Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground”:
Notes for Discussion

by Ralph Dumain


This story, taken from Eight Men, can be found online at: [Link defunct, 6 Nov. 2017]

Other web pages of note:

Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground": Annotated Bibliography by R. Dumain

Richard Wright Study Guide

This year marks the Centennial of Wright's birth. My contribution to this occasion begins with a discussion of Wright's seminal short story (to be abbreviated "MWLU"), which compacts most of the themes that occupied Wright into one enigmatic package. MWLU harkens back to Wright's 1940 novel Native Son—the first novel by a black author selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and which made Wright the first black American literary superstar—and prefigures his 1953 "existentialist" novel written in permanent exile, The Outsider. Wright's landmark autobiography Black Boy—now restored to its uncensored original version as American Hunger—was published in 1945. This story, hatched at a pivotal moment in Wright's career, proves that Wright never was a purely naturalistic, protest, or race writer as many have misunderstood him. This very story embodies the multilayered nature of Wright's concerns, as it alternates between naturalistic situations described in minute detail, and a psychological, symbolic, surrealistic dreamscape in which the submerged forces of need and desire build to burst into the external world in unpredicable ways. As I (and some other critics) see it, the relation between these two dimensions is itself the key to the fundamental meaning of this work.

A number of incidents, symbols, and various details can be singled out for analysis. Here are those I find most striking.

(1) What is the secret of guilt, and how does its psychology actually relate to real or imagined transgressions? Why do the innocent feel guilty? As the protagonist Fred Daniels eavesdrops for the second time on the singing in a black church, he thinks:

They're wrong, he whispered in the lyric darkness. He felt that their search for a happiness they could never find made them feel that they had committed some dreadful offense which they could not remember or understand. He was now in possession of the feeling that had gripped him when he had first come into the underground. It came to him in a series of questions: Why was this sense of guilt so seemingly innate, so easy to come by, to think, to feel, so verily physical? It seemed that when one felt this guilt one was retracing in one's feelings a faint pattern designed long before; it seemed that one was always trying to remember a gigantic shock that had left a haunting impression upon one's body which one could not forget or shake off, but which had been forgotten by the conscious mind, creating in one's life a state of eternal anxiety.

(2) Fred Daniels ponders the connection that ties his experiences together:

He stood in the dark, wet with sweat, 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, that some magical relationship made them kin. He stared with vacant eyes, convinced that all of these images, with their tongueless reality, were striving to tell him something . . .

What do you think?

(3) Once Fred Daniels goes underground, his most significant encounters with aboveground culture occur in a church (worship) and in a movie theater (entertainment), both of which he scorns as embodiments of illusion. How do you see the logic behind this?

(4) Fred Daniels’ other forays into the aboveground world involve the theft of money and commodities, playing office (including a curious relationship to typewriters), and an adventure in a butcher shop. Valuable currency and commodities in the everyday world become toys in Daniels’ underground hideout. What do you make of this?

Note that in other work, e.g. his autobiographical story in the same collection, “The Man Who Went to Chicago,” Wright criticizes the American dream and its preoccupation with consumerism. He suggests that the real threat to the system comes not from radicals and agitators and segments of the population who want a piece of the action, but from people who have no such investment. Does Fred Daniels (or Bigger Thomas or other Wright protagonists) fit this profile and what are the possible implications?

(5) Daniels has two dreams. The first dream follows the theft of tools and food: Daniels, walking on water, rescues a baby from a drowning woman. In the second dream, following a radio news report on World War II battles, Daniels observes his own dead body. What do you make of these dreams?

(6) After Daniels completes the decoration of his underground cave with the commodities of the aboveground world, he experiences a triumphal moment:

Maybe anything's right, he mumbled. Yes, if the world as men had made it was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy himself, murder, theft, torture.

He straightened with a start. What was happening to him? He was drawn to these crazy thoughts, yet they made him feel vaguely guilty.

The notion that maybe anything’s right is reminiscent of the famed (misquoted?) aphorism from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Wright also pursues the limitations of existentialist isolation in The Outsider (1953), suggesting that people cannot live like this. Wright, however, was a resolutely anti-religious man. Comment if you will on this aspect of the story.

(7) Immediately following this meditation is the radio broadcast of war calamities. The images of the world on the brink break the spell of his underground existence, whereupon follows the second dream, sounds of hymn singing, and Daniels’ meditation on universal guilt. The story takes a further dramatic turn as a boy is falsely accused of stealing the radio Daniels stole and is beaten. Daniels is amused by this. Then, a night watchman is falsely accused of stealing the money Daniels stole from a safe and is beaten by the same policemen who extorted a murder confession out of Daniels. The night watchman commits suicide, whereupon Daniels emerges from his manhole into the daylight world. How do you interpret this sequence of events?

(8) Emerging from the underground, Daniels re-enters the black church, only to be tossed out. He then proceeds to the police station where he was originally interrogated to offer a strange confession:

[ . . . ] But they said I killed her. But it doesn't make any difference. I'm guilty! [ . . . ] All the people I saw was guilty.” He is eventually referred to the three policemen who had arrested him, who think he is either insane or trying to entrap them. Having found the real killer, they burn his confession, but Daniels insists on sharing his secret of the cave.

They did not believe him now, but they would. A mood of high selflessness throbbed in him. He could barely contain his rising spirits. They would see what he had seen; they would feel what he had felt. He would lead them through all the holes he had dug and . . . He wanted to make a hymn, prance about in physical ecstasy, throw his arm about the policemen in fellowship.

As Daniels leads the cops to the manhole, the police ponder the source of Daniels’ delusions. Lawson suggests: “Maybe it’s because he lives in a white man’s world.” Once they descend into the sewer, Lawson shoots Daniels. Why? "You've got to shoot his kind. They'd wreck things."

What do you make of this denouement, and how would Daniels wreck things?

(9) Some critics have suggested that Daniels is a Christlike figure. It is known, however, that Wright had a strictly irreligious view of the world. Daniels’ world is certainly a godless one, with only one indicator of any possible guiding force in this nightmare:

It seemed that he was playing a game with an unseen person whose intelligence outstripped his.

Furthermore, Daniels’ consciousness remains confused to the end, and the nature of his “revelation” seems rather garbled and misdirected, unconsummated, uncontrolled, and only dimly grasped by Daniels himself. The attribution of innocence and guilt and its correlation with actual actions is entirely arbitrary, yet Daniels, after meditating on the universal susceptibility to guilt, curiously concludes that everyone is guilty anyway, so the punishment meted out for this universal guilt need not issue from any specific culpability. This becomes for Daniel the gateway to a universal brotherhood, the pursuit of which leads to his murder at the hands of his persecutors. This perspective smacks of a quasi-Christianity (original sin), but clearly Wright is more interested in the psychological provenance of this state of mind than in the veracity of any such doctrine. Daniels’ revelation seems to be an aborted one. What, then, are we to make of the psychological process that leads to Daniels’ conclusion of universal guilt?

Written 19 March & 24 March 2008
© 2008 Ralph Dumain

Postscript on Discussion of 25 March 2008

The most important ideas injected into the group discussion were:

(1) Possible sources and precursors;
(2) Inversion of Plato's cave—images of light and darkness;
(3) Disappearance of political ideology in this story;
(4) Guilt and amorality;
(5) Racial dimension;
(6) Inability to articulate thoughts;
(7) The absurd: naturalistic and symbolic levels of this narrative are at odds;
(8) Alternatives for confession: church (black) or police station (white): connection here to be explained?
(9) Analogy with Christ?—Christ acted consciously, Daniels unconsciously;
(10) Daniels' saga as failed mutation of Christianity—Wright's intention?

Written 31 March 2008
© 2008 Ralph Dumain

Richard Wright's “The Man Who Lived Underground”: Annotated Bibliography by R. Dumain

Dostoevsky’s Underground, Ideology, Reception: A Very Select Bibliography

Richard Wright Study Guide

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide


Fyodor Dostoevsky @ Reason & Society

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 30 March 2008
Postscript uploaded 31 March 2008
Link added 6 November 2017

Site ©1999-2017 Ralph Dumain