By Richard Wright (1908-1960)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year
......."The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is a short story centering on a seventeen-year-old who believes he has earned the right to be treated as an adult. It first appeared in Harper's Bazaar in January 1940 under the title "Almos' a Man." In 1961, the World Publishing Company printed the story in Cleveland and New York as "The Man Who Was Almost a Man." It was part of a collection of Wright's stories, Eight Men.
.......The action takes place in the American South before 1940 (the year when Harper's Bazaar published the story). Wright grew up in the South—in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
Dave Saunders: Seventeen-year-old African-American who believes owning a gun will cause others to respect him.
.......The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view, presenting the thoughts and actions of Dave Saunders but only the actions of the other characters.
Wright, Richard. "The Man Who Was Almost a Man." Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed. McMahan, Elizabeth; Susan X Day, and Robert Fund, eds. Upper ..........Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999. Pages 354-362........Seventeen-year-old Dave Saunders heads home for supper across the fields. When he sees a group of other blacks, he thinks of getting a gun and practicing with it. Then they would not treat him like a little boy.
.......“Ah ain scareda them even ef they are biggern me!” he thinks.
.......He stops at Joe's store and asks whether he can take the Sears Roebuck catalogue home with him and return it the following day. When fat old Joe asks him why he wants it, Dave says he is thinking about buying a gun.
.......“You ain't nothing but a boy,” Joe says. “You don't need a gun.”
.......But Dave persuades Joe to let him borrow the catalogue. Joe then says he himself has an old handgun—a “left-hand Wheeler”—that he is willing to sell for two dollars. Dave says he will be back in to buy it as soon as he gets the money. But he still takes the catalogue with him. When he reaches home, his mother scolds him for being late for supper and pushes him out the door to wash his hands at the well.
.......After returning, he sits at the supper table looking at pictures of guns in the catalogue while his father and little brother come in. Dave then puts the book on his lap and eats. When his father asks Dave how he is getting along with old man Hawkins, Dave says, “Ah plows mo lan than anybody over there.”
.......After his father and brother leave the kitchen, Dave reopens the catalogue to the gun section. Then he asks his mother whether Jim Hawkins gave her his pay. She says he did. But she also says she is saving it for his school clothes. He goes to her with the opened catalogue and says, “Ma, Gawd knows Ah wans one of these.”
.......“Nigger, is yuh gone plumb crazy?”
.......He tells her that she promised him one, but she says he is still just a boy. He pleads with her, puts his arm around her waist, and tells her he loves her. He says he can let his father keep it for him. She again refuses her permission. But after he continues to plead with her, telling her that old Joe at the store is willing to sell him one for two dollars, she says she will let him get a gun if he gives it to her.
.......“It be fer Pa,” she says.
.......She gives him the money, and he runs out and buys the gun. He does not return until he knows everyone is asleep. He wants to have some time alone with his gun. However, his mother awakens and goes to him, asking for the gun. He tells her that he hid it outside but will give it to her the next morning. When he wakes up before dawn, he takes the gun from beneath his pillow and holds it, thinking that no one, black or white, can disrespect him while he is carrying it. It is heavy and has a long barrel. After getting out of bed, he wraps the gun in a strip of cloth and ties it to his thigh. It is loaded. Deciding to skip breakfast, he leaves the house before daylight and reaches the Hawkins place as the sun is rising.
.......When Hawkins asks him why he has arrived so early, Dave replies that he was not aware of the time when he got out of bed. Hawkins then tells him to plow “that stretch down by the woods.” While plowing that far out, Dave realizes, he can shoot his gun and nobody will hear the bang.
.......After plowing two rows, he unties the gun and says to the mule, “Listen here, Jenny! When ah pull this ol trigger, Ah don wan yuh t run n acka fool now!”
.......He walks about twenty feet, holds the gun out, turns his head, closes his eyes, and fires. The narrator says the “report half deafened him and he thought his right had was torn from his arm.” Jenny gallops off. Dave drops the gun and puts his hand in his mouth to relieve the pain. He kicks the gun, then chases Jenny down after she breaks free of the plow. Then Dave notices the blood streaming from a hole on the left side of the mule.
.......“He had never seen so much blood in his life,” the narrator says.
.......The mule runs off again. After catching her about half a mile away, he leads her by her mane back to the place where the gun is lying. He attempts to stop the blood by applying handfuls of dirt to the wound. But the blood keeps coming. He realizes she is bleeding to death. He wants to go for help, but how can he? He shot her. Soon the mule is on her knees. A few moments later, she is lying on the ground. Dave then buries the gun near a tree and wonders what to do next.
.......The narrator flashes forward to the end of the day, when the sun is setting. Two of Hawkins's farmhands are near the woods digging a hole. Jenny will be buried there. Hawkins evaluates the scene while whites and blacks crowd in around Dave to observe.
.......“I don't see how in the world it happened,” Hawkins says.
.......Dave's mother, father, and brother approach.
.......“What yuh done?” his mother says.
.......“Nothin',” Dave says.
.......His father orders him to tell what he knows. Dave then says Jenny began kicking her heels and trying to get away. When she twisted herself around, she pierced herself on the point of the plow and started to bleed. In a short while, she was dead. One man says the wound resembles a bullet hole. His mother asks him what he did with the gun. Dave backs away. His father shakes him and orders him to tell what happened.
.......Dave cries. He admits shooting the mule but says he was just trying to see whether the gun worked. His father asks where he got the gun and the money. When Dave tells him, his mother says, “He kept worryin me, Bob. Ah had t. Ah tol im t bring the gun right back to me . . . It was fer yuh, the gun.”
.......Hawkins asks how the bullet happened to hit the mule. Dave says that when he fired the gun jumped.
......."Well, looks like you have bought you a mule, Dave,” Hawkins says.
.......The onlookers begin laughing, and someone says, “Looks like yuh done bought a dead mule.”
.......Hawkins tells Bob not to worry, saying Dave can pay for the cost of the mule—fifty dollars—at the rate of two dollars a month. When Dave's father asks where the gun is, Dave says he threw it into the creek. His father tells him to find it in the morning, get the money back, and give it to Hawkins. He promises to punish Dave with a beating.
.......That night, Dave cannot get to sleep. The people had laughed at him. And now his Pa was going to beat him. The narrator, revealing Dave's thoughts, says, “Nobody ever gave him anything. All he did was work. They treated me like a mule . . . .”
.......Dave thinks about the gun. He wants to shoot it again to prove that he can handle it. Everyone is asleep, so he goes out and gets the gun. In the cylinder are four bullets. This time he keeps his eyes open when he pulls the trigger. All goes well. Then he fires the gun three more times, proving to himself that he knows how to shoot. After putting the gun back in his pocket, he walks toward home on the road near the Illinois Central's tracks and hears the huffing of a locomotive. When it passes pulling boxcars, he hops on a car and lies flat. He feels the for the gun. It is still in his pocket. He is going someplace where he can be a man.
Climax and Conclusion
.......The climax occurs when Dave admits that he fired the gun and killed the mule. The laughter of the onlookers and the threat of a beating from his father humiliate him. In the conclusion (denouement), he decides to keep the gun and run away rather than face further humiliating treatment. After all, he reasons, he is now a man and can survive on his own.
.......The main theme of the story is Dave's attempt to bolster his downtrodden ego and gain the respect of others. At seventeen, Dave believes he is a man and deserves to be treated like one. But the people in his community regard him as a boy. Owning a gun and mastering its operation will prove to himself and to others that he is indeed a man, he thinks. After he buys the gun and accidentally kills the mule, the people who gather at the scene—including his own parents—humiliate him. Nevertheless, he continues to believe in himself, practices shooting the gun to prove he can master it, and then runs away to "somewhere where he could be a man."
.......Dave wants to be regarded as a man. But to qualify as a man, the seventeen-year-old needs one important quality above all others: maturity. Dave's behavior, however, suggests that he still has a lot to learn. For additional information on this theme, see the first study question.
.......Dave wants control of his destiny. At home, his parents regard him as a boy even though he is seventeen. His mother keeps his wages; his father still beats him if Dave does wrong. Other field hands do not respect him. As far as his future is concerned, Dave appears to be in a dead-end job. After all, he lives in a society in which opportunities for black men are severely limited. However, he sees a gun as the great equalizer. If he learns how to use it, he will have power and control over his destiny.
.......Dave repeatedly exercises bad judgment. He lies repeatedly and fails to get help after accidentally shooting Jenny. But adults in the story also exercise bad judgment. Dave's mother, for example, gives her son money to buy the gun. She does not consult her husband. Then old Joe sells the gun to Dave, a minor.
.......The third-person narrator tells the story with three techniques:
1. Presentation of the thoughts of Dave Saunders, as in the first paragraph. Note that no quotation marks appear at the beginning or end of the passage.
Aw, Ah know whut Ahma do. Ahm going by ol Joe’s sto n git that Sears Roebuck catlog n look at them guns. Mebbe Ma will lemme buy one when she gits mah pay from ol man Hawkins. Ahma beg her t gimme some money. Ahm ol enough to hava gun. Ahm seventeen . . . Shucks, a man oughta hava little gun aftah he done worked hard all day.2. Presentation of the spoken words of Dave Saunders and other characters in the story. Note that quotation marks enclose each spoken passage.
“Howdy, Dave! Whutcha want?”3. Presentation of the observations of the narrator, as in the second paragraph of the story.
He came in sight of Joe’s store. A yellow lantern glowed on the front porch. He mounted steps and went through the screen door, hearing it bang behind him. There was a strong smell of coal oil and mackerel fish. He felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze.Dialect
.......Dave Saunders and his parents speak in a dialect similar to that of African-Americans when the author was growing up in the U.S. South. However, the dialect is not the same as that of Southern blacks. Here's why. In writing dialect, authors of English-language literature must occasionally use correct spellings, standard pronunciations, and correct punctuation. Otherwise, the dialogue would be unintelligible to readers unfamiliar with the dialect. Consider the following passage.
“Yeah, but am no usa yuh thinking bout throwin nona it erway. Ahm keeping tha money sos yuh kin have clothes to go to school this winter.”Here, Dave's mother is responding to Dave's question about whether Mr. Hawkins gave her Dave's pay. Notice that she says thinking and keeping without dropping the g but says throwin instead of throwing. Notice also that she uses to twice in the second sentence without dropping the o. By comparison, both Dave and his mother drop the o in to in the following passage.
“Aw, Ma, Ah jus stopped down the road t talk wid the boys.”Throughout the story, Wright does a good job making the dialect sound authentic but still easily readable.
left-wheeler: Colt 38 with a long barrel and a cylinder that turned to the left rather that to the right, like other Colt handguns—hence, the name "left-wheeler."