‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ is a compelling short story by American author Richard Wright (1908-60), originally published as ‘Almos’ a Man’ in Harper’s Bazaar in 1940 and later revised by Wright in 1960. The story delves into the life of Dave Saunders, a black seventeen-year-old laborer in the Southern United States. Frustrated by the lack of respect he receives from his peers, Dave becomes fixated on acquiring a gun as a means to assert his manhood.
Dave Saunders is a young African American farm laborer who yearns for a sense of independence and dignity. He believes that owning a gun would earn him the respect he craves from his coworkers, who often treat him like a mere boy. Encouraged by the idea of becoming a "real man," Dave decides to buy a gun from Joe, the local store owner.
At home, Dave's mother discovers him with a gun catalog and initially disapproves of his desire to purchase the weapon. However, Dave persuades her to let him buy it by claiming he will purchase it for his father. With the money his mother provides, Dave finally acquires the gun.
Filled with newfound pride and excitement, Dave plays with the gun in the fields on his way home, disregarding his mother's instructions to bring it straight to her. When she demands to see the gun later, Dave lies about its whereabouts. The next morning, he takes the gun to work on the plantation, where he accidentally shoots and kills a mule named Jenny.
In a panic, Dave buries the gun to hide the evidence of his mistake. When questioned by Jim Hawkins, the plantation owner, Dave initially lies about what happened to Jenny. However, his mother's persistence forces him to confess the truth. The crowd laughs at Dave's foolishness, and Hawkins decides that Dave will work without pay until he has paid off the debt for killing the mule.
Overwhelmed by shame and regret, Dave retrieves the gun and fires it several times, seeking a final sense of empowerment. He fantasizes about scaring his boss, Hawkins, with the gun. In a moment of impulsiveness, Dave boards a passing train, determined to escape his current circumstances and find a place where he can truly be seen as a man.
Symbolism and Themes
Gun as a Symbol of Manhood
The gun in the story symbolizes Dave's quest for manhood and independence. In his mind, owning a gun equates to power and respect. However, his inability to handle the gun responsibly reflects his immaturity and lack of understanding of true manhood.
The Mule's Death
The accidental shooting of the mule, Jenny, represents the consequences of Dave's reckless pursuit of manhood. It highlights the destructive nature of his desires and the harsh reality of his actions.
Escapism and Freedom
Dave's decision to board the train at the end of the story reflects his desire to escape his current life and seek a sense of freedom and independence elsewhere. The train represents a pathway to a different future, away from the responsibilities and mistakes he has left behind.
Racial Struggles and Identity
The story touches on racial tensions and the challenges faced by African Americans in the Southern United States during that era. Dave's desire to prove himself as a man may stem, in part, from the societal limitations and prejudices he experiences as a young black man.
‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ is a poignant exploration of a young man's struggle to assert his manhood and independence in a racially segregated society. Through its powerful themes and symbolism, Richard Wright's story offers insight into the complexities of identity and the consequences of misguided desires. Dave's journey serves as a reminder of the importance of self-awareness, responsibility, and the need to confront one's actions to truly become a man.
Exploring Masculinity and Adolescence
As the title suggests, a central theme of 'The Man Who Was Almost a Man' is masculinity. Dave's desire to own a gun represents his yearning to assert his manhood and gain respect from others. However, the story also delves into the complexities of adolescence and coming of age. Dave is at a stage where he is transitioning into adulthood but is still grappling with his identity and independence. He is 'almost a man,' but not quite there yet, as he lacks both the maturity and confidence in his masculinity.
The Impulsive Decision
Dave's impulsive decision to board the train at the end of the story raises thought-provoking questions. Is this act another misguided and rash choice, similar to his purchasing and firing of the gun? Will it only expose his lack of maturity and independence? Alternatively, could it be the first step towards Dave truly becoming the 'man' he aspires to be? The ending leaves room for interpretation, and it is unclear whether Dave's actions will lead to growth or further difficulties in his life.
Racial Inequality and Oppression
The story also touches on racial inequality and oppression, as Dave is a black youth working for a white plantation owner. The setting of a plantation underscores historical associations with slavery and the legacy of racial tensions in the American South. Dave's position as a young black worker under the control of a white employer highlights the power dynamics and struggles faced by African Americans during that time.
Empathy for Dave
Despite his foolish actions and attempts to cover up his mistakes, Richard Wright evokes empathy for Dave Saunders. The character is portrayed as naive and impulsive, making poor decisions, but he is also fundamentally innocent and restricted by his circumstances. Dave's resentment towards the dead mule and identification with it as a fellow laborer reveal his internal struggles and the desire for a better life.
Dave's mother's strictness is not merely an act of control but reflects her concern for her son's impulsive nature. She guards his earnings to ensure he doesn't squander them and encourages him to use the money for education and self-improvement. Despite her sternness, she ultimately wants the best for Dave and recognizes his potential.
The themes explored in 'The Man Who Was Almost a Man' can be compared with John Steinbeck's story 'Flight,' where another young man attempts to prove his manhood through violence. The stories provide different perspectives on the challenges and aspirations of young individuals coming of age in rural settings.
'The Man Who Was Almost a Man' offers a multi-faceted exploration of masculinity, adolescence, racial inequality, and the consequences of impulsive actions. Richard Wright masterfully crafts a story that invites readers to empathize with Dave's struggles, his desires for respect and independence, and the challenges he faces in the racially segregated society of the American South. The story's ambiguity and complex themes leave us reflecting on the universal journey of transitioning from boyhood to manhood and the complexities of identity and social constraints.