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Man Who Almost Was a Man," by Richard Wright, explains how the non-literary dimension changes one's understanding of the story.
The Man Who Was Almost a Man"
Richard Wright was one of the greatest African-American writers; he was also the first African-American to have produced one of the famous novel of racism and its psychological affect on the individuals in his masterpiece "Native Son." Born in 1908 in Mississippi, Wright father left the family when he was only six years old and when he was ten his mother had a paralytic stroke and was unable to work. Wright after a formal education was forced to seek employment in order to support his family. The first half of the twentieth century was a crucial period for the African-Americans, the discrimination against them had taken a different form and shape and there were little jobs available for the black people. Wright worked for a series of menial jobs, he wanted to continue his education by using the local library but the Jim Crow Laws stopped him. He nevertheless solved this problem by forging his notes and pretending that he was collecting books for a white man. Wright in this period read many of the renowned American writers such as H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. After passing a civil service examination Wright became a post office clerk but soon after the Wall Street Crash and the Depression this job was lost too. After a series of temporary jobs Wright found a job with the Federal Writers Project, which enabled him to write and publish his work.
This was a breakthrough to Wright and thus began his literary career, Wright began attending the meetings and conferences of literary groups and met several Marxists which influenced him to join the American Communist Party. Wright began to Wright poems, essays and short stories, which were primarily against the racism and discrimination of African-American but also contained Marxists and Communists tones. Wright in this period was able to read a lot of Marxists and Communist literature and his experiences in life, the poverty he had seen, the discrimination he had faced and the brutal violence that he had witnessed all combine to give his work a unique blend of literature and social psychology [Rampersad, 1996]. After publishing many poems, short stories and a collection of short stories "Uncle Tom's Children," Wright began to write his famous novel "Native Son." The novel tells "a story of Bigger Thomas, a black ghetto dweller in Chicago, who is hired by a wealthy family as their chauffeur. He is befriended by the family's liberal daughter and her Communist boyfriend. Thomas accidentally kills the daughter and later he murders his girlfriend after she refuses to help him. He is captured and defended by a Marxist lawyer who tries to get him to articulate the harshness of his life that has led to these violent acts. He is unable to do this and the end he can only affirm that: "What I killed for, I am!"
One of the hallmarks of Wright novels and his short stories was that it not only was a great literary piece it also contained social psychology, the tension between individual and class and the whole makeup of the society. This was perhaps because of his Marxist influence that he had, many of Wright stories seem like documentaries, and his work can easily be read as elementary sociology. The finest example is Wright short story "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is about a seventeen-year-old-boy who expresses his need to be acknowledged as an adult. It is significant why the protagonist, Dave, is only almost a man. Wright in this story depicts the torment of identity crisis and the need to be accepted in the community and not as the "other." Dave considers himself as the "other" in the society he is constantly finding ways which would make him an adult, it is his need to be accepted fully by the community. This story of personality crisis tells us about the social aspects that the story depicts. By acquiring a gun, Dave believes that he will finally be able to gain some power and respect, thus becoming a mature "man." Throughout the story there is a continuous paradox between childishness and maturity, seen in Dave's actions before and after he bought a gun. It is ironic that the gun, and all that it symbolizes, is the only means for which Dave can become a "man" as an African-American in a white society. Because it actually ends up hurting him and causing him ridicule, creating an allegorical conflict between his ignorance and his maturity [Rampersad, 1995].
From the beginning of the story, it is evident that Dave is treated as immature, and does not receive very much respect. His coworkers, who seem to be older than him, "talk to him as though he were a little boy" [Wright 275]. When Dave decides to buy a gun, thinking it will earn him some respect, Joe, the owner of the store, tells him that he "ain't nothing but a boy" [Wright, 2003]. His parents, too, treat him as a child. His mother withholds the money that he earns from working in the fields for Mr. Hawkins, and his father beats him as a form of punishment. Dave thinks that a gun will make him powerful people will have to respect him because they will fear him, and they will realize that this little boy is actually a grown man and is mature enough to own and fire a gun.
As guns symbolize violence, war, and power, they also symbolize manliness; so Dave expects a gun to make him macho and fearless; "And if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him" [Wright 2003]. Along with its malevolent and gender bias intents, a gun is also a phallic symbol suggesting some sexual implications. Dave's eyes widen at the pictures of the big black revolvers in the catalog, and once he buys a gun of his own, he sleeps with it under his pillow and strokes it at night. Then when he decides to take the gun out of his house, he ties it to his naked thigh. The gun symbolizes Dave's potency, and when most seventeen-year-old boys think about girls, Dave thinks about acquiring a gun [JanMohamed, 1997].
Although Dave hates being treated as an immature child, Wright does not suggest that Dave is being treated unjustly. Even though he is seventeen, Dave does not show signs of maturity, and seems ignorant about guns and problems that they can cause. Dave is very egocentric he does not want a gun to protect himself or his family, he wants it to make himself look better. His immaturity shows when he is asking his mother for the two dollars to buy the gun; he begs and pesters her until he gets his way. Dave's childishness is evident at the beginning of the story, and after buying the gun, Dave is hopeful of being recognized as a mature young man [JanMohamed, 1997].
Ironically, the gun, which Dave thought would gain him power and respect, actually only proved his ignorance more. Not knowing how to shoot a gun, Dave takes it out to Jim Hawkins' plantation, holds it shakily in his hands, turns his head, and shoots. Bloom! He looks up after the gunshot and sees Mr. Hawkins' mule, Jenny, whimpering, with her left side drenched in blood. Dave tries to cover up his mistake by filling the bullet wound with dirt, and saying that Jenny threw herself into the plow. When the crowd realizes that Dave killed Jenny, Dave begins to cry and the crowd begins to mock him and laugh hysterically. Jim Hawkins ridicules him about having bought himself a dead mule, which will cost him $50 to pay off over two years of work. "All the crowd was laughing now....Dave stood, head down," proving himself, once again, immature and not ready to become a man [Wright, 2003]. Not only does Dave try to lie about his mistake instead of owning up to it, but all he does is cry and whine like a little boy after the truth is revealed. It is hard for Dave, as an African-American growing up in a White world, because he is generally shown less respect just as a result of his culture. What Dave thought would make him powerful in his society, only made him more childish and less respectable [DeCoste, 1998].
Dave had some racial motivation as well for acquiring a gun -- to earn some racial respect and equality. It is hard for Dave to live in a society where blacks are treated poorly, and he feels so young and weak because he has been made to think that his race is inferior. After killing Jenny, Dave returns to the fields in the middle of the night, to try…[continue]
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