Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

If a major theme of this short story is the quest for identity, then Wright’s techniques reinforce that classical motif of the journey. Using devices found in myths and folk narratives, Wright shows how Fred Daniels must go through a mazelike underground world until he emerges with a clear sense of who he is. Like the hero with a thousand faces or the knight searching for the Holy Grail, Daniels must overcome obstacles that are placed in his way. When he visits the butcher shop, for example, he is mistaken for an employee, and he must turn the obstacle of mistaken identity into an opportunity.

The classical hero is also given magical instruments to aid him in his journey. For Fred Daniels, these instruments are numerous: a tool kit, light bulb, electric wire, radio, typewriter, and meat cleaver. He uses all of them to assist him in his quest, realizing that his success depends on his ingenuity and his courage.

Finally, in the archetypal quest story, the hero ultimately must seize a guarded treasure, whether it is the Holy Grail, or money and diamonds and watches in the safe of the jewelry store. Daniels successfully captures the treasure, eluding the night watchman, and realizes the significance of his success. The meaninglessness of the wealth symbolizes the meaninglessness of his flight. Just as he has nearly forgotten why he is a fugitive, so he understands the absurdity of a world in which people are both victims and victimizers, pursued and pursuing, innocent and guilty. He emerges from his underground hiding place with his newly found identity: a man who sees the light both literally and figuratively.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Great Migration
When the Industrial Revolution changed the economy of the United States from predominantly agricultural to...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Images and Imagery
Through the many episodes of' 'The Man Who Lived Underground," Wright weaves imagery of light and darkness,...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1940s: Jim Crow laws make life difficult for African Americans They have a restricted legal right to vote, to ride public...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Read the sections of Wright's autobiographical Black Boy that deal with his strict religious upbringing. To what extent do you think...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

In 1993, the City Theatre on the South Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, produced a stage version of "The Man Who Lived Underground."

(The entire section is 21 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945) by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, a classic sociological...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bryant, Earle V. "The Transformation of Personality in Richard Wright's 'The Man Who Lived Underground,'" in CIA...

(The entire section is 408 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Butler, Robert.“Native Son”: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Racial Discourse....

(The entire section is 137 words.)