Study Guide

The Man Who Was Almost a Man Coming of Age

By Richard Wright

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.

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