Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel’s protagonist, Cross Damon, can be considered an anti-hero. Damon makes one bad decision after another, which cumulatively result in several deaths, including his own. Richard Wright offers a compelling picture of this 26-year-old African American man’s descent through a web of deception and murder, taking others down with him on this steep slide. At the outset, Damon is married but has also impregnated a fifteen-year-old girl. Just when he is at a loss over how to extricate himself from this situation, a freak subway accident seems to provide a way out: he survives, but another man’s body is identified as his. Cross can now change identities.
While advancing with this plan, however, he is recognized by an acquaintance. Realizing the danger of exposure, he kills the man. This action sets him on the destructive path that will lead to his downfall. Damon falls in with a Communist Party cell, the members of which think he is ideologically one of their own. Instead, he is using them to create a safe haven. He agrees to move in with Gil and Eva Blount, ostensibly to challenge the segregation in their building. When the landlord's disagreements escalate into his confrontation with Gil, Damon ends up killing both men.
Still, he is not apprehended; instead, Eva Blount does not suspect him but takes him as a lover. The author makes it increasingly clear that a change of identity is not a change of personality. As Damon engages in some existential philosophical arguments with the Communists, several of them become increasingly suspicious of his behavior. When Blount’s friend Jack Hilton confront him, Cross kills yet again. Finally, the web starts to tighten around him, and Cross seems to be experiencing remorse. After considering killing Eva to silence her but also from some misguided idea of bestowing mercy, he confesses to her; she commits suicide. Although Ely Houston confronts him and suspects that, once found out, he will do likewise, instead it is Party members who shoot and kill Damon.