“The Man Who Was Almost a Man” is a short story mainly about Dave, a young man from a community of African Americans. It was written by Richard Wright between 1908 and 1960. As an average adolescent and like any other African American, Dave is struggling with growing up under the embodiment of all frustrations and impoverishment with lack of opportunities. On one side, we feel that Dave’s experiences are not unique, since he is a stereotypical young man seeking maturity and independence that he is not ready for and that is why he achieves it under the disguise of a gun. Dave is developing and is transforming from adolescence into adulthood. This period often has a lot of difficulties and pressure not normal for a young man like Dave. He thinks that he is big enough to act as a man and handle a gun. The gun can be said to be the central element of the story. Therefore, this paper seeks to analyze the symbolism of the gun and its role in the life of the protagonist Dave and his family.
Dave seriously expects people to respect him and handle like a mature man. Already in the beginning, from the Dave’s introduction, we are able to learn of the idea that he longs to have a gun. David considers that if he fires it, the people he works with will not talk to him like to a little boy. He finds a shortcut of becoming a man too quickly and thus settles to buy a gun. He goes through Joe’s catalogue, incorrectly assuming that the power of the gun will automatically earn him the respect he deserves. His concentration on the physical strength highlights his murderous fantasies and misconception that elicit the power to kill and the power to control (O'Brien 89).
He fantasizes about the benefits of an adult but does not realize or understand the responsibilities that come with the freedom of choice. On the night he got the gun, Dave did not sleep in the house despite promising to get back home. He slept in the fields holding and stroking the barrel of the gun. He felt like each stroke yielded more power in him, making him feel like a man. The gun acts as a main symbol in the story and stands for everything. To the main character, possessing of a gun becomes a means of gaining equality (McMahan 67).
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Owning a gun would make him independent. He feels that he will be provided with greater opportunities if he owns a gun. He has this feeling despite not having handled a gun ever before nor even having fired one. He fantasizes about shooting at Mr. Hawkins’s house. This feeling portrays that he had learned nothing about Jenny’s death. The death just made him long for power, masculinity, and independence. He proves this when he says that the gun can kill everybody despite the color and believes that when he is in possession of a gun, he would gain the respect he needs (O'Brien, 90). Despite trying to be a man, Dave repeatedly proves to us through his actions that he is still a child. We realize this as he begs his mother to give him the money to buy a gun, which he is advised to give his father but he declines.
Dave even tries to acquire the male power that his father lacks. Gun in the context represents the masculine power, and with its shape like that of the male sex organ, gun symbolizes masculinity in the African American society (Neusner 140). Dave recognizes that his father lacks this type of power, despite showing the physical power when he threatens to beat him. Dave is also aware that his father does not have another power. In this case, he knows that the father is not the head of the house. His mother acts as the one who takes charge of economics of the house. It is seen when she pulls out a dollar bills from her cloth and approves the buying of the gun without consulting the husband. From this point of view, Dave tries so hard not to be the man his father is; he is growing up to become a real man that his father was not able to become (Wright 6).
From a family point of view, the gun is seen as a source of security and an object that the head of a family should have. Dave manages to convince the mother that their family requires a gun and she agrees, but tells him that “ Ahll let yuh git tha gun ef yuh promise me one thing. Yuh bring it straight back t me, yuh hear? It be fer Pa” (Wright 4). Dave represents a figure of times who is a field hand’s son and who is forced by circumstances to become a field hand himself. He is, therefore, chained to a life that barely allows him to make ends meet. He lacks good education and opportunity to make his life better, because the white community prevents it. He is faced with a harsh and overwhelming life that calls for escape and he finds that gun is the only solution.
Finally, the desire to own a gun is expressed in several ways to make the world around him look more in accordance with his desires and hopes. The quest for adulthood through owning a gun marks a shift in societal tide. It indicates a brake with the past that new generation is longing for. The gun is a solution to all the problems David is experiencing, and it acts as a compensation for his weaknesses. The gun acts as a solution to the problems the young African-American boy is experiencing. It is a symbol of power, respect, masculinity, and independence in the story. It is everything that Dave desperately wants. However, despite everything good that the gun was supposed to bring, it ironically did the opposite.
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