The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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The Man Who Was Almost a Man | Themes


Coming of Age

Dave Saunders is "almost a man," as the title of the story suggests, but he is not a boy either. The story emphasizes his coming of age and his perception that those nearest to him threaten his manhood. Dave feels that everyone, from his mother to the men with whom he works, refuses to give him the respect he deserves. His belief that a gun and the power that it brings will cement his place as a man is a driving force as the theme is developed.

There is some situational irony in the fact that when Dave attains his long-desired gun, it doesn't bring about the expected result but rather a blow to his already fragile self-image. Shooting the mule reveals not only Dave's inexperience but his immaturity. It also clearly shows Dave that guns do not bring only the kind of power he is seeking. They are also the source of an unwieldy and chaotic power that is difficult to control. The event humiliates him further, causing him to be shamed in front of his coworkers when his father promises to beat him like a child.

This further humiliation, and the prospect of paying off the mule over two years, drives Dave to take action. Still overconfident in the power that the gun brings, but also convinced that there is no room for him to become a man in his current environment, Dave chooses to escape his oppressed life by hopping a train. He has not given up on his quest toward manhood.

Seeking Power and Respect

Dave's consuming belief is that he is not given the respect he deserves as a man. He longs for the power to force those around him, both at work and at home, to see that he is not a boy and to treat him like a man. Dave is convinced that owning a gun and learning to shoot it will prove his manhood.

Dave's obsession with power and respect originates with his lack of control over his life. His mother controls the money he works hard for, and he is subject to his father's strict control. Those around him—the men he works with, Jim Hawkins, and even Joe at the store—treat him like a boy. They also call him a boy, a diminutive term that white men used in the past to belittle African American men. Though it isn't explicitly stated in the text, Dave's long-term options are likely limited because of his family's race and social status. In Dave's mind a gun will give him instant credibility and authority, the ability to "kill anybody, black or white." He is willing to ignore the instructions set forth by his mother, and later his father, to keep the gun and learn to use it. For Dave, the gun gives him power over his own destiny and forces those around him to treat him with respect.

In reality, though, the gun increases his humiliation, his subservience, and his impulsiveness. His coworkers laugh at him after he shoots the mule, he is now in debt to Mr. Hawkins, and he feels he has the power to run away simply because he has a gun. Even though he believes he is pursuing power and respect, readers are left with uncertainty about whether escaping will win him either of those things.

Race and Class Relations

Though race and class are not overtly discussed within the story, much of Dave's quest for power and respect is the result of both. Dave's family is rooted in the systematic oppression of African Americans in the American South. He works hard at manual labor for a white farm owner and yet has little opportunity for economic improvement because of his place in society.

Although Dave doesn't explicitly point to race and class as an impetus for obtaining a gun, his thoughts and actions reveal that the author sought to develop this theme. It is the depressed economic state of his family and the coldness of his parents that cause Dave to feel like less than a man; similarly, these also cause him to equate manhood with violent power. Because he has no experience being viewed with respect, and no reason to think that it will come naturally, he looks for a way to command it.

Race and class relations seem to have predisposed Dave to feel insulted even when he is treated justly. Killing the mule is an accident. Mr. Hawkins doesn't threaten to press charges, call the sheriff, or fire Dave; he simply indebts Dave to himself, demanding that Dave surrender his wages for nearly two years to work off the cost of the mule. This is an example of how the means to which Dave aspires to power actually lead him to hold a more unfavorable position in society. But because of Dave's already grim prospects, this justice feels like injustice, and it thus gives rise to resentment, so much so that Dave harbors aggressive thoughts toward Hawkins and his family, lightly entertaining the idea of shooting at his house. Instead of staying around to buy more bullets and follow through on his daydream to shoot at Hawkins, Dave realizes that there will be no justice for him in this place and decides to leave in search of a better one.

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