We spend the bulk of "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" inside the head of a teenager, so it should come as no surprise that the story is heavy on the brashness and light on self-awareness.
Even at a young age, Dave is bitter about his place in the world. He gets no respect from his boss, his coworkers, or his parents. For the most part, these disputes center around the idea of manhood—Dave just wishes that everyone would stop talking "to him as though he were a little boy" (1). Of course, his emotional immaturity about the issue doesn't do him any favors.
Similarly, Dave is as headstrong as Juggernaut, which isn't unusual for a kid his age. We can see this in the way he pressures his mom to get him a gun, and we can also see it in the way that he pouts after killing Jenny, even though he knows "he had gotten out of killing the mule [...] easily" (206). This tone might not make Dave very likable, but that's exactly the point: By focusing on the negative aspects of this teen's personality, Wright is showing us why maturity is so important.
"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" uses a raw approach to realism to illustrate the societal implications of Dave's coming-of-age tale.
In fact, Richard Wright is rightly regarded as a forefather of the so-called social realism school of literature. Social realism takes a realistic (duh) approach to depicting the trials and tribulations of the working classes, illustrating hardships typically ignored by society at large. This approach is very present in the story, with class and race-based power structures made evident through characters like Mr. Hawkins.
These socially-minded insights are delivered in the form Dave's coming-of-age journey, though. Dave's struggles and failures tell us a lot about the society he inhabits, and what we see isn't all that pleasant. Although Dave doesn't seem to have grown much at first, he eventually makes the choice to leave town, rejecting the racist and classist power structure that threatens to destroy his potential. If that's not becoming a man, then we don't know what is.
When you think about it, the phrase "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" makes zero sense. How can a man almost be a man? Shouldn't the story be titled "The Boy Who Was Almost a Man" instead?
You'd be crazy if you thought that Richard Wright didn't realize that, too. By choosing this self-contradictory title, Wright is alluding to the downright confusing nature of growing up. Going from childhood to adulthood isn't like driving across state lines, with helpful road signs guiding along the way. No, growing up is more like making that drive while wearing a blindfold.
This is a lesson that Dave Saunders learns well. Although he thinks of himself as a man and wants to be treated like a man, he proves time and time again that he's still a kid at heart. Still, as we learn more about his life, we come to the realization that this seventeen-year-old might be a little more mature than he lets on. He might even be the man he so badly wants to be recognized as.
"The Man Who Was Almost a Man" ends with some good old-fashioned train hopping. All aboard!
After the whole Jenny ordeal, Dave is feeling pretty unhappy. He got his gun, just like he wanted, but everyone still treats him like he belongs at the kiddie table. Plus, he now owes Hawkins fifty bucks—which is over two years of wages. Things went from bad to worse in the blink of an eye.
Ironically, this makes Dave feel more like a man. He shoots off his last remaining bullets—and this time, "the gun [is] still in his hands" (209) after he fires. Dave's increased skill represents his growing maturity: He might not be a man yet, but he's taken the first step in the right direction.
Then, of course, he hops onto a moving train, eager to find "somewhere [...] where he could be a man" (212). Dave has realized for the first time that his life at home is a dead end. He can do one of two things with this knowledge: stay and accept his fate, or run away in the hope of finding somewhere better. While there are plenty of ways it could go wrong, his decision to bounce represents Dave taking control of his life for the first time—it represents him acting like a man for the first time.
Set in the rural South, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" features some good old-fashioned country living. On one side, we have Casa Saunders, a modest home, and on the other, we have Hawkins's ritzy plantation house—a sign of his wealth and an unsettling reminder of the legacy of slavery. The differences between these two settings illustrate the tension at the heart of the story.
The Saunders's house is a reflection of their status as members of the working poor. They do whatever they can to get by—Mrs. Saunders even wants to take Dave's precious gun catalog "'so [they] kin use it in the outhouse'" (49). Their dinner is pretty meager, as well: cornbread, molasses, and fatback (a.k.a. bacon). Though it sounds tasty (more bacon, please), it's not exactly the most nutritious meal for a growing teen. It's basically bread, a little sugar, and a little meat.
Conversely, Mr. Hawkins's home is a constant reminder of his wealth and power. This "big white house" (210) overlooks his massive plantation, both of which represent his power over the surrounding area. We can also see this home as a reference to the days of American slavery and how aspects of the institution manage to live on in society even after the practice has been banned. Dave realizes this on a subconscious level, which is why he wants to fire his gun at the house before skipping town.
Ultimately, these two wildly different homes underscore the social issues hanging beneath the story's surface. On one level, we can read "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" as a straightforward coming-of-age tale, documenting the struggles of one seventeen-year-old-kid. On a deeper level, however, we can think of the story as a look at the imbalanced power structure of post-emancipation South. Though we examine them through the lens of Dave's coming-of-age experiences, these issues are at the heart of the story.
Richard Wright writes in a straight-forward, conversational manner, so "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" should be a pretty smooth read. The use of dialect might be off-putting to some readers, but the language is not difficult to interpret. In short, you've totally got this.
Richard Wright doesn't do anything too fancy in "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," instead allowing his characters and plot to do the heavy lifting.
For the most part, the story is written in a naturalistic style. Wright doesn't spend much time in description, instead setting simple scenes and letting Dave's internal monologue take center stage. This works perfectly with the story, as Wright is concerned primarily with the symbolic undertones of everyday life. He isn't trying to create a fantastical realm where anything is possible; he's trying to recreate the world as it is.
As a result, Wright takes a Spartan approach that isn't too dissimilar from something you'd see out of Hemingway—minus the male insecurity, of course. When he isn't letting Dave project his thoughts straight onto the page, Wright uses simple, punchy sentences to keep the action moving. By doing so, he changes us from spectators to participants. This technique is an important part of the story, as it gives a wider range of people the ability to empathize with Dave's perspective.
Dave feels so manly when he holds his dinky pistol that the thing might as well be a bazooka. This makes perfect sense since Dave only buys the gun in the first place to feel as macho as the Overly Manly Man. After being bullied all day in the fields, Dave is convinced that his coworkers "couldn't talk to him as though he were a little boy" (1) if he owned a gun. With this in mind, it's clear that the pistol represents Dave's masculine ideal. That it's a phallic symbol doesn't hurt either.
On a simpler level, however, Dave desires the gun because he wants power, plain and simple. For him, this feeling centers around Mr. Hawkins, the rich white plantation owner who runs the farm where Dave works. Hawkins is the most powerful man that Dave has ever met, but with the gun in his hand Dave "could [...] kill anybody, black or white" (114). Although Dave doesn't consciously understand that Mr. Hawkins holds more power solely based on his whiteness, he does understand that Mr. Hawkins is more powerful than anyone else he knows. And with the gun, Dave senses that he can upend this power dynamic.
Interestingly, Dave's relationship with the gun changes over the course of the story. Dave is an awful shot at first, closing his eyes and losing his grip on the pistol when he fires it. By the end, however, he's able to fire with his eyes open and "the gun [...] still in his hands" (209). That's an improvement, yes, but it's also symbolic.
Dave's improving gun skills represent his growth over the course of the story, from teen without agency to a young man capable of making his own decisions. You might not agree with his decisions, but that's besides that point. Either way, Dave's growing proficiency with his pistol mirrors his personal growth from boy to man. So much so, in fact, that in using it, he sets in chain the sequence of events that culminates in him heading off into the world on his own.
At first, Dave thinks that his only problem is that people treat him like a kid. As his experience with Jenny the mule shows us, however, Dave's problems might run even deeper than that—people don't just treat him like a kid, they treat him like an animal.
In fact, Dave alludes to this himself when he says that "they treat [him] like a mule, n then they beat [him]" (206). While it's true that Dave acts immaturely throughout the story, he deserves a whole lot more respect than he is given. Dave can empathize with poor Jenny because they both work all of the time and get no respect. And after accidentally killing Jenny, Dave is poised to work for no pay, too, just like the mule.
Of course, Jenny's death complicates things. For the first time, Dave realizes that his life might not end well if he stays where he is. True, he probably won't get accidentally shot while working in the fields, but this is a metaphor, people. If nothing else, the incident with Jenny makes it abundantly clear that Dave's life is a dead-end as long as he remains in his hometown. Fingers crossed he finds something better elsewhere.
In case you need to be reminded of how wealthy and powerful Mr. Hawkins is, look no further than his giant plantation house. On one level, this "big white house"(210) simply represents Hawkins's immense wealth and power. Hawkins owns a giant farm, making major profits while paying laborers like Dave what can only be described as chump change. This becomes especially pronounced once we enter the Saunders's humble home and see the immense difference between the two houses.
On a deeper level, however, this plantation home represents the legacy of slavery. Although Dave lives in a world where slavery no longer exists, he still feels the weight of that institution bearing down on him, influencing his life in subtle but significant ways. Heck, Hawkins's house is even white.
This is why Dave wants to fire his gun at Hawkins's home—he "wants to scare ol man Hawkins jusa little [...] t let im know Dave Saunders is a man" (210). Dave might not realize it consciously, but this is because Hawkins's home represents everything that is unattainable to him on the sole basis of his race and class. While Dave might mean man in the adult sense, we can also see it as referencing his humanity, too, because Hawkins treats Dave little better than he does Jenny.
It's so nice and cozy inside Dave's head that we end up staying there for the bulk of "The Man Who Was Almost a Man."
The narration is split between two different perspectives, though: Dave's and the narrator's. It's easy to see the difference between the two, as Dave's internal thoughts are written in his trademark dialect, while the narrator writes in Standard English. Similarly, the narrator uses a third person perspective, while Dave uses in the first.
This approach is great because it provides a super balanced viewpoint. On one hand, it offers all of the character insight and intimacy of a first-person narrator, but on the other, it still gives the broad view afforded by a third-person narrator. By blending both approaches, Wright gives us a fully-rounded view of the situation being depicted, full of nuance and insight and all of that tasty stuff.
Like Rodney Dangerfield, Dave Saunders gets no respect. He works his butt off in Mr. Hawkins's field all day, and what does he have to show for it? His peers tease him incessantly. His boss doesn't respect him. Even his parents don't trust him. In Dave's seventeen-year-old mind, there's only one way to prove to everyone that he's a real man—owning a gun.
Dave visits Joe's store. Though hesitant, Joe gives Dave a catalog and tells him about a used gun that he's selling for a mere two dollars. What a steal. Dave badgers his mom until she finally agrees to give him the money, but she makes him promise to bring the gun home immediately and give it to his dad. Yeah, that's totally how it's going to go down, Mrs. Saunders… Sure enough, instead of returning home, Dave spends the night gallivanting around the fields with his new gun, too afraid to shoot it because Daddy Saunders might hear.
Dave arrives at work early the next morning, eager for some target practice. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Hawkins comes in early as well and asks him to plow the fields with Jenny the mule. What a buzz kill. Dave leads Jenny to the outskirts of the field, far away from prying ears, before finally taking a few shots into the forest. Somehow, though, the recoil is too strong for young Dave and he accidentally kills Jenny right then and there. Uh-oh…
Although Dave comes up with a cover story, Mr. Hawkins is able to see through it immediately. Mr. Hawkins strikes a deal with Mr. Saunders, making Dave pay fifty dollars to make up for the mule murder—that's over two years of wages. Mr. Saunders demands that Dave get the gun (which he hid after the accident) and return it to Joe.
Dave gets the gun, but doesn't return home. That night, he takes a few more test shots; this time, he's somehow able to handle the recoil. After realizing just how long it'll take him to pay off Jenny, he decides to skip town, hopping on a moving train and leaving home for good.