‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ is a short story by the American author Richard Wright (1908-60), originally published as ‘Almos’ a Man’ in Harper’s Bazaar in 1940 before being revised by Wright later in his life. The final version was published in 1960. In the story, a black youth in the American South buys a gun in order to make himself feel like a proper man.
You can read ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Wright’s story below.
‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’: plot summary
The title character of the story is Dave Saunders, a black seventeen-year-old youth who works as a farm labourer in the Southern United States. He longs to own a gun because having a gun would force the men he works with in the fields to treat him with respect, rather than viewing him as a mere boy.
When he goes into the local store and enquires about guns, Joe, the store owner, shows him an old pistol and Dave wants to buy it. He goes home and his mother sees him with the gun catalogue Joe has given him. When she asks him what he’s doing with it, he tries to convince her to let him buy the pistol, as it’s only two dollars. Initially, she says no, but Dave tells her he will buy the pistol for his father, and his mother agrees to give him the money he has saved up so he can purchase the gun.
Although his mother had told him to bring the gun straight to her, Dave tarries on his way home with it, playing with it in the fields, and then sneaking into the house only once his parents were asleep. When his mother comes into his room and demands to see the gun, he lies and claims he has concealed it outside.
He then heads to work at the plantation before breakfast, where the owner of the plantation, Jim Hawkins, spots him and puts him to work ploughing one of the fields. However, when Dave takes the gun out and fires it, he injures his hand and the sound of the shot almost deafens him. He then realises he has accidentally shot the mule, Jenny, and the animal bleeds to death. Dave buries the gun in a panic.
Later that day, as two of the farm workers are burying the dead mule, Hawkins quizzes Dave about what happened. Dave lies and claims that the mule got caught on the point of the plough and bled to death. But Dave’s mother, who is among the crowd of people, knows he did something with the gun he bought and demands that he tell the truth.
Dave breaks down and confesses. The crowd of people laugh at him, and Jim Hawkins tells Dave he will pay off the debt he owes him for killing his mule, by working for free for him until he has paid back the fifty dollars the mule cost. Dave’s father tells his son to retrieve the gun from the creek and give it to Hawkins as part of the debt he owes him. He also tells his son he will beat him when they get home.
That night, Dave finds himself still thinking abut the gun, and overwhelmed by a desire to fire it one last time. So he gets up and goes and retrieves it from where he’d buried it and fires it several times, feeling finally satisfied that he knows how to fire a gun. He passes Hawkins’ house and fantasises about scaring his boss with it. As he is heading home, he hears a train approaching and impulsively climbs aboard, determined to head somewhere where he could be a man.
‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’: analysis
A key theme of ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ is masculinity, as the story’s title suggests. But as that clever title also indicates, Richard Wright is also exploring the theme of adolescence and coming of age: Dave is ‘almost a man’ but is not quite there yet, both because he is too young and lacking in his independence, and because he is not comfortable with his masculinity (or lack thereof).
Dave’s final impulsive decision to climb aboard the train and leave home behind at the end of ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ raises some interesting questions. Is this a rash and misguided act which, like his purchasing and firing of the gun, will only backfire (as it were) and expose his lack of maturity and independence? Or is this act the first step on his road (or track) towards becoming the ‘man’ he ‘almost’ is?
Certainly, although Dave himself is impulsive and naïve in the story – thinking that a gun, without the maturity and practical knowledge to handle it, will magically transform him from a boy into a man and automatically cause his fellow workers to bestow respect on him – there is some evidence that he is constrained and even oppressed by his conditions. His father beats him, his mother is strict and quick to suspect him, and his boss, Jim Hawkins, seems to enjoy humiliating his young worker when Dave confesses his crime.
And this aspect makes race, and racial inequality, an important theme of Richard Wright’s story, too. Dave is a black youth working for a wealthy white plantation owner, with the very word, ‘plantation’, recalling the days of slavery in the Americas – slavery which, we presume, Dave’s ancestors would have known all too well several generations before. Symbolically, Jim Hawkins lives in a large ‘white house’, a term which, we might say, doubly reflects his power, suggesting both his status as a white man and his power (‘white house’ summoning the White House, the official home of the US President).
One of the triumphs of ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ is the way that Richard Wright evokes sympathy for Dave Saunders, despite his foolish antics which lead to the death of the mule, and his attempts to lie to cover his back. He at once resents the dead mule for landing him in his predicament while also identifying with the creature, seeing himself as but another mule put to work by Jim Hawkins. Ultimately, Wright wants us to view Dave as a naïve but fundamentally innocent person.
His mother, too, has her reasons for being strict with him. She closely guards what little money he has earned from his work labouring in the fields, not because she wishes to keep it for herself but because, we suspect, she knows how impulsive and immature her son can be. She also wants him to better himself and use the money to pay towards his education. There is a sense that Dave is, as the phrase has it, his own worst enemy. We are left wondering whether his escape from his surroundings at the end of the story will prove to be one rash act which ends up paying off for him.
With its themes of adolescence, coming of age, and masculinity, ‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man’ might be productively analysed alongside John Steinbeck’s story ‘Flight’, in which a young man from rural California attempts to become a man, travelling into town and killing a drunken man in a fight; he has to flee to the mountains to avoid being captured and arrested.