Symbols in Richard Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"
How authors portray character development is often as much of an art for as fiction writing itself. Especially within the brief context of the short story, character development is often compacted into a combination of narrative cues and underlying symbolism that allows the reader to infer whether or not the characters are developing in any sort of positive way, or if they are stagnating in a static position. Richard Wright uses symbolism in his work "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" in order to convey the lack of development in the protagonist Dave; although he tries so desperately to gain respect as a man, he fails miserably, and remains in a stunted position of immature adolescence.
When dealing with short stories, the task of character development becomes a complicated endeavor. Character development is often difficult to do within the brief context of the medium of the short story (Werlock 450). Often times, there is simply not the room or length to illustrate the complexity of character development through narrative strategies. Thus, short story fiction authors often turn to using symbolism and imagery in order to convey messages about character development (Werlock 218). Symbols are an important part to any piece of fiction writing, whether it is long or short. According to the research, symbolism "provides us with a transcendent embodiment of the meaning" (Kumar & McKean 349). The symbols an author chooses take the role of conveying meaning through making larger correlations to themes and images within the text. Within the context of a short story, symbols become a major vehicle for illustrating the development of character and plot movements within the fiction.
The stories that Wright creates in his fiction are extremely compelling. Many are based on his personal experiences in the South, as he grew up in a volatile time period where there was immense racial and economic tension within a debilitated region. Richard Wright was born in the Deep South, near Natchez Mississippi in 1908 (Brigano ix). From an early age, Wright witnessed hard ache and pain, as he himself struggled to find his way into manhood from his troubled childhood. He grew up in a world where African-American men could not live "with dignity and without fear in a world dominated by white men" (Brigano ix). Richard Wright had his own issues with dealing with manhood. He had no one to look up to as a growing adolescent, as when he was only five years old his father had abandoned his family (Spack 103). This is then why such themes show up in a number of his short stories and novels. His style of writing is also unique, and allows for an interesting perception of his thematic structures. Wright was known for immersing his works with symbolism, as to enrich the fiction without having to directly state explicit themes (Brigano xi). Thus, he relied on symbolism to pull out many of his themes within the context of his short stories, like that of "A Man Who Was Almost a Man." This story is based on life in the rural South, with a young adolescent African-American boy as the main protagonist. The story chronicles Dave's failed attempt to gain respect and a sense of masculinity. Throughout the work, Wright litters the story with symbolism in order to better construct the lack of development in the character of Dave as he fails to secure a more mature position for himself as a man, and instead stays within the immaturity of adolescence.
There are a number of underlying symbols within Wright's short story that begin to show the audience the true character aspect of Dave. The fields in which Dave works in are a major symbol which helps construct the mood and mindset of the characters, especially the teenage protagonist. The fields are described as being incredibly bleak, giving a sense of a miserable existence one experiences while working on them. It is a desolate backdrop to the story, which in a way helps expose the reasons why Dave would want to look for something better in his life. Moreover, the lack of definitive details regarding the agricultural setting of the story helps point the reader to the stronger symbol of the gun. In a way, the audience seems to tap into Dave's misery. They feel the bleakness surrounding him, and so when the image of the gun is brought in, they can see how Dave is so easily focused on it and what it represents. The bleak imagery of Dave's surroundings set up the more intense symbolism that is attached to the image of the gun.
One of the oddest symbols Wright chooses to show the true character aspects of Dave is Jenny the mule. The mule represents the ties to responsibility that Dave so desperately wants to escape. She is an allusion to Dave's true character, stuck in the stagnant years of his adolescence, where he is not allowed to roam free or make his own choices. She is tied to the yoke and forced to plow day in and day out. This symbolizes the reality of Dave's true character within Wright's short story (Spack 103). He is not the autonomous masculine man he hopes to be, but really a hired servant with little choice other than to follow the orders that are forced upon him. He cannot even enjoy his own wages, as his mother takes them in order to secure funds needed to pay for his school supplies and clothes. Thus, Dave is essentially just like Jenny. He is a slave in the middle of his adolescence, a slave to his boss and to his mother. Dave is not allowed to develop further into a more masculine character, but this is not a permanent condition until he derails his path to maturity by shooting Jenny and creating a greater place of servitude, where he owes his boss $50 for the loss of the work mule. The second Dave shoots Jenny his immaturity is sealed, showing that his character will be unable to develop past the immature adolescent that was introduced to the audience at the beginning of the story. He shoots her, and instead of taking responsibility, he tries to cover up his poor decisions, first with trying to plug the mule's wound with dirt, and then denying that the wound was caused by his gun. This solidifies his immaturity, and when Jenny dies, Dave's chances of growing into a responsible and respectable man dies with her.
The gun is the main symbol of the story, and tells a lot about the character development of Dave. Essentially, Dave sees the gun as representing power. It is the method to which he believes he can win over his independence and gain the respect he believes he deserves. In his current state, as a mere field worker who is not even allowed to spend his own wages, Dave yearns for autonomy and the ability to make decisions in his own life. Yet, he is constantly being told what to do by either his mother, or his white boss Mr. Hawkins. In his own fantasy world, guns represent a link to manhood and the respect he yearns so much for. This desire can be seen when he first envisions himself with a gun. Then, later, when he borrows the catalog from Joe the shop owner, the dream really begins to take shape. Dave pictures himself as a man while holding a gun. After finally purchasing a used one for $2 from Joe, Dave begins to actually feel the spirit of adulthood that he had been dreaming about so much. While he has the gun, Dave believes that "they would have to respect him" (Wright LIT 382-02). It is this brief moment where he feels that he can wield the respect that he deserves. Moreover, the gun becomes a symbol for Dave of how he can overcome the limitations of his age and his race. The gun also makes Dave equal to those around him, despite his age and his race. He says while holding it that he could "kill anybody, black or white" (Wright LIT 382-02). Not only does Dave see the gun as a way to gain respect as a man, but he sees it as a way to gain respect as a black man as well. However, it quickly becomes quite clear, that although he has the gun in his hands, he is not yet a man. To him, manhood is symbolized with the gun; yet. To the audience, the gun becomes the symbol which shows his clear lack of maturity. He is irresponsible with the gun, and kills Mr. Hawkins' mule. The very first shot he took was a cheap one. He went out into the distant fields where no one could see him, then took a blind shot. It was this initial action…