The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Symbols


The Gun

The major symbol in "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is the pistol Dave Saunders first dreams about and then buys. The gun symbolizes power, manhood, and respect, all of which he longs for after feeling like everyone around him treats him like a boy. Dave believes that if he has and learns to shoot a gun, then no one, regardless of race, can disrespect him. In this way he feels that the gun is a great equalizer, even fantasizing about shooting at Jim Hawkins's house near the end of the story. Dave seems to understand that the gun gives him the capacity to upset the inequality that he senses between himself and those with more power, particularly because of race. In a twist of situational irony the consequences brought about by the gun place Dave in an even more compromised position: humiliated and in debt to Mr. Hawkins.

Guns are frequently associated with masculinity as a phallic symbol. While this isn't explicitly stated in the text, the connection between masculinity and respect is clear in Dave's mind. And as the story progresses, Dave's relationship with the gun begins to shift as well. When he first shoots the gun, he does so wildly, with his eyes closed. Later in the story he is more confident with the gun, but his confidence is ill placed. It seems to give him the confidence to run away, promising him that manhood now awaits elsewhere, since he didn't find it in his hometown. The gun emboldens him, but not necessarily to take on responsibility and assume manhood.

The Mule

The mule in the story, Jenny, represents responsibility and work. Dave hates that people treat him with no respect, like a boy, and the mule suggests that he is treated like an animal, worked to the bone, and beaten. When Dave kills Jenny, he instantly earns two years of work to repay the debt to Mr. Hawkins. Dave even remarks that he is treated "like a mule," and will be beaten by his father for his misdeed.

There is also a deeper meaning that helps develop the theme of racial and social inequality. Dave isn't just sentenced to a life of feeling inferior and working like an animal because people won't take him seriously; his race and social status also play a part. As an African American man at the turn of the century in the South, Dave has little choice in his life. The white character Hawkins doesn't just hold power over Dave because he killed the mule. The power Hawkins obtains when Dave accidentally kills the mule is only a symbol of the already existing power that white plantation owners hold over their black workers in this society and at this time in history.

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