The chief character of Richard Wright's 1940 best-selling novel Native Son, is unlike any protagonist ever to have appeared in African American literature. Before Bigger Thomas, black heroes and heroines were generally virtuous, polite, up-right, intelligent, sensitive, and knowledgeable. Bigger Thomas is crude, barely literate, unclean, untrustworthy, and a murderer. But Wright emphasizes that Bigger's character is in part the result of a crippling environment. Bigger seems driven by a fear of whites that was the legacy of slavery. Every act he performs has its roots in dread. He fights his friend Gus to conceal his own fear of robbing a white man. He inadvertently suffocates Mary Dalton because he is terrified of being discovered in a white woman's bedroom. He incinerates Mary because he fears white accusations of rape and murder. He brutally murders Bessie because he fears capture. The ending of the novel finds him having rid himself of fear of whites by discovering through self-examination something of his own identity, by accepting who he is in all its terribleness: “What I killed for I am… Tell Mister… Tell Jan hello…” The conclusion of the novel finds Bigger arriving at a personal and psychological resolution of his situation, not a political or social one.
Donald B. Gibson