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Native Son



Gritty novel of violence and race best for older teens.

What parents need to know

Educational value

This book provides important historical context for issues of race and poverty in the United States, and shows how societal institutions, pressures, and isolation can lead to the mental, emotional, and moral breakdown of individuals who find themselves feeling trapped in a no-win situation and without hope. Bigger Thomas is a striking example of what can happen when fear that comes from isolation and oppression meets rage and desperation -- and how many lives can be destroyed as a result.

Positive messages

The ultimate message is that people, when they are not isolated from one another, experience each others' cultures in a positive way. The common ground we find creates a stronger society, better relationships, and conditions for us all. The worst thing we can do as a society is set people apart from one another and create an environment of fear, mistrust, oppression, and inequality -- as we see in how the character of Bigger Thomas develops and behaves for most of the book.

Positive role models

This book is full of flawed characters who have good qualities, but there aren't many strong role models. Jan, Mary Dalton's boyfriend, and his friend Boris Max, who defends Bigger in court, are the best role models the story has to offer before Bigger's own transformation.


There is quite a bit of violence, both intentional and accidental, including instances of bullying, fighting, and the use of guns and knives. There is also a description of a rape, an accidental killing (which looks like a murder) followed by the burning of a body and a premeditated, somewhat gruesome, bloody murder and callous disposal of another victim's body. 


There are several consensual sexual acts and encounters in this book, as well as a rape. Kissing, groping, and other sexual touching, public masturbation, and sex between characters are all mentioned at various points during the story. The descriptions are never particularly graphic but do describe touching of body parts and emotional descriptions of the characters.


Though maybe not as frequent or strong as many contemporary works of literature, this book does contain cursing ("sonofabitch," "goddammit," "damn," "hell," "bastard"), provocative sexual innuendo as well as racially insensitive language (the "N" word).

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Characters smoke and drink alcohol, at times heavily. There are several depictions of drunkenness and its correlation to sexual acts, killings, and murders.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this book, a literary classic, takes place in a racially divided, violent, and sometimes sexually explicit setting. The power of this book lies in its gritty, straightforward,  and controversial depiction of the results of institutionalized racism and bigotry in the United States. There is racially charged language, two murders, a rape, other sexual activity, and capital punishment.

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What's the story?

Bigger Thomas is a 20-year-old man living in the 1930s on the very poor South Side of Chicago with his mother, brother, and sister. He has no job and makes money with a few of his friends by robbing and stealing, living the life of a petty thug and a bully. Bigger's whole life is characterized by feelings of fear, dread, and isolation. He hides his fear by being the biggest, baddest bully. His life takes a turn when he gets a job working as a driver for a very rich man, Mr. Dalton. After leaving the ghetto and moving into the white world, Bigger's greatest fears and insecurities begin to manifest with alarming speed. After a terrible accident involving Mr. Dalton's daughter, Bigger finds himself in the same position as a large rat he once killed in his family's tiny apartment -- trapped, desperate, and looking for a way out, no matter who he has to hurt. Will Bigger find freedom, or will his story end the way society has taught him to believe it will?

Is it any good?


NATIVE SON, Richard Wright's classic novel of tragedy and violence, is intense. Wright is masterful in taking readers into Bigger's mind and explaining the processes that shape his behavior, emotional state, and decision-making process. Readers will be confronted with several uncomfortable and tragic issues, not the least of which is wondering whether the world is still anything like the one Bigger endures in the book.

This is a great read for anyone wanting to delve into the societal and psychological consequences of oppression, segregation, and poverty -- historically and today. It is definitely not suitable for younger children, and parents should be prepared to discuss the tough questions and situations in the novel.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about other "isms" -- sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, etc. and how they affect people. Can you give examples of sexism, etc.? Have you ever felt as if people were judging you based on your age, gender, religion, or race? How did it make you feel? Did it change the way you see and treat people different from you?

  • Native Son is considered a classic of American literature, and is often required reading in high school. Why do you think it is?

  • Families can also talk about the effects of isolation and the fear. Have you ever felt alone and thought no one would understand how you felt? Do you ever put on an angry face when you are really just sad and lonely?

  • There is a continuing debate over capital punishment, and recent high-profile cases of wrongful convictions have added fuel to the fire. Should communities be allowed to decide who lives or dies?

Book details

Author:Richard Wright
Genre:Literary Fiction
Topics:History, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication date:March 1, 1940
Number of pages:544
Publisher's recommended age(s):18

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What parents and kids say

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Teen, 17 years old Written byJay0904 March 8, 2015


The book native son depicts an African American male who faces the troubles and trials of living in a white society being discriminated, looked at different, and viewed worse than others. Biggur makes many bad decision due to the fact of what would happen to him if he was seen with someone or being somewhere he shouldn't be. He must go through life brushing discrimination off his shoulders, and for a young male it would be a very difficult challenge.
What other families should know
Educational value
Teen, 17 years old Written byWes64 August 2, 2013

Important novel for any teenager

First, let me explain the "positive message". This book is the one that convinced me the death penalty is wrong. I think that this message is incredibly important. I do not really have much more to add because the site review has pretty much got it right, but I think that it is OK for younger audiences as well. The third book gets bogged down in judicial proceedings that might confuse younger readers, but with the right explanations I'd say it's fit for anyone. I disagree that it is for older teens, because the sooner people learn about racism, the sooner they can stand against it. Teenagers who are 15, 14 ,13... they can suffer from racism, so why not have them read about it, and understand it.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 16 years old Written bykellie_116 August 24, 2016


This book is required summer reading for my English III AP class (11th graders, ages 15-17), and I found it really disturbing. It includes fairly graphic descriptions of rape and murders, including one scene in which the protagonist tries to shove the body of his first victim into the fire, then saws off her head and uses it to push the rest of the body into the furnace. This book definitely has literary merits, but is disturbing, and not for the faint of heart.
What other families should know
Educational value
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking