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Native Son (Chapter 1 Analysis)

Book One: Fear


Native Son takes place in the Chicago of the late 1930s, and it is a harsh winter in the "Black Belt" (a predominantly black ghetto of Chicago). The main character is a twenty-year-old named Bigger Thomas, who lives in an impoverished, one room apartment with his mother and his teenaged siblings, Vera and Buddy. Ma and Vera share one bed, Buddy and Bigger share the other, on an opposite end of the crowded living space. This morning, Ma and Vera wake up to find a foot-long rat pacing the apartment. Amid screams, Bigger and Buddy wake up. Armed with a heavy iron skillet, Bigger kills the rat‹at the cost of a five-inch gash in his pants. Vera begins sobbing after Bigger shoves the dead rat in her face, swinging the animal's body by its tail; after Vera passes out, Ma scolds Bigger and orders him to go outside and throw the animal away.

When Bigger re-enters, Ma continues her tirade, reminding him that he has a job interview that evening and if he has any "manhood" in him, he will take heed of the welfare relief agency's threats to discontinue the family's aid and living arrangements. After she is revived, Vera is worried that she will be late for her sewing class at the YWCA, but her thoughts turn to her mother's depression and she seeks to console her. Ma is worried that her son appears unconcerned about her welfare and at breakfast, she "prophecies" that Bigger will go to "the gallows" unless he discontinues associating with his gang. Bigger quickly eats his breakfast and unsuccessfully tries to prevent his temper from flaring. Clearly annoyed, he rushes out of the apartment, after collecting carfare for his 5:30PM interview with Mr. Dalton. Ma ends the conversation with a final warning that the family will surely starve to death if the relief agency discontinues their aid.

Escaping his wretched living space, Bigger finds little peace in his ghetto environs. A re-election advertisement for State Attorney Buckley reads "YOU CAN'T WIN" and this is a miserable reminder of Bigger's unfulfilled idea to rob Blum's deli. Bigger had casually mentioned the potential heist to his poolroom gang: Gus, GH and Jack. All of their previous crimes were on a smaller scale and in their own neighborhood. Vera leaves the apartment building and walks in the opposite direction of Bigger, towards the YWCA, but she decides to turn around and offer Bigger a final reminder that his next crime will send him to prison, rather than reform school. After Vera leaves, Gus arrives and he and Bigger lean against a wall to smoke cigarettes and watch an airplane sky-write an advertisement: USE SPEED GASOLINE. Bigger wishes that he could fly an airplane and after Gus sarcastically reminds Bigger of American racism, they are both depressed but they soon laugh at how naïve their "realizations" sound. Gus and Bigger decided to "play white": Bigger pretends to be the President of the United States, engaged in a telephone conversation with Gus, the president of US Steel. Their laughs are short-lived as they recite the conversations they have memorized from movies. Eventually, Gus tells Bigger that he "thinks too much" and they head to the poolroom to take their mind off of their depression. Bigger has no money for the pool game, so Gus picks up the tab.

The poolroom is owned and operated by Doc, an older black man who is both affable and stern. As they begin their game, Bigger asks Gus if he is interested in robbing Blum and in an effort to mask his own fears, Bigger belligerently accuses Gus of being afraid to rob a white man. Bigger's temper flares stronger after Jack and GH arrive at Doc's and he doesn't wait long before re-proposing the robbery. When Jack and GH hesitantly agree, Gus is the only noncommittal one and Bigger antagonizes Gus, even after he agrees to the job. Jack and GH have to forcibly prevent an altercation and Doc warns the boys to keep their noise level down.

Bigger is frightened by the stark violence of his thoughts; he has always had a temper, but on this particular day‹no doubt agitated by the impending interview for his job as a chauffeur‹Bigger is unable to feel at ease. The boys make plans to meet back at Doc's poolroom at 3PM and they assent to Bigger's demand that they bring guns. While they have not used guns in the past, this job is riskier, Bigger says, wishing that the crime had already been over and done with. Bigger leaves Doc's poolroom with Jack and after loitering in the streets, they decide to spend twenty cents on a movie. As Bigger is still ambivalent about his potential job as Mr. Dalton's chauffeur, he does not mind spending his carfare on a movie that might help him to relax for a few hours. Inside the theatre, Bigger and Jack masturbate while thinking about their girlfriends and when Jack asks Bigger about his interview, Bigger replies that he would rather go to jail than take the relief job. The two young men move to different seats in the theatre and while they are watching the newsreels, Bigger continues his conversation about the prospective job with Mr. Dalton only to find Mary Dalton (the daughter) featured in the newsreel. Mary Dalton, of 4605 Drexel Boulevard, has shamed her millionaire parents by cavorting with a young, well-known Communist. Mary Dalton is thin, blonde and attractive; she and her "Red boyfriend were enjoying a winter vacation in Florida until the Daltons summoned Mary home.

(The picture above is only for illustration purpose)

After seeing the newsreel, Bigger is more optimistic about the job interview, though he questions the Daltons' motives in hiring an employee through the relief agency. Mostly, Bigger is excited about being able to get close to the "rich and famous" who appear in newsreels; he would get information from the inside because he would be the one driving them around. Bigger thinks back to his mother's words that wealthier whites were fairer and less bigoted than poorer whites that always feel threatened by enterprising blacks. From this, Bigger concludes that the Daltons should be easier to get along with. Suddenly, going to rob Blum's does not seem like such a good idea, but at 2:40 PM, Jack nudges Bigger and they leave the movie theatre to get their guns. Bigger sneaks into his apartment and he is gone before his mother emerges from behind the curtain where she is doing the wash, singing hymns all the while.

When Bigger arrives at the pool hall, Jack and GH are there; after 3 PM, Bigger becomes exceedingly agitated and when Gus finally arrives, slightly late, Bigger kicks him to the floor (much to Doc's amusement). But when Doc tells Bigger to "take it easy," Bigger continues to assault Gus, punching his head and finally drawing a knife. After feeling humiliated and emasculated for most of the day, Bigger sees this as an opportunity to wield power over his frightened friends. He draws his knife, forces Gus to lick the blade and then traces a circle on Gus' chest to illustrate the power he holds over his friend's life and death. Doc has continued laughing even as Jack and GH are horrified. When Doc sees the knife, he more forcefully warns Bigger to behave himself and Gus soon flees the scene, but not before hurling a billiard ball at Bigger. The ball smacks into his wrist and after Jack and GH desert Bigger, effectively ending his membership in their "gang," Bigger ends the scene by slicing the green felt of Doc's pool table. Doc promises to shoot Bigger the next time he enters the establishment.

After taking a walk to cool off, Bigger heads to his apartment and after a brief deliberation, he decides to carry his knife and gun with him to the Dalton's home. Ma has prepared dinner but Bigger insists that he does not have time to eat, so she gives him a quarter to get some food. As Bigger begins his walk, his path cuts into the white residential neighborhood that is wedged in between the "Black Belt" and Drexel Boulevard. Bigger is increasingly afraid that he will be the victim of some sort of racist abuse, and when he finally reaches the front gate of the Dalton residence, Bigger does not know whether to knock or search the house for a rear entrance. He eventually knocks at the front gate and a white maid welcomes him inside. Bigger is to sit and wait for Mr. Dalton and while he is waiting, Mrs. Dalton approaches. She is pacing the house like a pale ghost and Bigger soon realizes that she is blind. Mr. Dalton arrives and greets Bigger. Mr. Dalton is sincere in his efforts to make Bigger's interview less stressful and more casual. He is the owner of Southside Real Estate Company and as Bigger's landlord, he charges the Thomas' $8 a week for their one room. Mr. Dalton notes that the relief agency mentioned Bigger's criminal record (most notably, tire theft) but added that Bigger was also described as a hard, dedicated worker. The Daltons are eager to help the downtrodden and so Bigger will be hired with a weekly salary of $25: he is to give $20 to his mother (keeping $5 for himself) and he will live in a room above the Dalton's kitchen.

When Mr. Dalton introduces Bigger to Mary, Mary immediately befriends him, asking if he is unionized. While Bigger does not fully understand Mary's political rhetoric, he is afraid that her argument (on his behalf) with Mr, Dalton may cost him his new job. But Bigger is not fired, much to his relief, and this evening he is to drive Mary to one of her evening lectures at the University. When Bigger reveals that he has not eaten, Peggy, the Irish maid, cooks his dinner of bacon and eggs. She tells Bigger that he also has the job of cleaning the furnace and she explains that Mrs. Dalton's philanthropy enabled the last colored servant to get an education. After eating, Bigger officially meets Mrs. Dalton and she asks him if he has any interest in furthering his education through night school courses; when Bigger replies that he has not yet made up his mind, she assures him that there is no hurry.

Bigger's first assignment is to drive Mary Dalton to her evening lecture but after a few minutes of driving, Mary asks Bigger to turn onto a side road because she has no intention of attending class. Instead, Mary intends to see her Communist boyfriend, Jan, and she trusts Bigger to keep her secret. When Bigger meets Jan, the Communist's conspicuous attempts to be fraternal, egalitarian and race-blind, only augment Bigger's unease in the company of whites. Jan insists on playing chauffeur and he drives to Lake Michigan, where the three young people look at the beautiful night sky. Jan tries to excite Bigger with news and propaganda of the inevitable revolution; Bigger is simply uninterested. Jan and Mary are looking for excitement and are eager to "see" the plight of poor blacks, insisting that Bigger drive them though the Black Belt. When they make a stop at Ernie's Kitchen Shack, Bigger is reluctant to go inside because his friends and acquaintances will see him with the outsiders. Despite Bigger's discomfort, Jan and Mary enjoy themselves, singing spirituals and getting drunk in Ernie's and in the car ride back into their neighborhood.

Towards the end of the night, Jan talks to Bigger and learns that the twenty-year-old is originally from Mississippi, where his father was killed in a riot. Bigger has only been in Chicago for five years and he left school after the eighth grade. Jan invites Bigger to join the Communist Party and leaves him with some propaganda to read. Mary is soon leaving for a brief trip to Detroit and Jan is reluctant to see her go; amidst their drunken goodbyes, Mary nearly passes out and Jan is promised a $3000 check to bail out jailed Party members. After Jan leaves, Mary sprawls in the front seat and Bigger is worried that he is going to be punished for her misbehavior. When they arrive at the Dalton residence, Mary is barely awake and Bigger has to carry her into the house, heeding Mary's feeble gestures to point out the direction of her room. As Bigger rests Mary on her bed, Mrs. Dalton walks into he room and Bigger freezes, covering Mary's face with a pillow so that she won't mumble too loudly and incite her mother to call Mr. Dalton. As Bigger pushes the pillow into Mary's face, he unwittingly suffocates her and it is only after Mrs. Dalton leaves the room that he discovers his crime and panics. Surely his fingerprints are all over the room, so he is sure to be caught. Bigger's mind races and he decides to stuff Mary into her Detroit-bound trunk‹which he is supposed to be taking to the train station the following morning (Sunday).

After carting the heavy laden trunk downstairs, Bigger decides to burn Mary's body in the furnace and in an unthinking frenzy, Bigger decapitates Mary, mutilating her body so that she will fit inside the furnace. Horrified by his own actions, Bigger takes the money out of Mary's purse and goes home to sleep, convinced that the police will never be able to prove that he did anything wrong.

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