Novel, 1940Native Son is considered by most critics to be Richard Wright's best work. Divided into three sections -- "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate" -- the novel examines topics such as black consciousness, racial dynamics, and freedom and determinism.
Native Son's central character is Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago. In "Fear," Bigger is hired as a chauffeur for a prominent white family, the Daltons. One night, he takes the Dalton's daughter Mary and her boyfriend Jan Erlone to a political speech. Mary and Jan are communists and attempt to befriend Bigger and treat him as an equal, which makes Bigger uncomfortable. When Bigger drives Mary home that night, she is intoxicated and needs Bigger's help to reach her room. While Bigger is putting Mary to bed, blind Mrs. Dalton enters and calls for her daughter. Terrified that he will be discovered in the bedroom and accused of impropriety, Bigger covers Mary's head with a pillow to keep her from answering. In doing so, he accidentally suffocates her. Attempting to conceal the crime, Bigger burns her body in the furnace.
In "Flight," Bigger responds to the murder. Although he implicates Jan to the police, Bigger begins to rationalize his actions. He thinks that he symbolically rejected white oppression and asserted his own identity by killing Mary: "he had murdered and created a new life for himself." When the Daltons discover Mary's charred bones in the furnace, Bigger and his lover Bessie flee. Considering Bessie a hinderance, Bigger murders her and hides in the ghetto until the authorities finally apprehend him.
In "Fate," Wright explicitly develops the debate between free will and determinism. Neither Jan nor Bigger's lawyer Boris A. Max condemn Bigger. They believe that, oppressed by a racist society, he had no choice but to murder. However, Bigger will not concede that his actions were predestined. In fact, the moment that defines Bigger as a free man is the murder itself; he discovers that his actions have liberated him from his passive acceptance of fate. Bigger admits killing Mary and is sentenced to death.