The Man Who Lived Underground

by Richard Wright

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Fred Daniels

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When a writer produces a story that becomes an overnight sensation, it is usually because she or he has written something that touches a nerve in the audience, often one that the readers did not even know was raw and exposed. This is what happened with Richard Wright's Native Son, which became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and sold 200,000 copies in three weeks. Many found in Wright's novel their first exposure to what life was like for African Americans in the Northern cities. Certainly, most of the book's white readers had no intimate acquaintance with African Americans, and only the slightest general knowledge of their circumstances. They read the novel as much for information as for art. Richard Gilman, writing in Commonweal twenty years later, remembers that the book "jolted [him], as it did so many others, [but] it is also true that the jolt was more of the sociological order, not the esthetic."

On the other hand, when a story appears that does not cause a sensation but is quietly and steadily read and talked about for decades, it is often because it contains themes and ideas that are universal, not specific to a particular place and time. This is the case with "The Man Who Lived Underground." Although it has much in common with Native Son in terms of situation, plot, character, and theme, Wright took deliberate pains in "The Man Who Lived Underground" to present a story which both addresses and transcends issues of race.

Certainly, race is an important factor in the story. Fred Daniels is a black man accused of murdering a white woman. Because he is black and they are white, the three police officers feel free to beat him until he confesses to the crime, and the reader is made to understand that they are indifferent to whether or not he is actually guilty. When Daniels returns to the surface to tell the world what he has realized, he is called "boy'' and "nigger'' by the people he encounters, and Lawson guesses that Daniels's confusion might be "because he lives in a white man's world." It is racism that sends him down into the sewer, and racism that prevents the police officers from listening to his story.

But this is not only a story of how white racism oppresses African Americans. After nearly a decade with the Communist Party, and years of reading fiction, psychology, and sociology from around the world, Wright came to believe that racism was just one symptom of an oppressive and corrupt human nature. Although he is an African-American author writing about an African-American protagonist— he is following the old dictum to "write what you know''—it would be a mistake to read the story as a message from one racial group to another. Native Son was a deliberate attempt to change white readers' minds about African Americans and bring about social change—a piece of propaganda. This short story is more than that. It is because Wright broadened his vision when he wrote "The Man Who Lived Underground" that the story retains much of its power more than fifty years after it was written.

If Wright wanted the reader to be constantly aware of Daniels's skin color, he could have easily and naturally made more reference to it. In fact, there are very few references to Daniels's appearance. When he has gone down into the manhole and thinks the police have discovered him, he sees "a white face" hovering above the opening before the lid is replaced. Is this the first hint that the man is not white himself,...

(This entire section contains 1508 words.)

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or is it meant only as a contrast to the opening that turns to black in the next sentence? When he watches "black men and women, dressed in white robes" singing in the church, he does not think that he has been one of them or make any reference to his own skin color. The scene in which he washes his hands m the furnace room sink would have been a natural place to describe the man's skin as he washed it—the man notices the color of everything else in this scene, including his urine. But even though the scenes underground are told in great detail, with nearly every important object described, the man himself is never described. The reader does not know whether he is tall or short, old or young, bearded or clean-shaven. And as long as the man remains underground, there is almost no evidence to settle the question of his color.

During the days he lives underground, the people he encounters do not pay much attention to his color, either. The usher in the theater is polite, and twice calls Daniels "sir." The couple buying grapes are cold, but civil. The woman whom Daniels frightens in the jewelry shop office is frightened because she saw "a man" in the window, but she never mentions his race, as she easily might have if Wright's point were to highlight racism. Again, if Wright's point were to call attention only to racism, he would have made these scenes more racially charged. Since strangers on the street go out of their way to shout insults at Daniels when he resurfaces at the end of the story, why should these white people be an exception? As long as he is living underground, Darnels has no particular identity—no name, no past, and no race. However, as soon as he returns to the surface to live, nearly everyone he meets notices his skin color and treats him badly because of it.

While Daniels is underground, most of the people he meets are "colorless" as well The dead baby floating in the sewer, the dead man on the embalming table, the night watchman, the usher, the man who stokes the furnace, all are described without reference to their appearance. This is not consistently true: the hand that opens the safe is white, as are the couple in the market and the woman at the file cabinet, and the churchgoers are black. But for the most part, skin color is ascribed only to people above ground, while for those below color is not important For Wright, color and color-based oppression are a surface problem—a symptom. Below the surface, in the human heart, is where corruption dwells. Some people are racist, but all people are guilty.

In fact, even the racist police officers are more than just racist. Their corruption goes beyond their treatment of Daniels, so that they are seen to mistreat everyone over whom they have power. When Daniels comes to confess to his guilt, Murphy tells him, "We caught the guy who did the Peabody job. He wasn't colored at all. He was an Eyetalian." It is all the same to him. The race of the night watchman is never revealed, but he is beaten and pushed to suicide by the police officers. Their evil, Wright says, is not just racism. They have the power to harm others because they are white, but their whiteness is not the source of evil—it just provides them with the opportunities for it to flourish.

Daniels is more like the other people in the story than he is unlike them. For most of the story he has no name, as most of the characters have no names. When his name is finally revealed, typed in lowercase letters with no space between the words, it is as featureless a name as "Johnson," "Murphy," "Lawson," or "Alice." They may as well all be named John or Jane Doe.

On the surface there are (or there seem to be) distinctions to be made among people. Below the surface, distinctions fade. Wright makes this clear with a series of images of the sewer current carrying away flotsam. First the man finds and kills a rat: "the grizzly body splashed into the dun-colored water and was snatched out of sight, spinning in the scuttling stream." Soon after, he finds the nude body of a dead baby and kicks it loose. "He kept his eyes closed, seeing the little body twisting in the current as it floated from sight." Both scenes involve twisting, and disappearing. At the end of the story, after all he has been through, the man is no different from a dead rat, or a dead baby: "He sighed and closed his eyes, a whirling object rushing alone in the darkness, veering, tossing, lost in the heart of the earth."

In modern literature, a rat is a symbol of evil; a baby stands for innocence. Daniels, the Everyman, is both—or neither. Underground, in the human heart that Wright compares to a sewer, the distinctions do not apply. Light and dark, wakefulness and sleep, guilt and innocence are impossible to determine. The world is chaotic, unknowable, terrifying. It is not a happy story, or an optimistic one, but it is a universal story that still speaks to readers a half century after Wright created it.

Source: Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.

Existentialist Parable

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During the summer of 1941, Richard Wright read an article in the August issue of True Detective which assumed a special significance for him. This article, "The Crime Hollywood Couldn't Believe," was about a 33-year-old man, Herbert C. Wright. Unemployed and aimless, Richard Wright's namesake had lived for more than a year in the sewers of Los Angeles. His subterranean existence had enabled him to get whatever he wished by entering stores through their sewer systems and helping himself. A close watch by the police eventually led to his arrest.

Fascinated by this story, Richard Wright noted a parallel between Herbert C. Wright's dilemma and the problems faced by the Black man in American society. Herbert Wright, who was a white man, was looking for a place in a society that rejected his attempts to establish himself as a responsible citizen. During his underground stay, he tried to develop a role, albeit peripheral to the mainstream of society, in which he could function and be himself. This theme was rapidly exploited by Richard Wright who held that the Black American had always played the same hidden role in a society that rejected him.

During the fall of 1941, Richard Wright wrote a short novel based on the True Detective story. Of the three sections of the novel, only the third, entitled "The Man Who Lived Underground,'' was published. It was later included in a collection of short works entitled Eight Men.

"The Man Who Lived Underground" tells the story of a Black man forced to hide in the sewers of a city because he is accused of a murder he has not committed. The underground world in which he lives for a while makes him discover that man is guilty by nature. The discovery of human guilt gives him the strength to leave his subterranean refuge to turn himself in to the police. But he is told that the murderer has been apprehended and that he is free. Convinced of his guilt as a man, he insists that police detectives follow him into the sewers to visit his underground world. Thinking he is a raving maniac, one of the detectives shoots him in cold blood when he is halfway down into a manhole. His body is abandoned to the dark and dirty kingdom of the sewers.

The long underground pilgrimage that changes the personality of the main character is used by Wright to illustrate the ideas he had about the essential nature of man. The author wants to show that the position of his protagonist is never stable. If this Black man escapes his racial condition by living in an underground world, he is guilty of abandoning his society. Even though his life enables him to become a man fully aware of his humanity, such a life led in the sewers, caves, and dark passages in which he wanders cannot be considered an ideal existence. It seems to be the existentialist metaphor of man's existence.

Through a series of experiences encountered during his forced isolation in the sewers, Wright's character develops a new perspective that transcends racial concerns and allows him to acquire a new understanding of human existence.

On one occasion, he observes a Black congregation singing in a church and people watching a film in a movie theater, and reaches the conclusion that man must feel guilty. His reasoning is that if man were satisfied with his fate, he would not be looking for an escape in religion or entertainment. On other occasions, he experiments with the liberty afforded by his new existence and begins to steal objects that have no value to him. From the cleaver taken in a grocery store to the diamonds found in the safe of a jewelry store, he sees only the tangible proof of his boundless power. He wants to show that he can do whatever he wants in this new and free world. He begins to feel that: "Maybe anything's right," that circumstances alone determine the right-ness or wrongness of a man's actions. Certainly the material goods belonging to his former society are drastically altered in value in his new world. He plays like a child with the worthless items from the jewelry store. Dollar bills become wallpaper for his hideaway and rings and watches are hung as decorations. The diamonds are scattered on the ground and trampled.

It is interesting to note that Wright never refers to the main character by name in "The Man Who Lived Underground." It is only by chance that we learn his name when he finds a typewriter in the jewelry store and pecks out "freddaniels." As the story progresses, we again find Darnels seated before a typewriter, this time in the cave where he has made his underground home. Now, however, he tries in vain to recall his own name. Wright shows that the character's identity from his former existence has lost its meaning in his new life. His present condition represents that which is human and universal, and thus devoid of the most significant identifying feature of an individual man.

The choice of a Black man as the protagonist in this story made it easier for Wright to convey his ideas, since the white characters are blinded by racial prejudice that prevents them from knowing Daniels as a man. The condition of this Black man is not only symbolic of all Black Americans, but also of anyone who is oppressed. His life underground allows him to freely express the feelings of the human race that he represents.

Wright underlines that even when Darnels is outside his subterranean universe, he remains totally unknown to the people he meets. If this situation is caused by the color of his skin, it is also a result of human apathy. When he wanders in the halls of a movie theater, he is surprised to be told where the men's room is by an usher used to a tedious job. When he steps out of the grocery store to get some fresh air, a white couple mistakes him for a clerk and buys a pound of grapes from him. Neither the usher nor the white couple can imagine for a second that Darnels has created a fantastic world for himself underground. To them, he is only a person permitted to play certain given roles by society. Daniels' subterranean world is very different from the one above him. Everything is new, including the notion of time that is unimportant. He winds up the stolen watches without worrying about what time of the day or night it is.

A major attraction of "The Man Who Lived Underground" lies in the constant alternation between the mysterious and the commonplace. Apparently mysterious events abound when Daniels emerges from his underground world. The consequences, however, are most basic in terms of human experience. Darnels appears to exert an infinite power in his ability to reveal that man's behavior is founded on guilt and that a realization of this must be reached. A young worker in a radio shop is beaten by his boss and accused of stealing the radio taken by Daniels. Startled by Daniels' sudden appearance, the secretary of the jewelry store screams out in fright. After checking everywhere, her employers think she is mentally deranged because they have not found anything. The night watchman of the jewelry store commits suicide since everybody is convinced of his guilt after the safe has been emptied of its contents. Unable to understand why such a thing has happened to him, he puts an end to his life by shooting himself in the head. This suicide will serve as proof of his guilt to the police. Wright demonstrates that, dead or alive, the night watchman has no hope of proving his innocence to a blind and pitiless society.

If Daniels' invisibility causes brutalities and a suicide, it also enables him to observe and judge the world he has left. Conscious of the guilt of man, he knows that sometime during his life every man must face the mystery of his existence After seeing someone steal money in the safe of the jewelry store, Daniels tells himself that the thief will pay for his act in the future.

Even though he is not responsible for the murder he was accused of committing, Daniels wants to turn himself m to the police because of a deep feeling of human guilt. He wants to insist on his guilt and also try to make its origin known to all. By doing this, he hopes men will acknowledge the existence of their original guilt and will therefore learn how to improve the lot of mankind. But his good intentions are squelched by suspicious police detectives who feel he would endanger the established order of things. The name of the one who shoots him, Lawson, is symbolic of his profession. He is supposed to protect society by enforcing the law.

"The Man Who Lived Underground" is an existentialist parable since the protagonist develops his identity through his relationships with other people. Before Sartre or Camus had entered the literary scene, Wright had already grappled with the philosophy they later expressed. The author had tried to define the position of the individual m relation to modern society. Daniels is the symbol of the loneliness and anonymity surrounding man in a materialistic and unfeeling society.

Source: J. F. Gounard, "Richard Wright's 'The Man Who Lived Underground', A Literary Analysis," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, March, 1978, pp 381-86.

Protagonist's Identity Formation

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In Richard Wright's short story "The Man Who Lived Underground" the hero's quest for identity involves his struggle for meaning in an absurd world which, although covered with pretensions of order and meaning, is more fundamentally marked by chaos, disorder, and blind materialism. The hero achieves his identity, however, only when his experiences underground convince him both that it is futile to expect to find meaning in an irrational world and that he must accept social responsibility despite the absurdity of human existence. Fred Daniels finds his identity when he realizes that all men are guilty because they possess an inherently evil nature and when he accepts the responsibility for his own implication in this evil nature.

"The Man Who Lived Underground" differs from Native Son, which was written earlier; while the latter was a naturalistic novel exhibiting a deterministic philosophy and social protest against societal racism, the former (i.e., "The Man Who Lived Underground") is a work which is motivated by the existential vision Native Son carries the message that the black man cannot achieve true identity through peaceful methods because societal forces prevent self-realization "The Man who Lived Underground," on the other hand, goes beyond social protest and says that all men are faced with a meaningless world for which they are in some measure guilty. To be sure, the black man is able to recognize the irrational character of the world more rapidly than others, for he has been driven underground by racism. But, more importantly, "The Man Who Lived Underground" carries the universal message that only the acceptance of one's responsibility in an absurd world can result in self-realization. The primary act which acceptance of one's responsibility entails is the act of communicating the existential vision to others. Whereas in Native Son Bigger Thomas' rebellious violence gains him his identity, it is not the answer for Fred Daniels. Rather than this, the black man (as representative of every man) must come to grips with an absurd world and must make the most of it by accepting his share of the guilt that characterizes human nature.

Fred Daniels' struggle begins when he is forced to flee from the police for a crime (murder) which he did not commit. He takes refuge by escaping through a manhole into the city sewer. It is here, beneath the superficial elements of the outer world, that he begins to discover the true nature of reality and of human nature. In the depths of the sewer Daniels gropes through the darkness until he finds that he has entrance to the basements of buildings adjacent to the sewer tunnels. In these buildings and in the sewer he sees people in grotesque and different roles, symbolic of the base human nature that underlays outer respectability. He first observes a Negro church service, next discovers a naked, dead baby caught in some debris in the sewer slime, and then goes on to view the people in a mortuary, a movie theatre, a jewelry firm, a radio repair shop, and a meat market. These incidents are significant because the people do not realize they are being observed, and Daniels is seeing them from a unique vantage point, from the level of the unconscious evil and despair which motivate man.

When Daniels first approaches the Negro church service and hears the people imploringly singing

Jesus, take me to your home above
And fold me m the bosom of Thy love....

his impulse is to laugh at their blindness. The author tells us,

Pain throbbed in his legs and a deeper pain, induced by the sight of those black people groveling and begging for something they could never get, churned in him. A vague conviction made him feel that those people should stand unrepentant and yield no quarter in singing and praying...

Daniels sees another side of the human circus as he finds his way into a movie theater:

Sprawling below him was a stretch of human faces, tilted upward, chanting, whistling, screaming, laughing. Dangling before the faces, high upon a screen of silver, were jerking shadows.

These people were laughing at their lives, he thought with amazement They were shouting and yelling at the animated shadows of themselves .. Yes, these people were children, sleeping in their living, awake in their dying.

In this passage one cannot help seeing echoes of Macbeth' s famous speech in which he asserts that

Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
(Macbeth, V. v)

The next symbolic episode occurs as Daniels finds a jewelry firm m which he sees a man opening a huge safe filled with more money than he has ever seen. He feels compelled to get the combination and steal the money. Finally he does get the combination, and with no one around except the sleeping night watchman, he steals nearly all the money, jewelry, and diamonds.
It was with the discovery of the safe and his desire to get the money that "he had a reason for staying here in the underground." It is around this incident that Fred Daniels becomes aware of the evil nature and absurdity of the real world and the guilt of all mankind. He does not desire the money and jewels for any material gain, but merely as a symbol of defiance because he realizes their worthlessness. The symbolic nature of his stealing is again emphasized as Daniels is waiting to get the safe combination. However, when someone finally does open the safe, Daniels is angered to see that that person is also stealing the money.

He's stealing, he [Daniels] said to himself He grew indignant, as if the money belonged to him Though he had planned to steal the money, he despised and pitied the man. He felt that his stealing the money and the man's stealing were two entirely different things. He wanted to steal the money merely for the sensation involved in getting it, and he had no intention whatever of spending a penny of it; but he knew that the man who was now stealing it was going to spend it, perhaps for pleasure.

All the articles which Daniels plunders become for him his mockery of materialism:

There was in him no sense of possessiveness; he was intrigued with the form and color of the money, with the manifold reactions which he knew that the men above-ground held toward it

He did not feel he was stealing, for the cleaver, the radio, the money, and the typewriter were all on the same level of value, all meant the same thing to him. They were the serious toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him, branded him guilty

And back in his cave in the underground, Daniels reflects upon his experiences:

he remembered the singing in the church, the people yelling in the movie, the dead baby, the nude man stretched out upon the white table.... He saw these items hovenng before his eyes and felt that some dim meaning linked them together, mat some magical relationship made them kin He stared with vacant eyes, convinced that all of these images, with their tongueless reality, were striving to tell him something...

And indeed they are telling him something, for when Daniels retraces his journey to revisit the people whom he has seen, he finds that a boy is being accused of taking the radio which Daniels himself had taken from the radio shop and that the night watchman is being beaten for stealing the money and jewels. Although they are not guilty of these particular crimes, they are guilty, .as all men are guilty, by virtue of their humanity.

Why was this sense of guilt so seemingly innate, so easy to come by, to think, to feel, so verily physical? It seemed that when one felt this guilt one was redesigned long before: it seemed that one was always trying to remember a gigantic shock that had left a haunting impression upon one's body which one could not forget or shake off, but which had been forgotten by the conscious mind, creating in one's life a state of eternal anxiety.

Daniels feels that he must act—he must return to the aboveground and proclaim his discovery to the world. He feels that if he tells them they will surely understand and see as he has seen. He returns to the police station to confess his guilt only to learn that the real murderer has been caught. Daniels insists upon his guilt, however, and takes the police to the sewer to show them what he has seen. The story ends ironically, however, as Daniels steps down into the sewer and is shot to death by the police officer. When asked by one of his fellow officers why he shot Daniels, the policeman replies, "You've got to shoot this kind. They'd wreck things."

Fred Daniels does achieve his identity through his act of leaving the sewer to tell the world the truth about a meaningless existence and an evil human nature, facts from which men in the outer world are hiding. He realizes that all men are responsible for their actions in a world of evil and absurdity, and that men must accept responsibility for their existence nevertheless. Fred Daniels becomes a symbol of true humanity in this story of paradoxes. For by running away he runs into the truth and discovers that the outside world of sunshine is really covered with the darkness of evil and that the dark world underground is really lightened with truth.

While Fred Daniels is a black man, and Wright does make a few subtle comments about the racist society which drove him beneath ground, Wright does not absolve Daniels of guilt because of his oppression by a hostile society. Whereas Bigger Thomas in Native Son is inexorably driven by society to commit murder, and hence is not held responsible for his crime (as Max's speech seems to indicate), Fred Daniels is guilty of murder, and not because he actually committed it but only because of the evil nature which all men possess and which bind them together in all crimes committed by man. While Bigger Thomas gains his identity (via his ''creative act'' of murder) by defying white society, Fred Daniels gains his identity on a universal level by identifying with all men.

The story then is more than a mere social commentary, for it questions the nature of good and evil, and puts problem of identity to all mankind.

Source: Shirley Meyer, "The Identity of "The Man Who Lived Underground'," in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 4, No. 2, My, 1970, pp 52-5.


Critical Overview