As the story begins, a unnamed man is hiding from the police. He is tired of running and has decided that he must either find a hiding place or surrender. At that moment he sees a manhole cover in the street. He lifts the cover; the water below is deep and fast. His fear of the police is stronger than his fear of the water and the darkness, so he enters and is nearly swept away and killed by the water before he finds his footing. As he explores the tunnels, he knows that he is in danger, but an “irrational impulse” prevents him from leaving. Instead he moves forward, looking for a dry hiding place or a safe way out. Following a faint sound he cannot identify, he comes to a section of the tunnel that is taller and has fresher air. He gropes along, using a pole to test the depth of the water in front of him and occasionally lights a match for a brief bit of light. He finds a dirt cave off to one side, and then comes to a brick wall, through which he can plainly hear a group of people singing Christian hymns. Pulling himself up on some old pipes near the ceiling, he can see through a crevice that black people in white robes are holding a church service. It seems to him that what they are doing is wrong, that asking for forgiveness is obscene.
The man moves on, feeling his way through the water. By the faint light from another manhole cover, he sees a dead baby floating in the water; it has gotten snagged on some debris. With his eyes closed he uses his foot to push the body free, but in his mind he sees it swept away by the current. The nightmarish quality of this episode, and his sense that the men and women in the church are as insignificant as this baby, makes him think again about his own guilt. Returning to the cave, he sleeps. When he wakes, cold and hungry, he knows he should leave the sewers, but knowing that the police have a signed confession from him convinces him to stay. To pass the time, he idly pokes a brick wall with a jagged pipe, eventually loosening enough bricks so he can squeeze through into a dark basement room. The building he has entered turns out to be an undertaker’s office, and through a keyhole he can see into a lit room where a dead man is being embalmed. He takes some tools from the coffin-maker’s supply and uses a crowbar to open passages to other connected basements. In a furnace room, he finds a sink with drinkable water and a workman’s lunch box. He digs another hole in the bricks, and enters the furnace room of a jeweler’s shop.
Through a tiny crack he can see a white hand in the next room opening a combination safe full of money and gems. He determines to watch carefully next time so he can decipher the combination. He miscalculates his place on the wall, and digs into the basement of a meat and fruit market instead. After the store closes, he enters and finds a meat cleaver that holds a strange attraction for him, more fresh water, and an array of fruit which he eats until full. While he is in the store, a white couple come into the store to buy grapes and mistake him for the shop assistant. They do not notice anything unusual about the man, although he must be wet and disheveled after his time in the sewer. When they leave, the man follows them outside. There he finds a newspaper, and the headline is about him. Fear sends him back underground. He finds a way into the room with the safe. While the watchman sleeps, the man takes money and gems from the safe, then walks over to a typewriter.
He tries to type his name, “freddaniels”; this is the only time his name is mentioned in the story. He adds the typewriter to his sack of booty, and returns to the cave. There, he rigs up an electric light and radio he has collected from the basements, and on a whim wallpapers his cave with money and sprinkles the floor with diamonds. He tells himself that what he has done is not equivalent to stealing, because the things he has taken mean nothing to him. Daniels makes another round of the basements, and once again is drawn toward the sound of hymn singing. He watches a boy get beaten for stealing the radio that is in the man’s cave. He watches the police interrogate, threaten, and beat the jewelry store watchman. These policemen are the same ones who forced Daniels to confess to a crime he did not commit.
The watchman, however, does not confess but instead hangs himself, confirming the policemen’s suspicions of his guilt. Finally, Daniels accepts that all people share an inherent guilt, and he returns above ground to tell what he has learned. He finds the policemen who beat him, and begs them to come with him to his cave. They have found the real killer and have no further use for him. They burn his false confession, and as he descends back into the manhole, they shoot him. Like the dead baby before him, he is swept away down the sewer.
Images and Imagery
Through the many episodes of “The Man Who Lived Underground,” Wright weaves imagery of light and darkness, repeating, reinforcing, and inverting the imagery to heighten the sense that the world is chaotic and ultimately unknowable. For the most part, the underground is the world of darkness, and the world above ground is the world of light. The faint light that there is underground is strangely colored, from the “lances of hazy violet” coming through the holes in the manhole cover, to the light from the man’s matches, “glowing greenishly, turning red, orange, then yellow,” to the “red darkness” of the furnace room, and to the “yellow stems” from another manhole that reveal the floating baby. These odd colors heighten the nightmarish quality of life underground, but also highlight the fact that in this place the man is learning a new way to see.
After just a short time underground, the man loses his ability to live in normal white light. From his dark refuge he can see clearly those people who are still above ground: the people singing in the church, the dead man on the embalming table, the workers in the jewelry shop. In many senses, he can see them more clearly than they can see themselves, and they — although they are standing in the light — cannot see him at all. But when he turns on an electric light in the mortician’s basement a “blinding glare” renders him “sightless, defenseless.”
By the end of the story, when he comes back out of the manhole, light and darkness have been inverted. He cannot see well (one harasser calls him “blind”), and the lights of approaching cars cast him into “a deeper darkness than he had ever known in the underground.” As he realizes that the police officers will not listen to his revelation, the light of his new knowledge is extinguished: “the sun of the underground was fleeting, and the terrible darkness of the day stood before him.”
The setting of the story, the sewer where Fred Daniels hides from the police, is also an overarching symbol of the darkness and slime in the depths of the human heart. Just as the stinking, filthy sewer lies just beneath the surface of the vibrant city streets, so do evil and rot lie just beneath the surface of society, and of individual people. Unless humankind can transform itself and climb out of the sewer, it will be doomed to everlasting fear, isolation, and blindness. Although he is not himself “cleansed,” Fred Daniels nearly succeeds in escaping the sewer, but the world is not yet ready for him or his message of universal guilt.
Wright’s earliest autobiographical writings show that he was fascinated with the great novels of naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially the work of Theodore Dreiser. The foundation of naturalism is the belief that people are a part of the natural world, just as animals are. They are acted upon by forces in their environment which they cannot understand or control. Actions that appear to be acts of will are really reactions to external forces. Fred Daniels is, as the saying goes, a victim of circumstance. He is accused of murder because of situations entirely out of his control: he is a man of the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many naturalistic protagonists, he is like an animal, living underground and compared by the narrator to a rat or a dog. Daniels is repeatedly driven to act by forces he cannot understand or control.
Resting in his cave, he feels an “irrational compulsion to act.” As he climbs out of the manhole at the end of the story, the narrator observes, “His mind said no; his body said yes; and his mind could not understand his feelings.” Against his own will, he finds the policemen, who have more control over him than he does himself. They, too, are forced by circumstance; they have “got to shoot his kind.” When Daniels meets the cruel death that is the fate of most naturalistic protagonists, he is not even a man any longer, but “a whirling object rushing alone in the darkness, veering, tossing, lost in the heart of the earth.”