Richard Wright-The Man Who Lived Underground: Hell as state of mind Essay

In “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the primary theme and the driving force which engages the main character Fred Daniel as he moves through the story is guilt, innocence, and the conflict between the two. In every chapter, Fred struggles with the guilt deep in himself, which constantly gnaws at his mind. Life, as Dante sees it, is a continuous test or struggle between right and wrong. Dante’s depiction of Hell is an allegory of life, the role of religion in our lives, and the need to choose right over wrong. Homer’s depiction of hell is just another place that is virtually no different from the living world, a place in which the dead take on their punishment purely for themselves.

Because of the notion of “Hell” that people created, people become aware of the faults in their lives. Reading “The Man Who Lived Underground” left me with an idea and a feeling that, in a way, life is a state of infinite guilt. At the lowest points in our lives, we are often forced to look back and ask ourselves what we have done wrong and where it all started, and what is more important and what is less important. We each have a story to tell and these “moments” affect our lives in many ways and open many unbidden doors. At some point in our lives; we all face difficulties, problems, and temptations that can drive us to the point of desperation and can result in wrong decisions.            Fred Daniels believed that people are inherently guilty and isolated from one another; this idea is what has kept him in hell.

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When Fred hears the church-choir singing “Jesus, take me to your home above,” he wants to laugh because he believes that they are wrong to be asking forgiveness of God, but he instantly feels guilty. Like his story indicated, people struggle between right and wrong, and deep in themselves there is guilt, for which people use religion to attempt to relieve their hearts and minds. This idea of hell (guiltiness) as state of mind is why hell continues to be an interesting and exciting idea to humans throughout this century.            I have my own reasons for believing in this “born-guilty” theory despite my being an atheist.

I have all kinds of memories that have had a profound effect on me.  Some of them I could not even thoroughly explain. However, I will focus on my own experience that made my life hellish for years.            As I was growing up, I was always trying to be the “good” child, pleasing or rather trying to conform to the wants and expectations of others. In everything from grades to extracurricular activities, looks to personality, I tried and wanted everyone and anyone to like me.

But being “good” and always trying to please and conform to what others wanted me to be only brought many downfalls and adverse consequences.            There is also a specific event involving guilt that left a deep impression upon me. It was year 1997, and I was 12 years old. I was on my way to my Junior High School. As I stood on the pavement, just about to cross the street, I spotted a white puppy wandering around on the driveway on the opposite side of my road. That particular drive way had 8 lanes and was usually packed with cars.

I didn’t doubt that in a few minutes, when traffic signal changed, the puppy would be in great danger. I prayed for puppy to come to my pavement side, and I lowered myself and started to gesture to the puppy. I screamed and waved my hands but it wouldn’t notice me but kept wandering around on the driveway. I instantly thought of being “good” and of the right thing to do at that moment. I decided to rescue the puppy, but the minute I made my mind I saw this giant heavy-duty dump truck running toward my side of the lane; it was also when the white puppy noticed me calling. Immediately the white puppy ran toward my side wagging the tail. I tried to stop the driver but the truck was so tall and had such huge wheels that it was impossible to see the driver.            I jumped to the driveway thinking of grabbing the puppy really quick and running back to the pavement rapidly.

I thought I might have been able to do it, but at that moment, some middle-aged woman from my back pulled my arm really hard. She said it was too late and that I should just let it go. Right in front of my eyes, that white puppy was squeezed to death under a giant tire. That one moment was like a slow motion scene in a movie, and I still remember it vividly. That particular morning was nothing like other days because of my vivid reminiscence of sounds, smell, colors, and the indefinable sensation of the warm red blood that endlessly spread out and make white steam visible in chilly winter air. In less than five minutes it was disappeared into the air and people all walked way from the scene as if nothing happened.

On my way back home after school to the bus stop, an unfortunate coincidence was waiting for me. There were “Lost” posters (in which I recognized the puppy by its collar) placed everywhere, which only served to remind me of and intensify my guilt.            After that experience I continued to suffer from this feeling of guilt. I was too young to handle my guilt, and I was immensely troubled over my ideas of what is right and wrong, and by the consequences that my supposed wrong action brought. Whenever I did something “wrong”, what made it “wrong” was not so much the act itself, but the guilt—it is guilt that makes it wrong for me. Although this life experience is an ongoing quest, I feel that all events and feelings are life lessons in their own way and contribute the wholeness of my being.

In each lesson given and each lesson learned, and even in everything that happens to me, questions are awakened, and answers are eventually found. 


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