Some of the novel's most poignant moments come when the boy is describing his loneliness. He develops something he calls "night loneliness," which is the acute awareness of solitude. This becomes worse after his father and Sounder leave because he can no longer associate nighttime with their hunting escapades. Sometimes the boy is so lonely he does not know what to do: Armstrong describes the loneliness as a near-paralysis that is difficult to overcome. Even though the family lives together in a small cabin, they all feel alone, which only underscores how lonely the boy's father must feel in the jail, how lonely the boy's mother must feel without a husband, and how lonely Sounder must feel without a family. The family's position and status ostracizes them as well, making them feel lonely and friendless as a unit.
Despite the hardships that seem to be unceasing, characters in this novel somehow never lose a sense of optimism. The boy looks for Sounder every day and holds out hope for the dog's return even after weeks go by. The same is true for the boy's father, and the boy embarks on long treks throughout the county to find him. Also, the boy's determination to learn to read is not diminished by sadness or pessimism. The boy's mother also maintains a sense of hope and never allows any feelings of desperation to show or to overwhelm her. They pursue life doggedly, always enduring and always hoping.
As much as the boy strives to find Sounder or his father, he strives as much if not more to learn to read. It is implied that the reason he does this is to better himself, because he knows that his chances are better in the future if he is literate. He also reads as a means of escaping his life and immersing himself in beautiful and often comforting stories. Finding a book in a trash can eventually opens up the opportunity for the boy to study with the teacher, changing his life forever, improving it exponentially. Armstrong uses the book to represent the road to improvement.