Study Guide

Dave Saunders in The Man Who Was Almost a Man

By Richard Wright

Dave Saunders

Though the specifics of Dave Saunders's life might be different than yours, his feelings probably aren't that dissimilar. Like every teen ever, Dave is caught in the no-man's-land between childhood and adulthood without any idea of where to head next.

His so-called "friends" bully him incessantly, his parents don't treat him like an adult, and even his boss doesn't respect him. Sure, Dave might occasionally vent his frustrations in immature ways, but he deserves a lot more support than he actually gets. Stuck in a situation like this, Dave is forced to forge his own path to adulthood—a DIY coming-of-age experience, if you will.

Davey's Got a Gun

Essentially, Dave just wants to be a man. The story begins with him complaining that his coworkers "talk to him as though he were a little boy" (1) even though he works just as hard as any of them. This reveals one of the biggest contradictions in Dave's life: Although he's forced to act like a man in many ways, he doesn't get the respect that this status should afford him. If that's not going to drive a dude a little crazy, then we don't know what will.

This is why Dave buys the gun in the first place: to prove his masculinity. In Dave's mind, simply having a gun—having the power to "kill anybody, black or white" (114)—will instantly earn him the respect of his peers. To him, being a man means being powerful, and there's nothing more powerful than having control over life and death. Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that the gun is clearly a phallic symbol, further emphasizing the importance of masculinity in young Dave's mind.

Meet the Parents

Unfortunately for Dave, things aren't any rosier back home. His father is strict disciplinarian who threatens to beat Dave "like a mule" (206) after he kills Jenny. While hitting your kids is bad in any instance, this is even worse because it shows us that Mr. Saunders still thinks of Dave as a child. Instead of teaching him how to be a man, he'd rather take out his frustration in some less-than-productive ways—ways that might even hold Dave back from coming into his own.

Plus, it doesn't help that Mrs. Saunders is softer than ice cream on a summer day. Her method of operation is a little different than her husband's: Instead of laying down the law, she babies Dave and doesn't allow him to have any responsibilities. Nowhere is this more evident than when she explains that she had asked "'Mistah Hawkins t pay [Dave's] wages'" to her because Dave "'ain got no sense'" (87). How is Dave supposed to get any sense if she doesn't give him the opportunity to try? She's kinder and gentler, but she still insists on treating Dave like a child.

Horrible Bosses 101

Though Dave's home life isn't perfect, it isn't the biggest obstacle to his growth—that dubious honor belongs to Mr. Hawkins. Mr. Hawkins is wealth and power embodied, a rich dude cooped up in his "big white house" (210) while poor folk plow his plantation for a mere pittance. Dave has no shot of rising up the ranks and getting a better job with Hawkins. He has no shot of even earning enough money to buy his own farm. Instead, Dave is stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end town—and for the first time, he's actually aware of it.

With this in mind, it's bit more understandable why Dave decides to skip town. He finally realizes that the real problem is this place and the people in it—his only alternative then is to find "somewhere where he could be a man" (212). You might see this as a sign of his immaturity, but we'd humbly disagree. Like Richard Wright himself, Dave left a home where he had no future for the great unknown. Does that really seem like a bad bet to you?

Leaving on a Midnight Train

No matter which way you stand on the issue, however, we can all agree that Dave does grow over the course of the story. This is reflected in his relationship with the gun: While he's unable to shoot it at first, he eventually gains the confidence to fire off shots like he's Rambo. That's a step forward, we suppose. Although we have no idea where Dave's train will end up, we're confident that the kid has a better shot at success out there than he ever did at home—if nothing else, he'll finally be running his own show, making decisions and see where they take him.

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