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Sounder by W. H. Armstrong - Free Online Book Summary


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Sounder is a simple, well-knit, and straightforward story with a single plot line revolving around the boy growing into maturity and being given a chance in life. The tale is told by a third person omniscient narrator, with an emphasis on the boy’s perspective and with simple dialogue that successfully captures the black dialect. The entire story is also unfolded in a chronological order so that the plot is easily followed by the reader.

The structure of the novel is classic in form. The first chapter introduces the reader to all the members of the black sharecropper’s family, including the dog; it also establishes the setting and the key ingredients of the conflict, especially the poverty, loneliness, and discrimination that the boy and his family must endure. Hints of future trouble are foreshadowed in the first chapter when the family has a scrumptious breakfast of boiled ham, but the father cannot enjoy it for looking nervously out the window, as if expecting something or someone. The rising action for the boy really begins in the second chapter when Father is arrested and imprisoned. Suddenly, the boy is forced into taking over all the chores of farming. Additionally, he must adjust to the fact that Sounder has been shot and has run away. His life is now more desolate and lonely than ever before.

The rising action continues from the second chapter through the unfortunate cake incident at the jail, the return of Sounder, the disappearance of Father into the quarries, and the boy’s many unsuccessful searches for his dad. Each event in the rising action adds to the boy’s loneliness and misery. Then in Chapter 8, the boy meets a teacher who changes his life; it is the climax of the story, for the boy is offered an education, which will allow him to rise above his poverty and have a better life. The falling action reinforces the change in the boy, for he now sings in the fields, proving that he is finally happy. The falling action also includes Father’s return and death and the death of Sounder. Even though the boy is grieved over these losses, he is now educated and mature enough to put them in proper perspective. In the conclusion of the novel, he acknowledges that Sounder and Father will always live in his heart and imagines the two of them walking together somewhere for eternity. In the boy’s memory, the Father will always be strong and walk upright, and Sounder’s voice will always be full and resonant.

The novel is further unified by several key elements. The majority of the story takes place in and around the shabby cabin of the black sharecropper; the only exceptions are the places that the boy goes to search for his father and his trips to stay with the schoolteacher. Additionally, the focus of the entire plot centers on the boy and his premature growth into adulthood; it is even the boy’s concern that keeps the reader also focused on Father and Sounder. Additionally, the book is held together by the parallel between the dog and his master and by the constant image of Sounder as a symbol of human values, in contrast to the beast-like values of the white establishment.


Major Themes

The novel is about faith, loyalty, dignity, courage, and love as an antidote to inhumanity, disillusionment, and failure. Throughout the story the boy must endure unbelievable pain: his father is arrested and imprisoned; his dog is shot and runs away; he must quickly change from childhood to adulthood in order to work the fields and provide for the family; he experiences repeated discrimination from the white community; and he is unsuccessful in finding his father in any of his many searches. In spite of these hardships, the boy knows the love of God and the love of his family, especially from his kind-hearted mother. This love gets the boy through the hard times and builds faith and courage in him; in every circumstance, he refuses to give up. He keeps searching for Sounder when he is lost and has faith the dog will return; in a like manner, he keeps searching for his father when his whereabouts are unknown and has faith that he also will return. The boy also believes there is a better life than the one in the run-down shanty, and he hopes to someday find it.

Like the boy, Sounder possesses the key “human” ingredients of faith, loyalty, dignity, courage, and love. He first shows his loyalty when he tries to attack the sheriff, who is arresting his master; when the boy tries to hold Sounder back, as ordered by the deputy, the dog has the courage to break loose and follow the wagon that is carrying Father away. For his faithfulness, he is shot. With dignity, he pulls himself out of the bloody dirt and goes away into the woods to heal himself. Love for his master helps him to heal and find his way back home; however, when he finds that Father is still not present, he loyally and listlessly waits for his return. The master does return, only to die in a short while. In love and loyalty, Sounder soon follows him to the grave.

It is ironic that a dog is more human than the white people portrayed in the novel. Time after time, the cruelty of man to his fellow man is seen as the whites discriminate against the blacks. First, Father is treated horribly, like a hardened criminal and “thieven nigger”, when he is arrested for stealing a pig in order to feed his family. Sounder is treated horribly when he is shot for following the wagon. The boy is treated horribly when he takes a cake to his father in jail; the door is slammed in his face, he is made to wait for hours, and his cake is crushed by the jailer. When the boy is injured while looking for his father, the guard at the work camp callously laughs at the child’s wound instead of helping him. The Father is treated horribly when he must grovel in the quarries for years and endure a dynamite blast that cripples and disfigures him. Certainly, Sounder is more humane than any of these prejudiced whites that seem to take pleasure in inflicting acts of inhumanity on any black human being.

Because the boy never gives up his faith, love, or courage, he is rewarded in the end. Immediately after the horrible incident when his fingers are injured and the white guard laughs at him, the boy meets a kind schoolteacher, who is characterized by faith, love, courage, loyalty, dignity, and justice. He sees the potential in the young black boy and encourages him to come to his school to study and get an education; he even offers for the boy to live with him, doing domestic chores to earn his keep. Like Sounder, this schoolteacher is a sharp contrast to the inhuman and prejudiced whites seen throughout the novel. Because of the teacher’s kindness, the boy is offered real happiness for the first in his life. He has always longed to read, to study, and to better himself. Now he has been given the chance.

In spite of unbelievable odds, the boy is able to maintain faith, courage, loyalty, and hope throughout the novel, traits he has largely learned from Sounder. Additionally, his mother and her Bible stories are the strengths that get him through the lonesome valley of life.

Minor Themes

The alienation and discrimination of blacks and the resulting pain of loneliness and isolation that the black community experiences are delicately wrought as another theme in the novel. The cabins of the black community are on the far reaches of the white man’s fields; they are intentionally scattered apart from one another, for the white man did not want the blacks to have a sense of community. As a result, loneliness and desolation pervade the black sharecropper’s family and become increasingly overpowering during the course of the novel. To emphasize the loneliness, Mother is pictured as repeatedly humming the song that compares life to a lonesome valley.

The feeling of loneliness is amplified with the father’s arrest and the disappearance of Sounder. Suddenly the boy is thrust into the position of working in the fields by himself in order to support the family and to take care of his mother. One day, as the boy watches the timid, lonely figure of his mother walking towards town, he has the urge to run to her in order to protect her. He does not want her to face the “curtained houses” of the prejudiced white people alone; he does not want her to endure their nastiness.

The poverty and loneliness of the blacks are contrasted to the plenty of the whites. The lonely and shabby cabins of the blacks are completely opposite from the lovely “curtained houses” of the whites; the lowly, unfed and un-educated world of black children is contrasted to the glitzy, merry, ‘toy-full’ world of the white children. The inhumanity of the sheriff, the jailer, and the guard, all of whom have work and food, are contrasted to the kindnesses of Sounder, Mother, and the Teacher. Because the boy knows these kindnesses, he is able to endure the alienation and discrimination.

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