“Almos a Man” and “Prelude” provide much fodder for a comparative study. Both depict family life in conjunction with larger society, and both reveal differences in response to the outside world on the part of parents and their offspring. Yet, these stories are more different than they are alike. One reflects rural society while the other reflects urban society. One emphasizes the conflicts inherent in the process of maturation while the other emphasizes outside societal conflicts which over-shadow the process of maturation. Perhaps the key to understanding the thematic variance is to be found in a considered study of their varied points of view. Of course, the plots of these stories differ; yet, the resultant themes have much to do with point of view, and thus point of view will be the focus of the analysis of these works.
“Almos a Man”
Plot: Dave, a black seventeen-year-old who is grappling with procuring his identity as a man, serves as the focal point of this story. We are privy to his thoughts, words, and actions throughout as the author employs the third person point of view. While Dave views himself as “almos a man,” he is seen by others, especially his parents, as a mere child. Thus his mother collects his pay and tells him when to wash while his father threatens him with physical punishment when he errs.
For Dave, proof that he has reached manhood lies in the procurement of a gun: “ . . . and if he were holding this gun in his hand nobody (black or white) could overrun him; they would have to respect him.” After much wheedling of his mother, Dave is given two dollars from his paycheck to buy the gun, but he is told he must bring it home to his father. Dave does not bring the gun home immediately, but, like a child, delights in imaginary play with it. The following morning he manages to steal out of the house; his plan is to fire the gun before relinquishing it to his father. Through Dave’s experience, we learn that the gun is unreliable. His first shot goes astray and kills a mule belonging to the white man he and his father work for. What follows Dave’s vain attempt to lie about the death of the mule is his total humiliation before a large, laughing audience through his father’s questions, orders, and ultimate promise of punishment.
Dave never relinquishes the gun as a symbol of manhood, and later that same evening leaves his house once more to successfully fire it. Faced with two years of working to pay for the mule and the promised beating from his father, Dave decides to turn his back on his family and run away to “somewhere where he could be a man.”
The point of view of this story enables the reader to completely understand the feelings of the main character, Dave. We are not privy to the thoughts of his mother or father so that when Dave exclaims:. “They treat me lika mule . . . N then they beat me . . . N Ma had t tell on me.” We are sympathetic. Though we know that running away is a drastic step for a boy who never realized he was cheated (with a defective gun), we understand why Dave must do so.
Largely because of the choice of the third person point of view, this is a story which leaves the reader with a feeling of uneasiness and many unresolved questions. One begins to think about the workings of this family. Why is the father so harsh? Why is the son so naive? Answers are not readily available, yet hints are given as to the social system of which this family is a part. Though the boy is seventeen, there is no mention of college or training for him. He will follow his father as a field worker for a white landowner. The family is hard-working yet poor. The father is hyper-critical of Dave and especially concerned about Dave’s working relationship with the landowner. Is this the only job possibility for Dave? Is the family trapped in a situation that is irrevocable? Or is the father’s harsh treatment of Dave meant to ready him for a harsh world? One can only speculate; yet, the choice of a gun as a symbol of manhood underscores a sense of powerlessness that Dave perhaps only unconsciously feels and wishes to overcome.
Plot: While “Prelude” is a story of anti-semitism it also considers the responses of young and old family members to inequity. It is told from the first person point of view, and thus enables the reader to directly experience the conflict which engulfs this family. The son, Harry, narrates the story with an eye toward revealing the feelings and motives for actions (or inaction as the case may be) of all family members. The reader sees Harry as a reliable narrator who understands both his own reactions and the reactions of his father and sister.
“Prelude” takes place in Chicago during the Depression and just prior to U.S. involvement in World War II. This is a tense time for Jewish immigrants who are often the targets of abuse from bitter disenfranchised youth. Such is the case of the Silversteins.
We first note the taunts that Harry must contend with as he approaches his father’s news-stand. We learn that a gang of unemployed boys has been harassing all members of the family for some time. The police have been notified but are unable to provide continuous watch over the business establishment. We also learn that parent and children react differently to the harassment. Son and daughter are quick to anger and respond verbally with the injustice of such treatment. The father is more philosophical, and articulates reasons for the perpetrators’ behavior. Though the son is able to understand his father’s point of view, the daughter, once riled, will not be passive: “Not even the Governor of the State could make her be quiet.”
We also learn that the father is unwell and increasingly upset about events which are taking place in Europe. He tells his son that there is nowhere to go; they must learn to deal with social conditions in this country for there is no alternative.
The climax of the story occurs when the gang enters the news-stand with the expressed purpose of humiliating the family. They choose a time when there are few people around and proceed to taunt the son and destroy the contents of the shop. Through it all the father remains passive; he only pleads with the boys to “go home and eat.” Passersby simply gawk at the scene despite the daughter’s pleas for help.
When the police finally arrive, the damage has been done. The shop has been vandalized, the gang has escaped, and the family is bound together in tears of frustration and futility. Neither the father’s passivity nor the daughter’s warning (“ . . . after they get us down they’ll go after you!”) has yielded adequate response. Fascism is on the rise.
Analysis: At the story’s core is the portrayal of the ugliness of fascism. However, a secondary theme emerges when we consider the lives of the members of this urban family. The children grow up quickly amidst overt gestures of anti-semitism. It should also be noted that this family is isolated in a gentile neighborhood and thus faces the spectre of prejudice alone. Yet, it is the choice of the son as narrator which enables this story to portray a closure of the generation gap and/or a unification of family. Had the story been told from the daughter’s point of view, it would have been a different story, indeed.
Though the son often disagrees with the father’s passivity, he, unlike his sister, is also aware and responsive to his father’s concerns. In this story father and son are united because of outside adversity; Harry echoes his father’s feelings when he thinks of the news-stand as a “kind of island; if they left they’d be under the waves.”
Level I Questions/Activities
1. Compare and contrast the themes of the two stories.
2. What part does setting play in the reader’s understanding of the concerns of the sons?
3. Account for the relationship between father and son in each work.
4. Why did each author choose a particular point of view? (Compare and contrast points of view.) How is the theme of each work affected by point of view?
Level II Broader Discussion Questions
1. How might relationships among family members be affected by outside pressures?
2. Might different families react differently to similar pressures? If so, why?
3. Are family members necessarily conscious of outside pressures? Explain.