Hard and Soft Determinism in Native Son

Richard Wright’s Native Son follows Bigger Thomas as he navigates the precipitous race relations of 1930s Chicago. Bigger’s impoverished lifestyle and exposure to systemic racism each inform the events of the novel, most notably his murdering both Mary, a wealthy white heiress, and Bessie, his black girlfriend. Native Son and, indeed, Wright himself argue that Bigger’s actions are not his own; rather, the text employs the philosophical doctrine of determinism.
The hard determinism which characterizes Native Son asserts that all behavior is governed by forces beyond our control: free will is only an illusion. It is Bigger’s upbringing, socioeconomic status, and environment, rather than Bigger himself, which decide his fate: he is followed by “the feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force” (150); in Wright’s eyes, Bigger, then, is not responsible for his crimes. I tend to disagree with this approach, because I believe Bigger does exhibit some degree of autonomy and that he is thus culpable for his actions. What Native Son and Wright neglect to address is the existence of soft determinism.
Soft determinism is a level of determinism which allows for the existence of free will, if only a somewhat restricted form. This would mean that Bigger’s lower class origins do not force him to rob as he has prior to the events of the novel, but rather increase the likelihood that he will rob out of desperation. I would argue that we see Bigger demonstrate this free will when he sabotages the robbery of Blum’s shop: he cleary faces a crossroads and makes a decision that, while strongly influenced by numerous internal (e.g. race) and external (e.g. society) forces, is ultimately his own (41).
Likewise, Bigger’s decisions to kill Mary and especially to rape and murder Bessie, while largely influenced by the racial tensions and intense misogyny which shape the landscape of his life, are still just that: decisions. I may be biased because I admittedly find Bigger a reprehensible character (oop), but I do believe that he is responsible for his crimes. For Wright to take a purely deterministic approach seems both heavy-handed and extreme. It only validates Bigger’s constant victim-blaming and sadism in a way that overshadows what I interpret to be the novel’s entire point, which is to expose the ways in which society cruelly manipulates and dehumanizes black lives.

Capitalism, Communism, and the Political Trial

In the very first scenes following Bigger’s arrest, it is clear that his criminal trial is already politicized. Two of his first visitors are Jan, Mary’s boyfriend who introduced Bigger to Communism in “Fear,” and Max, another member of the Communist Party who wishes to represent Bigger as his defense attorney. While both Jan and Max hope to help Bigger seemingly out of empathy for his situation, they have political motivations as well. Max even tells the State’s attorney Buckley, “If you had not dragged the name of the Communist Party into this murder, I’d not be here,” (292). Max wants the people of Chicago to realize that the Communist Party is not at fault for what Bigger did, but rather broken American systems are the enemy, which he believes Communism could fix. Max is defending not only Bigger but Max’s political party too. Buckley, on the other hand, is resolved to convict both. When questioning Bigger and Jan, he repeatedly attempts to implicate Jan and the broader Communist Party in Mary’s death. In doing so, he works to protect the racist, capitalist status quo, represented by the Daltons and him. While Mr. Dalton may think his charity work has absolved him of his racism, Max’s cross examination of Mr. Dalton reveals the wealthy man’s unwillingness to help Black communities on a more impactful level. Despite being aware of their destitute living conditions, he refuses to charge them less rent because that would be “underselling [his] competitors” (328). Mr. Dalton’s reasoning illustrates how capitalism enables, and is, in some cases, used to justify racism. 

Meanwhile, the Communists, Jan and Max, show Bigger compassion. When Jan reaches out to Bigger despite what he did to Mary, “for the first time in [Bigger’s] life, a white man became a human being to him” (289). Through Jan and Max, Communism is associated with equality and humanity. During the immense pressure of his cross-examination, Jan sticks to his ideals when asked about Black people. Buckley incredulously asks, “You like Negroes?” as Jan says he “make[s] no distinctions,” telling Buckley directly that Bigger “is human” (320-321). Max repeatedly objects to the relevance of Buckley’s racist, political questions, but to no avail. The trial is not just between the government and Bigger, but between capitalism and Communism. By drawing such a distinction, Wright describes capitalism as an institution that allows racism to persist, while Communism is portrayed as an answer to modern civilization’s deepest problems. 

Behind the Mask

The crazed, bipolar, and volatile exterior Bigger fashions for himself is methodically designed to hide his insecurities. Bigger is completely controlled by the multitude of fears that dominate his life. For example, Richard Wright describes the hatred that Bigger has toward his family, “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them”(10). Subsequently, he provides the reason why: “He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair”(10). Bigger’s disdain for them stems from his fear of poverty and failure. Arguably, this is a common narrative for those attempting to defeat poverty’s confines: they use this fear of failure to push and drive them forward. However, Bigger is incapable of doing this. Bigger chooses to bury his fear deep into his soul, reconfiguring himself to act hard and lash out to protect his fear instead of facing it. He feels powerless to defeat the confines of poverty, resulting in him refusing to take job opportunities. Bigger’s is resigned: “Goddammit, I’m always broke” (13).

Bigger struggles with the decision of either taking the job or continuing to live the way he does. “Yes, he could take the job at Dalton’s and be miserable, or he could refuse it and starve” (12). It could be argued that there’s not really a choice as both paths lead to pain. This decision that Bigger is faced with is familiar to those living in poverty. Empathy is required before the judgment of Bigger as poverty, fear, and avoidance of it shapes many actions. In some cases, these choices may not seem logical. Some may be designed for short-term gain and escapism. In my Intro to Social Problems class last semester, we focused on wealth, poverty, and inequality. In a reading directly applicable here, the author stated, “You gravitate toward those that can make you feel special for however long that single experience may be and not worry about any future effects“. Although not healthy for him, the gang that Bigger runs with provides that much-needed companionship that he seeks. His ability to laugh genuinely because of the shared experiences of those around him, is essential to his well-being. He’s keenly aware that this would be sacrificed by taking the job. The author of the article also mentioned, “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long term brain”. For many in poverty, the ability to dream and look forward is not feasible. While logic might suggest Bigger should take the job, the needed community of those with his same shared experiences of suffering is more powerful. He doesn’t have the will to break away from the tough, but predictable life he knows. The comfort of staying in the place he knows around the people he knows is a path of less resistance. The alternative, working for a white man in a white area of town brings its own set of anxiety and fears. The only opportunity to dream of a path towards a longer-term, better life is done through the movies he watches. The movies are his escape; however, what he sees on the screen is not accessible to him. The life he wants to live is seemingly only accomplished and lived by white people. Once again, he is deterred from this desire to think big, leaving him to suffice his desires by living day-to-day.  

Bigger is severely impacted by his fear of poverty and the mindset he has developed due to this. Bigger’s experience is not unique and it speaks to a broader challenge. The energy he has put into hiding and denying what he goes through leads to his volatile actions. His fears control him, and his actions constantly look to take some control back, leading him down bad paths.

Boxers on the Wall: Masculinity and Freedom

In the opening scenes of the novel, Peggy, the Daltons’ housekeeper, shows Bigger to his room, a space formerly occupied by Green, the previous African-American chauffeur. The room was “covered with pictures of girls’ faces and prize fighters” (Wright 58). Peggy does not comment on the content of these pictures, only noting that Green liked pictures, but, when he returns, Bigger stands in the middle of the room looking at them. The narrator says, “There were pictures of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Armstrong; there were others of Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, and Janet Gaynor” (Wright 59). Though a small detail, these walls symbolize the world in which Bigger feels trapped like the mouse in the opening scene. Of the four boxers whose pictures adorn Green’s wall, three are African-Americans and the other, Dempsey, has both Irish and Cherokee heritage. The three women are white American actresses. Just as Green and Bigger serve as opposites in the text, the boxers and Bigger act as opposites in terms of masculinity. While Bigger often attempts to prove his masculinity using weapons (e.g. knife, gun), the boxers simply prove it through their fists. Though both proofs require violence, the boxers’ fighting is fair and on equal footing whereas the Bigger’s violence is cowardly as he ambushes Gus, Mary, and Bessie.

Over the course of the novel, Wright argues that society forces Bigger to show his masculinity in this way. This argument could lead one to believe that boxers then escape this dilemma. Yet the example of the boxers and of Green show that a comfort in masculinity does not lead to freedom for African-Americans. Green’s comfort in his own masculinity allowed him to work for the Daltons for ten years, during which time “Mrs. Dalton made him go to night school” (Wright 55). The wording is important: Green does not choose to go to night school, but rather Mrs. Dalton “made him go.” This fact shows that Green does not control his own future but rather depends on the help of his white employers. Similarly, the boxer’s dalliance with white society depends on his ability to both continue winning and maintain a socially acceptable demeanor. Jack Johnson, the first boxer mentioned, is a perfect example. The first African-American heavyweight champion, Johnson consorted with and later married white women. His disregard for the color line resulted in the government enforcing the Mann Act against him, forcing him to flee the country. Even though he controlled his aggression, he could not escape the control of powerful white men over his life.

As Bigger’s life falls apart, we could view Green and the boxers as the hope, a path out of the entrapment that Bigger recognizes. Yet Green is powerless as well; he does not have freedom to access the white women he has on his wall. Just as the edges of the paper that display those boxers and actresses do not intersect, so too Green’s masculinity, or self-control, does not intersect with freedom. This is the dilemma of society, the problem against which Bigger lashes out. His solution is radical but his feelings are legitimate.

Oppression by the Oppressed

When reading Native Son and coming across a character like Bigger, I want to feel empathy. I want to understand his plight and the way that his life as a black man in 1930s Chicago has contributed to his current position; however, I find it extremely difficult to do so with this character. He pushes the limit of what actions can be justified by a life plagued by poverty and the social consequences of blackness. His hatred of and treatment of women and relief in rape and murder are deplorable. I think this concept particularly shines through in Bigger’s rape and murder of Mary Dalton. Mary is a young, rich white woman. This country has a long history of white women engaging in sexual relationships with black men then claiming to have been raped by them. This trope is alluded to throughout the novel as well–even Bessie proposes that the police will think that Bigger raped Mary. When first meeting Mary’s character, I thought this might be the situation we see play out. However, that is not what happened. There was no affair, and Mary did not accuse Bigger of having been inappropriate with her or raping her. Bigger raped Mary, and she was written as having asked for it for having been drunk and promiscuous. There was no nuance here, and I myself did not see race relations as being as critical to the moment as I did gender relations, toxic masculinity, and male violence. Of course, there’s the fact that Bigger hated Mary for being who she was as a result of her identity as a rich white woman and feeling a release in her death as he felt that he had hurt the right person as a result of this identity, but it almost feels as though Bigger could have been of any race or background perpetrating the same kind of violence against Mary in this moment. 

Maybe this inconsistency in Bigger’s character has been intentional–at least up to this point in the novel. Perhaps Bigger was made to be hated and irredeemable in order to demonstrate that race is still at play and still matters, even in the most extreme case. This oppressor, however bad, is still oppressed himself. It’s true that Bigger’s life could have been entirely different if he were born a rich white man, and thus, the chain of actions and circumstances that led him to the point of killing Mary and Bessie would not have taken place. However, using the opposite logic, I’m not entirely convinced that another black man in his same position, stricken by the same circumstances, would have made the same choices.

Mob Mentality and the Media

Although there are many troubling themes throughout Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, the mob mentality and the media’s contributions to incite racist behavior has been prevalent from the time of newspapers to our time today. This theme is touched upon in book two: “Flight” and more heavily acknowledged in the third book: “Fate”. Bigger is on the run in book two, hoping to stay ahead of the police and somewhat enjoying the “fame” that he is getting from the murder of Mary Dalton, he finds himself needing to see the articles written about him in the newspapers. Bigger steals a paper and it tells of the fiery indignation of the town as people learned about Mary’s killing, it also ends with “…they feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind,” (Wright 245). Newspapers being the only source of information during this time had the power to print anything they wanted and also had the power to sway their audience, as do the media outlets of today. It is no surprise that newspapers were run by predominantly white men and women and would print what they deemed to be facts at the time, albeit racist. In the third book, after Bigger faints at the inquest, he reads a paper that quotes a young white girl calling him an “ape” and the writer calling him “a jungle beast,” (Wright 279). These names are then heard again in the mob as well as a call for his lynching and killing. 

Wright does well to highlight the reality of news and widespread media within these articles as he drew inspiration from the case of Robert Nixon, who the media, despite his crimes, degraded to an animal using the exact phrase “jungle beast”, along with the degradation of the black race. They then called the woman who was killed a mother of two, posting photos of her children and using them for a news story. Although it is understandable in the Nixon case, in modern times we often see racist media posting mugshots of innocent black people and the smiling family photos of serial killer white men. These articles and deliberate choices to denigrate black people to the racist stereotypes uphold the mob mentality that white people have when black people are involved in a crime; innocent or not. As James Baldwin writes in “The Price of the Ticket” after saying that a mob of people is bound together by fears, “To destroy a nigger, a kike, a dyke, or a faggot by one’s own act alone is […] to have made a public confession more personal…” (Baldwin 840). But hiding behind a newspaper and a phone screen is the exception. 

The Problematic Native Son

A person’s actions being defined by the color of his or her skin is unfortunately common. As a person of color, I have seen it happen around me for as long as I can remember. It is not just the US, and other countries with predominantly white people, that are racist. India, where people are different shades of brown, has its own share of lightly colored racists. The fairer skinned people are presumed superior to the darker skinned ones. While growing up, I saw these prejudices within my own house, in my conservative grandmother who lives with us. The constant preaching about equality and fairness that my parents gave me contradicted what I saw and heard otherwise. Since then, I made an effort to call any duplicity out and did my best to stand up for what I thought was right. Initially, I felt that Wright was calling out the duplicity and the prejudices African Americans have to face all their lives in Native Son. Which is why I felt saddened by Bigger’s loss of his humanity in book two.

In Book 1 of Native Son, Wright explains the reasons behind Bigger’s anger and his actions well. Bigger is angry at the world because of the way he is treated and the circumstances he has to live in because of his color. Blacks could only rent places in the south side of Chicago. Naturally, the better schools with more educated teachers and greater facilities would have been reserved for more prolific areas, while people like Bigger had to struggle and could not follow their dreams. If Bigger “wasn’t black and had some money,” the white people “would let [him] go to aviation school and fly a plane” (Wright 67) which he desperately wanted to do. He lives in a crappy apartment with his mother and his siblings. On top of all that, his mother is constantly nagging him. She even tells him that she “wonder[‘s] why [she] birthed [him]” (Wright 50) in the first place. All these things contribute to Bigger’s anger, and the only way he knows how to channel it is robbing people along with his friends. Bigger does not know better. He sees the job he finds with Mr. Dalton as his way out of extreme poverty, and desperately wants to keep it. This explains his mistaken murder of Mary in a state of panic.

So far, Wright justifies Bigger’s actions. His humanity is visible in his mistakes and his fear after committing a crime. However, his actions in Book two show his loss of it. The loss of Bigger’s humanity is visible when he loses his conscience and stops feeling for his victim, whom he killed by mistake. It is the moment when Wright writes that Bigger “did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being; he had not known her long or well enough for that. He felt that his murder of her was more than amply justified” (Wright 243) that Bigger’s character becomes the Black stereotype and in some way, justifies all the people that blame him for a crime based on his color. Sentences like “to me, a nigger’s a nigger” (Wright 335) hit much harder, because in this case, the Black man did commit the crime and is not even sorry for it.

I found this book extremely problematic because of such a portrayal of the protagonist. Instead of highlighting the prejudice based on one’s color, Wright sadly highlights the validity of such prejudice. This book would reaffirm anyone’s racist thoughts instead of making the reader question them. Sadly, including my grandmother.

Fear-Based Violence in Native Son

In Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, Bigger Thomas commits heinous acts of violence directed toward others, most notably his murder of Mary Dalton and his rape and murder of Bessie. In reflecting on his actions following these murders, Bigger expresses no remorse. He wholeheartedly believes that the initial murder is Mary’s fault, describing, “Hell, she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, Goddammit! He did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being” (113-114). In this depiction of Bigger’s emotional state, he attempts to rationalize his brutal murder of Mary by placing the blame solely on how she makes him feel. This recurring sequence of strong emotion followed by excessive violence is a common reaction with this protagonist. In the scene where Bigger brings Mary home and helps her up the stairs, Wright writes, “[Bigger’s] fingers felt the soft curves of her body and he was still looking at her, enveloped in a sense of physical elation. This little bitch! he thought” (83). This character clearly struggles to respond appropriately to his emotions, especially when this emotion is fear.

The reader gets a hint of this early on in the novel when Bigger incites a fight with Gus at Doc’s bar. In anticipation of robbing Blum’s store, Bigger suddenly realizes that he is too afraid and therefore does not want to follow through with the plan that he initiated. Instead of verbalizing his emotions and talking the situation out with his friends to reach an understanding, Bigger self-sabotages their plan and picks a fight with Gus. This results in Bigger holding a knife to Gus’s throat and emotionally abusing him, forcing him to lick the knife and threatening him further. Even though his friends might have understood his hesitation, Bigger chooses to react violently before they have a chance to reach a solution. This displays Bigger’s emotional immaturity and reveals, but does not excuse, why he is able to place so much of the blame for his actions on his victims. By refusing to take any personal responsibility for his emotions and subsequent actions, Bigger tries to avoid dealing with any of the fear and shame that he so often describes. Consequently, this prevents him from treating others as human and allows him to believe that he is above any sort of moral obligation to them.


The sense of fatality that pervades Native Son interested me the most in these last two books. Like in an ancient Greek tragedy, this novel is defined by the looming sense of a determined doom. The first oracle of this doom, for Bigger, is his mother; for the reader, the foreshadowing of the rat scene; and for the white characters, the irony of the furnace. 

Bigger tells his mom to “ ‘stop prophesying’ ” after she warns him that someday, he will, overwhelmed by regret, “ ‘set down and cry’ ”(9). Here Bigger does not offer a correction or attempt to see a different path. He simply asks his mom to stop espousing his fate. It is also interesting to note that the first direct depiction of Bigger’s fate mentions a weak, ‘hysteric’ regret. It seems, then, that Bigger is doomed to a fate, not of death, but of emasculation. Perhaps, Wright is attempting to say that there is no difference between death and emasculation? In a patriarchal white supremacy that deals in power, an independent and virile masculinity does provide a certain distance from one’s own pain. This interaction, combined with the line only a page earlier, where Bigger’s mother says “ ‘sometimes I wonder why I birthed you,’ ” connects the female presence in the book with the main character’s awareness of his damned fate (8). 

Similarly, the incident with the rat triggers an awareness of a fatalistic tone for the reader. The rat is heard before it is seen as “a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room” (4). Before it is identified, the rat is a nefarious disturbance that looms in the very structure where one is supposed to feel the safest: one’s home. The first drama of the book, where Bigger kills this intrusive rat that has infiltrated their home and then uses its death to terrify Vera, embraces a sense of invasion and fatalism head on, then proceeds to make a mockery of it. 

The sense of an ever present doom also extends beyond the novel’s Black characters, though. It resides in the twisted irony surrounding the investigation of Mary’s death, too. The disposal site of Mary’s body is a character in the investigation. As the investigation flounders, “the crimson luster of the fire gleamed on the white men’s faces” (196). In this image, as well as in the smoke scene, the irony makes a joke out of the white men’s search. The literal doom of Mary’s tragic demise burns onto their faces. It is an imminent and tragic discovery, but it is also a twisted joke. No character in Wright’s world seems exempt from the brutality of his fatalism.

White Savior Complex

Throughout Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger suffers the effects of visible displays of racial prejudice and violence. However, there is the less obvious and more subtle harm from characters acting with a White Savior Complex, as Bigger ultimately experiences more subjugation from their “progressive” attitudes. The White Savior Narrative has been an ongoing trope in literature and film, featuring a heroic white character that swoops in to save a POC from their circumstances. Organizations and programs that seek to help those in need with the conscious or unconscious mentality that they are superior to the people they are helping also fit under this complex. The privilege they hold combined with their lack of genuine understanding and empathy, results in their efforts having a more negative than positive impact, because It is ultimately serving the white ego and eliminating any guilt they might have felt. For example, to make up for the fact that Bigger cannot go to aviation school and earn a job himself, the white relief aid gives Bigger a job and expects gratitude for this consideration. However, Bigger still feels the loss and asks, “Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships?” (20).

This is also evidenced by the dichotomy between Mr. Dalton’s charity and the central role he plays in the systematic oppression of Black communities. “You see Bigger, I’m a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (53). This appearance is accepted by white people in their community as Peggy tells Bigger about the support “his people” are receiving and that “Mrs. Dalton’s always trying to help somebody” (55). However, in court when Max questions Mr. Dalton about donating money, he is publicly accused with charging higher rent for worse conditions and under his excuse that “I think Negroes are happier when they’re together” (327).

Mary and Jan also operate under a White Savior Complex. Their misguided attempts of helping Bigger are done in a demeaning manner that ultimately makes Bigger feel more afraid and emasculated. The message their behavior conveyed to him was that he could only feel like a man in their presence because they allowed it. “Mary said ‘After all I’m on your side now.’ What did that mean? She was on his side. What side was he on?” (64). Mary tries to align herself with Bigger’s problems without even getting to know him. Mary is infatuated with the idea of helping people but does not actually have a personal connection to the community. She says, “No, I want to work among Negroes…When I see what they’ve done to those people it makes me so mad” but then on the next page she says “Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some” (77). She is only concerned with her personal gratification and does not listen when Bigger said he was uncomfortable eating with them. Jan struggles to come to terms with his White Savior Complex towards the end of the novel when he tells Bigger in jail, “I was kind of blind…in a certain sense, I’m the one who’s really guilty” (287).

The question I pose is: Does Max resolve the White Savior Complex? Max asks Bigger questions no one else had ever bothered to ask, because he wanted to get to know him and understand his motives on a more personal level. He also admits from the beginning he is unsure if he can save Bigger but tries regardless and ultimately wants Bigger to fight for himself and his life. This is an on-going question today as we evaluate white advocacy and question what spaces of activism white people should enter.