The story involves a family of black sharecroppers in 1933 Louisiana (in the movie; the book does not specify a date). They are poor and hungry, stuck in a rigged system designed to keep blacks poor and hungry. The father tries to supplement their diet by going raccoon hunting with their coonhound Sounder, but they don't catch very much. One day the father brings some meat, which the family enjoys for a few days until the father is arrested for stealing the meat from a smokehouse. As the father is taken away, Sounder follows after, until the sheriff takes a shot at him. Sounder runs off into the woods, wounded.
The family struggles to get by with the father in jail. Sounder eventually returns, wounded but alive. The boy goes searching for his father—the authorities won't tell the family where he is—and fails to find him, but along the way does manage to meet a schoolteacher. The schoolteacher offers to take the boy in and educate him, giving him hope to escape a life of poverty.
- Bittersweet Ending: Definitely in the novel, wherein the boy loses his father and his dog, but has learned to read and has hope of escaping life as a sharecropper.
- Cool Teacher: The nameless male teacher (in the novel) or Miss Johnson (in the film) who takes the boy in and undertakes to educate him.
- Death by Newbery Medal: In the novel, both the father and Sounder die at the end.
- Down on the Farm: Down on someone else's farm, as the family are stuck working a white man's land as part of the exploitative sharecropping system.
- Dream Sequence: The boy has a dream of his father coming home.
- Education Mama: Education Dad, in the movie. Rebecca supports her son going away to study, but Nathan is even more insistent about it. When David says he has to stay home and help his crippled father work the farm, Nathan insists that David shouldn't get too used to the farm and the sharecropping life. He wants his son to get out.
- Institutional Apparel: In the movie, the prisoners at the work camp David goes to are wearing the standard striped prison uniform. In the novel, the sheriff even informs Nathan that the black and white stripes will make him an easy target.
- Jail Bake: Discussed Trope by the sheriff when the boy brings a cake to the jail for his father. It's really just an excuse for the sheriff to be a Jerkass and break up the cake.
- In the movie however, the sheriff instead stabs holes in the cake with his pocketknife.
- Just Following Orders: This is the excuse given by the vicious sheriff for his excessive cruelty—not letting the family see the father in prison, and not telling them where he is.
- Named by the Adaptation: The film gives names to all the characters. The father is Nathan Lee Morgan (Winfield), his wife is Rebecca Morgan (Tyson), and their son who learns to read is named David. The film also does a Gender Flip with the teacher; the unnamed male teacher in the book becomes Miss Johnson in the movie.
- No Name Given: Almost a Nameless Narrative, in fact—in the novel, Sounder the dog is the only character with a name, despite being missing for half the novel.
- The One Who Made It Out: Nathan's hope for David, and the ending suggests as much, as David goes off to school to better himself.
- Remake Cameo: When this story was adapted again for a 2003 TV movie, Paul Winfield played the teacher.
- Shoot the Dog: Just to make life more miserable, the sheriff taking the father away shoots Sounder after Sounder follows the cart.
- Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel, the father and Sounder both die, the father from his injuries suffered in a dynamite blast at the work camp. In the film, both Nathan Lee Morgan and Sounder are still alive at the end.
- Working on the Chain Gang: The boy makes his way to a chain gang labor camp where his father is supposed to be but fails to find him.