Study Guide for The Man Who Killed A Shadow (Richard Wright)

eightmen_harperRichard Wright (1908-1960)

“The Man Who Killed A Shadow” can be found in Eight Men, a collection of short stories, first published in 1961.

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Discussion Questions for Richard Wright’s The Man Who Killed A Shadow

Do some research about Richard Wright’s life to identify some biographical elements in “The Man Who Killed A Shadow”. [Suggested reading: Robert Bone, 1969, “Richard Wright-American Writers 74: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers]

Do some research about Richard Wright’s literary work such as “Native Son” and “Black Boy” and identify some common themes in his work that can help you understand “The Man Who Killed A Shadow”. [Suggested reading: Robert Bone, 1969, “Richard Wright-American Writers 74: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers]

Identify some references in the story that concentrate on Saul’s fear of shadows. Why does Saul always have a fear of shadows? What do shadows mean to him? Why does he feel that “shadows would some day claim him”? Why is Maybelle a shadow to him?

Saul describes her family as a “shadow” as well.  What does this mean? How can both his own people and Maybelle be shadows?

What is Saul’s perception of Maybelle? How does he form such a perception? Identify quotations from the story to justify your view.

What is the significance of the name “Saul”?

Both Saul and Maybelle can be called victims of their society. Explain how they are victimized by their own society.

Explain Maybelle’s perception of Saul Sanders in relation to Earle B. Bryant’s critique of the sexualization of racism in “The Man Who Killed A Shadow”.  Identify quotations from the story to justify your view. [Bryant’s article “The Sexualization of Racism in Richard Wright’s ‘The Man Who Killed a Shadow'” is available in Black American Literature Forum,  16, Fall 1982, pp.  119-21]

Why is Saul’s world separated from the white one “by a million psychological miles”?

Identify quotations from the story which demonstrate the social stratification in Saul’s world.

Why does Saul drink whiskey so much?

To what extent does the story offer a critique of American-Americans?

Why does Saul kill Maybelle?

What is the symbolic value of Maybelle’s ring?

In relation to the following quotation, discuss why Saul feels no fear or regret after killing Maybelle. You may like to identify other quotations as well. “When at last the conviction of what he had done was real in him, it came only in terms of flat memory, devoid of all emotion, as though he were looking when very tired and sleepy at a scene being flashed upon the screen of a movie house”

What is the significance of the name “Maybelle Eva Houseman”? When does Saul learn her name and how does this affect him?

What does the last paragraph reveal about white America’s perception of African-Americans?

Examine Saul and Maybelle’s actions in relation to Freud’s belief that “people repress their most unsettling desires because of fear of social disapproval” (Felgar, 2000, p. 111). [Suggested reading: Robert Felgar’s “Student Companion to Richard Wright, 2000]

Essay topic: According to Robert Staple (as cited in R. W. Connell’s “Masculinities”, 1995), “the level of violence among black men in the United States can only be understood through the changing place of the black labour force in American capitalism and the violent means used to control it” (p. 81). Examine Saul Sander’s brutal murder of Maybelle Eva Houseman in relation to Staple’s argument.

Extension activity: Choose a men’s magazine or a sports magazine, and then examine how African-American men are portrayed in the magazine (either in the articles or in the pictures) you have chosen. How do these magazines depict African-American men and their bodies? Can you identify any patterns in their construction? What do these patterns reveal about cultural values? Discuss your finding with your friends in the classroom.

© Ali Nihat Eken, Istanbul, December 2008

Useful link: Richard Wright’s The Man Who Was Almost A Man /