The Air We Breathe,
The Life We Live
The psychological world that exists in much the same state and magnitude as the air we breathe, filling every space and circulating through all creations, is the source of all evil and all good. Just as the air is a mixture of several gases and not one pure element, the psychological field within human beings is an amalgam of good and evil. In Thomas Wolfe’s "The Child by Tiger," Wolfe illustrates this duality of human beings through the seemingly contradictory actions of Dick Prosser. Readers may never fully understand the actual reasons for the change in Dick’s actions from good to evil, but underlying hints in Dick’s nature suggest that he is angry, sad, and frustrated at core, even from the beginning. His anger about the slavery of the past, his sadness that life is not as God designed it, and his eventual loss of patience with God’s timing lead Dick to show his evil side. With all of these emotions weighing heavily on his heart, Dick explodes in the violent rage that brings his life to a bloody end.
One factor in Dick’s change is his anger at his unfair treatment in the wake of slavery. Dick lives in a town still oppressed by racism against African Americans, and though no one can make him like it, Dick must accept whatever the white world hands him in order to survive. Everett punches Dick in the face. Wolfe's description, "the whites of his eyes [are] shot with red," shows that even though he "[does] not move" or fight back, Dick is angry on the inside, where it matters most (699). Dick also seems vengefully angry about slavery when he references the biblical story of "‘[the] dry bones in [the] valley’" that, though destroyed, are given the breath of new life by God (698). Because he mentions this story after speaking of the judgment of humankind, it seems that he is speaking here of how blacks have been left in ruin by whites, and, just as the bones in the story are brought back to life, Dick sees that "‘[the] day’s [coming]’" when blacks too will be given new life and power (698). Dick implies his hatred of racism through his red eyes, cannot lie, and his eager anticipation of the day when the tables will be turned.
Another factor in the shift of Dick’s ways is his sadness in knowing that life is not the way God meant it to be. Dick reads his Bible every day and knows of God’s original plans, but he lives in a world where nothing is that way. In the story, Spangler mentions how "[Dick’s] eyes would be red, as if from weeping" after reading his Bible (698). Just as with his anger, Dick’s eyes cannot hide his sadness either. When Dick reads of how people are to interact in harmony and love, he turns to the world and is grieved as he sees that it is not so. In spite of his despair, he does take time to encourage the children to "‘love each [other] like [brothers]’" (698). Another sign of his sorrow is the way he speaks to children. Spangler mentions that he often "moan[s] when he talk[s] to [them]," which shows how deeply he feels about the wrong people do to one another (698). Dick is constantly reminded of the sin and hate in the world, especially between the races. Each day, each instance of inequality is that much more pain Dick feels. From his sad eyes, simple words of guidance, and deep moans of heartache, it is evident that Dick is distraught over the world’s deviance from God’s plan for peace and unity.
The last factor in Dick’s transformation is his eventual loss of patience with God’s timing. Although Dick knows and believes in the promises of God’s judgment and protection, over time, he gives up hope in God and takes control of the situation himself. Dick mentions to the boys that "‘[God’s coming] on [this] earth again to sit in judgment’" and separate the sheep from the goats, but in the end, Dick grows impatient and does not wait for God to return (698). Also, the last passage that Dick reads in his Bible is Psalm 23, which tells how God is a shepherd keeping watch over His sheep. Just before Dick snaps into the rage, he reads that "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me" (713). Dick no longer believes that he is being protected as one of the sheep because his circumstances seem to imply otherwise. Having lost all faith in the unseen workings of God, Dick grabs hold of all that he can and lashes out at the world in an effort to bring to fruition his own idea of justice and to protect himself the best way he can. Dick abandons all that he has known to be true and thus begins his own end.
Through his outer expressions of anger, sadness, and frustration, Dick gives evidence for the reasons behind his actions. Wolfe takes the reader on a journey through the good and evil of one man, Dick Prosser, but he tells the tale of what every person is capable of becoming. "The Child by Tiger" explores the disturbing reality that a human being is not simply purely evil or a purely good, but is rather a combination of amounts of both, each competing for control of a person’s thoughts, words, and, especially, actions. Even though it appears that Dick Prosser transforms into evil, the reality is that both evil and good are within him from the beginning, just as they are in every human being.
This essay was written by Beth Muia, then a PSO Student in Middle School
Education. It was written for Ms. Kelley Mahoney’s ENGL 1102 class during
spring 2003 semester.
This essay was written by Beth Muia, then a PSO Student in Middle School Education. It was written for Ms. Kelley Mahoney’s ENGL 1102 class during spring 2003 semester.