Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.


(Short Stories for Students)

Guilt and Innocence
One of the most important themes in "The Man Who Lived Underground," the idea that Fred Daniels keeps...

(The entire section is 778 words.)