The workings of a child’s mind are often confused in retrospect. The combination of his awakening senses, his parents’ authority, and the world of his contemporaries makes it nearly impossible to discover the individual in the child. Wright’s objective voice helps to clarify these confusing elements to himself and to the reader. Conscious of Freud’s observations about human behavior and steeped in the writers of his time including James Joyce Richard Wright is, in a sense, analyzing himself as he writes the book. This self-analysis persists chapter by chapter, and very soon the individual boy begins to emerge as more than a so-called rebel without a cause. He begins to understand what has been troubling him and why, and this leads him to make distinctions between just and unjust rage.
As with most people, the first and most fundamental test of who he is as an individual comes among his contemporaries. There he develops a personality, unique and separate, as a member of a larger social order. First we see Richard among his friends where he plays out traditional boyhood roles, ranging from joker to tough guy. Yet in this section, Wright is not simply reproducing the standard games children play. He is showing how a particular culture is preserved and how a tradition is maintained by the offspring. The boys’ attitudes toward themselves and toward white people are the attitudes they have been given by their parents. Richard is no misfit among them. They are all young and curious and full of their masculinity. An awareness of the white world, however, hangs ominously over all their words, and soon enough they are prisoners of their society, engaged in warfare with white boys. It is a one-way street. Before these boys have time to let their imaginations plan what they will do as men, they are trapped in a historical role. This is what lack of opportunity means. Blacks cannot hope like whites can. Blacks exist only in order to set themselves up against white people. Their value as a people is determined by whites. For a time, it looks as if Richard will fit right into this pattern. All the factors in his life have been arranged so that he will.
But all of this is shattered, his life disrupted again, by his mother’s stroke and paralysis. He goes with her to Granny’s where she is tended by her brothers and sisters. They respond to her illness in a way that demonstrates other qualities that emerge from the society Richard inhabits. Out of the devastation and terror of their lives, not only have his people learned to endure oppression or use it against one another; they have also learned to support each other in times of trouble. They live as one body, sometimes inflicting wounds on itself, but just as often giving another member the will to survive.
Richard’s attachment to his mother is foremost in his life. When she becomes ill, Richard goes to Greenwood with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody because Greenwood is close to his mother. However, his stay with them is a miserable failure. His aunt and uncle mean well, but he cannot adjust to their attitudes toward him. Obsessed by a fear of death, always worried about his mother, he finally begs to be sent back to Granny’s, thus disrupting his schooling again.
Richard hates being in his grandmother’s house, but his one link with other people his mother is there. His mother, trapped within her sickness as they all are trapped within their environment, has once again unknowingly contributed to his independence. It is through her sickness that Richard is changed from a rebel without a cause into an individual with a fixed attitude toward life. This attitude will remain with him throughout his life. It comes from being a witness to the helpless suffering of the person he loves most in the world. His mother’s paralysis, in his own words, grows into a symbol in his mind a symbol of the years that have come before and will come after. The futile wandering, the useless effort, the oppression and insecurity of their lives and all life are going to haunt him until his own death. Because of his view of the world, he will never be able to participate fully in happiness, and he will feel at home only with others who share his attitude.