At a Glance
- "It is the story of Dave Saunders, a 17-year-old peasant black boy becoming a man. He gets a gun to earn respect and recognition but descends further into trouble and, in the end, jumps aboard a Northbound train leaving behind an irredeemable situation."
1. Plot Summary:
Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost A Man,” also known as “Almos’ a Man,” is a short story that was first published in 1940 in Harper’s Bazaar magazine and then republished in Wright’s compilation of “Eight Men” in 1961. In this article, you will find The Man Who Was Almost A Man summary to get a gist of the story.
2. Obsession With A Gun
While heading home after a day’s hard work, the seventeen-year-old Dave Saunders was still obsessing over a brawl he had with some field hands that day. Thinking that all he did was work and no one ever gave him anything. In his self-pitying mood, he thought of himself as a mule. He keeps thinking about buying a gun someday to prove his manhood. He keeps thinking that getting a weapon and practising it in front of others will earn him the respect he deserves.
One day, on his way home, he visits the general store and asks the fat Joe, the white store manager, to lend him the Sears catalogue. The fat storekeeper is surprised that Dave wants to get the gun. Nevertheless, he offers to sell him an old pistol for two dollars. Dave says he will return later, feeling happy that Joe is ready to sell him that pistol. Instead of going home, he spends time with his friends. Joe lends him the catalogue with glossy pictures of guns, which occupies his mind. He can not think of anything except that he needs to buy the gun. He immerses himself in the Sears catalogue that he does not even notice his father and younger brother when they arrive for dinner.
3. Confiding His Desire To His Mother
At home, he finally discloses his desire for a gun to his mother and asks her for the money to buy a gun. His mother keeps the money he earns by working at Hawkin’s plantation. He is afraid to bring up this topic with his father. But, his mother, after refusing, finally gives in to his vexation and lets Dave buy the gun. She hands him the money he had earned during the summer working at the fields of Jim Hawkins. His mother gives him the money to buy the weapon on the promise that he will bring the gun home and give it to her.
4. Breaks His Promise
Dave purchases the gun with two dollars, and instead of going home, he wanders in the fields, feeling the power of a weapon. He fantasizes about various scenarios, like firing at the big white house of Mr. Hawkins, his landowner. He waits for everyone to sleep before going home at midnight. While lying in his bed with the gun under his pillow, Mrs. Saunders comes to him at midnight. She quietly asks him where the gun is and to hand over the gun to her. But Dave tells a lie that it is stashed outside, and he will hand it over to her in the morning. He gets up early, removes the gun from the stash, and leaves for the fields. Mr Hawkins, his boss, wonders at his turning up early and orders him to take a mule to the fields to start ploughing.
5. Grave Mistake
Dave goes to the farthest field with Jenny so no one can hear the sound when he fires the gun. He finally musters the courage to hold the gun in his hands and pulls the trigger. Unfortunately, when Dave shoots the gun, the short and strong recoil of the gunshot disturbs his aim, and he accidentally shoots jenny. The poor mule starts running in the field while bleeding. Dave drops the gun and tries to stop the bleeding by putting mud on it, but she lies down and dies. This would prove to him that a gun does not make a man after all.
6. The Verdict
In his panic, Dave buries the gun under a tree across the field and thinks about concocting some plausible story to explain the death of jenny to Hawkins. Eventually, someone finds the dead body of the mule. A small crowd of onlookers is gathered around the dead mule. Among the group are his parents and Mr Hawkins.
When inquired about the incident, he tells them a lie: Jenny got startled and pierced herself on the plough’s point. No one believes, and one of the men observes the wound closely and says that the wound looks like a bullet hole. His father beats him and shakes him, to tell the truth.
Hawkins assures him he will not be angry if he tells the truth. When pressed further, he finally confesses and tells the truth about how he accidentally shot the mule. Upon knowing the truth about the real cause, Mr Saunders gets pissed off at the collaboration of Mrs Saunders about the pistol. Mr Hawkins tells Dave and the family that their son has bought a dead mule. They must pay 50 dollars even though the death has been an accident. Dave has to pay two dollars a month for two years to pay back the money.
7. For One Last Time
Dave’s father asks him to sell the gun to Joe and give the money to Hawkins to make his first payment of the month. In addition, his father promises to provide him with the beating of his life when he returns home. When his father asks where the gun is, Dave lies again, saying that he threw it into a creek and will retrieve it the next day.
That night he could not sleep and wanted to fire the gun for the last time before giving it back to Joe. In the middle of the night, he gets out of his bed and finds the gun where he had buried it. He retrieves the gun and shoots it four times in the air. This time he shoots without closing his eyes or turning his head back as he had done earlier. He runs across the fields with his amputated self-esteem and finds the big white house of his master Mr Hawkins.
8. Escape To Be A Man
He imagines shooting at Hawkins’s house to redeem his injured sense of masculinity. He walks down the same road where the story opens, mulling over two years of working in the fields without getting paid. Meanwhile, he hears a train in the distance approaching. He runs towards the track to get on the train for an unknown destination, where he could be a man.
Themes in The Man Who Was Almost A Man
The author (Richard Wright) has brought up the following themes in the reader’s mind in his tragic story.
“Ah, don care what Ah promised! Yuh ain nothing but a boy yet, yuh don need no gun,” said Mrs Saunders to Dave when he insisted on buying a weapon. Dave thinks that a weapon might bring him respect and recognition in society. As the title suggests, Dave is seventeen, a very precarious stage in life when one is neither a man nor a boy. A teenager at this stage wants to be treated like a man. Dave is at a natural disadvantage of being a black peasant in a racist society. The quest for respectable selfhood is stronger in him. He wants to prove his selfhood and, in doing so, commits blunders.
The story revolves around Dave’s fragile self-respect and his wish to be treated like a man. In search of power, he misplaces owning a gun as a means to achieve it. But, it further lands him in trouble. Ironically he decides to climb aboard a northbound train with the same weapon that will land him in more trouble elsewhere. The tragedy of his quest for respect is that his vulnerable age gets mixed up with his lowest social class as a slave.
Curse of Racism
Richard Wright was born on a plantation in Roxie, Mississippi, in 1908. He must have experienced and lived the slavery of his class. He must have experienced several tragedies like his character goes through. Racism and social injustice are the underlying themes of the story. However, his suffering from low self-respect and a big ego is typical of his adolescent struggle with being seen by his parents and peers. But his roots in a segregated and persecuted black community make his case irredeemable.
The end of the story, when he catches a northbound train in frustration, explains the underlying reasons behind the great migration. The migration happened when millions of black people from the rural south working on plantations left for the north in search of better lives. His mother lets him buy a weapon because she thinks their family needs a gun to protect themselves. Her permission to let his son buy a firearm in self-defence tells a lot about the suffering of being black. And the final desperate step of leaving his family behind for an unknown destination. And his refusal to give up the gun is a tragic escape from the curse of racism that is bound to follow him everywhere.
The story makes complete sense if seen through the prism of class conflict. Poor Dave’s economic status is central to his struggle for power and respect. He works hard like a mule on the plantation and is meagerly paid by his master. His mother saves his earnings for his schooling, which might hold a chance of freeing him from economic exploitation.
But, on the other hand, Hawkins controls him financially. Ironically, the gun that might free him from slavery and get him respect and status further descends him and condemns him into eternal slavery. He has to work for twenty-five months to pay the debt of fifty dollars which is the price of the dead mule shot by his gun. His wish to shoot his gun at the big white house of Hawkins is an expression of the frustration of a labourer under debt condemned to eternal economic exploitation.
Dave’s over obsession with a gun is the main theme of the tragic story by Richard Wright. He thinks that the gun will give him power and respect. Why was Dave so fixated on owning a weapon? The answer is the society around him is deeply woven into a culture of violence. Blacks are controlled on plantations through violence, and Dave is forced to take the gun.
He thinks violence is the key to respect, recognition, and power. He is a tragic victim of violence. After the first blunder, when he accidentally kills the mule of his master, his father tells him to find the gun and asks Dave to sell it to Joe for a couple of dollars to make the first payment to Hawkins. But he chooses not to give up on it because somehow he thinks a gun will lead him to freedom.
The Man Who Was Almost A Man Book Review
Bright’s short story The Man Who Was Almost A Man is as relevant today as it was a century ago. The curse of racism and economic injustice has not disappeared, and so its detriments are on those who are at the receiving end. It is a story of a black guy who left his hometown to escape exploitation in search of respect and recognition and is still subject to systemic injustices. It is about the guy who left his family in search of basic care for human existence and is still dying while crying, “I cannot breathe.”
The culture of violence is still prevalent, which pushes persecuted communities to the edge. They are forced to resort to violence and then apprehended on the same grounds. Penitentiaries are still overwhelmingly black, and jurors are still overwhelmingly white. The story effectively underscores themes of respect, recognition, racism, and economic injustice.