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The Man Who Was Almost a Man

Richard Wright

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

After a hard day at work, seventeen-year-old Dave heads across the fields for home, still thinking about a conflict he’d had with some other field hands that day. He vows to someday own a gun and get the respect he deserves, and he wants to prove to the others that he is no longer a child. He decides to head to the local store to examine the guns offered in a mail-order catalog, hoping that his mother will let him buy a pistol with the money he earns working in Mr. Hawkins’s fields.

Entering the store, Dave feels his confidence drain from him when he sees Joe, the shopkeeper, but he manages to convince Joe to lend him the catalog overnight. Joe is surprised that Dave is thinking of buying a gun, especially because he knows that Dave’s mother saves all his summer earnings. He nevertheless offers to sell Dave an old pistol he has on hand for $2. His interest piqued, Dave says he will come back for it later.

At home, Mrs. Saunders chides Dave for being late, and Dave tells her he was visiting his friends. On his way out to wash his hands, Mrs. Saunders notices the catalog and seizes it, giving it back when Dave explains he has to return it the next day. During supper, Dave is too engrossed in the catalog to eat or notice the arrival of his father and younger brother. Admiring the revolvers, he chokes down his dinner, knowing that he should ask his mother for the money instead of his father.

Dave finally works up enough courage after dinner to broach the subject, first asking his mother whether Mr. Hawkins has paid her for his time working in the fields. Mrs. Saunders responds that the money is solely for his school clothes and immediately dismisses the idea of buying a gun. Dave pleads his case, arguing that the family needs a gun and that he’ll give it to Mr. Saunders. Still not fully convinced, Mrs. Saunders finally gives Dave the $2 on the condition that he bring the gun directly to her after buying it.

After buying the pistol, Dave walks around the fields with it, admiring the gun but too scared and unsure of how to fire it. He waits until it’s dark and he’s sure everyone has already fallen asleep before going home, and he puts the gun underneath his pillow instead of giving it to his mother as he’d promised. Mrs. Saunders approaches him in the middle of the night and quietly asks for the gun, but Dave tells her that he stashed it outside and will give it to her in the morning.

When he wakes up, Dave removes the gun and holds it in his hands, realizing that he now has the power to kill someone. He quietly gets out of bed and ties the pistol to his leg with an old strip of flannel. He then heads out to the fields where he works, and he accidentally runs into his boss, Mr. Hawkins. Surprised but not wanting to give away his secret, Dave tells Mr. Hawkins that he just wanted to get a head start on the day’s work. He hitches the plow to a mule named Jenny and heads to the field farthest away so that he can fire the pistol without anyone noticing.

After holding and admiring the gun, Dave finally works up the courage to actually pull the trigger. He doesn’t take proper aim, however, and accidentally shoots Jenny. Dave panics and desperately tries to stop the bleeding by plugging the wound with dirt, but Jenny soon dies. Sickened and frightened, he buries the gun at the base of tree and heads across the field, trying to concoct a believable story to explain Jenny’s death to Mr. Hawkins.

Someone eventually finds Jenny, and a small group gathers around her body. When pressed, Dave lies and says that Jenny had been startled and fell on the point of the plow. Unconvinced, Mrs. Saunders urges him to tell the truth and then quietly asks about the gun when no one else is listening. Meanwhile, someone comments that Jenny’s wound looks like a bullet hole. Crying and realizing that he has to tell the truth, Dave confesses. Mr. Saunders is shocked to hear about the pistol and Mrs. Saunders’s complicity.

Mr. Hawkins tells Dave that he’ll have to pay $50 for the mule even though her death had been an accident. He then tells Mr. Saunders that he’ll take $2 out of Dave’s pay each month until the debt has been paid. When Mr. Saunders asks Dave where he put the gun, however, Dave lies again and says that he threw it into the creek. His father tells him to retrieve it, get his $2 back from Joe, and give them to Mr. Hawkins as his first payment.

Unable to sleep that night, Dave skulks out to retrieve the gun. Cleaning it off, he forces himself to shoot it without closing his eyes and turning his head away as he’d done before. He fires the gun four times until there are no more bullets left. Putting the gun in his pocket, he heads across the field until he comes to Mr. Hawkins’s large white house. If he had one more bullet, he muses, he would fire at the house to let Mr. Hawkins know that he is really a man. Dave then hears the sound of a train in the distance. Gun in hand, he heads for the tracks and hops into a moving boxcar as the train continues on into the night.

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