Richard Wright’s short story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”, illustrates the hardships a boy goes through while becoming a man. This time can be very awkward and stressful for anyone, but it seems the stress is doubled for Dave. Dave is seventeen and yearning to be treated as an equal by his father and the other workers.
Dave believes if he has a gun it will make him a man. The gun in this story is an obvious phallic symbol. It represents manhood, strength, and power, as it does in our society today. Boys often see getting a gun as their first step into adulthood. It takes maturity to be able to own and use one responsibly.
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It would be crazy to give a child a gun and expect him not to kill himself or someone else. When the day comes that a boy finally gets this status symbol, he is elated, and feels very powerful. Assuming he is ready to control this kind of power, it can be a good self-esteem builder. In the story, Dave irrefutably is not ready to own a gun. It is obvious by his reaction to having it in his hand. “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.” (Wright 78).
Dave wants to be thought of as a man so desperately, he’s willing to gain that respect by instilling fear in other people. The story then goes on to say that he doesn’t even know how to fire the gun (78). This clears up any doubt about his reasons for wanting the gun. He doesn’t want it so much for fun as he does to gain the respect of those around him. Even if Dave had been unable to fire the gun, he more than likely would have been content just flashing it around.
It is very hard for Dave to “find himself” because of the environment he lives in. His parents treat him like a beast of burden instead of the growing boy that he is. He works long hours, gets paid little, and has a minuscule amount of downtime. All these things to him, and to the reader, suggest manhood; so why is he treated like such a child? This could be either because he is slow, or because he is a good source of income for the family. When Dave accidentally shoots the mule, he panics. Interestingly, the mule symbolizes true manhood; responsibility (Man 1). The way he tries to fill the hole with dirt shows his childish mentality. After the mule dies, he racks his brain thinking of lies to tell.
These actions show that he is immature, but they also show how badly he wants to be a man. Surely if everybody found out how the mule really died, they would think he was just some dumb kid who made a dumb mistake. If that happened, he would never be thought of as a grown-up. Predictably, his story did not go over as well as he had hoped, and the whole town laughed at him for what he had done. The fact that his indiscretion was just laughed off made him feel horrible. Along with the humiliation, he was also down-trodden by the thought of paying fifty dollars for a dead mule and getting the beating of his life when he awoke the next morning. With these thoughts rolling around in his head, Dave sneaks off into the night to find his gun.
He had hidden it under a tree, and when he found it, he felt a great excitement. He felt like a worthless child after the day’s events, but with the gun in his hand once again, he felt powerful. He also wanted to prove, if only to himself, that he could, in fact, shoot this gun. After he fired off the last of the rounds, he felt wonderful, relieved almost, that he really was a man. Convinced once more that he was a man, Dave passes Jim Hawkins’ house and wishes he could take a shot at it. “Lawd, ef Ah had just one mo bullet Ah’d taka shot at tha house. Ah’d like t scare ol man Hawkins jusa little.
… Jusa enough t let im know Dave Saunders is a man.” (Wright 8). Dave’s ego had been butchered earlier that day, and now with his renewed pride he wanted to prove himself to Hawkins. How dare he laugh at Dave like that? He felt that Hawkins should know, like everyone else, that Dave was, in fact, a man.
Dave then decides that it is his environment that is oppressing him, and the only way to be fully appreciated for the man he is, is to go somewhere else. The Illinois Central is coming down the tracks, and he makes a quick decision to jump on. He jumps onto the train, and “he felt his pocket; the gun was still there” (8). An interesting question to consider is, would Dave had stayed on the train had he dropped the gun? Probably not.
Dave reassures himself, periodically, before jumping on the train by making sure he has the gun. This gun is his manhood, with the gun, and only in this case, he is a man. Dave rumbles off into the night with the train in search of a place where he can be a man. When he reaches that place, or any place for that matter, he will be a man; not out of maturity, but out of necessity.
Growing up is a difficult time, and it becomes even more difficult with no one there for support. This story shows some of the hardships a child goes through during this time. It breaks one’s heart to see a boy go through this with no one to understand him, but that’s life, and Wright sends the message quite clearly.