The Man Who Lived Underground

by Richard Wright

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After Fred Daniels, a young black man unjustly accused of murdering a woman, is forced into signing a confession, he escapes from the police by going underground—into the sewer system beneath the city—where a series of adventures leads him to self-knowledge, maturity, and, ultimately, death.

Daniels’s adventures include visits to various places that he observes through chinks in the floors of the buildings above him, the first of which is a black church. From his protected perch, Daniels watches the choir in their white robes singing and asking God’s mercy. As he glimpses these singers, Daniels also gets a glimpse of his own situation, for he recognizes that these people should not have to state their innocence—they are struggling, hardworking people who are guilty of nothing, just as he himself is an innocent fugitive.

Daniels’s next adventure also sheds light on his situation, literally, as he gropes in the darkness to find his way. He comes on an undertaker’s embalming room and chuckles at the notion of watching, unseen, the embalming process. There he comes on a tool kit, light bulb, and electric wire that help him equip his temporary home, a cave he discovers in the depths of the sewer system.

In his next visit, Daniels comes on a movie theater. Like the embalming room, this place offers him a boon—sandwiches belonging to an old man working in the coal bin, as well as more tools for his effort to transform the cave into his lodging.

The next stop—at a radio shop—provides him with a radio for his new abode. Daniels hooks it up in his cave, expecting to hear music that will soothe him as he pauses from his frenetic adventures. Instead, he hears a catalog of news events, all of which suggest the irrationality of a world of war and destruction and hatred. Daniels adds this information to his growing sense of himself and the world he has momentarily left, not behind him, but above him.

He has more adventures before he returns to the surface world, two more visits to places that give him objects necessary to both his journey and his self-knowledge. The first place, a butcher shop, provides him with more food and a meat cleaver, and the other, a jewelry shop, gives him the most significant experience of his underground life. When he spies the jewelry shop, he also observes a safe and learns its combination by watching and listening to the employee open it. After the shop is closed, Daniels opens the safe himself, stealing money, watches, rings, jewels, and diamonds. He manages to do this without awakening the night watchman, who is obviously more compelled to sleep than to keep his watch.

Daniels returns to his cave and decorates his refuge with the loot he has stolen from the jewelry store: On the walls he puts the money and watches and rings and jewels; on the floor he puts the diamonds. The effect is both bizarre and revelatory. Daniels sees the meaninglessness of these symbols of wealth, and he recognizes the absurdity of a world consumed by a hunger for such symbols. When he returns to the jewelry store to spy on it once again, he has an insight into the notion of guilt in this absurd world. He sees the old night watchman being interrogated by the police officers who had interrogated him and forced him to sign the false confession. These officers attempt the same thing with the watchman; when they momentarily leave him, the innocent man commits suicide. Daniels sees himself in this man, especially when he knows...

(This entire section contains 949 words.)

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that not only had he stolen goods from the store’s safe, but so had the worker who had opened and closed it, unaware that Daniels could see him stuff wads of money in his shirt sleeve. Thus the guilty people go free and the innocent are condemned in this world above ground, a world to which Daniels decides he must return so that he can confess his guilt regarding his underground life and assert his innocence regarding his aboveground life.

Daniels emerges from the sewer system to return to the police station from which he had escaped after being forced to sign the false confession. He finds the three officers who interrogated both him and the night watchman in the jewelry store. Lawson, Murphy, and Johnson are momentarily surprised at seeing Daniels, but they quickly dismiss him, telling him that they have discovered the real criminal in the murder he was alleged to have committed. They burn his confession, taking this action as lightly as their interrogation of the night watchman. Their cavalier attitude persists as they attempt to ignore Daniels’s announcement that he saw the suicide of the night watchman, that the watchman did not steal from the jewelry store, and that he himself was the robber.

Begging the police officers to come with him to his underground cave so that he could show them what he did with the stolen goods, thus vindicating both himself and the unjustly accused suicide victim, Daniels convinces the police officers that he has information that is dangerous for them. After he leads them to his underground world, they murder him, saying, “You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things.” Fred Daniels, the boy who had become a man as a result of his journey underground, could indeed wreck things by telling the truth. Instead, he falls into the underground that had been both his refuge and his place of revelation, and the world aboveground continues as it always had, punishing the innocent and protecting the guilty.