The Character and Role of Bigger Thomas in Native Son

Assess the Character and Role of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Novel, Native Son.

Here are the key points you must include in an essay on the character and role of Bigger Thomas in the novel, Native Son, by Richard Wright.

And here is the format I suggest your essay should follow.

The character of Bigger Thomas

  • Bigger Thomas is a 20-year-old black male.
  • He is barely educated, having dropped out of school at the 8th Grade.
  • His father was killed in a riot back in their original home, Mississippi.
  • He lives in a tiny one-room apartment with his mother, Mrs Thomas (Ma), his younger sister, Vera and his younger, adoring brother Buddy.
  • He hates whites and is deeply suspicious of their actions.
  • Racial segregation has denied him of opportunities for self-improvement.
  • Occasionally, he feels hatred toward his family just because he resents the fact that he is not capable of helping them to improve their lot.
  • Bigger is unemployed so at the beginning of the novel, his mother is heard urging him to accept a welfare job offer from their white wealthy landlord, Mr Henry Dalton.
  • He is an ambitious youth. Bigger hints at a personal ambition of one day becoming a pilot. Sadly, however, just as the poet Langston Hughes puts it in his poem, Dream Deferred and to which Lorraine Hansberry alludes in her play, A Raisin in the Sun, such black dreams always remain what they are – dreams – due to the lack of opportunity blacks experience in what ironically is supposed to be their native homeland. (Note the irony in the title, Native Son)
  • Bigger Thomas has been a juvenile delinquent, having been to reform school before.
  • Bigger Thomas is a gang member and a regular law-breaker. His fellow gang members and friends are Gus, Jack and G.H.
  • They have successfully robbed other blacks and have started considering the idea of staging an audacious robbery on a white-owned business, Blum’s Delicatessen
  • Bigger Thomas eventually agrees to his mother’s request and gets employed as a chauffeur at Mr Dalton’s residence.
  • His weekly wage is $25 considered to be a reasonable pay at the time.
  • He is given his own room
  • His first assignment turns out to be an ill-fated one. He inadvertently kills Mary Dalton, his employer’s 23-year-old daughter, in the process. This ultimately results in his conviction on murder charges and sentencing to death.

The role of Bigger Thomas in Native Son

Bigger Thomas contributes to the themes of race, fear and fate (or free will)  and also to the development of the plot of the novel.

Fear and race

Emotionally, Bigger Thomas consistently shows signs of being weighed down by a certain uncomfortable feeling of powerlessness and fear.

Bigger’s helplessness is borne out of the fact that the largely racist white world has stripped young blacks like him of their humanity, dignity and liberty.

Racial segregation has deprived blacks of opportunities and privileges easily available to their white compatriots.

So Bigger Thomas is left to wonder,

Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they make us fly planes and run ships … ?

  • Racial discrimination and the resulting feeling of fear creates in Bigger a feeling of deep resentment towards the white community, no matter their political orientation – capitalists like Mr Henry Dalton or communists and their sympathizers like Jan Erlone and Mary Dalton respectively.
  • This almost uncontrollable fear is what makes Bigger kill Mary Dalton accidentally.
  • Bigger’s fear of the ruthless power of the racist, white-controlled justice system causes him to decapitate and burn Mary’s lifeless body in the basement furnace.
  • It is the same fear that makes him kill his own girlfriend, Bessie Mears. He fears that Bessie could talk to the police so he needs to silence her.
  • Out of fear, Bigger tries to implicate Jan and the communists in the supposed “kidnap” of Mary.
  • It is important to note that it is only when Bigger feels that his action of killing Mary is something he has done without any white person’s prompting that he begins to experience a certain feeling of self-confidence. For once, he is excited that he is in charge of his own thoughts and actions. He feels alive and can now plan other events in his life with a sense of personal power.

Before he is executed, he confides in his defence attorney, Boris Max,

I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.

Fate and free will

To what extent is Bigger Thomas responsible for the crimes he commits and for his fate at the electric chair?

To what extent is the black population responsible for what happens to them in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son?

These questions lie at the core of the novelist’s construction of the character he calls Bigger Thomas.

Richard Wright attempts in his novel to downplay the extent to which black youth like Bigger can be held responsible for their criminal behaviour and what befalls them as a result.

To some extent, this position is admissible for the following reasons.

  • Racial segregation has effectively denied blacks opportunities and the free will to lead a normal life like all other human beings.
  • Thus, blacks are denied the power to have any control over their own actions as well as their destiny.
  • As a result, they are compelled to behave as the system dictates. Much of what black youth like Bigger do is involuntary. It is simply an avoidable consequence of racial oppression.

Nonetheless, evidence provided by Bigger’s own realization of his lack of proper understanding of the race issue, and of his own situation in his conversation with his lawyer, Boris Max, reveals that blacks are still capable of controlling their reaction to the hostile environment in which they find themselves.

Maybe the Bigger Thomases of Richard Wright’s America are blinded by anger and resentment to react to racial oppression the way they do.

This is why getting to the end of the novel when he is about to be executed, Bigger Thomas wishes he could have a second chance to make amends and possibly achieve his childhood dreams.

This way, he could, for once, have a hand in his fate. But it is always too late for blacks like Bigger Thomas.

Bigger’s role in the development of the plot of Native Son

Bigger Thomas plays a significant role in the development of the plot of Native Son.

His singular act of involuntarily killing Mary, the rebellious daughter of Mr Dalton, is what moves all other actions in the novel to the day he faces his fate – execution by the electric chair.


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Ralph Nyadzi is the Director of Studies at Cegast Academy. He is a qualified English tutor with decades of experience behind him. Since 2001, he has successfully coached thousands of High School General Arts WASSCE candidates in English, Literature and related subjects. He combines his expertise with a passion for lifelong learning to guide learners from varying backgrounds to achieve their educational goals. Ralph shares lessons from his blogging journey on BloggingtotheMax. He lives with River, his pet cat, in the Central Region of Ghana.

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