We don’t know if you noticed, but Richard is hungry. You probably did, since Wright tells us almost a hundred times, but it’s cool if you didn’t. So, since Wright is a smart kind of guy, you can probably guess that the "hunger" he’s talking about is not exactly literal. And it’s not—entirely. But the first kind of hunger that Richard feels is totally, deathly literal.
Richard does not have enough to eat. He’s not even in elementary school, and he’s actually starving.
When his dad leaves the house, Richard’s family becomes poor. We’re talking seriously poor. Before he even knows that his dad is gone, Richard starts to hallucinate about how hungry he is. "Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played," he says, "but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly" (1.1.156).
That is super creepy. Think about that next time that you complain on Facebook about how you’re starving. Sometimes, Richard is so weak from hunger that he can barely move. It’s so bad that neighbors start offering him food on the street.
But Richard, even as a teeny little boy, is proud. He doesn’t want the food from strangers. He doesn’t want other people to know that he is hungry. Sure, sometimes we want to shake him and tell him just to take the stupid sandwich already. At the same time needing to put food in his belly is what makes him work so hard. And that’s admirable. In fact, it’s the American way.
Put on your fancy pants, Shmoopers, because it’s about to get literary up in here. As Richard matures, he starts experiencing a different kind of hunger: the metaphorical kind. Hunger represents a desire for or lack of something important. You want something, you’re going to suffer an unpleasant death without it, and you just can’t get it—what is that, but hunger?
So, what does Richard hunger after? What makes his metaphorical mouth water metaphorically? Let’s see: he hungers for "that which is not and can never be," "to be and live," for "insight into my own life and the lives about me," for "a grasp of the framework of contemporary living," and for "a new way to live" (1.4.205, 1.5.1, 2.15.194, 2.16.3, 2.20.102) (got all those citations?).
All of these fancy phrases are just different ways of saying the same thing. He wants to live, and we wants to better understand how to live. Basically, he wants to figure out the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Here’s something kind of noteworthy: Richard stops being hungry exactly two times as a child. The first is when he’s talking to the mean orphanage lady, Mrs. Simon: "when I sat facing her at the table, my hunger vanished" (1.1.290). The second time happens when Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody are questioning him, when he grows "so self-conscious that [his] hunger left [him]" (1.3.158).
But this isn’t the good kind of not being hungry. Right after saying that his hunger vanished in front of Mrs. Simon, he goes on to say that "the woman killed something" in him (1.1.290). And we already know what happens at Uncle Clark’s house. These scenes suggest that maybe there’s something good about being hungry after all—something that makes him want to keep trying.
In the end, it doesn’t seem so bad to be hungry—at least, not metaphorically hungry. Being physically hungry still stinks. Metaphorical hunger gets Richard out of the South and it keeps him searching for what he really wants in life.
Being hungry when you haven’t found what you want is a good thing. It’s the people filling up on junk food you have to watch out for. They’ll try to tell you that you should just fill up on junk food, too.
Nah, says Richard (and us). No Doritos for us. We’re waiting on some filet mignon.