The Man Who Was Almost a Man


The Man Who Was Almost a Man

"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is a short story by Richard Wright. It chronicles the story of Dave, a young African American farm worker who is struggling to declare his identity in the atmosphere of the rural South.

Plot

The story opens with Dave, the 17-year old protagonist, walking home from another day of working in the fields. He fantasizes about buying a gun because he feels if he owned one, the other field workers would take him more seriously and stop talking down to him. He decides to make a stop at the town store and asks the owner, Joe, if he can borrow the Sears Roebuck catalogue for the evening. Joe asks what Dave is looking for and Dave confides in him that he would like to buy a gun. Joe is unsure as to whether or not Dave is old enough for one, but after some conversation he offers to sell an old pistol to him. Dave tells him he will buy it and bring the money in the next day.

Dave returns home with the catalogue and looks through it after he has eaten dinner. He tells his mother he would like two dollars so that he may buy the gun at the local store. At first, his mother vigorously refuses until Dave ends up talking her into the idea. She tells him she will give him the money but only under the condition that the gun will belong to his father. He agrees and runs back to the store to purchase the two dollar pistol.

The next morning, Dave wakes up with much excitement, knowing that he has the gun in his possession. We find out that he did not come home right after buying the gun and instead stayed out pretending to shoot fake targets. He also waited until he knew everyone was in bed to go home so that he would not have to hand the gun over to his mother right away.

On this morning, he sneaks out before sunrise and heads over to work. He tells his boss, Hawkins, that he came early so that he could take his mule, Jenny, to the fields with him. With Jenny in tow, Dave heads far into the fields, plows about two rows and decides he is ready to actually shoot the gun. He fires the pistol and Jenny takes off running. Dave immediately buries the pistol, catches up with Jenny and he sees that the gun has shot her and that she is quickly losing blood. After several minutes, Jenny dies.

He lies to Hawkins about Jenny’s death and they proceed to arrange a burial for Jenny. Dave’s family arrives at the burial and asks him what has happened. He tells his lie again; however, his parents are not at all convinced. One of the men at the service makes a remark that it looks like Jenny has a bullet hole in her side. His mother asks him what he has done with the gun she gave him the money for. Dave looks down at Jenny, begins to cry and tells them of the accidental shooting. Hawkins tells Dave that he must buy the dead mule from him for 50 dollars.

Dave’s father threatens to beat him and asks him where the gun is; Dave lies, saying he threw it into the river. His father goes on to say that the next morning he will retrieve the gun from the water, return it to Joe and give the two dollars to Hawkins to start paying for his mistake. As he walks away, everyone begins laughing at Dave and he gets very angry.

That night, Dave cannot sleep because he's upset at the prospect of his father beating him and being laughed at by everyone. He then reflects back to earlier when he shot the gun and decides he must do it again. He sneaks out of the house, digs up the gun from the field and fires it until there are no more bullets left. He hears a train in the distance and begins thinking of how he must return the pistol and pay Hawkins for the dead mule. Upset at the idea of paying for a dead mule, he runs to the train, checks his pocket for the gun and hops on, leaving his family and everyone behind.

Analysis

This story, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" was part of Richard Wright’s “Eight Men” published in 1961. While the story appears to be simply about a young boy’s desired to have a gun, Wright’s work includes underlying themes of racism and the struggles of an individual. This piece is filled with metaphors for life and the journey from boyhood to manhood. The story is set in a farming area. Wright never gets into much detail about the surrounding area other than to mention that the main character, Dave, is working or walking through a field. This desolate sort of background that sets the stage for the story can be viewed as a way to get readers to focus more on the imagery of the gun. Wright’s contemporary, James Baldwin said that his “unrelenting bleak landscape” was a picture of “the world, [and] of the human heart.” Wright intentionally used his setting to mirror the emptiness and the search for meaning in the life of his characters, and in this particular story, the life of Dave. The issue of racism plays an important role in this story as well. Dave is a young African American boy working for Jim Hawkins, a white farm owner. After Dave shoots the mule, Wright makes a point to say that “There were white and black standing in the crowd” and Dave “cried, seeing blurred white and black faces.” So, not only does the issue of the dead animal become a concern, but the colors of the people around Dave become important as well. The gun becomes an equalizer in Dave’s eyes when he says “Could kill a man with a gun like this. Kill anybody, black or white. And if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him.” The gun blurs the color line and all Dave can see is the prospect of having others respect him. When it comes down to it, Dave is bound to his debt and has no choice but to pay Jim Hawkins. The mention of skin color makes this about more than just that debt, but about the ideas of bondage. The gun in the story plays a very important role metaphorically. Dave’s main goal throughout the story is to gain respect from others and to have something in his power that he can have control over. This is why a gun is so appealing to him from the start. When considering the gun Dave says “Ahm almos a man now. Ah wans a gun.” Here, it is apparent that Dave equates manhood with owning a gun. He does not want to be considered a child anymore, so the gun is his opportunity to have something powerful within his grasp. One reading of the gun is that it is a figurative representation of Dave’s own manhood in a sexual sense. The idea of abandoning childhood innocence for the reality of adulthood plays out in the way that Dave is supposed to take responsibility for his actions in shooting Jenny the mule. In this sense Dave imagines manhood in terms of the gun but he realizes it in terms of the consequences.

References

*Baym, Nina, ed.. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter seventh edition. Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 736–747. ISBN 978-0-393-93056-6.
* Reilly, John. Richard Wright:The Critical Reception. Ayer Publishing, 1978. ISBN 0891021264


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