Back at Granny’s once again, Richard cannot wait to reach an age when he is old enough to support himself. His mother has much improved in his absence, but she suffers another paralytic stroke when she goes to nearby Clarksdale for an operation. Richard then knows that Ella has effectively left his life, as it seems clear that she will never be well again. Indeed, as Wright observes in retrospect, after her second stroke Ella remained bedridden for most of her remaining ten years. He then reflects that Ella’s pain became a symbol to him for all the suffering and privation of his childhood and adolescent years. He writes that he came to believe, through his mother’s suffering, that the meaning of life comes only from a struggle with meaningless pain.
Summary: Chapter 4
Richard again faces hunger when he moves back to Jackson. His main meals are flour and lard mush for breakfast, followed by a plate of greens cooked in lard for dinner. He learns to temper his hunger, if only briefly, by drinking so much water that his stomach feels tight and full. Aunt Addie joins Granny in the fight to save Richard’s soul, and tempers again flare.
Richard unwillingly enters the religious school where Addie teaches and finds the students there docile and boring. The tension between Richard and Addie escalates when she wrongly accuses Richard of eating walnuts in class. The guilty student was actually the one sitting directly in front of Richard, but Richard does not want to rat on his classmate. While trying to defend himself, Richard accidentally calls her “Aunt Addie” rather than “Miss Wilson,” making her more furious. Addie beats Richard in front of the class, and he becomes furious that the guilty student has not come forward. Addie tells Richard that she is not yet through with him, but he resolves that she will not beat him again.
At home that evening, Richard tells Addie who the real culprit was, but she then decides to beat him again because he did not tell her this truth earlier in class. When she tries to do so, Richard grows frenzied and fends her off with a knife. He successfully defends himself, but Granny, Grandpa, and Ella all take Addie’s side. They are more convinced than ever that something is seriously wrong with Richard. Wright then recalls that the only time he ever saw Addie laugh at school was when he was injured in a game of pop-the-whip that Addie had suggested the children play.
Religion attracts Richard emotionally, but on an intellectual level he is unable to believe in God. Granny forces Richard to attend certain all-night prayer meetings, but the twelve-year-old Richard’s hormones make him more interested in the church elder’s wife than in the elder’s words.
A religious revival is coming through town, and Richard’s family kindly urges him to attend, deciding that this is their last chance to reform him. Richard knows their true motives, however, and is unmoved. Granny recruits the neighborhood boys to try to convince Richard to go to God, but he can see his grandmother’s workings behind his friends’ words, and is not convinced. Richard is unable to explain to his peers his inability to believe in God. He has faith in the “common realities of life,” not in any concept of cosmic order.