The Man Who Lived Underground

by Richard Wright

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Themes and Meanings

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An organizing theme for Richard Wright’s story is Fred Daniels’s quest for identity, his journey to discover who he is and how he fits into an absurd world in which people are both victims and victimizers. The opening line suggests this theme: “I’ve got to hide, he told himself.” Although this line suggests that he is literally hiding himself by fleeing into the bowels of the underground, it also suggests that he is hiding from himself, the self that will become visible and apparent by the end of the story.

Each adventure reveals something to Daniels about himself, whether it is the innocence that he shares with the black churchgoers and the night watchman in the jewelry store, or the responsibility for himself and others that is prompted by his seeing the unnecessary suicide of the night watchman.

One particularly telling episode suggests how tentative is the self that Daniels is trying to discover. Sneaking into a jewelry store, he notices a typewriter on a desk. Although he has never used a machine like this before, he inserts paper into it and pecks out his name: freddaniels. When he looks at his name—his identity on the sheet of paper—he laughs and promises himself to learn to type correctly someday. He does indeed learn, not merely to type correctly, as he demonstrates later, but to spell his name and announce himself freely and innocently as the boy who goes underground to find himself and to accept himself.


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Guilt and Innocence
One of the most important themes in "The Man Who Lived Underground," the idea that Fred Daniels keeps exploring as he moves through the story, is the idea of guilt and innocence. In nearly every episode, Daniels wrestles with guilt. When he hears the churchgoers singing hymns, he wants to laugh, but immediately he is "crushed with a sense of guilt." Contemplating the scene, he comes to believe that they are wrong to be asking forgiveness of God. The contrast is significant: he is "crashed" with guilt over the simple act of almost laughing, yet he feels that others should' 'stand unrepentant'' for their own sins.

As he moves through the tunnels underground, his exploration of the meaning of guilt appears even more confused. He gradually comes to understand that everyone is equally guilty, or equally not guilty. Guilt does not prevent him from taking tools, food, a radio, money, or the other items he collects. He is unconcerned over the punishment the boy and the watchman receive because of his own actions, or over the watchman's suicide. He has to hold back another laugh while the boy is beaten for taking the radio, and hopes the beating will make the boy understand "the secret of his life, the guilt that he could never get rid of.''

Daniels first enters the sewer soon after making a false confession, that is, after asserting his guilt when he is in fact innocent. At the end of the story, he tries to tell the policemen that he is guilty after all, but now they insist that he is innocent. He knows that the policemen do not understand what he is trying to tell them, but he knows what he has seen: "All the people I saw was guilty."

Alienation and Loneliness
Fred Daniels's alienation, his separateness from the rest of humanity, plays an important role in the story. His is not just a case of mistaken identity. By the middle of the story he has no identity at all, and cannot even remember his own name. Throughout the story...

(This entire section contains 778 words.)

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he is repeatedly mistaken for someone else. The police think he is the murderer, the movie theater usher thinks he is a patron, the woman at the market thinks he is a shop assistant. For whatever reason the police made their mistake, the usher and the shopper simply must not be looking carefully, not considering Daniels as a human being; neither seems to notice that he is wet and smelling of the sewer, because they do not really notice him at all. Because he is invisible, thus anonymous, he is able to move freely both underground and above.

As he remembers his life above ground, Daniels makes no mention of family or friends, and he does not include family or friends in his playacting with the typewriter, the money, or the gun. Below ground, he is one man standing alone watching groups of people in church, in a theater, at work. He lives out the most common metaphor for separation: instead of figurative walls between himself and others, he and the people he watches are literally separated by brick walls.

Race and Racism
Although it is not the major theme of the story, race and racism are important to understanding what happens to Fred Daniels. An African-American male, he is accused of murdering a white woman, and history tells him that his chances of obtaining justice from white police officers and a white judicial system are slim. Indeed, the police officers have already beaten him, though they know he is innocent of the crime. The newspaper headline, "Hunt Negro for Murder," demonstrates that Daniels's race is more significant to his accusers than his individual identity Racism, therefore, is a part of what causes Daniels's fear and drives him underground in the first place.

Not everyone treats him terribly, however. The theater usher calls Daniels "sir," and the woman buying grapes is civil enough. But when Daniels returns to the police station, he is called "boy" and laughed at. When the three arresting officers cannot make sense of Daniels's strange and incoherent talk, one of them, Lawson, speculates, "Maybe it's because he lives in a white man's world." Wright, who chose to live most of his adult life outside the United States, believed that racist institutions can cause more harm than can be counteracted by well-meaning or morally neutral people. In Daniels's case, the very laws of the society—the police officer is named Law's Son—oppress those people they are supposed to protect. Daniels is an alienated everyman, whose race removes him even further from those around him.