Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The question of how one becomes initiated into adulthood pervades this story, beginning with the first paragraph, in which David tells himself that someday he is “going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy.” Because he is seventeen, he muses, he is “almos a man.” Almost a man, however, is a dangerous age to be, for David is neither child nor adult; he is in that painful transitional period between the two.
Although he is neither fish nor fowl, neither child nor adult, David demonstrates characteristics of both stages of life, sometimes simultaneously. When, for example, he decides to purchase a gun, a step that will symbolize and initiate him into manhood, he resorts to the childish manipulation of his mother to persuade her to allow him to make the purchase. When he actually fires the gun to demonstrate that he is indeed a man, he is literally overpowered, as a child would be, by the power of the weapon. His final action also demonstrates this paradox of a childish adult or an adult child, for he hops a train, suggesting that he is making an independent, adult decision to set off on his own; yet he reveals his immaturity when, in the final lines of the story, he connects the gun in his pocket with the dream in his soul. To have a revolver is to be a man, he believes; the boy who is almost a man is still a child.
(The entire section is 257 words.)
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Coming of Age
As the title suggests, Dave is poised between boyhood and adulthood. In various ways, all of the other figures in the story—Dave’s parents, Hawkins, and the unnamed men he works with—threaten Dave’s fragile sense of manhood. Dave’s problem is that he is almost a man, yet his lack of social and economic power make him acutely aware that he is not quite one.
The story is structured around Dave’s quest for a gun as a symbol of power, maturity, and manhood as well as the ironic results of attaining this wish—his further loss of pride and autonomy. However, the story’s conclusion—Dave’s impulsive decision to break free from the setting that belittles him by jumping on a northbound train—suggests a more successful passage toward maturity and independence.
Race and Racism
Although racial issues are not in the foreground of ‘‘The Man Who Was Almost a Man,’’ racism and injustice are underlying themes. Dave’s feeling of being disrespected results in part from a typical adolescent struggle with how he is seen by his peers and his parents.
Yet this lack of respect is more acute and poignant because of the segregated, racist culture. The social circumstances that relegate blacks to an inferior status contribute to Dave’s sensitivity about being seen as nothing but a boy.
Dave’s father, a physically powerful adult man, is characterized as something less than...
(The entire section is 733 words.)