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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.