Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
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.
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
Mr. and Mrs. Bob Saunders:
Dave's parents. They are poor, and the family uses a well to obtain water
and an outhouse to serve as a toilet.
Dave's Little Brother
Joe: Store owner.
He sells Dave a handgun.
Jim Hawkins: White
landowner for whom Dave works.
of Hawkins who bury the mule shot by Dave.
whites and blacks who gather at the site where Dave shot the mule.
Bill: Character whom
Dave refers to (but does not identify) in the last paragraph of the story.
Apparently, he is one of the young field hands mentioned in the first paragraph
of the story.
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
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.
ain scareda them even ef they are biggern me!" he thinks.
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.
ain't nothing but a boy," Joe says. “You don't need a gun."
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.
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."
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."
is yuh gone plumb crazy?"
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.
be fer Pa," she says.
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.
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.
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!"
walks about twenty feet, holds the gun out, turns his head, closes his
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.
had never seen so much blood in his life," the narrator says.
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.
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.
don't see how in the world it happened," Hawkins says.
mother, father, and brother approach.
yuh done?" his mother says.
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.
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."
asks how the bullet happened to hit the mule. Dave says that when he fired
the gun jumped.
looks like you have bought you a mule, Dave," Hawkins says.
onlookers begin laughing, and someone says, “Looks like yuh done bought
a dead mule."
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.
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 . . . ."
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
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,
third-person narrator tells the story with three techniques:
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.
3. Presentation of
the observations of the narrator, as in the second paragraph of the story.
“How yuh, Mistah Joe?
Aw, Ah don wana buy nothing. Ah jus wanted t see ef yuhd lemme look
at tha catlog erwhile."
“Sure! You wanna see
“Nawsuh. Ah wans t
take it home wid me. Ah’ll bring it back termorrow when Ah come in
from the fiels."
“You planning on buying
“Your ma letting you have
your own money now?"
“Shucks. Mistah Joe,
Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!"
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
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.
“Yuh know bettah t keep
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."
Illinois Central Railroad, a company that provided service between Chicago
and New Orleans, running through the heart of the South.
Questions and Writing Topics
The story ends when Dave hops
a train to go "somewhere where he could be a man." But has Dave really
earned the right to be called a man? Is he, in fact, mature and responsible?
Write an essay that answers these questions. Before beginning your essay,
consider that Dave lies to his mother when she asks for the gun. Then he
lies to Hawkins when the latter asks why Dave arrived so early for work.
Next, when trying the gun the first time, he closes his eyes and accidentally
shoots the mule. When Hawkins and a group of people arrive at the site
of the shooting, he lies about what happened and lies about what he did
with the gun. Finally, without taking food, clothing, or money, he hops
a train for an unknown destination.
If Dave finds work after getting
off the train, will he eventually send back the fifty dollars he owes for
Was it all right for old Joe
to sell the gun to Dave?
Was it all right for Dave's
mother to give him the money for the gun? Why didn't she consult with Mr.
Saunders before giving Dave the money?
If you were Dave, what would
you have done after shooting the mule? Be honest.
Identify several possessions
that teenagers today view as symbols of power.
Write an essay that answers
this question: Did Richard Wright base the story on his own experiences?
Use library and Internet research to support your thesis.
What is the meaning of the title?