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The boy is the protagonist of the novel, and the plot is really a telling of his coming of age and maturing into a premature adulthood. After his father is imprisoned by the State, the boy, the oldest child in the family, is forced by circumstance into tending the fields in order to provide for the family. A kind, sensitive, and intelligent child, he does the necessary work; but he also never loses his dream of improving his plight in life. As a result, when the teacher offers him a chance to go to school, he asks and receives his mother’s blessings. He works the fields from planting time through harvest and then goes to school the rest of the year. For the first time in his life, he is truly happy.
The boy’s antagonists are the hardships he must face in life, and there are many. They include the loneliness, dreariness, and isolation of his life in the small cabin, the poverty and hunger he must endure on a daily basis, the discrimination he feels by the white community, the lack of education, the arrest and imprisonment of his father, the cruelty of the State towards blacks, the necessity of toiling in the fields alone in order to provide for the family, the frustration of not being able to find his father on any of his searches, the wounding and running away of Sounder, the brokenness of both Father and Sounder when they finally return, and the final death of master and dog. The cruelties specifically mask themselves in the Sheriff who orders the child’s dog to be shot, the jailer who smashes the boy’s cake and his hopes, the guard who is callous to the boy’s outward and inward suffering, and the system which chains men and makes them grovel. In spite of all these unbelievable hardships, the boy is able to flourish because of the love he feels from his family and the encouragement he receives from a teacher.
The climax of the story arises out of an unfortunate incident that turns out well. When the boy is peering into a work camp trying to locate his father, his hand is seriously injured. The white guard that sees the accident callously laughs at the pain the boy endures. Later that day he passes a schoolhouse and walks up close to satisfy his curiosity. When the teacher spies him, he comes out to see what the boy wants. He tells the teacher that his hand has been wounded. From that point onward, the teacher takes the boy under his wing and gives him the first hope and happiness he has experienced in life.
The plot ends as a tragic comedy. In the process of growing up, the boy endures unbelievable hardships, including the death of his father and his dog. But the boy, forced into premature manhood in order to provide for the family, is given the opportunity to rise above his plight in life because the teacher offers him an education; therefore, the book ends on a positive note.
On a symbolic level, the conflict can be viewed in terms of a clash between the life giving forces of love, devotion, and justice (as symbolized in the faithfulness of Sounder, the love of the family, and the justice of the teacher) and the life-negating forces of injustice, inhumanity, indifference, and racial discrimination (as embodied in the State and its human machinery). When the “State” shoots Sounder, it is actually a shot in the back of humanity. Sounder’s crippling and his failure to survive and revocalize his mighty roar are warnings that the forces of tyranny must be curtailed in order to prevent humanity from limping its way into its grave, just like the dog. Fortunately, love and justice are strong medicines against tyrannical forces, as seen in the novel. In spite of the cruelty of the State, the boy thrives because of the care of his mother and his teacher.
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