The Man Who Lived Underground

by Richard Wright

Start Free Trial

Style and Technique

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Great Migration
When the Industrial Revolution changed the economy of the United States from predominantly agricultural to predominantly industrial at the end of the nineteenth century, new opportunities opened up for African Americans who were former slaves or the descendants of slaves. Over the first several decades of the twentieth century, African Americans by the hundreds of thousands moved from rural areas in the South to the big industrial cities in the North in what came to be called the Great Migration. These migrants hoped to leave behind increasingly oppressive Jim Crow laws and mob violence directed against African Americans, as well as a poor agricultural economy worsened by a boll weevil infestation. World War I created a greater need for factory workers, because many workers were fighting and because it takes material goods to conduct a war, and many factories that had previously banned black workers now welcomed them.

The new black workers did not find Utopia, however. Most were offered only nonskilled or semiskilled jobs, and they were paid less than white employees doing the same work. Poverty was still widespread, and most African Americans lived in ghettos in the inner cities. White violence against the newly arrived blacks led to riots that left many dead in the 1920s. A race riot in Chicago had to be suppressed by federal troops. Still, the migration continued. Between the end of World War I and the 1960s, more than six million African Americans left the South for what they hoped would be a better life m the North.

Wright was a part of this migration. He had been born on a plantation in Mississippi and lived in Tennessee, Arkansas, and again in Mississippi before arriving in a black ghetto in the South Side of Chicago in 1927 at the age of nineteen. There, he found a variety of menial jobs, but also had the opportunity to read widely and develop his writing. He...

(This entire section contains 673 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

saw that racism was as active in the North as in the South. When the Great Depression forced staff reductions at factories, for example, black workers were the first to be let go, regardless of length of service. Wright observed carefully, gathering what would become details and anecdotes for his writing. Ten years after moving to Chicago he moved to Harlem in New York City, where he was living when he wrote "The Man Who Lived Underground." As he continued to write, he became the first major author to document the experiences of urban black men in the United States, and among the first to present African-American stories to a white audience.

The Communist Party
In 1932, Wright joined a group called the Chicago John Reed Club, a group of radical writers and artists organized by the Communist Party. He soon came to feel that this group of intellectuals, white and black, were interested in him as an individual, regardless of his race. He joined the Communist Party and became its local secretary. He wrote poems and essays about the proletariat, the lowest social class of workers who have no control over the factories in which they labor. As he worked with the Party in Chicago and Harlem, he came to consider that African Americans were not the only oppressed people in the United States, and that class was sometimes as big a factor as race in determining who thrived and who failed.

By the time he wrote "The Man Who Lived Underground," Wright had become disillusioned with the Communist Party. He felt that they had manipulated him, turning his art into propaganda, and he no longer believed that the Party's agenda for African Americans was in their best interest. Edward Margolies, in his The Art of Richard Wright, finds that "Fred Daniels' adventures suggest something of Wright's own emotions after ten years in the Communist underground." The tone of the story, he believes, is one of "compassion and despair—compassion for a man trapped in his underground nature and despair that he will ever be able to set himself free."

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Images and Imagery
Through the many episodes of' 'The Man Who Lived Underground," Wright weaves imagery of light and darkness, repeating, reinforcing, and inverting the imagery to heighten the sense that the world is chaotic and ultimately unknowable. For the most part, the underground is the world of darkness, and the world above ground is the world of light. The faint light that there is underground is strangely colored, from the "lances of hazy violet" coming through the holes in the manhole cover, to the light from the man's matches, "glowing greenishly, turning red, orange, then yellow," to the "red darkness" of the furnace room, and to the "yellow stems" from another manhole that reveal the floating baby. These odd colors heighten the nightmarish quality of life underground, but also highlight the fact that in this place the man is learning a new way to see.

After just a short time underground, the man loses his ability to live in normal white light. From his dark refuge he can see clearly those people who are still above ground: the people singing in the church, the dead man on the embalming table, the workers in the jewelry shop. In many senses, he can see them more clearly than they can see themselves, and they—although they are standing in the light— cannot see him at all. But when he turns on an electric light in the mortician's basement a "blinding glare" renders him "sightless, defenseless." By the end of the story, when he comes back out of the manhole, light and darkness have been inverted. He cannot see well (one harasser calls him "blind"), and the lights of approaching cars cast him into "a deeper darkness than he had ever known in the underground." As he realizes that the police officers will not listen to his revelation, the light of his new knowledge is extinguished: ' 'the sun of the underground was fleeting, and the terrible darkness of the day stood before him."

The setting of the story, the sewer where Fred Daniels hides from the police, is also an overarching symbol of the darkness and slime in the depths of the human heart. Just as the stinking, filthy sewer lies just beneath the surface of the vibrant city streets, so do evil and rot He just beneath the surface of society, and of individual people. Unless humankind can transform itself and climb out of the sewer, it will be doomed to everlasting fear, isolation, and blindness. Although he is not himself "cleansed," Fred Daniels nearly succeeds in escaping the sewer, but the world is not yet ready for him or his message of universal guilt.

Wright's earliest autobiographical writings show that he was fascinated with the great novels of naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially the work of Theodore Dreiser. The foundation of naturalism is the belief that people are apart of the natural world, just as animals are. They are acted upon by forces in their environment which they cannot understand or control. Actions that appear to be acts of will are really reactions to external forces.

Fred Daniels is, as the saying goes, a victim of circumstance. He is accused of murder because of situations entirely out of his control: he is a man of the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many naturalistic protagonists, he is like an animal, living underground and compared by the narrator to a rat or a dog. Daniels is repeatedly driven to act by forces he cannot understand or control. Resting in his cave, he feels an "irrational compulsion to act." As he climbs out of the manhole at the end of the story, the narrator observes, "His mind said no; his body said yes; and his mind could not understand his feelings.'' Against his own will, he finds the policemen, who have more control over him than he does himself. They, too, are forced by circumstance; they have "got to shoot his kind." When Daniels meets the cruel death that is the fate of most naturalistic protagonists, he is not even a man any longer, but "a whirling object rushing alone in the darkness, veering, tossing, lost in the heart of the earth."

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1940s: Jim Crow laws make life difficult for African Americans They have a restricted legal right to vote, to ride public transportation, to eat in public restaurants and stay in hotels, to receive a fair wage for their work, to attend public colleges and universities, and no right to rent or buy homes where they wish.

1990s: With the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, along with subsequent civil rights legislation, the United States has attempted to remove all legal barriers preventing any citizen from achieving full benefits of American citizenship. However, extralegal economic and social barriers still remain, and the dream of equality for all is still unfulfilled.

1940s: "Negro'' is a neutral term describing a person of a particular race and is a term the members of the race use to describe themselves. The use of the word is not an insult or an attack. Wright himself had written an essay titled "Blueprint for Negro Writing" in 1937, and had helped create an international Congress of Negro Artists and Writers in 1955.

1990s: The term "Negro" is rarely used, except in the names of older organizations like the United Negro College Fund. Successive generations have adopted different terminology, often rejecting earlier systems. The term now preferred by many is "African American," which reflects African heritage and American citizenship. "African American" is used as either a noun or an adjective, the word "black'' is also sometimes used as an adjective.

1940s: When a white person calls a black man "boy," it is a pointed and deliberate insult, denying that the black man has the dignity and stature of an adult. A man insulted in this way feels the strong impact of having been belittled.

1990s: The term is rarely heard, and does not carry the power it once did. As an insult, "boy'' has passed from fashion and does not resonate with speakers or hearers with anything approaching its old force.

1940s: The Communist Party has some political influence in the United States and attracts many intellectuals who, like Wright, are disillusioned with inequalities in American society or simply want to align themselves with a cause they deem daringly fashionable. (A case in point here is the rise of Alger Hiss, a key State Department official during Franklin Roosevelt's administration.) To most Americans, however, "Fifth Columnists," or organized subversives, are cold-blooded centralizers and planners trying to overthrow the republic m favor of an omnicompetent state.

1990s: Since the end of the Cold War in 1990, the national obsession with eradicating communism has abated. Although the Communist Party still exists, the term "Fifth Columnist" has been largely forgotten.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Bryant, Earle V. "The Transformation of Personality in Richard Wright's 'The Man Who Lived Underground,'" in CIA Journal, Vol. 23, No 4,1990, p. 379.

Gilman, Richard "The Immediate Misfortunes of Widespread Literacy," in Commonweal, Vol 74, No 5, April 28, 1961, p. 130.

Hakutam, Yoshinobu. "Richard Wright's 'The Man Who Lived Underground,' Nihilism, and Zen," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p 213.

Hansen, Harry. A review of Cross Section in New York World Telegram, May 31,1944.

Margolies, Edward The Art of Richard Wright, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, p. 81.

North, Sterling. A review of Cross Section in Chicago Sun, June 4,1944, sec. 5, p. 2.

Watkins, Patricia D. "The Paradoxical Structure of Richard Wright's 'The Man Who Lived Underground,'" in Black American Literature Forum, Vol 23, No 4, Winter 1989, p. 767.

Further Reading
Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left- Episodes in American Literary Communism, Avon Books, 1961.
Examines the political and social twentieth-century American authors, especially those, including Wright, who joined the Communist Party. Wright was a member of the Party during the time he wrote "The Man Who Lived Underground."

Fabre, Michel. "Richard Wright. The Man Who Lived Underground" in Studies in the Novel, Vol 3, No. 2, Summer 1971, pp. 165-89.
Describes the series of mysterious burglaries committed by a man living in the sewer that inspired Wright to write his story, and shows how Wright manipulated the facts of the actual case to present his own themes.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, William Morrow, 1973.
The definitive biography, written by a leading Wright scholar Fabre interviewed scores of people who knew Wright at various stages of his life, and presents a great deal of information that will never be superseded.

Felgar, Robert Richard Wright, Twayne, 1980.
A solid starting point for studying Wright's life and writings. Felgar insightfully comments on the story in the context of Wright's full body of work and in the context of social history.

Ridenour, Ronald "The Man Who Lived Underground. A Critique,'' in PHYLON. The Atlanta University of Race and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 1, spring, 1970, pp 54-7.
A general explication of "The Man Who Lived Undergound," written in a time in which race relations were hotly debated.

Wright, Richard Black Boy. A Record of Childhood and Youth, Harper, 1945.
The first volume of Wright's autobiography. The book reveals what life was like for many African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century Of special interest are the sections dealing with Wright's extensive reading of naturalistic novels and how this reading shaped his own work


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” New York: Twayne, 1997.

Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary: 1933-1982. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Rand, William E. “The Structure of the Outsider in the Short Fiction of Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” CLA Journal 40 (December, 1996): 230-245.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Warner, 1988.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide