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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 re- vocalize 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.
On the outermost reach of a white man's field, there is a tiny, quaint cabin where a black sharecropper lives with his family and a coon dog named Sounder. In the spring, summer, and fall, Father works in the fields to provide for his family. In winter, when the work in the fields comes to a halt, the black sharecropper goes to hunt coons with Sounder, his hound. His wife washes people's clothes and sells walnut kernels to supplement the family's meager income. Their eldest son helps them out with the chores. Although they are a poor family, they are close and loving.
When it becomes difficult to hunt due to the extreme cold, Father steals a pig in order to feed his children; although he knows the theft is wrong, he feels it is better than seeing his family starve. The robbery, however, is discovered, and the Sheriff and his men come out to arrest the 'thieven nigger.' Sounder is outraged to see his master being chained and dragged; he tries to attack the Sheriff. When everyone, including Father, is in the Sheriff's wagon, the deputy turns and fires a shot at Sounder. The dog collapses and then runs away. The boy is crushed over the injury to his dog; he puts his heart, soul, and strength into searching for Sounder, but the dog has obviously retreated far into the backwoods. Mother believes that the dog has gone to the woods to heal his wounds and will return.
The next morning a languid and incapacitated Sounder returns home. It is difficult for him to move, and his thunderous voice has been replaced by a feeble whine. The boy is crushed to see the change in him. He also misses his father and worries over the fact that there has been no news about him for a long time. Finally the family hears that he has been sent away to do hard labor. This news casts a gloom over the little house.