The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Course Hero, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man Study Guide," March 13, 2020, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Man-Who-Was-Almost-a-Man/.

The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Acquiring a Gun

On his way home from working the fields, 17-year-old Dave Saunders thinks through an argument he had with some field hands, who don't take him seriously. He thinks about getting a gun and practicing with it in order to prove that he isn't a child.

Dave stops at Joe's store and asks to borrow a Sears Roebuck catalogue for the night. Joe asks why he wants it, and Dave tells him he's thinking about buying a gun. Joe tells him he doesn't need a gun because he's just a boy, but Dave convinces him to loan the catalogue. Joe tells Dave that he has a pistol, a "left-handed Wheeler" that he'll sell for $2. Dave is interested and remarks that he'll be back when he can get the money. He takes the catalogue and heads home for supper.

At home Dave's mother, Mrs. Saunders, reprimands him for being late to supper. Dave sits at the table and looks at the guns in the catalogue. He knows he should ask his mother for money, rather than his father, Bob Saunders. Dave asks his mother if Jim Hawkins has given her his pay. His mother says she is saving the money for his school clothes. Dave shows his mother the guns in the catalogue and tells her he wants one. His mother asks if he's "gone plumb crazy" and reminds him he's just a boy. Dave reminds her that she promised him one, pleading with her and telling her he loves her. He even tells her his father can keep the gun for him. Eventually, when Dave tells his mother about Joe's gun that he's willing to sell, his mother says she'll allow him to buy it if he brings the gun straight to her.

Dave's mother gives him the money, and he buys the gun. He doesn't return home until he knows everyone will be asleep. He's unsure how to fire it and a bit scared. When his mother hears him in the night and asks him for the gun, he tells her he hid it outside. The next day Dave wakes early and takes the gun out from under his pillow. He thinks that no one, black or white, can disrespect him while he has it. He has the power to kill someone. He skips breakfast and heads to Hawkins's place at sunrise.

The Shooting

Hawkins asks Dave why he is so early then tells him to plow the stretch down by the woods. After hitching a mule named Jenny to the plow, Dave heads to a far field. He's far enough from the plantation that he can shoot, and no one will hear. He warns the mule not to "run n acka fool" at the loud noise. He moves about 20 feet away, holds the gun out and closes his eyes before shooting. After the shot Jenny runs away as Dave drops the gun. When he catches up with her, he sees that she is bleeding from her side. He leads her back to where he dropped the gun and tries to stop the bleeding by packing the hole with dirt. Dave buries the gun as Jenny bleeds to death.

Two farmhands dig a hole to bury Jenny while Hawkins watches nearby. Whites and blacks gather around, watching the scene. Hawkins says he doesn't understand how it happened. Dave's family comes, his mother asking what he's done. His father demands that Dave tell him what he knows. Dave explains that Jenny pierced herself on the point of the plow when she was trying to get away from him. An onlooker remarks that the wound looks like a bullet hole. Dave's mother asks him where the gun is, and Dave backs away. His father again orders him to explain what happened.

Dave cries and confesses to shooting the mule accidentally. Dave's father asks where the gun came from, and Dave reveals his mother gave him the money. His mother says that the gun was to be for Bob. Hawkins asks how the bullet hit Jenny, and Dave says that when he squeezed the trigger the gun jumped. Hawkins tells Dave that it "looks like you have bought you a mule." The crowd laughs. Hawkins tells Dave's father that Dave can pay off the mule for $50, for $2 a month. Dave lies and tells his father he threw the gun into the creek. Bob says he can retrieve it the next day, sell it back, and give the money to Hawkins. He says Dave will get a beating.

Proving Himself

Dave cannot sleep that evening thinking of how the crowd laughed at him. He feels that all he's done his whole life is work. Dave can't stop thinking about the gun and wants to prove that he can handle it. In the middle of the night he goes to dig up the gun. This time, he keeps his eyes open when he shoots. He fires four times, until all the bullets are gone, then begins walking home. He thinks that if he had one more bullet, he would fire at the Hawkins house to show Mr. Hawkins that he is a man. Dave passes the railroad tracks and hears a train. When it passes him, he hops into a boxcar and lies flat. He can feel the gun in his pocket as he heads somewhere where he can be a man.

Analysis

Social Context

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is set in the rural South at the beginning of the 20th century. Understanding the context of this society is key to understanding the character Dave Saunders, his actions and motivations. Dave is, in fact, nearly a man at age 17. And yet, he feels like no one takes him seriously or treats him with respect.

His parents control his life—his mother keeping the money he earns at work, and his father acting as an authoritarian disciplinarian, while even the men he works with refuse to treat him like an adult. He works hard on a plantation yet has little hope of moving up by his hard work. He feels contempt for the plantation owner, Jim Hawkins, although Hawkins seems to be a fair boss. Through context the reader understands that even though his boss is fair for the time, the situation is fundamentally unequal. Dave works for Hawkins in an arrangement where the benefit is skewed in favor of the plantation owner. Dave's black skin means he must contend with the social and racial subtleties that further serve to emasculate and oppress him in a way that will last long into his manhood.

The Gun

Dave becomes convinced that the way to gain respect and power is by obtaining a gun. He associates this kind of power with being a man. He believes having a gun will give him a measure of power that no one, black or white, can argue with. He is able to convince his mother to give him the money to buy a gun, though she says he doesn't need one. Mrs. Saunders treats Dave like a child, but he seems to know how to manipulate her into giving him what he wants. After all, he knows not to ask for money while his father is around. Dave believes that the gun will solve his problem gaining respect, but once he has the gun, he is largely unsure how to use it.

Dave's initial treatment of the gun is that of a boy. The "power" that it gives him is entirely in his mind, but he is too naive to notice. His actions are still secretive and immature. Rather than surrendering the gun to his mother, he lies about hiding it outside; rather than attract attention or the wrath of his father, he fires it where no one can hear. It seems that simply having a gun doesn't command power, after all. The unsuccessful and misguided quest for power coupled with the lying and concealing prove his immaturity. Ultimately he kills Jenny, the mule, in a senseless act of violence similar to those many African Americans faced during this era. This outcome also shows that a gun does not make anyone a man, but rather leads to becoming a dangerous and violent person instead.

Situational Irony

The gun and Dave's inexperience with it become an example of situational irony when they lead to his humiliation after he accidentally shoots the plantation owner's mule. Though he tries to create a story, his mother and father suspect he isn't telling the truth and pressure him to confess. Dave is demeaned more than ever before, treated "like a mule" as his father promises to beat him, and he is forced to agree to work for two years to pay off Jenny. The workers, whom Dave wants to impress, laugh at him. The combination of all these responses drives his next actions.

As Dave's immaturity deepens after his humiliation, so does his confidence with the gun and his conviction that it will do him good. When Dave returns to the gun and fires off the final four bullets, he does so with more confidence. However, his desire to fire off one more at Hawkins's house shows that he still equates the gun with power and sees it as a way to free himself from the oppression he has faced his entire life. In the end it is the gun that gives Dave the confidence to take his destiny into his own hands, hopping a train to escape life as he knows it. The gun is his only companion. He feels he must leave in order to go somewhere where he can be a man, rejecting the social and racial systems that oppress him. The gun represents that chance for him. However, even though the story ends at this point, readers will sense that the situational irony will continue for Dave, that the gun will lead him to more trouble and danger, not to becoming a man as he hopes.

Dialect

There are two distinct dialects used by Wright in the text, a stylistic choice the author makes. Dave and his family speak in a Southern dialect often used by African Americans in the early 20th century. In this dialect the final consonant sounds of words are often dropped. Jim Hawkins and Joe, on the other hand, use standard English, and Wright's narrator uses standard English to describe actions. The differences in speech further differentiate the white characters from the Saunders family, thus emphasizing the racial and social disparities that exist in their society.

The Man Who Was Almost a Man Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Dave Saunders wants to buy a gun to prove he's a man.

Rising Action

2 Dave convinces Mrs. Saunders to give him $2 for a gun.

3 Dave takes the gun with him to work in the fields.

4 He accidentally shoots a mule and tries to cover it up.

Climax

5 Dave admits that he killed Jenny, the mule.

Falling Action

6 Dave retrieves his gun and fires it four times.

Resolution

7 With his gun, Dave runs away on the train to become a man.

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