Study Guide

The Man Who Was Almost a Man Quotes

  • Coming of Age

    One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn't talk to him as though he were a little boy. (1)

    This passage reveals two important facts: Dave wants to be treated like a man, and Dave thinks that having physical power over someone is what it means to be a man. That's a pretty twisted viewpoint, though based on his lived experiences, we understand where it comes from. Regardless, this desire becomes the main motivation for Dave's coming-of-age experience.

    Ahm ol ernough to hava gun. Ahm seventeen. Almost a man. (1)

    Even Dave has to admit that he's not quite a man yet. Although we might disagree with him about owning a gun, we can't dispute that he could use a bit more respect.

    "Your ma lettin you have your own money now?"

    "Shucks. Mistah Joe, Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!" (9-10)

    Here's a pro-tip from your friendly neighborhood Shmoopers: If you still ask your mom for money, you're not all the way in charge of your own life. The same goes for saying shucks. At this point, it's clear that Dave has a ways to go before he's grown.

    She was washing dishes, her head bent low over a pan. Shyly, he raised the book. When he spoke, his voice was husky, faint. (75)

    This brief moment brings all of Dave's contradictions into high relief. He's "husky" like a man, but "shy" like a child, and he wants to buy a gun, but he can't even talk to his mom. Although Dave believes that he's on the cusp of adulthood, his actions reveal the complete opposite.

    "Yuh ain gonna toucha penny of tha money fer no gun! Thas how come Ah has Mistah Hawkins t pay yo wages t me, cause Ah knows yuh ain got no sense." (87)

    Well, this might explain a few things. Instead of pushing Dave to take on more responsibilities—even if he fails once or twice along the way—Mrs. Saunders treats Dave like a child and babies him. How can Dave become a real adult if no one teaches him how?

    Dave took a deep breath and told the story he knew nobody believed. (152)

    As if his accidental killing of Jenny wasn't enough, Dave's phony story only emphasizes his immaturity. He's like a child trying to get out of time-out.

    Something hot seemed to turn over inside him each time he had remembered how they had laughed. (206)

    Trust us: The life a teenage boy is defined by embarrassment—in fact, it is embarrassment that drives Dave to buy the gun in the first place. The reactions of the crowd here remind Dave of how far he still has to go.

    Ef Ah had just one mo bullet Ah'd taka shot at tha house […] Jusa enough t let im know Dave Saunders is a man. (210)

    Well, at least Dave has a target this time. Hawkins is the most powerful person that Dave has ever encountered: a rich white man with a big white house. What better way to become a man than to take on the man?

    He had his hand on his gun; something quivered in his stomach. Then the train thundered past, the gray and brown box cars rumbling and clinking. (212)

    This is a big opportunity, even if Dave doesn't realize it yet. Like many coming-of-age heroes (Luke Skywalker, anyone?), Dave must leave his home to become a man. Although you could interpret this the other way—as evidence of his immaturity—we'd argue that Dave has a ceiling on his growth if he stays in his hometown.

    Ahead the long rails were glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man (212)

    Here's to hoping. So what do you think happens next to our friend Dave? Does he have a bright future ahead of him? Or is he about to run straight into a brick wall of reality? Either way, Dave has grown a great deal over the course of the story.

  • Power

    Shucks, Ah ain scareda them even ef they are biggern me! […] Ahm going by ol Joe's sto n git that Sears Roebuck catlog n look at them guns. (1)

    Dave feels powerless. He has to work all day, and he's mocked incessantly by bigger, meaner dudes. At home, he doesn't even get respect from his own parents. What better way to get rid of those feelings of powerlessness than to get something so powerful it can kill people? Or so Dave's logic goes.

    He felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze. (2)

    Although Dave talks a big game, he's still just a kid. Just look at how his confident façade crumbles as soon as an adult enters the picture. In fact, this is the very reason why he wants to buy a gun in the first place.

    His eyes glowed at blue-and-black revolvers. He glanced up, feeling sudden guilt. His father was watching him. (61)

    C'mon man, read a comic book or something like that instead. Dave knows what he's doing is wrong, but he can't help himself—he simply loves the way he feels when he thinks about owning a gun. He's obsessed.

    He could almost feel the slickness of the weapon with his fingers. If he had a gun like that he would polish it and keep it shining so it would never rust. (70)

    Dave daydreams about guns the way most teenagers daydream about Kate Upton. Yikes. In his naivety, Dave believes that simply owning a weapon will give him untold power, changing his life in an instant. The more time goes on, the more Dave sounds like a supervillain.

    In the gray light of dawn, he held it loosely, feeling a sense of power. Could kill a man with a gun like this. Kill anybody, black or white. (114)

    Although race is rarely explicitly touched on by the story, it can often be seen lingering right below the surface. Just look at Dave's relationship with Hawkins. Hawkins—a rich white man—takes advantage of young black workers like Dave, working them all day for little pay. In Dave's mind, his new gun allows him to bypass this arrangement, if you will.

    If he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him. (114)

    Is that true, Dave? Respect is something that's earned, not purchased from a dude named Joe for two bucks. Still, this once again shows how Dave's feelings of weakness drive him to reach for power.

    Bloom! A report half defeaned him and he though his right hand was torn from his arm. (130)

    It turns out that Dave isn't quite strong enough to handle the gun's power—both literally and figuratively. This failure has real consequences, most notably the death of Jenny the mule.

    He turned over, thinking how had fired the gun. He had an itch to fire it again. Ef other men kin shoota gun, by Gawd, Ah kin! (208)

    After being thoroughly shamed by Hawkins, Dave is desperate to recapture the power that was abruptly stolen from him. But is he ready to wield that power once again? The child-like logic that he uses here makes us assume no, but we'll hold judgment for now.

    But, as soon as he wanted to pull the trigger, he shut his eyes and turned his head. Naw, Ah can't shoot wid mah eyes closed n mah head turned. (209)

    Well, we'd consider this an improvement—instead of being frightened by the power of the gun, Dave has now learned how to embrace it. While this doesn't solve all of his problems (far from it), it's a sign that Dave has figured out how to learn from his mistakes.

    When he reached the top of the ridge he stood straight and proud in the moonlight, looking at Jim Hawkins' big white house, feeling the gun sagging in his pocket. (210)

    Again we see how Hawkins is associated with power. Although Dave doesn't grasp it consciously, the social structure of his hometown is built around men like Hawkins: rich men who hold power over poor folk like him. In a way, Dave's quest to feel powerful can be seen as a response to this fact; this moment represents him finally realizing that.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Shucks, a man oughta hava little gun aftah he done worked hard all day. (1)

    For Dave, the equation is simple: boy + gun = man. Not quite, buddy. Still, he does an awful lot of work for a seventeen-year-old—doesn't he deserve some respect?

    "Your ma lettin you have your own money now?"

    "Shuck. Mistah Joe, Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!" (9-10)

    Well, there goes being a man. Although this exchange proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dave is still a boy, we can't help but put some of the blame on his parents for this. Is hoarding all of their son's money really the best tactic?

    He did not want to mention money before his father […] He looked at his father uneasily out of the edge of his eye. (61)

    Dave is straight-up intimidated by his father. His mom loves to play the good cop, easily guilt-tripped into giving her darling son whatever he wants. His father, on the other hand, will shut that nonsense down in a second. If you were wondering what Dave's gold standard of masculinity is, look no further than his father.

    "Lawd knows yuh don need no gun. But yer pa does." (109)

    Basically, she's saying that Daddy Saunders is a man while Dave is still a boy. Burn. Still, does giving a boy enough money to buy a gun really sound like a good idea?

    But he had not fired it; he had been afraid that his father might hear. Also he was not sure he know how to fire it. (115)

    In Dave's mind, Daddy Saunders is all-seeing and all-knowing—basically, a long white beard away from being a god. By placing his father on a pedestal, Dave tricks himself into believing that true manhood is out of reach for him.

    His father caught his shoulder and shook him til his teeth rattled. (161)

    Well, that'll save a trip to the dentist at least. Again, we see how violence is connected to Dave's conception of masculinity.

    He remembered other beatings, and his back quivered. Naw, naw, Ah sho don wan im t beat me tha way no mo. (206)

    On a metaphorical level, Mr. Saunders's threat to Dave represents the fact that he doesn't see his son as a man. Instead of teaching him why killing Jenny was wrong, he takes out his anger in an unproductive way. Does he honestly think it will solve anything?

    Dam em all! Nobody gave him anything. All he did was work. They treat me like a mule, n then they beat me. (206)

    This sums things up perfectly. Dave is treated like a workhorse, a dull thing whose only purpose in life is to work, instead of as a boy on the cusp of manhood. He might be a bit whiny about it, but he has a darn good point.

    Lawd, ef Ah had just one mo bullet Ah'd taka shot at tha house […] t let im know Saunders is a man. (210)

    What would this prove? Dave sees Hawkins, to a degree, as the epitome of manhood—he's wealthy, focused, and often mean. What better way to become a man than to knock off the dude sitting in the top spot?

    Ahead the long rails were glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man. (212)

    We have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, Dave is simply running away from home out of fear, as young men have done since probably the beginning of time. On the other, though, this is the first time in the story that Dave boldly takes control over his own future. Boy, you'll be a man soon.

  • Choices

    One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn't talk to him as though he were a little boy. (1)

    Everything begins with this one choice. Recently, Dave has been feeling mistreated by everyone in his life and is desperate for a solution. Is buying a gun the best decision he could've made? Probably not. Regardless, he'll have no choice but to live with the consequences.

    He had not come straight home with it as his mother had asked; instead he had stayed out in the field, holding the weapon in his hand, aiming it now and then at some imaginary foe. (114)

    Once again, we see Dave make an immature choice. Instead of bringing the gun home to his mom and dad, Dave decides to stay out all night just to feel the power of the gun in his hand. That being said, it's quite interesting that he still can't work up the courage to actually shoot the thing. That's a telling decision in its own right.

    He did not quite know what had happened. He stood up and stared at the gun as though it were a living thing. (130)

    Dave can't believe that he just killed Jenny. In fact, he doesn't seem to want to take responsibility for his action, instead shifting the blame to the gun itself by calling it a "living thing." Because that makes sense.

    He had a queer feeling that if he only did something, this would not be; Jenny would not be there bleeding to death. (138)

    Well, you're right on that count, Dave. You could've never bought the gun in the first place. You could've brought it home to your parents, like they asked. You could've simply opened your eyes when you shot the pistol. That's a lot of somethings, buddy.

    Jim Hawkins walked close to Dave and looked into his face.

    "Well, looks like you have bought you a mule, Dave." (178-179)

    You know what they say: Don't write checks your butt can't cash. Although this is a steep price for a dead mule—even an unfair one—Dave can't pretend that his choices didn't lead him here.

    "Ah swear fo Gawd, Ah didn go t kill the mule, Mistah Hawkins!"

    "But you killed her!" (180-181)

    In one of his most child-like moments, Dave argues that he should be exempt from punishment because he didn't mean to kill Jenny. He forgets that taking responsibility for one's own actions is one of the most important parts of being an adult.

    He would take old man Hawkins that two dollars. But that meant selling the gun. And he wanted to keep that gun. (207)

    Looks like Dave has another choice to make. What would you do in this situation? Would you work for two years to pay off a huge debt? Or would you take your two-dollar gun and plow your own path?

    Two dollahs a mont. Les see now...Tha means it'll take bout two years. Shucks! (211)

    Two years? That's a bit much. Although Hawkins is justified in asking for payment, we can't help but think he wants too much. As it turns out, Dave agrees—with us, that is, not Hawkins.

    Ah betcha Bill wouldn't do it! Ah betcha…The cars slid past, steel grinding upon steel. (212)

    Although we're not quite sure who "Bill" is, we'd reckon that he's one of the fellows who works with Dave in the fields. This shows how immature Dave still is: He's still making his choices based on other people, instead of himself.

    He was hot all over. He hesitated just a moment; then he grabbed, pulled atop of a car, and lay flat. (212)

    Now this is unexpected. After a story full of missed opportunities, impulsive screw-ups, and straight-up fabrications, Dave has finally made a bold choice. Is it a good choice? We're not quite sure. Finding out is half of the fun.