Thomas Wolfe's 1937 short story, "The Child by Tiger," gives a disturbing account of the consequences of racism and man's inhumanity. Narrated by a man called Spangler, it recounts events that occurred twenty-five years in his past, a time shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, in his boyhood hometown in the American South. Dick Prosser is the Negro servant of the Sheppertons, an upper-middle class white family, and Spangler and other boys greatly admire him. Though a mentor to the boys, Dick suppresses a dark nature. Perhaps provoked by years of racism—though the reader never knows for sure—Dick goes on a killing spree, indiscriminately shooting police officers and other blacks. His violence arouses the murderous passion of a mob of townspeople, who bring brutal judgement upon Dick, shooting him over three hundred times before hanging his mutilated body in the window of the town mortuary. Spangler's exposure to this brutality leads him to the discovery of man's dual nature; that man has the capacity for horrifying evil as well as goodness, to be "two worlds together—a tiger and a child." Through its characterization of Dick, its portrayal of society, and through Spangler's realizations, the story explores the often ambiguous nature of evil.
Spangler's relationship with Dick Prosser is perhaps the most important aspect of the story. The boys admire everything about Dick's ex-military precision and efficiency. Dick teaches the boys to box, shoot, and play football. "There was something amazingly tender and watchful about him," Spangler says. But evil slowly begins to seep into the narrative. Dick is described as "cat-like," his hands as "paws." Though a seemingly benign depiction, the story's epigraph consists of lines from William Blake's poem "The Tyger," in which the jungle symbolizes unadulterated evil. "Sometimes... suddenly we [would feel] a shadow at our backs and, looking up, would find that Dick was there. And there was something moving in the night." This emerging undercurrent of evil hints at the story's theme that evil lurks beneath all humanity.
As deeply religious and faithful man, one might expect Dick to have a firm moral foundation. Dick can be found with eyes red, "as if he had been weeping," after he reads his Bible, but he sometimes speaks in a "dark and strange... moan" and in a "weird jargon of Biblical phrases." His words sound almost like a threat: "Oh, white fokes, white fokes, de Armageddon day's a-comin'." When he is attacked by a drunken white man, Dick's eyes again become "shot with red," but in anger, not religious fervor. That Dick believes so strongly in God relates to the poem "The Tyger," which is quoted at length by Spangler at the end of the story. Blake's poem raises the question of God's creation of evil. ""Did He smile His work to see? / Did He who made the lamb make thee?" it asks of the tiger. The adult Spangler recognizes that the ambiguity of Dick's actions mirrors the mysterious ambiguity of the world itself, incorporating such evil and goodness. After he relates the story, he enters a cathartic state of philosophical introspection, giving his interpretation of Dick: he is "a friend, a brother and a mortal enemy, an unknown demon, two worlds together—a tiger and a child." The narrator seems to suggest that all men carry this duality of good and evil.
Spangler's depictions of Southern society and the townspeople also emphasize the ambiguity of evil. Racism is inherent in the community, with blacks living in "Niggertown," a segregated ghetto, and with blacks considered sub-human. Dick is not allowed to worship in church, and when a vicious drunk attacks him he cannot even defend himself, fearing the wrath of the townspeople. When he finally does commit violence, it seems natural that the townspeople devolve into animalistic fury: Spangler describes the sound of the mob as "an ugly and insistent growl," that echoes the "savagely mournful and terrifying" sound of the baying hounds used to track Dick. Yet Wolfe does not portray society itself as a wholly evil force, even though it perpetuates the evil of racism. As the mob cries for Dick's blood, the mayor and a man named Hugh McNair attempt to pacify them. The noble and "Lincolnesque" McNair embodies the good that civilization has brought to human life, attempting to keep animal hatred at bay. Wolfe uses allusion to Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness to reinforce this concept. In Heart of Darkness, the protagonist's journey into the darkest Congo is paralleled by a descent into madness and inhumanity. When taming influence of civilization is left behind—either in a journey to the dark and inhuman corners of the earth or into the madness of mob rule—man's inner evil is freed. Wolfe's acknowledgement that civilization can both minimize and magnify man's cruelty again shows the often ambiguous nature of evil.
The frightening implication of Spangler's narrative is that the evil we see in Dick and in the mob exists in all mankind. Fittingly, however, Spangler's experience also leaves room for hope. Though he has been forever marked by his experience, it seems to have left him the better, having realized the inhumanity of racism and with an understanding of human nature. "The Child by Tiger" is the story of his brutal coming of age, forever leaving innocence behind as he stares numbly at the mutilated body of a man he respected and admired, "[trying] wretchedly to believe that this thing had spoken to us gently." Now he understands the depths to which humanity can sink. "Something had come into life... It was a kind of shadow, a poisonous blackness filled with bewildered loathing.... we would still remember the old dark doubt and loathing of our kind, of something hateful and unspeakable in the souls of men. We knew that we should not forget." His growth and realization shows that humanity still has some hope, hope that we will one day outgrow the evil that stains us.