As Wright recounts in Black Boy (1945), literary naturalists such as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis formed his earliest reading and provided the aspiring writer with models: "All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novels, and I could not read enough of them." After moving to Chicago, Wright was also influenced by the proletarian literature published alongside his poetry in leftist literary magazines. Meanwhile, the American public was being prepared for less romantic and more pragmatic explorations of American society and the human condition by the popular social novels of John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell, and John Steinbeck.
The Bigger Thomas of Native Son can be read as a continuation of the character Big Boy, a connection that is implied by their names. In this sense, Native Son extends the process of cruel discovery that begins in "Big Boy Leaves Home," and "Big Boy Leaves Home" provides sociological documentation for a character like Bigger.
In Native Son, Wright uses the same combination of direct, naturalistic prose and symbolism that he employed in Uncle Tom's Children. He carefully reconstructs the physical reality of South Side Chicago, using material gathered from sociological studies as well as his own experience. He then skillfully invests objects with symbolic significance, a technique that helps him overcome the linguistic limitations of his inarticulate protagonist.
Wright's efforts to portray sympathetic white characters fall. The idealistic Jan Erlone and Mary Dalton never escape the shallowness of Wright's treatment. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton exist more as symbols of misguided white liberalism than as individuals. Boris Max is so overburdened with the responsibility of functioning as Wright's spokesman that his own personality is lost.
But the most striking characteristic of Wright's method in Native Son is the stylistic shift in the last third of the novel. "Fear" and "Flight" are driven by violent, fast-paced action and terse, concrete prose that has been called some of the best suspense writing in American literature, but "Fate" is static, and Wright's prose moves toward the formality of exposition. This final section is often openly propagandistic, as Wright uses Boris Max to articulate the theoretical basis for Bigger's rebellion. In effect, "Fate" is as much an explication of what has preceded it as it is a conclusion to the narrative.
The particular hardships of black residents of South Side Chicago are set against the background of the Great Depression, political corruption, wealthy capitalists, and urban blight. Native Son explores the social unrest created by the hard economic times, particularly the interest in radical political solutions represented by Marxists such as Jan Erlone and 'Boris Max.
In Wright shifted his focus to the problems of urban blacks in the North, but his picture of a two-tiered society based on racial discrimination and the protection of property rights remained the same. Although the racist thugs of Uncle Tom's Children are replaced by avaricious landlords, irresponsible journalists, and brutal police in Native Son , the slums of South Side Chicago, like the rural South portrayed in Uncle Tom's Children, is a place in which the dreams of success are available to all but the means to achieve them are restricted to the few.
In creating Native Son, Wright was able to use his personal experience of nearly ten years' residence in South Side Chicago, sociological studies of Chicago compiled by Louis Wirth, and considerable material taken directly from the highly publicized trial of a Chicago black man named Robert Nixon. Nixon was eventually convicted and electrocuted for murdering a woman with a brick, and at one point, he was defended by the leftist International T-Labor Defense, but Wright made most use of the sensational, racist media coverage of the Nixon trial.
Wright's simple narrative technique is enriched @y the use of symbols and allusions. Characters' names, natural phenomena, colors, and pervasive biblical references are used to strengthen Wright's messages. As a result, the stories take on many of the characteristics of allegory.
The central theme of Native Son is the central theme of most black American writing, the doubleness of black existence in the United States. In particular the novel explores the stifling limitations imposed on blacks. Bigger expresses this sense of exclusion as he and his buddies stand idly on a street corner watching a plane fly overhead: "They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail." As in Uncle Tom's Children, the central movement of Native Son is toward the development of self-awareness, Bigger's development is perverted by environmental pressures that make him feel that violence is his only way to self-realization.
Native Son is a psychological as well as a sociological novel, and Bigger's development is outlined by the three sections of the novel: "Fear," "Flight," and "Fate." "Fear" documents Bigger's condition, living a life of poverty and hopelessness with his mother and sister. His entire existence is based on fear and his greatest fear is to let this fear show. "Flight" shows Bigger's sense of self increase as his personal danger increases. He enjoys the independence and power of confusing the white authorities, and his brutal murder of his girlfriend Bessie Mears exhilarates him because, unlike his accidental suffocation of Mary Dalton, it is a consciously willed action that earns him the freedom to "live out the consequences of his actions." In "Fate," the novel becomes more expository. In his lengthy summation, Bigger's lawyer Boris Max argues that all of society shares the guilt for Bigger's crimes, and Max's efforts awaken a desire for human trust in Bigger.
Yet, Wright's style in Uncle Tom's Children is also affected by his didactic purpose. Wright's straightforward narration emphasizes his message, and like other proletarian authors Wright breaks from the pessimistic determinism of naturalism by idealizing some characters and supporting their heroic opposition to oppression with an underlying hope for melioration.