The Man Who Lived Underground Style and Technique

Richard Wright

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.