell, joined by Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. Buckley assures Bigger that he has no need for tactics and that the young man is as already caught so he might as well confess. Mr. Dalton agrees and hints that things might be "easier" for Bigger if he says all that he knows and reveals the identity of his accomplices. Jan derides Mr. Dalton, arguing that Bigger's crime couldn't be prevented by the Dalton's generous donation of Ping-Pong tables for the South Side recreational center. Jan says that Bigger's crime testifies to a "fundamental" problem in America.

At this point, Bigger, Jan, Reverend Hammond, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and State Attorney Buckley are joined by Ma, Vera, Buddy, Gus, GH and Jack, all of whom crowd into Bigger's jail cell (!) Ma is sobbing and Bigger feels guilty and is unable to look at her. Buddy is as rash and youthful as Bigger and he assures Bigger that he will defend his innocence and get a gun and kill four of five people himself. Buddy's comment is not accepted well and after Bigger learns that Vera is ashamed to go to school because her classmates mock her, he feels a mixture of hate and shame. He is ashamed of what he has done to his family, but he hates them for existing. Bigger wants to be unencumbered and he is only irked by Ma's pleading questions if there is "anything" that she can do to help him. Bigger replies that he is fine and that he will be out of jail in no time. His mother's face is incredulous and Bigger realizes that this is one of the few times in his life where admitting the ugly truth is better than sugarcoating reality. Ma gives Bigger another chance to answer her question and he responds that there is nothing that she can do.

Ma is rather unaware of the other people in the cell and she has a personal conversation with Bigger telling him to "go to God." Bigger replies that Ma should "forget" him, but Ma insists that all she has are her three children, not just the two non-criminal ones. Eventually, Bigger promises to "try" to pray and this is all that Ma has to sustain her faith. When Ma learns that the two people in the back of the cell are Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, she grovels at their feet, sobbing and begging for her son to be spared the electric chair. The Daltons insist that Bigger's fate is out of their hands but they will make sure that Ma, Vera and Buddy are not evicted from their $8/week apartment, as they are no longer able to pay. Ma's groveling only intensifies Bigger's feelings of shame and he is relieved when Gus, GH and Jack escort Ma, Vera and Buddy back to their home. After the Reverend, Jan and the Daltons exit the cell, Bigger is alone with Buckley and he succumbs to the State Attorney's intimidation.

Buckley warns Bigger that it will be better for him to confess. He describes Bigger as a wayward youth who has broken his mother's heart and surely, if he might escape the justice of the state, he would meet a far worse fate at the hands of the angry, frothing mob that is only growing. Buckley tells Bigger that the authorities have found Bessie, and she did not die from the brick blows that Bigger delivered. The police know that Bigger raped her and that he threw her body in an airshaft. Bigger thought that Bessie was dead but she was able to crawl for a small distance, regaining consciousness only to die of hypothermia, freezing in the blizzard. Buckley suggests that Bigger's only way out is to confess, admit who helped him commit the crimes and settle for spending the rest of his life in a "hospital." Bigger is piqued and he confesses to the crime, denying his insanity and the existence of any accomplices. Buckley is joined by a "man with a pad" who records Bigger's confession and after they leave, Bigger is alone in his cell. He hears them joking outside the cell about how "easy" it was to record Bigger's self-betrayal. They expected that he would be harder. Hearing the reality of his own self-failure, Bigger sobs in his prison cell.

The next morning, as Bigger is lead to his inquest, a member of the mob strikes Bigger in the temple and he is wounded. The theatrics continue in the inquest. Mrs. Dalton begins sobbing in the witness box when she discusses her family history and identifies the heirloom earring that was found in the ashes of her furnace. She adds that her family has given $5 million to various charitable causes. Jan is the next witness and he tries to evade Buckley's belligerent and insinuating questions. Jan and Bigger's lawyer, Max, argue that the State Attorney is trying to indict an entire political party as well as an entire race. Buckley is permitted to continue with few restrictions and he twists Jan's answers to cast aspersions on his character, suggesting that Jan offered Mary Dalton as Bigger's reward for joining the Party's efforts. Buckley also suggests that the content of the Communist pamphlets induced Bigger to rape and murder Mary Dalton.

Max is more vocal when Mr. Dalton is placed on the stand and he exposes the exorbitant rents and segregating practices and policies of the Dalton's South Side Realty Company. Dalton admits that he simply assumed that blacks were happier living in their own neighborhoods and after he prides himself on helping his employees get an education, he admits that he has never offered employment to any educated blacks. Soon after this, the State offers Bessie's body as a piece of evidence indicating Bigger's criminal mentality. This stokes the mob's fury because it was a previously unknown piece of information. The Grand Jury easily finds enough information to warrant Bigger's criminal trial and several spectators chant: "Burn that black ape." After the inquest, prosecutors take Bigger to the Dalton mansion, lead him to Mary's room and try to intimidate him into showing them the mechanics of his rape and murder. Bigger will not oblige, saying "you can't make me do nothing but die."

Bigger is returned to his cell, but on the trip to the jail, Bigger sees a throng of Ku Klux Klansmen who are burning a large wooden cross. They are delighted when they make eye contact with Bigger and he is confused by the burning cross and thinks that the Reverend has tricked him into a trap. Enraged, Bigger throws his cross away and after a prison guard tries to explain to Bigger that the cross around his neck is his only hope and that it is "God's cross" and not the Klan's cross, Bigger again throws the cross away. Bigger is soon joined in his cell by another young black man who has gone insane. He was a student at a local university and "too much reading" caused him to lose his mind.

When Max returns to see Bigger, Bigger tries to convince the lawyer that the case was already lost and that there is nothing that can be done. Max remains optimistic and he hopes that Bigger will have some faith in him. Bigger sees that he is living in a No Man's Land and even as he answers the sum of Max's questions, he feels Max's condescension and feels distance. Max focuses on Mary's rape and is puzzled when Bigger explains that he did not rape Mary, he did kill her by accident and he hated her even though she didn't do anything to him. As for Bessie, Bigger explains that he neither loved nor hated her; his hate is reserved for whites mostly, because they "own every thing" and prevent him from being able to live freely. He is told to "stay in a spot" and Bigger confesses that he was simply unable to live that sort of life adding that after committing the murders, he felt a sort of freedom that he had not experienced.

In his conversation, Bigger also explains that he is not religious and he would never let himself become so "poor" that he had to rely upon happiness in another world to guide him through the present world. Bigger insists that he will never believe in God and then changes to topic to Mary Dalton, explaining that he had to kill her because "she was killing [him]." Bigger rambles on to explain how the Communists and race leaders have done little for him, that even though he is too young to vote, he has already illegally signed up to vote for those who paid him to do so. Max seeks to convince Bigger that he is different and Bigger is admittedly moved that Jan does not hate him. Max explains that the trial verdict will be delivered by a judge and not by a jury and that Bigger will plead Guilty, rather than Not Guilty, hoping for life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.

The city is tense and the Governor has ordered troops to move into Chicago to calm the mobs. Several of these troops escort Bigger to the courthouse. Bigger can see Ma in the courtroom crowd and she is heartbroken when she hears the litany of offenses, punctuated by her son's "Guilty" plea. Buckley argues that the defense is trying to enter a plea of insanity coupled with a guilty plea and Max insists that this is not the case and that Bigger's motives might reasonably lessen or extend the sentence that he receives. Buckley responds that he will call sixty witnesses for the prosecution and many of his antics are an effort to intimidate the judge by stoking the mob outside. At one point, Buckley opens a window so that the judge might hear the clamor for "justice." While this judge is less tendentious than the inquest judge, Buckley is allowed to call his sixty witnesses, including over a dozen newspapermen, GH, Gus, Jack, Jan and several police officers. In contrast, Max's defense is a soliloquy that is as passionate as it is misguided. After Buckley has roused the passions of the racist mob, Max decries the very racism and misplaced passion that fuel Buckley's unjust cries for "justice." Max argues that racism, fear and the feudal relationship of Bigger to his landlord Daltons have all mitigated Bigger's motive. Max hopes that the judge might look beyond race prejudice and take a step in the direction of a greater understanding of race in America. After making his case, Max tells Bigger that he did the best he could.

Buckley swiftly derides Max's rhetoric as Communist propaganda and proclaims that Bigger's death is the necessary thing for justice and humanity in America. If Bigger is not killed, the law will have been mutilated and justice will have returned to the people void. Buckley maintains that the law is "holy" and that the court must "let law take its course." Buckley does not hide the fact that for both himself and the judge, there are high political stakes involved. The State Attorney does, however, shield himself from any potential accusations of inhumane or bloodthirsty vengeance. He reminds the court that sympathy belongs with the young, innocent, vulnerable victims of Bigger's crimes‹two rape/murders within twenty-four hours. Even if Bigger killed because of a racist vendetta, how are the rapes or Bessie's murder explained? Lastly, Buckley mentions Mrs. Thomas, a decent God-fearing woman whose hard work and faith were of little aid in her efforts to curb Bigger's wayward ways. Indeed, Bigger is thoroughly corrupted and irremediable. From the media editorials, from the mouths of his State psychologists and now, from Buckley himself comes the conclusion that death is the only tolerable "fate" for the twenty-year-old chauffeur, Bigger Thomas. The mandate to "crush the woolly head of that black lizard," is one of Buckley's final exhortations.

After the closing arguments of a hastened trial (this has all occurred in the span of consecutive days) the judge announces that he will take one hour of deliberations and there is little that Max can do to alter the course of events. He accompanies Bigger to his prison cell and makes an almost superhuman effort to have hope in its glaring absence. After the hour, Bigger and Max are summoned to the courthouse and the judge quickly sentences Bigger Thomas to death. At last, the mob becomes jubilant and they are sated because the judge has accommodated justice by speeding the process of execution, as Bigger's appeal seems unlikely. Max is more perturbed than Bigger, who is to be executed "on or before midnight Friday, March third." Bigger has tried to remain dispassionate but his spirit falters as his mind tries to sort out the reeling, whirlwind activity of the last few days. To recapitulate: On a Saturday, Bigger learned that he would have a job as a chauffeur for a millionaire family; he takes the job after rejecting the temptation to rob Blum's deli. Early Sunday morning, Bigger returns Mary Dalton to her home, accidentally suffocating her. Later Sunday, Bigger visits Bessie, forges a ransom note, discovers the "discovery" of Mary's earrings in the ash, returns to Bessie and rapes and kills her. Monday, Bigger is on the run and he is caught that very night. His inquest is on a Tuesday, his trial is on a Wednesday, and his execution is to be "on or before midnight," Friday.

Max is perturbed because he has little time to regroup and he is unable to convince the Governor to offer Bigger a commutation of sentence or stay of execution. After this final hope has expired, Bigger knows that his life is drawing to a close and he emancipates himself from his emotional stress. He is a broken spirit, no doubt, but Bigger is increasingly introspective and even if his reflections are to be faulted, he struggles to grow as much as he can before he dies. Max stays with Bigger for most of his final hours and the grim reality of Bigger's fate is revealed not in his imminent death but in the details of his conversation with Max. When Bigger sees that Max is disappointed and guilty, he consoles the lawyer by confessing "I'm glad I got to know you," which surprises Max considering the prejudices against Communist, Bigger's distrust of Jews and his fear of white people. Max tries to build solidarity with Bigger through politics, explaining the similarities between Bigger's suffering as a black man and his own sufferings at the hands of anti-Semites.

Bigger is not interested in political solidarity and as he tries to explain what he is feeling he recalls his earlier conversations with Max. Max does not understand what Bigger is trying to say and Bigger becomes frustrated and gives up his last hope of communicating. Uncharacteristically, Bigger is nagged by the thought and again, he tries to explain his "idea" to Max; he needs to "make him know" what he has been trying to express for his whole life. He recounts an earlier conversation when Max asked Bigger the political questions regarding his hate and fear of whites, his economic situation, etc. Bigger focuses on the question of "What would you have liked to do, if you were allowed to?" explaining to Max that nobody had ever asked him what he wanted to do, and so he had never spent serious time contemplating a future. Even though he felt disconnected from humanity, Bigger felt like a human and Max's questions helped Bigger realize how badly he wanted to live.

At this point, both Max and Bigger are fighting tears and Bigger shouts "How can I die?" His concern is not his own physical death, but the fact that he has lived his life around people who "didn't see him" and hated him, denying him an opportunity to reveal his potential for humanity. Bigger frightens Max when he says that if he killed Mary and Bessie then it must have been for "something good," because "when a man kills it's for something." Bigger is sinking into fright and delusion as the appointed hour looms and Bigger final request of Max is to inform Ma that he "was alright" and that she will not have to "worry" about him anymore.


In Book Three, Wright varies his narrative structure. After two sections of Bigger's thoughts and actions being played off of each other, Book Three dedicates a large portion of the section towards the courtroom scenes that depict Boris A. Max and David Buckley far more than Bigger. In contrast to Buckley's colorful prose and mob-inciting rhetoric, Max is a self-righteous bore. His statement on Bigger's behalf is well over 10,000 words and much of this soliloquy was excised from the original 1940 edition of the novel. Max's speech is heavy with communist theorizing and Wright certainly uses Max to forward some of his own theories. In this regard, Book Three shoulders a heavier political burden than the first two sections.

Book Three has far more hyperbole and develops several lingering images. Certainly, the image of the mob lingers for the entire work. Whether Bigger is conscious or unconscious, when he is in prison and even when he is the courtroom, the angry white mob is always nearby ready to inflict damage. Buckley uses the mob to his advantage. During the closing arguments, he turns the courtroom into a circus, opening a window to the angry screams of the mob outside, minutes after he explained the importance of preserving law and order. At times, Wright allows the court proceedings to degenerate into a farce, as the threatening, invasive chaos is always waiting in the wings.

Concerning these images, Wright employs the technique of juxtaposition, setting various images in opposition to one another. The staid court is juxtaposed against the vigilante mob that is waiting outside the window. The image of the dejected black prisoner who is taken from the courthouse back to the prison is countered by the parade of the fiery Klansmen who follow an opposite route. In Bigger's cell, Ma becomes the embodiment of Bigger's shame when she grovels at the feet of the Daltons asking them to "spare my boy." Juxtaposed against the groveling, black woman, the Daltons are austere and reserved, showing few emotions in the wake of their daughter's savage murder. Finally, the image of the Daltons as a philanthropist family that has donated millions to the NAACP, is juxtaposed against the image of the young black man who has answered their generosity by murdering (and presumably, raping) their daughter.

Most of the novel's central characters are relegated to unimportant roles in the prison cell scene where Ma, Vera, Buddy, GH, Jack, Gus, Reverend Hammond, Jan, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, Boris A. Max and State Attorney Buckley have all managed to somehow fit in the cell. Ma is a symbol of Bigger's shame as well as the failure of her emotional religion to shield her from reality. The Daltons stand in the back of the cell, quiet and imperious. They are generous with Ma and express no feelings of vengeance though they are convinced that Bigger will (and should) die. The Daltons have essentially remained a symbol of power and blindness, the role that they occupied at the beginning of the novel. Reverend Hammond, a new character, plays the role of a "holy fool." His rural diction and excessive deference repulse Bigger, and Hammond is just as much a "holy fool" as Max is a failed messiah. The Public Defender takes on an exceptionally challenging case and asks Bigger to have faith in him.

For its use of the symbols and archetypal roles, Wright's prison scene is often considered to be allusive to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Played against the holy fools and failed messiahs, State Attorney Buckley is the Grand Inquisitor/Satan character who challenges Bigger, intimidating him under a barrage of questions. Buckley's psychological maneuvers are successful and Bigger "signs his soul" over to the State when Buckley seizes upon an opportunity and has a stenographer draw up a hasty confession for Bigger to sign. Bigger's pride has caused him to reject an insanity plea‹the one thing that might have saved his life. As Bigger sobs in his prison cell, finally aware of the finality of his error, Buckley cackles outside the cell, commenting on how "easy" it was to intimidate "the boy."

Book Three is highly ironic, in part of Wright's deliberate writing. Buckley's maneuver to outwit "the boy" comes after hundreds of pages of Bigger wrestling with a society that he feels is withholding his manhood. In another instance of irony, Reverend Hammond says all of the wrong things in his effort to win Bigger's soul to the church. Finally, he puts a wooden cross around Bigger's neck in the explicit hope that the symbol might inspire remorse and belief in Bigger's heart. Not long after Bigger has worn the amulet in the courtroom, he is greeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Their highly visible cross is burning strong and Bigger returns to his cell, flinging his cross off of his neck. He is convinced that Hammond has fooled him into a trap. One of the white prison guards perceives Bigger's confusion and, feeling sorry for Bigger, tries to explain the difference between "their cross" and "God's cross," but Bigger is no longer interested. That the Klan might corrupt the Reverend's cross is as ironic as the Governor's ambivalence: After sending the National Guard to Chicago to protect Bigger from the mob, the Governor refuses to sign a stay of execution. In a world of civilities and procedures, Bigger is increasingly unable to take "reality" at face value.

Stemming from the ironic symbol of the Christian cross, Book Three presents a very elaborate "crucifixion" motif. Buckley argues that Bigger's blood is a necessary expiation; there is no alternative, simply, Bigger must die. While Buckley says nothing that might imply Bigger's suffering, Max argues that Bigger has been created to die; fate has reared a "native son" for the sole purpose of his sacrifice. Max argues that "we are guilty," but Bigger alone will die. The image of the cross begins with Rev Hammond and continues with the Klansmen, but in between these two scenes, Bigger must march from the prison-house to the courthouse and his staggering journey is modeled after the "stations of the cross" of Christ. Rather than Romans, the National Guard accompanies Bigger to his fate as they play the role of protector/executor. Bigger looks at his fingers and sees that his "nails" have been ripped out, his wounds resemble those of Christ and both suffering the jeers of a malicious crowd. Wright builds detail upon detail to pull the motif off but he never makes the argument that Bigger is any sort of Messiah, nor are Bigger's violent crimes ever justified. For Wright, the very idea of a Messiah is a faulty one, criminal or saint.

Much of Book Three's thematic treatment comes towards the end of the section, and Bigger's prison cell, rather than the courtroom, becomes the focal point of the novel's final thematic developments. The theme of "territory" dominated the first two books but is exhausted once Bigger is captured by the authorities. Instead, there are four other themes that Wright presents in Book Three. Wright's literary focus begins to shift more towards "existential" concerns rather than "naturalist" ones, and the theme of "blindness" is the only one of the older themes that is continued in a substantial way. Besides blindness, madness, solitude and identity become the thematic concerns of the section. Considering that the protagonist is locked in prison and execution is imminent, the thematic shift is not so surprising.

It is in Book Three that Bigger Thomas is forced to confront his own blindness. It is easy for him to see the blindness in the eyes of his deluded Ma and his younger siblings who are incapable of understanding the world according to Bigger. It is easy for Bigger to see how blind the Daltons are, for believing that a donation of Ping-Pong tables would keep the underprivileged children away from the ghetto's most pernicious activities. In the end though, Bigger is forced to assess the "new world" he has entered. As is the case in the Greek tragedies, Bigger's angry pride has given him spiritual blinders. As he considers his actions and goes through the throes of agonizing introspection, spiritual sight comes at the price of physical sight‹again, hearkening back to the ancients. Bigger blacks out periodically, and just as he has reached the pinnacle of "sight" he is taken away to be executed, his eyes closed forever.

Madness emerges as a major theme of Book Three, after been relegated to the periphery of Bigger's thoughts in Books One and Two. Locked in his cell, Bigger is the victim of legal rhetoric in which "madness" is tossed back and forth by both the prosecution and the defense: Are Bigger's crimes the work of a madman? Or rather, is the madness merely evidence that Bigger's "intelligent" crime must have necessitated a white accomplice/mastermind? "Madness" is offered to Bigger as his one escape from certain death, but Bigger's pride is an obstacle and after offering the bargain to Bigger, State Attorney Buckley relishes the moment in the courtroom when he has several doctors attest to Bigger's sanity. All around Bigger, madness is erupting. A brief cell-mate is a young black man who has become "balmy" from reading too many books in the university. The "balmy" young man spends the night screaming "turn me loose." Certainly, Bigger's imprisonment coupled with the proximity of death, adds to the madness that Bigger has been carrying for the entire novel. Wright makes more of an effort in Book Three to reveal the lapses and distortions in Bigger's mind and after Bigger's "frenzied anguish" towards the end of the novel, there should be little doubt that Bigger's exceptionally sensitive mind has become exceptionally mad.

Bigger's prison cell experience also presents Wright with the opportunity to examine the theme of "solitude." At the beginning of the novel, Bigger had his gang for company and in fact, his friends, family and girlfriend appeared to be unnecessary and unwanted figures in his life. For the first part of the novel, Bigger appears to seek solitude, but once he begins running and is finally beaten and thrown in jail, many of Bigger's facades come undone. In his conversations with the Defender, Boris A. Max, Bigger confesses an intense loneliness that existed despite the company of his friends and family in close quarters. Bigger thinks about his life and explains to Max that he has never had "conversations" that focused on life, on ideas or on Bigger's desires. There is a kernel of reality and earnest interest in Max's questions and replies and Bigger easily perceives the difference between Max's conversation and the fantasies and miseries of the Black Belt. In the end, Bigger is able to enjoy Max's company but he is never able to place his faith in any institution or fellow human being. He goes into his death alone, convinced that he has "saved" his own soul.

Finally, the theme of "identity" is developed in Book Three. In his conversations with Max, Bigger tries to describe the person that he wanted to become, but he repeatedly mentions the fact that "white people own everything" and so the person he wanted to become has little connection to reality. When Max asks Bigger about his criminal motives, Bigger begins to admit the truth: that he has accidentally killed Mary and that he simply doesn't know why he killed "his girl," Bessie. Bigger is bothered by the "accidental" nature of his fate and he argues that he killed because that is who he is. Bigger derives an identity from his statement: "When a man kills, it must be for a reason." That undefined and unknown "reason" becomes Bigger's reason for living. Max sees Bigger's identity complex as a tragedy in its own right. Bigger's fantasy are large and complex because they have no bearing on reality. Bigger simply wants to be an aviator because he knows he can never become one and when he asked if he would be seriously interested in the job if it were possible, Bigger admits his lack of interest. That Bigger defines himself and his desires by what he is not allowed to do, might explain his crimes but it belies a larger problem. Wright's final argument that is even Bigger's psychological evolution is doomed. Even if Bigger feels some peace after his conversations, he has still defined himself by looking at the "Bigger" that the world sees. Bigger sees that distortion and names himself as its opposite, but that has nothing to do with who he really is. The final trap for the Native Son is yet another psychological trick that prevents him from knowing who he is.