Dave Saunders is trapped in a world that strips him of his personal and economic power. Dave sees his life as a series of abuses and humiliations: he’s forced to obey his parents, work as a field hand for pay he never receives, and endure ribbing from the other field workers. His growing sense of degradation derives from the social and economic forces that keep him from achieving his potential and pursuing his dreams. The idea of owning a gun thus becomes Dave’s outlet, a way to quickly become powerful and manly. He believes that a pistol in his hand will give him more control over others; however, Jenny’s death only limits his future by forcing him to repay Mr. Hawkins the price of the mule. Although accidental, Jenny’s death could be interpreted as Dave’s unconscious desire to strike out against Mr. Hawkins. By destroying a symbol of Hawkins’s prosperity and power as a landowner, Dave may be lashing out at an economic system and social order that he will always be excluded from merely because of his skin color.
On many levels, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” is a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent Dave Saunders must overcome numerous hurdles to become a mature adult. Restless, impatient, and taunted by the older men he works with, Dave believes that acquiring a gun will end his adolescence and transform him into a real man. Not surprisingly, however, Dave discovers that owning a gun only brings more problems and a much greater burden of responsibility. Ironically, possessing a pistol actually would have ushered Dave into adulthood if only he’d been able to handle the extra responsibility like an adult. Because he has to work for two years to repay Mr. Hawkins for Jenny’s death, the gun brings Dave greater commitment and obligation—the true hallmarks of manhood. But Dave discovers at the end of the story that he’s really seeking escape, not more commitment. When owning a gun becomes a heavier burden than he’d realized, he chooses to leave, demonstrating even further that he’s really not yet ready to become an adult. Still convinced that the gun is a more of a boon than a burden, he takes it with him, possibly inviting more trouble in the future.
Dave’s lies indicate his disconnectedness from the world around him and prove that he is unprepared for the responsibilities of adulthood. Lying emerges as a behavior at odds with the moral qualities associated with adulthood and stereotypes of male behavior. Throughout the story, Dave tries to twist the truth in his favor so that he can buy a gun and avoid punishment. He convinces his mother to give him the $2 to buy the gun, for example, only after telling her that he plans to give it to Mr. Saunders. He reneges on his promise to give her the gun after buying it and later claims that he threw the gun in the river after shooting Jenny. Like a child, he fails to realize that lying won’t protect him and will only bring more problems in the future.
The darkness that pervades the story highlights the constraints, humiliation, and wounded pride that Dave associates with his work and family life. In the story’s opening line, Dave makes his way across the fields “through parting light,” fresh from another humiliating run-in with the older workers on the plantation. Thinking of the gun comforts him as the sun sets, caught between day and night just as he’s caught between childhood and adulthood. After purchasing the gun, he stays out late, taking aim in the dark fields at “imaginary foes.” Daytime only brings trouble and humiliation to Dave, whereas all his fantasies and imagined adventures take place at night. Wright describes Dave’s relationship with the gun as a clandestine affair involving lies, deceit, and secret locales. Only in the darkened fields can Dave find the independence and masculinity he seeks.
The gun represents power, masculinity, respect, and independence—in short, everything that Dave desperately wants. He sees the gun as the solution to all his problems and compensation for all his weaknesses. Dave resents the fact that the other field hands treat him like a child and therefore mistakenly believes that owning a gun would instantly make a man out of him, even though he doesn’t know how to fire one. He mistakenly reasons that owning a gun would also somehow provide him with independence, as if knowing how to fire it would keep him out of the fields and provide him with greater opportunities. Dave fantasizes about shooting at Mr. Hawkins’s house, which suggests that Jenny’s death has taught him nothing and has only made him crave power, independence, and masculinity even more.
Jenny, Mr. Hawkins’s mule, represents Dave himself, who fears working as a subservient field hand on another man’s land for the rest of his life. Dave consciously recognizes the similarities between himself and Jenny, even saying to himself before running away that everyone “treat[s] me like a mule, n they beat me,” alluding to the thrashing his father had promised him. Dave believes that all he does is toil like Jenny, yoked to a plow with little hope of reward, escape, or becoming something better. The mule also represents commitment and responsibility, hallmarks of adulthood that Dave is still unwilling to accept. He wants only the freedom that he imagines adults have without any of their obligations. Jenny’s death is consequently the symbolic death of Dave’s childhood, which he wishes to erase to escape the community and a life of drudgery. Ironically, the power that Dave associates with owning a gun brings change but forces him to embark on a journey to manhood for which he’s not yet ready.