Among the Dangs Summary
The narrator, the story’s central character and only developed personality, is an Everyman with needs to satisfy. His quest depicts the relative capacity of two different societies to fulfill his needs and to bring him to full humanity. On graduation from Sansom, he requires a job and will take what he can get, no matter how unpromising it seems. When the doing brings him to a greater truth than he had aimed at and through a path of apparent improbabilities, the result is nothing short of miracle or comedy in the Dantean sense, but it is tinged finally by his reversion to the values of the lesser civilization. This story realizes the full potential of I-narration by bringing the unwitting modern through his society’s delusions and his own limitations toward the will to faith. His dramatized example witnesses that, of all the stories having more than passing value, the deepest and most satisfying—toward which others lead—is the Christian mystery. His return to something less, though certainly human, is a letdown.
To run the course of his discovery, the narrator makes three trips to the primitive Dangs, about whom little is known except their appetite for prophecy and hostility toward intruders. Surprisingly, he makes three returns, though one seems unlikely, his qualifications to do anthropological research among the primitives being merely that he is a “good mimic, a long-distance-runner, and black.” These seem less than sufficient, considering the problems: He has no zeal for the quest but goes because he needs money and has no other prospects; he doubts that the “brick dust” black Dangs will spot a relative in his “granite dust” black skin and ersatz primitive getup.
Surprisingly, virtually everything goes his way. Entering primitiveness, he makes enough errant gestures to get a troop of searchers killed but without that conclusion. Apparently, the Dangs are broader-minded about accepting other humans than he and his educated tutors had assumed; when he unwittingly assumes the “prophetic squat” and commits additional natural gestures in which the Dangs see significance, he has assured himself of success. Throughout his first visit, comedy issues from the Dangs’ seeming gullibility in accepting his ways. They even bend the rules for his satisfaction. For example, when the narrator accepts the advances of the girl Redadu and satisfies himself prodigiously, the Dangs accommodate the couple by condoning their irregular mating, going so far as to find a substitute for his “Methodist mother” to sit outside the marriage hut and listen for the “orgastic cries” of consummation. Because these primitives honor naturalness and accept others easily, the narrator does not grasp the firmness of purpose beneath their smoothing of his way to prophecy. After all, the advanced civilization that has sent him forth is not particularly compliant or flexible; it bent him from his desire to study history into a tool of social science. Finally prepared for the vatic role, he chants James Infirmary, and the Dangs accept that good story by incorporating its rhythms into their daily drumming.
One might expect the narrator’s departure to end this relationship as a grade-B comedy, but he returns to the Dangs and is accepted, as are his explanations, by this people who put so high a premium on artful telling. Given these conditions, he works toward greater efforts, shifting from the blues to the Christian Passion and moving toward an understanding of what he has been doing. The wisdom and patience of the primitives has produced an artist who satisfies his audience as well as himself.
The returns to modernity, handled briefly, serve to illustrate the superficiality of values in a civilization where marriage, money, and vocational acceptance fail to stimulate the passion and satisfaction produced by the narrator’s relationships among the Dangs. Consequently, it is a sad irony that hovers over the ending. Back home at Sansom, he has employed his experience to make an “honorable contribution to knowledge” and has gained a “tenure to a professorship—thereby pleasing” his “wife.” There are no “orgastic cries” from the bedroom, nor do his two daughters match the aspiring-prophet son he has left among the Dangs. The narrator’s defense for his final return to Sansom—his fear that he would “revert” until he became “one of them”—is a spiritual letdown. The Dangs had led him into his vocation, a process of their primitive society, not his social science, being the power that promoted the loss of self “utterly” in religious truth.