Native Son

Characters

Mary Dalton: An only child, Mary is a very rich white girl who has far leftist leanings. She is a Communist sympathizer recently understood to be frolicking with Jan, a known Communist party organizer. Consequently, she is trying to abide, for a time, by her parents' wishes and go to Detroit. She is to leave the morning after Bigger is hired as the family chauffeur. Under the ruse of a University meeting, she has Bigger take her to meet Jan. When they return to the house, she is too drunk to make it to her room unassisted and thus, Bigger helps her. Mrs. Dalton comes upon them in the room and Bigger smothers her for fear that Mrs. Dalton will discover him. Although she dies earlier in the story, she remains a significant plot element, as Bigger constantly has flashbacks during stressful times, in which he sees various scenes from her murder.

Henry Dalton: Father of Mary, he owns a controlling amount of stock in a real estate firm which maintains the black ghetto. Blacks in the ghetto pay too much for rat-infested flats. As Max points out at the inquest, Mr. Dalton refuses to rent flats to black people outside of the designated ghetto area. He does this while donating money to the NAACP, buying ping-pong tables for the local black youth outreach program, and giving people like Bigger a chance at employment. Mr. Dalton's philanthropy, however, only shows off his wealth while backing up the business practices which contain an already oppressed people. An example of this is when the reader learns that Mr. Dalton owns the real estate company that controls a lot of the South Side (where most of the black community lives), but instead of using his power to improve their situation, he does things such as donate ping pong tables to them, or hire individual blacks to work in his house. Mr. Dalton is blind to the real plight of blacks in the ghetto, a plight that he maintains.

Mrs. Dalton: Mary Dalton's mother. Her blindness serves to accentuate the motif of racial blindness throughout the story. Both Bigger and Max comment on how people are blind to the reality of race in America. Mrs. Dalton betrays her metaphorical blindness when she meets Mrs. Thomas. Mrs. Dalton hides behind her philanthropy and claims there is nothing she can do for Bigger.

Jan Erlone: Jan is a member of the Communist Party as well as the boyfriend of the very rich Mary Dalton. Bigger attempts to frame him for the murder of Mary. Even though Bigger attempts to frame him, Jan uses this to try to prove that black people aren't masters of their own destinies, but rather, a product of an oppressive white society. Jan had already been seeking for a way to understand the 'negro' so as to organize them along communist lines against the rich like Mr. Dalton. He is not able to fully do so, but he is able to put aside his personal trauma and persuade Max to help Bigger. He represents the idealistic young Marxist who hopes to save the world through revolution. However, before he can do that, he must understand the 'negro' much more than he thinks he does.

Gus: Gus is a member of Bigger's gang, but he has an uneasy relationship with Bigger. Both are aware of the other's nervous anxiety concerning whites. Consequently, Bigger would rather brutalize Gus than admit he is scared to rob a white man.

Jack Harding: Jack is a member of Bigger's gang and perhaps the only one Bigger ever views as a real friend.

G.H.: G.H. is another member of Bigger's gang. He is the neutral member of the gang who will do what the gang does, but will not be too closely attached to any one member of the gang.

Mr. Boris Max: A lawyer from the Communist Party who represents Bigger against the State's prosecuting attorney. As a Jewish American, he is in a better position to understand Bigger. It is through his speech during the trial that Wright reveals the greater moral and political implications of Bigger Thomas's life. Even though Mr. Max is the only one who understands Bigger, Bigger still horrifies him by displaying just how damaged white society has made him. When Mr. Max finally leaves Bigger he is aghast at the extent of the brutality of racism in America. The third part of the novel called Fate seems to focus on his relationship with Bigger, and because of this Max becomes the main character of Fate.

Bessie Mears: She is Bigger's casual sex partner. She drinks often, saying she is trying to forget her hard life. At the end of Book 2, Bigger takes and rapes her in an abandoned building, then proceeds to kill her in haste to keep her from talking to the police. This is his second murder in the book.

Peggy: Peggy is the Irish-American housekeeper for the Daltons and, like Max, can empathize with Bigger's status as an "outsider". However, she is more typical of poor whites who are sure to invest in racism if only to keep someone / anyone below themselves. Peggy hides her dislike for blacks and treats Bigger nicely.

Bigger Thomas: The protagonist of the novel, Bigger commits two ghastly crimes and is put on trial for his life. He is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. His acts give the novel action but the real plot involves Bigger's reactions to his environment and his crime. Through it all, Bigger struggles to discuss his feelings, but he can neither find the words to fully express himself nor does he have the time to say them. However, as they have been related through the narration, Bigger—typical of the "outsider" archetype—has finally discovered the only important and real thing: his life. Though too late, his realization that he is alive—and able to choose to befriend Mr. Max—creates some hope that men like him might be reached earlier.

Debatable as the final scene is, in which for the first time Bigger calls a white man by his first name, Bigger is never anything but a failed human. He represents a black man conscious of a system of racial oppression that leaves him no opportunity to exist but through crime. As he says to Gus, "They don't let us do nothing... [and] I can't get used to it." A line goes, one cannot exist by simply reacting: a man must be more than the sum total of his brutalizations. Bigger admits to wanting to be an aviator and later, to Max, aspire to other positions esteemed in the "American Dream". But here he can do nothing . . . just be one of many blacks in what was called the "ghetto" and maybe get a job serving whites; crime seems preferable, rather accidental or inevitable. Not surprisingly, then, he already has a criminal history, and he has even been to reform school. Ultimately, the snap decisions law calls "crimes" arose from assaults to his dignity and being trapped like that rat he killed with a pan living a life where others held the skillet. .

Buddy Thomas: Buddy, Bigger's younger brother, idolizes Bigger as a male role model. He defends him to the rest of the family and consistently asks if he can help Bigger.

Mrs. Thomas: Bigger's mother. She struggles to keep her family alive on the meager wages earned by taking in other people's laundry. She is a religious woman who believes she will be rewarded in an "afterlife", but as a black woman accepts that nothing can be done to improve her people's situation. Additionally, she knows that Bigger will end up hanging from the "gallows" for his crime, but this is just another fact of life.

Vera Thomas: Vera is Bigger's sister and in her Bigger sees many similarities to his mother. Bigger is scared that Vera will grow up to either be like his mother, constantly exhausted with the strain of supporting a family, or like Bessie, a drunk trying to escape her troubles.

Buckley: The state prosecutor.

Britten: The investigator. He seems quite prejudiced, first towards Bigger (because he is black) and then towards Jan (because he is a Communist).


This content is from Wikipedia. GradeSaver is providing this content as a courtesy until we can offer a professionally written study guide by one of our staff editors. We do not consider this content professional or citable. Please use your discretion when relying on it.