56 pages 1 hour read

Manchild in the Promised Land

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1965

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The Shared Expectation of Failure

Throughout Manchild, many of the novel’s major characters are united by their belief that certain circumstances cannot be overcome or improved. This is one of Naturalism’s most important contributions to the text. In Naturalist literature—particularly its American strain—the impersonal forces of nature and society have already determined an individual’s fate, and struggling against that fate will only cause unnecessary pain. While Claude ultimately shows that this is not necessarily the case, the ubiquity of this shared expectation of failure in the novel points to its fundamental importance in the material world on which the novel is modeled.

For most of the novel, Claude sees himself as doomed to a life of crime and all of its seemingly inevitable consequences: imprisonment, addiction, and an early death. This is apparent in the way that he essentially transfers his street life into the various reform schools he attends, becoming a petty criminal while he is supposed to be learning a new way of life. As a child, he has only seen himself as a criminal, so that is what he thinks he is fated to be forever. Moving between the streets and carceral institutions, he has a hard time changing his vision of his future.