Teaching Native Son by Richard Wright, Part Three (Themes AND Motifs)

This is part three of a series of posts about teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son (for part one, click here, and for part two, click here). This post will share a series of lessons that help students recognize (and analyze the effects of) key themes and motifs within the novel, the final product of those lessons being a full-length essay that, in part, was composed collaboratively.

Materials for all of these lessons are available in our Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

Lesson #1: Color-Coding a Scene (1-2 Days)

In this first lesson, students will re-read and color-code a particular scene from early in the novel. The scene is significant because it serves as a microcosm of the novel’s central conflict.

This lesson works best when students have already read at least Book One of the novel, in which this scene appears.

Here is the scene (students will need their own copy, as either a physical or a digital handout):

He walked toward the poolroom. When he got to the door he saw Gus half a block away, coming toward him. He stopped and waited. It was Gus who had first thought of robbing Blum’s.

“Hi, Bigger!”

“What you saying, Gus?”

“Nothing. Seen G.H or Jack yet?”

“Naw. You?”

“Naw. Say, got a cigarette?”


Bigger took out his pack and gave Gus a cigarette; he lit his and held the match for Gus. They leaned their backs against the red-brick wall of a building, smoking, their cigarettes slanting white across their black chins. To the east Bigger saw the sun burning a dazzling yellow. In the sky above him a few big white clouds drifted. He puffed silently, relaxed, his mind pleasantly vacant of purpose. Every slight movement in the street evoked a casual curiosity in him. Automatically, his eyes followed each car as it whirred over the smooth black asphalt. A woman came by and he watched the gentle sway of her body until she disappeared into a doorway. He sighed, scratched his chin and mumbled,

“Kinda warm today.”

“Yeah,” Gus said.

“You get more heat from this sun than from them old radiators at home.”

“Yeah; them old white landlords sure don’t give much heat.”

“And they always knocking at your door for money.”

“I’ll be glad when summer comes.”

“Me too,” Bigger said.

He stretches his arms above his head and yawned; his eyes moistened. The sharp precision of the world of steel and stone dissolved into blurred waves. He blinked and the world grew hard again, mechanical, distinct. A weaving motion in the sky made him turn his eyes upward; he saw a slender streak of billowing white blooming anst the deep blue. A plane was writing high up in the air.

“Look! Bigger said.


“That plane writing up there,” Bigger said, pointing.


They squinted at a tiny ribbon of unfolding vapor that spelled out the word: USE …The plane was so far away that at times the strong glare of the sun blanked it from sight.

“You can hardly see it.” Gus said.

“Looks like a little bird,” Bigger breathed with childlike wonder.

“Them white boys sure can fly,” Gus said.

“Yeah,” Bigger said, wistfully. “They get a chance to do everything.”

Noiselessly, the tiny plane looped and veered, vanishing and appearing, leaving behind it a long trail of white plumage, like coils of fluffy paste being squeezed from a tube; a plume-coil that grew and swelled and slowly began to fade into the air at the edges. The plane wrote another word: SPEED . . .

“How high you reckon he is? Bigger asked

“I don’t know. Maybe a hundred miles; maybe a thousand.”

“I could fly one of them things if I had a chance,” Bigger mumbled reflectively, as though talking to himself.

Gus pulled down the corners of his lips, stepped out from the wall, squared his shoulders, doffed his cap, bowed low and spoke with mock deference:


“You go to hell,” Bigger said, smiling.

“Yessuh,” Gus said again.

“I could fly a plane if I had a chance,” Bigger said.

“If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane,” Gus said.

For a moment Bigger contemplated all the “ifs” that Gus had mentioned. Then both boys broke into hard laughter, looking at each other through squinted eyes. When their laughter subsided, Bigger said in a voice that was half-question and half-statement:

“It’s funny how the white folks treat us, ain’t it?”

“It better be funny,” Gus said.

“Maybe they are right in not wanting us to fly,” Bigger said. ” ‘Cause if I took a plane up I’d take a couple of bombs along and drop ’em as sure as hell ….”

They laughed again, still looking upward. The plane sailed and dipped and spread another word against the sky: GASOLINE….

“Use Speed Gasoline,” Bigger mused, rolling the words slowly from his lips. “God, I’d like to fly up there in that sky.”

“God’ll let you fly when He gives you your wings up in heaven,” Gus said.

They laughed again, reclining against the wall, smoking, the lids of their eyes drooped softly against the sun. Cars whizzed past on rubber tires. Bigger’s face was metallically black in the strong sunlight. There was in his eyes a pensive, brooding amusement, as of a man who had been long confronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed always just on the verge of escaping him, but prodding him irresistibly on to seek its solution. The silence irked Bigger; he was anxious to do something to evade looking so squarely at this problem.

“Let’s play ‘white,’ ” Bigger said, referring to a game of play-acting in which he and his friends imitated the ways and manners of the white folks.

“I don’t feel like it,” Gus said.

“General!” Bigger pronounced in a sonorous tone, looking at Gus expectantly.

“Aw, hell! I don’t want to play,” Gus whined.

“You’ll be court-martialed,” Bigger said, snapping out his words with military precision.

“Nigger, you nuts!” Gus laughed.

“General! Bigger tried again, determinedly.

Gus looked wearily at Bigger, then straightened, saluted and answered:


“Send your men over the river at dawn and attack the enemy’s left flank,” Bigger ordered.


“Send the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Regiments,” Bigger said, frowning. “And attack with tanks, gas, planes, and infantry.”

“Yessuh!” Gus said again, saluting and clicking his heels.

For a moment they were silent, facing each other, their shoulders thrown back, their lips compressed to hold down the mounting impulse to laugh. Then they guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them.

“Say, what’s a ‘left flank’?” Gus asked.

“I don’t know,” Bigger said. “I heard it in the movies.”

They laughed again. After a bit they relaxed and leaned against the wall, smoking. Bigger saw Gus cup his left hand to his ear, as though holding a telephone receiver; and cup his right hand to his mouth, as though talking into a transmitter.

“Hello,” Gus said.

“Hello,” Bigger said. “Who’s this?”

“This is Mr. J. P. Morgan speaking,” Gus said.

“Yessuh, Mr. Morgan, Bigger said; his eyes filled with mock adulation and respect.

“I want you to sell twenty thousand shares of U. S. Steel in the market this morning, Gus said.

“At what price, suh?” Bigger asked.

“Aw, just dump ’em at any price,” Gus said with casual irritation. “We’re holding too much.”

“Yessuh,” Bigger said.

“And call me at my club at two this afternoon and tell me if the President telephoned,” Gus said.

“Yessuh, Mr. Morgan” Bigger said

Both of them made gestures signifying that they were hanging up telephone receivers; then they bent double, laughing.

“I bet that’s just the way they talk,” Gus said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Bigger said.

They were silent again. Presently, Bigger cupped his hand to his mouth and spoke through an imaginary telephone transmitter.


“Hello,” Gus answered. “Who’s this?”

“This is the President of the United States speaking,” Bigger said.

“Oh, yessuh, Mr. President,” Gus said.

“I’m calling a cabinet meeting this afternoon at four o’clock and you, as Secretary of State, must be there.”

“Well, now, Mr. President,” Gus said, “I’m pretty busy. They raising sand over there in Germany and I got to send ’em a note….”

“But this is important,” Bigger said.

“What you going to take up at this cabinet meeting?” Gus asked.

“Well, you see, the niggers is raising sand all over the country,” Bigger said, struggling to keep back his laughter. “We’ve got to do something with these black folks….”

“Oh, if it’s about the niggers, I’ll be right there, Mr. President,” Gus said.

They hung up imaginary receivers and leaned against the wall and laughed. A street car rattled by. Bigger sighed and swore.


“What’s the matter?”

“They don’t let us do nothing.”


“The white folks.”

“You talk like you just now finding that out,” Gus said.

“Naw. But I just can’t get used to it,” Bigger said. “I swear to God I can’t. I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence….”

“Aw, ain’t no use feeling that way about it. It don’t help none,” Gus said.

“You know one thing?” Bigger said.


“Sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me,” Bigger spoke with a tinge of bitter pride in his voice.

“What you mean?” Gus asked, looking at him quickly. There was fear in Gus’s eyes.

“I don’t know. I just feel that way. Every time I get thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me….”

“Aw, for chrissakes! There ain’t nothing you can do about it. How come you want to worry yourself? You black and they make the laws…. “

“Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships….”

Gus hunched Bigger with his elbow and mumbled good-naturedly, “Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts.”

The plane was gone from the sky and the white plumes of floating smoke were thinly spread, vanishing. Because he was restless and had time on his hands, Bigger yawned again and hoisted his arms high above his head.

“Nothing ever happens,” he complained.

“What you want to happen?”

“Anything,” Bigger said with a wide sweep of his dingy palm, a sweep that included all the possible activities of the world.

Their eyes were riveted; a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pride. A street car rumbled forward and the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut and sheer that Bigger could see the gold of the sun through their translucent tips. He tilted his head and watched the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight over the edge of a high roof.

“Now, if I could only do that,” Bigger said.

Gus laughed.

“Nigger, you nuts.”

“I reckon we the only things in this city that can’t go where we want to go and do what we want to do.”

“Don’t think about it,” Gus said.

“I can’t help it.”

“That’s why you feeling like something awful’s going to happen to you,” Gus said “You think too much.”

“What in hell can a man do?” Bigger asked, turning to Gus.

“Get drunk and sleep it off.”

“I can’t. I’m broke.”

Bigger crushed his cigarette and took out another and offered the package to Gus. They continued smoking. A huge truck swept past, lifting scraps of white paper into the sunshine; the bits settled down slowly.



“You know where the white folks live?”

“Yeah,” Gus said, pointing eastward. “Over across the ‘line’; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue.”

“Naw; they don’t,” Bigger said.

“What you mean?” Gus asked, puzzled. “Then, where do they live?”

Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.

“Right down here in my stomach,” he said.

Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.

“Yeah; I know what you mean,” he whispered.

“Every time I think of ’em, I feel ’em,” Bigger said.

“Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too,” Gus said.

“It’s like fire.”

“And sometimes you can’t hardly breathe….”

Bigger’s eyes were wide and placid, gazing into space.

“That’s when I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me….” Bigger paused, narrowed his eyes. “Naw; it ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s …It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help….”

“Yeah!” Gus said with uneasy eagerness. His eyes were full of a look compounded of fear and admiration for Bigger. “Yeah; I know what you mean. It’s like you going to fall and don’t know where you going to land….”

Gus’s voice trailed off. The sun slid behind a big white cloud and the street was plunged in cool shadow; quickly the sun edged forth again and it was bright and warm once more. A long sleek black car, its fenders glinting like glass in the sun, shot past them at high speed and turned a corner a few blocks away. Bigger pursed his lips and sang:


“They got everything,” Gus said.

“They own the world,” Bigger said.

“Aw, what the hell,” Gus said. “Let’s go in the poolroom.”


Instruct students, in small groups, to re-read the scene and color code it. They can create their own key, but they must include a different color for each of the following elements:


WHITENESS (white people but also white things)

SIGHT (or blindness, which is its opposite)





DETERMINISM (which is the opposite of free will)

FEAR and HATE/ANGER (which in this book seem to go together [like Yoda said])


If students are accessing a physical copy of the scene, they of course can color code using colored pencils, highlighters, crayons, etc. If they are accessing the scene digitally, they can color code using font color or highlighting features.


After the groups have completed their color-coding, instruct them to do the following:

Instructions: As a group, but in each person’s notebook:

  1. Write a statement (one sentence; any pattern) about the scene that combines at least one motif and at least one theme.
  2. Write a statement (one sentence; any pattern) that answers this question: How does this scene reveal the central conflict of the entire novel?

Once groups have drafted their two statements, they will send a representative to write their statements on the board. The board should already have an area designated for “statement #1” and another area designated for “statement #2”.


Then, instruct students—individually—to do the following:

Instructions: Take a sheet of binder. On the top of one side, write one group’s “statement 1” (it does not have to be the statement from your group).

Flip to the other side. Write one group’s “statement 2” at the top and do the same thing.

The statements are your topic sentences. On each side of the paper, use your color-coded scene to write a detailed paragraph supporting that topic sentence. The paragraph should include specific details from the text that support the topic sentence.


On the following day, students can peer review one another’s paragraphs, and/or the teacher can model feedback on a few examples using the document camera (if one is available). Students can then choose one of the two paragraphs to revise and write a second draft of.


Lesson #2: The Motif of Whiteness

This follow-up lesson will focus on one of the motifs that students color-coded for in the previous lesson

The essential question of this lesson is: What is the effect of the motif of whiteness in the novel?

It may be interesting to note to students that the word white appears 498 times in the novel, Native Son, which works out to about 1.3 times per page and which leads to a discussion that is at the center of this lesson: Why does the word white appear so often in the novel? What is the effect of the word white appearing so often in the novel?

After students have shared their initial thoughts (with peers and with the whole class), instruct students—in their groups—to get out their novels and scour the text in search of the most significant passage for each of the following symbols:


  1. Mrs. Dalton
  2. Snow/the blizzard
  3. The map in the newspaper
  4. The water tank

Once groups have found their passages (which may take some time), instruct groups to do the following:

For each of the four passages, write a statement (one sentence) about the effect of the symbol in the passage (what it represents; why that matters).


Representatives from each group will then write their passage (pg. #, “first two words…last two words”) and their statement on the board, in areas designated for each symbol. Individual students will record the passages and statements in their notebook for later use in their essay.

Lesson #3: The Motif of Blindness

This lesson will shift to a second key motif in the novel: blindness. Provide students with the four passages below (in each, occurrences of the word

The essential question for this lesson is: What is the effect of the motif of blindness in the novel?Provide students with the four passages below (in each, occurrences of the word

Provide students with the four passages below (in each, occurrences of the word blind are in bold), and give the following instructions:

Instructions: Do the following for each passage (1 through 4):

  1. Read it.
  2. In the space at the bottom, summarize (briefly; one or two sentences) what is happening in the novel at that moment.
  3. Below that, write a statement about blindness in the passage.

When finished, write a topic sentence about the motif of blindness in the novel. HINT: Does the motif reveal/reflect any important themes?


Passage #1:

Now that the ice was broken, could he not do other things? What was there to stop him? While sitting there at the table waiting for his breakfast, he felt that he was arriving at something which had long eluded him. Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was to act just like others acted, lived like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted. They would never know. He felt in the quiet presence of his mother, brother, and sister a force, inarticulate and unconscious, making for living without thinking, making for peace and habit, making for a hope that blinded. He felt that they wanted and yearned to see life in a certain way; they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others were doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody thought of. The whole thing came to him in the form of a powerful and simple feeling; there was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never be caught at it. Now, who on earth would think that he, a black timid Negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for his breakfast like this? Elation filled him.

He sat at the table watching the snow fall past the window and many things became plain. No, he did not have to hide behind a wall or a curtain now; he had a safer way of being safe, an easier way. What he had done last night had proved that. Jan was blind. Mary had been blind. Mr. Dalton was blind. And Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, blind in more ways than one. Bigger smiled slightly. Mrs. Dalton had not known that Mary was dead while she had stood over the bed in that room last night. She had thought that Mary was drunk, because she was used to Mary’s coming home drunk. And Mrs. Dalton had not known that he was in the room with her; it would have been the last thing she would have thought of. He was black and would not have figured in her thoughts on such an occasion. Bigger felt that a lot of people were like Mrs. Dalton, blind….


Passage #2:

He paid the money, put the package into his pocket and went out to the corner to wait for a car. One came; he got on and rode eastward, wondering what kind of note he would write. He rang the bell for the car to stop, got off and walked through the quiet Negro streets. Now and then he passed an empty building, white and silent in the night. He would make Bessie hide in one of these buildings and watch for Mr. Dalton’s car. But the ones he passed were too old; if one went into them they might collapse. He walked on. He had to find a building where Bessie could stand in a window and see the package of money when it was thrown from the car. He reached Langley Avenue and walked westward to Wabash Avenue. There were many empty buildings with black windows, like blind eyes, buildings like skeletons standing with snow on their bones in the winter winds. But none of them were on corners. Finally, at Michigan Avenue and East Thirty-sixth Place, he saw the one he wanted. It was tall, white, silent, standing on a well-lighted corner. By looking from any of the front windows Bessie would be able to see in all four directions. Oh! He had to have a flashlight! He went to a drug store and bought one for a dollar. He felt in the inner pocket of his coat for his gloves. Now, he was ready. He crossed the street and stood waiting for a car. His feet were cold and he stamped them in the snow, surrounded by people waiting, too, for a car. He did not look at them; they were simply blind people, blind like his mother, his brother, his sister, Peggy, Britten, Jan, Mr. Dalton, and the sightless Mrs. Dalton and the quiet empty houses with their black gaping windows.


Passage #3:

He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come. During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind. So close had the danger and death come that he could not feel that it was he who had undergone it all. And, yet, out of it all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real, there remained to him a queer sense of power. He had done this. He has brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.

He had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the last two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing. Blind anger had come often and he had either gone behind his curtain or wall, or had quarreled and fought. And yet, whether in running away or in fighting, he had felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all its fullness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die; they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and say: “I’d like to know how your people live.”

But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness. Sometimes, in his room or in the sidewalk, the world seemed to him a strange labyrinth even when the streets were straight and the walls were square; a chaos which made him feel that something in him should be able to understand it, divide it, focus it. But only under the stress of hate was the conflict resolved. He had been so conditioned in a cramped environment that hard words or kicks alone knocked him upright and made him capable of action—action that was futile because the world was too much for him. It was then that he closed his eyes and struck out blindly, hitting what or whom he could, not looking or caring what or who hit back.


Passage #4:

“Allow me, Your Honor, before I proceed to cast blame and ask for mercy, to state emphatically that I do not claim that this boy is a victim of injustice, nor do I ask that this Court be sympathetic with him. That is not my object in embracing his character and his cause. It is not to tell you only of suffering that I stand here today, even though there are frequent lynchings and floggings of Negroes throughout the country. If you react only to that part of what I say, then you, too, are caught as much as he in the mire of blind emotions, and this vicious game will roll on, like a bloody river to a bloodier sea. Let us banish from our minds the thought that this is an unfortunate victim of injustice. The very concept of injustice rests upon a premise of equal claims, and this boy here today makes no claim upon you. If you think or feel that he does, then you, are blinded by a feeling as terrible as that which you condemn in him, and without as much justification. The feeling of guilt which has caused all of the mob-fear and mob-hysteria is the counterpart of his own hate.

“Rather, I plead with you to see a mode of life in our midst, a mode of life stunted and distorted, but possessing its own laws and claims, an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people. I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by all our hands. I ask you to recognize the laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them. If we do none of these, then we should not pretend horror or surprise when thwarted life expressed itself in fear and hate and crime.


Once students have completed the steps above and have composed a topic sentence (which they can do individually, in pairs, or in groups), instruct them to compose a paragraph in support of the topic sentence, using specific details from the four passages.


Final Essay

The final product for this series of lessons is an essay. In part, it is a collaborative essay because students will incorporate topic sentences or other statements composed by their classmates, but each individual will be responsible for the vital work of organizing the essay and providing sufficient textual evidence.

Provide students with the following essay prompt:

PROMPT: Identify two themes that are present in the novel, Native Son. Compose an essay that discusses…

…how the author uses motifs and symbols to develop those themes,

…the relationship between the themes and the novel’s central conflict (including how the conflict is resolved)

how the two themes interact and build upon one another as the novel progresses.


This is a challenging prompt, but students have been preparing for it over the past three lessons, and they have generated a fair amount of material that can be incorporated into a first draft.