Summary and Analysis Chapter 4


The American artist has been called an Ishmael, doomed to wander on the outskirts of his society. Misunderstood or ignored by those with whom he longs to communicate, this Ishmael often ends up in exile from his people or in desolation among them. When young Richard Wright comes to view those he loves most with the eyes of an outsider, he is for a time unaware of his membership among the American Ishmaels.

In this chapter, we see the origins of an artistic temperament as it develops under extraordinary conditions. At home with Granny, Richard is subjected to severe religious discipline. She is a woman who is completely antilife. All the pleasures of the senses are condemned as sinful; even the food she serves is drained of any taste. Her youngest daughter, Addie, is a carbon copy of Granny, and she and Richard engage in vicious battles. He sees normal boys reduced to docile pupils by the religious education Aunt Addie provides. Worse yet, the boys have none of the moral fiber Richard has found in street gangs. In one incident, a fellow student is too obedient to admit his guilt for a certain act and lets Richard take the blame.

However, this is only one feature of Richard's religious life. It is perhaps the strongest, but there is a subtle side to religion which Richard doesn't miss. It is the artistic element that catches his imagination and nourishes his interest in language. There is beauty in the hymns and mystery in the ritual. Religion gives order where there was only chaos and provides many metaphors for human existence and suffering. Richard's recurrent exposure to these elements affects him deeply. The poetry of the words and songs moves his senses and his mind. It will ultimately give him the passion to write his own poetry.

There is, also, another way in which religion influences Richard. Because it is based on an ideology which, in its ideal form, cuts across boundaries set by race and nation, Christianity frees the young boy from his blackness. The possibilities of a brotherhood based on common ideals are latent in religion and, to one who is sensitive to these ideals, it is liberating. Therefore, through his purest religious experience, Richard is freed both as an artist and a man. However, this only makes the hypocrisy of his home life all the more intolerable to him and accounts for his ability to separate God from religion. He does not believe in God, but he is moved by a religious instinct. He cannot pretend to follow Granny in her Seventh-Day Adventist fanaticism, but he cannot stop himself from having strong moral feelings. One of the novel's most sensitive scenes focuses on this point. There is a misunderstanding by now common between himself and Granny, and it results in her humiliation in church. Richard is truly apologetic and promises to pray for salvation. It is in the process of this prayer, when he finds nothing to say to God, that he conceives his first story. It is thrilling to him, and now writing begins to enter his life as a great release and joy. The isolation and concentration required of him give his imagination a chance to soar. His spirit is liberated, and he is able to transform the sorrows of being an outsider into the strengths of writing down his feelings. He shows the story to a girl he knows, and her bewilderment at its existence, as opposed to its meaning, gives him real pleasure.

Finally, Richard is given up as a lost cause by his family; they expect nothing of him anymore, so he is free to do as he chooses. This marks a change in his character. No longer one who struggles against his family in order to win their approval, he turns his rebellion outside to the world at large. We see, therefore, in this chapter how Wright is becoming everything his environment has intended him not to be. As an outsider, an Ishmael, a masculine individual, and a believer in human rights, he is dangerous to his community. Just why he is dangerous, and how, becomes increasingly clear as he matures.

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