This is a summary for the novel The Man Who Lived Underground, which was published in 2021. (This is NOT a summary for the short story version of this which had previously been published.)
Part 1, Chapter 1
Fred Daniels, 29, is a manual laborer who works for a respected couple in the city, Mr. and Mrs. Wooten. He has just gotten paid when a police car approaches him. One of the policemen pats him down. Despite Fred’s objection that he’s done nothing wrong, Fred is told they’re bringing him in.
Fred resists at first, turning away from them, but the officers get him into the car. On the way, Fred explains that he is a member of the White Rock Baptist Church, teaches Sunday School and has a pregnant wife named Rachel. Still, they cuff him and drive towards Hartsdale Station.
The officers — Murphy, Lawson and Johnson — soon accuse Fred of murder and theft, which they refer to as the “Peabody Job“. Fred continues to insist he didn’t do anything and that he was at work. They find the money Fred had been paid for work in his pocket and inspect his person thoroughly. Fred continues to deny everything and repeatedly asks them to call Reverend Davis, who he says will vouch for him.
The police insist that after the Wootens left for the day at 9:30 AM, that Fred left and climbed through their neighbor the Peabodys’ window. The police suggest that Fred killed Mr. Peabody with a hatchet, raped and killed Mrs. Peabody and then stole their money. Their theory is that when the postman rang the doorbell at 11:00 AM, it scared him off and he left. He then went back to work and finished his tasks as usual.
At the station, they sit Fred down in an interrogation room. When Fred continues to deny responsibility, Lawson slaps him. They also offer Fred a glass of water, but then Murphy punches him in the stomach when he tries to drink it. Next, the police hoist Fred upside down and hang him on the wall by his feet until Fred blacks out. He awakes on the floor to someone slapping him on the face. The officers soon resort to kicking Fred, and he screams when a kick lands on the back of his neck. Finally, a punch sends him flying backwards and his head hits the wall with force.
While Fred being taken in by the police, there are a number of indications that he’s presumed to be guilty even before questioning and that the violence they exhibit is habitual. For example, when he’s walking in, another officer asks “He sing yet?” asking if he has confessed, though they haven’t even given him a chance to talk.
Then, when Murphy punches him (when he’s offered water), another officer comments that his timing has gotten very precise, indicating that the officers are having fun inflicting violence and that this is something that’s done frequently.
As a historical note, torture (the “third degree”) was an acceptable method to coerce police confessions through the mid-1930s until it was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1936 in Brown v. Mississippi.
Part 1, Chapter 2
Hour later, Fred is awoken when a bucket of cold water is thrown in his face. The District Attorney is now there, too, in addition to the three officers. The D.A. explains that Fred just needs to read and sign a piece of paper and he can go home. However, Fred is unable to focus his vision. Meanwhile, Lawson continues slapping him.
The men continue hounding him to sign it, and they place a pen in Fred’s hand. When Fred tries to sign a pain shoots up his arm, so the D.A. guides his arm and a semi-legible scribble is produced. They compare it to another document with Fred’s signature to ensure it will hold up, and they discuss taking him home to see his wife briefly to protect against accusations of mistreating him. Fred then drifts off into unconsciousness.
Part 1, Chapter 3
When Fred awakes, the men are hovering above him. They get him into a car and drive him over to the Peabody residence. They take him inside and upstairs to the scene of the gruesome murder. As they demand that Fred “show us what you did”, Fred wrests free from them and runs down the hall. However, Johnson pulls a gun out, and Fred stops.
As they continue trying to get him to talk, the officers remind Fred that he has already signed a confession. On the floor, crying and whimpering, they eventually give up. They take him back to his building, and Murphy volunteers to take him up to his second-floor apartment. There, Rachel is home and expresses despair upon seeing the state of him.
Before anything is explained, Murphy says it’s time to go, but Rachel protests. Then, Rachel screams in pain, indicating that she may be in labor. Murphy reassures them that they can take Rachel to the hospital. The three then head back downstairs and into the police car. When they get to the hospital, the three of them head in, with Murphy holding Rachel. Once the nurses lead Rachel away, Murphy offers Fred a cigarette. The nurse soon comes back out to report that Rachel is in labor.
Throughout this, Fred is only semi-conscious and his motor functions are clearly impaired. He’s unable to hold the cigarette that Murphy offered him. At some point, he does notice Murphy step away and enter the men’s room. He has a sudden impulse to escape. Fred gets up and walks down the stairs. Through the window, he sees the police car outside. He jumps through another window down the hall, landing hard on the pavement.
Outside, he wanders aimlessly on the streets, knowing only that he needs to get away. Soon, it starts raining, and in the direction of the hospital Fred hears a police siren. He spots the police car he’d been in before and notes that they are searching for him. Fred ducks into the vestibule of an apartment building nearby. In the street, he watches as a manhole cover is lifted up due to water gushing out.
As the rain stops and starts again, Fred is unsure where to go. He steps out of the vestibule and is standing above the partially-uncovered manhole when the hears the police siren get louder. Panicked, he quickly lowers himself through it.
Part 1, Chapter 4
In the sewers, he drops into the water and struggles to find something to grasp onto. Finally, he gets his bearings. Above him, the police car stops there and Fred thinks that they have found him. However, Lawson is there merely to re-cover the manhole, and then Fred finds himself in darkness. Around him, the waters rage and the odors reek, but Fred is relieved to be safe.
Part 2, Chapter 1
Eventually, Fred gets used to the smell and stops noticing it. As he inspects his surroundings, he sees that the water flows into a large drop, which could have been fatal for him if he’d been swept away. He also notices a dry, empty area near the ceiling of the sewer. He climbs up to explore it and finds a dirt tunnel, using matches to occasionally light his way. As he continues to walk, he reaches a cave-like section, where there is a brick wall and a concrete ceiling. He hears singing and realizes that he must be next to a church with a sunken basement that is holding a service.
Fred then looks through a crevice in the brick wall. He sees a gathering of black men and women who are singing. As Fred watches, he starts to realize all that he’s left behind. He recalls being one of these people and reflects now about how his life is separated from them. Moreover, it pains him to see these people reaching out for “for something that was not there, something that could never be there”.
We see here that Fred’s treatment by the police has led him to lose his faith. He acknowledges that very recently he was one of these people and that he felt as they did, but now it bothers him to see these people. He feels certain that they are “groveling” to absolutely no one.
Based on Fred’s repeated entreaties to the police to please call the Reverend of his church to vouch for him, we know that Fred’s faith was a large part of him, so it being gone reflects a huge schism in his life.
While the brick wall is the physical separation between them, there is also a wider gulf in terms of faith and life options after what has happened to Fred. Because of the police, he has been brutalized and is now on the run.
As he heads back towards where he entered, he sees the body of a dead brown baby. He realizes that someone had thrown their baby away. He then nudges the corpse to let the water sweep it away.
Part 2, Chapter 2
After sloshing around, Fred ends up returning to the dry cave section, not knowing where else to go and in order to get out of the water. As he traverses the tunnel, he finds an area with a pipe and another brick wall. He starts digging at the wall, which reveals a dark room and a set of steps. The steps lead to a keyhole, and through it Fred is able to make out that this is the basement of an undertaker. There is a nude man laid across a table.
Fred reaches around him to find a light switch. He flips it on cautiously and sees coffins, lumber and notably a tool box. Inside the tool box are various tools and a light bulb. Fred mentally makes a note of what he has at his disposal, turns off the light and secures some tools to his body to take with him. He then heads back to the tunnel to look for more basements and walls to dig through. Fred hopes to dig into someplace with some food.
Next, Fred finds himself digging into a basement coal bin. He climbs through into the basement of a building where he carefully walks until he reaches a sink. He enjoys the small comfort of washing his hands and takes a long sip of water. Above him, he hears voices. Driven by curiosity, Fred heads up the stairs and realizes he is in a movie theater.
As Fred looks out at the faces of the people watching a movie, he thinks to himself that they should go out and live instead of watching the movie. He compares them to sleeping children. He thinks about how they are laughing and yelling at shadows of themselves reflected on the screen.
Richard Wright’s Allegory of the Cave: “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Robin McNallie, McNallie explains that Wright intends this scene to directly reference Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato’s Cave, is a philosophical thought exercise about the ignorance of humans and how our perception of reality is limited by our perspective.
Plato illustrates this by imagining that people are chained in a cave. There is a fire behind them, which they are unable to turn around to see. Instead, they can only see the shadows it casts and their limited perspective leads them to believe those shadows are real objects. If someone were to get free, they might learn the truth of their situation, but upon entering the sunlight outside the cave, they would be blinded from the sun initially. The prisoners might reach the conclusion that the sun can hurt them, despite the fact that the “real world” really exists out in the sunlight.
In Richard Wright’s version, the allegory is flipped. Whereas, the “real world” is Richard’s cave, and in the sunlight/surface world above, the people are “chained to the soothing and concocted images of Hollywood and a diluted religious orthodoxy which hides them from knowledge of their fugitive passions of greed and brutality” (McNallie).
Part 2, Chapter 3
As Fred heads back into the baseman, he walks past a man who directs him to the bathroom before walking away. Fred then goes back to the basement and waits while a man there shovels coal into the furnace. When the man finally walks away, Fred goes back in and flips on the light. He finds a lunch pail with sandwiches in it, some matches and tobacco.
Instead of leaving, Fred then goes behind the coal bin to see if he can tunnel through to another basement, but soon tires. Instead, decides to go back out, eat, rest and return later.
When he falls asleep, he has a nightmare of being in a body of water and seeing a woman with a baby asking for help. He takes the baby from her just before the woman disappears under the water. Holding the baby, he’s unable to dive to save the woman. Finally, he puts the baby down in the water to find that it floats. He goes into to save the woman, but cannot find her. When he resurfaces, he sees the baby is gone too. Then, he realizes he can no longer stand in the water and is choking on water as well.
Part 2, Chapter 4
When Fred awakes, he goes back to chipping away at the bricks in the wall he was working on before. He thinks it might be daytime now on the surface, so he proceeds quietly hoping not to attract attention. He eventually creates a hole large enough to climb through.
Fred finds himself behind a furnace and sees a door in the room. He goes through it. He hears the sound of typing. There’s a window above his head and through it he can see someone open a safe full of money. He becomes eager for the person to return to open the safe again so he can record the combination, but after a long while no one returns.
Instead, he goes up some steps to a door and sees that it’s a radio shop. Fred decides to go in and take a radio, thinking he can set it up in his cave. Still, Fred wants to get into the room with the safe, so he starts chipping away at the wall in the safe’s direction.
When he manages to get through, he sees that he is in a meat market. Just then, someone comes in to cleave a chunk of meat before leaving again. From there, he digs another hole and is able to get into the basement. He opens a door, but then he is spotted by a woman, Alice, who screams. Fred runs away. Alice tells the men around her that she saw a man through the doorway, but they insist she is hysterical and imagining things. The men joke that Alice should be fired and just get married. Fred also sees that the safe he was looking for is just behind where Alice is standing.
Fred hopes to get the combination to the safe and then return when the shop is closed to access the safe. Fred realizes that it “was not the money that was luring him, but the fact that he could get it with impunity, without risking reprisal”. Fred waits a long time. Finally, he hears a clock indicating that it is 5 PM, so the shop is likely closing. Then, someone comes in to access the safe, and Fred watches the combination the man uses on the dial.
Fred is able to get the combination, but he also sees the man accessing the safe surreptitiously shove some money up his sleeve. Fred realizes that the man is stealing and feels indignant, despite his own plan to steal the money. However, Fred feels that it’s different. Fred wants the money just to be able to feel the sensation of stealing it, while the other man is stealing in order to spend the money.
When everyone leaves, Fred goes in through the holes he’s tunneled through and opens the safe to take the money. He also finally looks around and sees that he’s in a real estate and insurance office. As he looks around, he also sees the typewriter and decides to take that as well.
When he finally gets back to his cave, Fred thinks about all that he’s seen — the singing, the people in the theater, the dead baby, the corpse at the undertaker’s — and he is convinced that these things “were striving to tell him something”.
Part 2, Chapter 5
In his cave, Fred sees that there is electrical wiring running across the ceiling. He’s able to cut into it to install a light bulb. Next, Fred sets up his radio. As he looks at the stack of bills he stole, Fred marvels how reading the words on the bills seems like “reading of the petty doings of people who lived on some far-off planet”. He decides to wallpaper the cave with the bills instead.
Afterwards, he goes back to exploring. He finds an area of loose bricks and starts digging them out, hearing voices distantly. When he gets through, he is in a basement with a furnace, coal bin and sofa. He lies down on the sofa and falls asleep. He dreams that he wakes up, go upstairs and finds a room full of policemen and the thought of it jolts him awake.
When he falls asleep again, he dreams that he is a corpse laid upon a table and that there are other people in the room, but they are scared of him. He is relieved at their fear, since it allows him to rest peacefully.
These two dreams tell us a lot about Fred’s state of mind at this point. He is deeply fearful of the police, and he is relieved to be seen as dead or something fearful if it means being left alone. Mentally, he has separated himself from “the world that had rejected him”. The incident with the police showed him that he had no place in that world.
When he wakes fully, he continues his exploration up a flight of stairs. He ends up in a factory with small steel machines of some sort, which he soon recognizes is a jewelry shop. He takes some watches, a box of rings and jar of diamonds. He turns on the light and is instantly fearful when he realizes there is someone else in the room. Then, he sees that it is the night watchman, who is sleeping on a cot, with a gun at his side and a photo of his family nearby. Fred is initially too scared to move, but he eventually takes the gun as a memento and leaves.
Afterwards, Fred reflects upon how foolish it is for the man to risk his life every day to protect “sparkling bits of stone”. Back in the sewers, he is exhausted. He gets back to his dirt cave and falls asleep.
Part 2, Chapter 6
Fred is sleeping when he hears the sound of the church members on the other side of the wall singing and praying, stirring inside him a deep conviction within. The knowledge then dawns on him that “he is all people” and he is filled with a feeling of oneness with the world. He knows that he must return to the world to make them aware of their “death-like” existence, which means he will soon need to give up his safe haven.
The memory of his religious convictions reminds him of his ties to the world. He feels a responsibility to save the other people by doing something to alert others to the truths he has learned.
In Memories of My Grandmother, an essay by Richard Wright (which was published alongside this book), he explains that The Man Who Lived Underground was inspired by his grandmother’s strong religious conviction.
Part 2, Chapter 7
When he wakes, he hangs the gold watches on nails on the wall, and he hates them for how their ticking away time makes “men tense and taut with the sense of passing hours”. He also shoots the gun once, wants to feel what it’s like and knowing that people are unlikely to suspect that it came from underground. Then, he scatters the diamonds carelessly across the ground.
As he looks at his cave, Fred thinks to himself that anything can be considered what’s “right” based on “the world as men had made it”. Then, as he listens to the radio, a melancholy song plays and the news reports what’s happening on the war front.
Fred has a out-of-body sensation as he sees himself looking down at the world and the tragedies occurring each day. Despite his sadness over it, he knows his emotions doesn’t come close to an adequate response to everything that is going on in the world. In fact, he thinks the only being that could do that and to understand “upon such a hopeless spectacle” would have to be a god. He theorizes that men “had invented gods to feel what they could not feel, and they found comfort in the pity of their gods for them”.
This part really illustrates Fred’s existential crisis. Seeing the injustice in the world and the tragedy going on every day, he has an out-of-body experience, which highlights how alienated from society he feels.
His nihilism in feeling that everything is right (or basically that there is no such thing as what’s “right”) is driven by the injustice he has experienced. It forces him to think about god or why people would would believe in a god, since he no longer does.
Fred’s carelessness with things like guns and objects that are considered valuable show, with this new perspective, how he truly no longer has the same values as he once did. When the book opens, he is carefully counting the money he made that day. Now, he plasters dollars on the wall and diamonds across the floor.
Part 2, Chapter 8
Feeling an urge to act, Fred paces around and explores an area with muddy walls. He ends up in an abandoned basement and when he goes up some steps, he can see the feet of people walking on the sidewalk outside. Entering into the main area above, he sees that he’s at a fruit shop called Nick’s Fruits. Fred helps himself to some fruit and drinks some water from the sink.
Then, impulsively, Fred opens the front door. Before he can do anything else, a woman and a man come up to him asking to buy grapes. They ask if he’s about to close and he stammers out a “yes”. Then, the man asks if Nick is out “at supper” and Fred answers yes again. He ends up vending them the grapes and they leave.
Outside, Fred sees a newspaper with a headline about him (“HUNT BLACK WHO COMMITTED DOUBLE MURDER”). Dismayed and feeling exposed, he goes back into the store and heads back underground, feeling resigned and uneasy.
Part 2, Chapter 9
Looking at the article discussing his guilt, Fred angrily rips up the newspaper and tosses it into the water. Then, he hears the sound of singing start up again from the church. As the people sing (“Glad, glad, glad, oh, so glad, I got Jesus in my soul . . .”), he interprets it as them singing about guilt, and that “their search for a happiness they could never find made them feel that they had committed a great wrong which they could not remember or understand.”
Afterwards, he returns to the basement of the building with the safe and sees Lawson. Fred can tell that they’ve now figured out the money is missing and the police have been summoned. Fred hears Lason accusing a man of the crime saying he was the only one with the combination, and Fred feels empathetic towards the target for also being accused of a crime he did not commit. Still, Fred reasons that the man had been stealing from the safe.
Fred is able to see the man accused, a tall white man. Alice is in the room with him as well, but she leaves. Then, the accused man picks up a gun from a drawer and shoots himself in the head. Sighing, Fred walks away and immediately stops thinking about the dead man, turning his attention to other matters.
Part 2, Chapter 10
At the jewelry story, Fred is able to get a peek of Murphy with the night watchman. The missing stuff has been discovered, and Fred sees that Murphy is trying to beat a confession out of the night watchman he’d seen sleeping there when he took the stuff.
Fred watches with keen interest, but not out of concern for the watchman. Instead, he hopes that “the watchman’s being wrongly accused might serve to lift him into a higher state of awareness. That was his whole attitude toward the plight of the watchman; he could no longer feel remorse.” Fred looks on as if watching a movie.
Then when Murphy finally picks up an iron pipe and threatens Murphy with it, Fred feels overwhelmed about the contradictions he sees around him (though he is “innocent, he was guilty; though blameless, he was accused; though living, he must die; though possessing faculties of dignity, he must live a life of shame; though existing in a seemingly reasonable world, he must die a certainly reasonless death.”
Fred realizes he is crying, and he tells himself there’s nothing he can do and he leaves.
As he watches, there is a mismatch between Fred’s head and his heart (to put it in the most cliche way possible, sorry) — which is a reflection of him working out his worldview from before and what he’s convinced himself of now. Fred thinks to himself that he is unconcerned for the watchman because he has intellectually subscribed to a nihilistic view of the world, but his emotions still take over and he finds himself crying.
Still, despite his tears, his nihilism wins out and he walks away. He thinks that there’s nothing he can do, although he could easily stop this. It would be the “right” thing to do, except that he’s been shown that there is no such thing as right and there isn’t a connection between doing what’s “right” and having the right result.
At the undertaker’s, Fred sees that the dead white man has been replaced by a dead black woman. Fred thinks to himself that he just wants to see a “little more” and he’s be ready to leave.
Then, from the place where he took a radio, Johnson is brutalizing a young black boy and demanding that he confess to taking the radio. Seeing this, Fred wants to jump in and intervene. He steps away, but knows it’s time to leave. In a rush, he starts pushing through the water to exit.
Fred is reminded of the emptiness of what awaits after death. His religious ideas about afterlife are provide a jarringly dissonant comparison to what he is looking at (“he knew that she had died expecting to reap a rich harvest of eternal happiness and there was for her now only this coldness and endless time”).
Fred wants “just a little more” because he feels he is truly seeing the world as it is and seeing behind the curtain through his explorations in the tunnel, despite knowing he cannot stay here forever. Finally, seeing the scene of Johnson beating up another young black man, Fred knows it’s time to go.
Fred resolutely heads for the exit. Despite fearing what awaits him, he feels determined to leave. Climbing out, he ends up the middle of a busy street. He heads directly for the police station, with a plan to make a statement and sort things out.
At the station, a policeman asks him what he wants, but Fred rambles a little and talks about being in basements. The officers think he’s crazy. Finally, they figure out that Fred wants to talk to Lawson.
When Fred goes to see him, he’s with Johnson and Murphy, and Murphy recognizes him. Fred tells them that he doesn’t want to run away and that he’ll sign whatever now. However, the officers aren’t interested. They says that they caught the guy who was actually responsible, an Italian (“Eyetalian”) man.
Fred continues to talk about the crimes he committed down in the basement, but they just think he’s crazy. However, as Fred continues to talk, Lawson starts to get concerned that Fred is going to say something about what had happened to him during their “interrogation”. Lawson gets out Fred’s signed confession and burns it. However, Fred feels bereft seeing this, since he views it as something that had given him meaning in his life.
Fred associates his confession with his underground epiphany. Moreover, he feels his underground life fading away as he sees the paper burn. For him, there was twisted freedom to being on the run, since gave him a reason to retreat underground, a place he associates with truth and clarity.
Fred continues talking about his own guilt, to the bewilderment of the officers. They take him to the back of a police car. They ask him where he’s been for the past three days, and Fred tells them he’s been in the sewers. He assures them that he hasn’t seen his wife.
They then take Fred to Lawson’s house while they figure out what to do with him. They contemplate taking him to an insane asylum, but Lawson worries that Mr. Wooten will learn he’s there and investigate. Finally, they tell Fred to show them where he hid, and Fred happily agrees. On the way, he answers all their questions truthfully, such as about what he ate, but they dismiss most of it as insane rantings.
When they get to the manhole, an air raid siren happens to go off. Lawson tells Fred to get into the hole, and he goes. Lawson then shoots him, explaining to the others that “You’ve got to shoot his kind. They would wreck things.” Then, the officers replace the manhole cover as Fred feels himself being dragged by the current in the sewers.