The Man Who Lived Underground

by Richard Wright

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Is Fred Daniels a critical thinker in "The Man Who Lived Underground" by Richard Wright?

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In Wright’s story “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the character Fred Daniels is very much a critical thinker.

While contemplating his “loot,” Daniels is

“brooding about the diamonds, the rings, the watches, the money; 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 hovering before his eyes and felt that some dim meaning linked them together . . . He [was] convinced that all of these images, with their tongueless reality, were striving to tell him something…”

Simply trying to discover the linkage between all of his “stolen” items is an act of critical thinking. Initially, he justifies his “loot” and his actions because he doesn’t value the items that he has taken, and he does not use them in any typical manner: the diamonds serve as a floor covering, the money is pasted up as wallpaper, and the watches are nailed to the wall as decoration. His critical thinking leads him to implicitly reject the materialism of American capitalism, and the systemic racism that produces items of suspect value.

Daniels critiques religion when he hears the congregation singing and praying: “They oughtn’t do that, he thought. But could think of no reason why.” At first, his critical nature suspects that asking for forgiveness is somehow obscene. Later, when he is in the movie theater (a more modern church), the critical impulse returns to him as he watches the jeering, laughing crowd:

“These people are laughing at their lives, he thought with amazement. They were shouting and yelling at the animated shadows of themselves.”

Guilt is subject to the character’s critique as well. Despite being an innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and despite his experiences and justifications in the sewer, Daniels comes to the final conclusion that all people share an inherent and complicit guilt. This is a stance that could have only come from introspection and critical thinking in light of the harrowing and humiliating experience he has had while living underground. In fact, the question of guilt is a variant of one of the oldest problems in philosophy and the history of thought: are humans naturally good, or are they naturally bad? 

Incidentally, this story was based on an article that Wright read in True Detective magazine detailing the factual story of a man who lived for over a year in the Los Angeles sewer system.

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