Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
Cross Damon’s wintry search for meaningfulness and happiness falls into five stages, omnisciently narrated in books of the novel entitled “Dread,” “Dream,” “Descent,” “Despair,” and “Decision.” By the time Cross reaches the fifth stage, no decision can stem the worsening of his life that is suggested by the first four titles.
When the story opens, Cross dreads everything about his intolerable life, which quickly comes to a crisis under pressure from his fifteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, his abused wife, and his moralistic mother. Then the completely unexpected happens: He survives a subway accident and learns that a mangled victim has been identified as him. Cross takes this opportunity to create himself anew. Again, however, the unexpected happens; he is seen by a friend, and rather than return to a life made even worse, Cross kills him.
Cross’s life is now dreamlike, because he carries in his mind a twenty-six-year identity that he is consciously denying. He is only early in the process of inventing what he believes will be a new personality, and therefore he is at the mercy of external circumstances. An accident in the dining car of a train causes him to meet two people who will haunt him like images in a dream that turns into a nightmare. Bob Hunter entangles him in the Communist Party, and Ely Houston is insightful enough to recognize him as a fellow outsider inclined to “ethical lawlessness.” The style of Wright’s narration in this part of the story is not dreamlike, however, as philosophical analysis plays a major role in his narration and characterization.
In New York, Cross meets Party members who claim to be rational, objective, and benevolent but whose only law is their purpose of domination. Cross, needing human contacts to give substance to his new identity, and believing that with his intelligence and existential freedom he is more than a match for anyone else, agrees to live with Gil and Eva Blount, in order to aid the Party’s challenge to the racist practices of their landlord, Herndon. Increasingly for Cross, the flow of ideas is the believable and sustaining fabric of life. He believes that he actually is his idea of himself. Paradoxically, however, the more he intellectualizes life, the more he rationalizes his behavior with philosophical excuses, and the more he is driven by his own dread and compulsions.
Thus Cross’s descent begins when, projecting ideas that threaten him onto other persons, he finds that those persons are, to his mind, ideas that offend him. Refusing existentially to go on living the bad faith of transcendental hope, he begins to share the Communists’ and fascists’ bad faith of exploitation through deception. Acting godlike, Cross appropriates absolute power, in the name of personal freedom and integrity, by killing Gil Blount and Herndon.
In despair over his discovery that, in exercising the freedom to create a new self, he has compulsively reenacted an ancient pattern of violent human behavior, Cross begins a love affair with Eva Blount, although he knows that she loves her image of him as an innocent victim. Ely Houston also prefers to think that Cross is innocent, rather than the kind of modern outlaw who would kill without need of transcendent justification for his act and without feeling transcendent judgment upon it. However, a combative Cross cannot resist his compulsion to taunt Houston with the assertion that “humanity is nothing in particular” and that, therefore, a human may be anything at all. Another Communist, Hilton, now becomes offensive to Cross, intending to exercise moral ownership of him. Immediately before Cross kills him, Hilton expresses the non-Marxist personal philosophy that life is not justifiable, but merely exists for no particular reason. Individuals, he says, should make life whatever they want it to be. Cross counters that human suffering proves that life has meaning. Indeed Cross almost kills Eva to save her from the suffering that she is sure to feel if she learns that he is a murderer. He is stopped by his love for her, which causes him to feel hope and to commit himself to her.
In the last book, Houston confronts Cross with evidence of his guilt in the murders. Cross says nothing, and Houston sends him home. There Cross makes the decision to confess to Eva, hoping that she will somehow understand and forgive; instead, she loses all remaining trust and hope and leaps from a window to her death. Party thugs shoot Cross; on his deathbed, he confesses to Houston that his life has been horrible, all the more so because he has felt his existential innocence. He has, however, also learned that persons must not alienate themselves from humanity, which is, in essence, a promise that must not be broken.