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Becoming of age is a monumental milestone today and it was even more of one during the early to mid 20th century. Not only were individuals subject to the same personal pressure (internal and external) to do well as we are to today, but they also had to deal with how society was functioning at this point in time. These factors along with various other influences contribute to shaping an individuals’ personality and can even play into their decision making going forward in life which proves that nurture trumps nature in the end.
To show how a person’s upbringing can play a major role in how they progress through life, I have chosen to look at The Man Who Was Almost a Man by Richard Wright and Barn Burning by William Faulkner.
During this time period (1930s-1960s) society was still split and the government was trying to figure out a solution to function as a solid group rather than be divided between black and white.
Meanwhile degradation and segregation were still alive and strong throughout the country, especially in the south. In The Man Who Was Almost a Man The main character in the story is Dave who is an African American male around seventeen years old. Although it’s not expressly stated in the story, it can be presumed that the setting in the south and Dave and his family are sharecroppers. A sharecropper is a farmer (usually former slaves) that agrees to stay in an establishment on the farm to work the land and consents to giving the landlord a certain amount of their crop at harvest time.
The story opens up with Dave immediately expressing conflict between him and the other field workers. The field workers are likely picking on Dave because of his smaller size since he mentions “Ah ain scareda them even ef they are biggem me!”. This is an example of external pressure on Dave that makes him feel like he has to change or do something. Dave’s solution to help him gain respect as a man is to buy a gun. This plan goes horribly wrong when he goes to practice shooting it and ends up shooting and killing the landlord’s mule. The landlord instructs Dave that he’ll work on the land until he earns enough wages to pay for the mule. Later that night Dave hears a train when he’s out shooting the gun and decides to jump on it and runaway.
Dave and his family have been pressured by society their whole lives from slavery to sharecropping (which rarely played out well for the farmer). Dave only wanted to become a man and be respected as one, he just picked a violent way to get there. However, this is not a surprise since violence is the only thing Dave has been around and therefore is the only thing he understands. He gets mocked by the other workers. The line that states “…He remembered other beatings, and his back quivered.” sheds light on the fact that he grew up in a somewhat abusive home. His believe his mother is also undermining him since she won’t allow him to keep his own pay from the fields. From this spec of information on his upbringing and day to day life, it’s not a shock as to why Dave believed obtaining a weapon would smoothly progress him to be a man.
In Barn Burning, Sarty has an immense internal pressure/conflict between doing right by his family or doing right in the eyes of the law. The setting of this story strongly resembles The Man Who Was Almost a Man since they both were set in the south early to mid 1900s and both families are tenant farmers. The issue within this story deals with Sarty and his father. His father has very bad anger issues and has burned down a barn already and is attempts to do the same with someone else’s. Sarty was brought up to always stick together with family no matter what. This is put to the test when the story opens up and Sarty and his father are inside the courthouse on trial for his father burning down a barn. After a little while Sarty is called to the stand but ends up not having to answer any questions but his father could tell that he wanted to tell the truth. Later on, his father addresses this when saying “You were fixing to tell them. You would have told him.” Following this, Sartys father hit him with his hand telling Sarty that he’s going to be a man and he has to learn to stick with his own blood. Sarty is around ten years old during this time. As a result of his father’s actions, the family is practically always moving around from farm to farm. This further complicates Sartys feelings to do the right thing and go against his own family by not obeying his father because he has nowhere else to go outside of his family. This intensifies the internal conflict going on within Sarty because he knows right from wrong and he understands that his father is in the wrong but that is also his father, so he doesn’t want to disobey. When Sartys father tries to burn down the second barn his father takes Sarty to where his family is and tells Sartys mother to hold him. His mother first seems reluctant about holding Sarty and may even want him to do the right thing because she barely holds him by the wrist when she’s told to restrain Sarty. This situation is a crossroads in Sartys life, the choice he makes at this point will likely influence later decisions and may control if he turns out to follow in his father’s steps or not. He can either choose not to say anything and blindly go along with what his father does like his older brother or he can morally do the right this and alert someone.
The climax of the story results in Sarty eventually breaking away from his family grasps literally and metaphorically. Sarty then runs to De Spain (the landlord) and alerts him about what his father is planning to do. Sarty may have believed that if he were to get his father caught for what he’s been then maybe it will be a wake-up call and will impact his father enough to change his habits. Sadly, that’s not the case once De Spain reaches Sartys father he ends up shooting and presumably killing his father. Although Sarty chose the right thing to do morally, it came at the consequence of losing his father which would be detrimental to any ten-year-old child. In the long term, Sartys actions are likely very beneficial because he was motivated enough to disobey his own father to do the right thing in the eyes of the law. Sartys inherent innocence or goodwill seems to stem from his mother and his aunt. Sartys mother doesn’t play a major role in the story but appears as leveled headed caring individual with good intentions who likely keeps the family together despite her husband’s intentions. Sartys aunt seems to be morally sound and explicitly shares Sartys point of view on his father’s actions when she says, “Let him go!”, “If he don’t go, before God, I am going up there myself”. This comment is made when Sarty is being held by his mother.
Both stories conclude in the same fashion, both young boys make the choice to run away in hopes of finding a better place. In The Man Who Was Almost a Man Dave was raised in a household that is perceived as physically abusive. In addition to this, he also works in a field where other workers ridicule him on a daily basis. The abuse and violence that has surrounded him his whole life led to him making a choice which caused him to install more violence in the end. On the other hand, in Barn Burning Sarty excluding his father was raised in a family where he had at least two adult figures (his mother and aunt) who seemed morally aligned with the ethics of society. These adult figures morals seemed to extend out to Sarty since throughout the story he’s always troubled with what his father is doing. Sarty ends up doing the morally correct thing by alerting De Spain and stopping his father although it costs his father his life. From this information it can be inferred that in Dave’s case, he will likely continue making similar choices that he’s been making which results in more harm/violence. Sarty will probably do the same, he knew what was right and wrong and saw how his father’s choices played out for him in the end. Having that knowledge may actually compel Sarty even more to continue to do the right thing throughout the course of his life. With this information taken into account, the facts favor nurture over nature which simply means the way a person is brought up (e.g. influences and environment) has a much larger impact on an individual’s decision making than natural characteristics.
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