A Brief Analysis of This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

This Boy's Life : Bloomsbury Paperbacks Ser. - Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff is the Narrator and Protagonist of This Boy’s Life

In This Boy’s Life Tobias Wolff the author, is an adult reflecting back on his rough upbringing.  His narrator and protagonist Toby Wolff recounts his life with three abusive fathers and an impulsive mother.  At a young age Toby decides to call himself Jack which represents a type of alter ego he builds for himself as he invents ways to escape from the grim reality of the life the adults around him have constructed.  His life is filled with domestic violence, alcohol abuse, criminal activity, bullying and emotional neglect.

The Significance of one of the Quotes at the Beginning of the Book

Before we read the memoir This Boy’s Life, the author Tobias Wolff presents us with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose.  What the second is, no one has yet discovered”.  It is clear from the beginning of the book the author has made the issue of identity and the struggle to attain a certain type of identity a major component in this memoir.

This Boy’s Life is a Story of Two Boys

As we read further into the book, the protagonist Toby Wolff struggles to find an identity by assuming various characteristics he thinks those around him will admire.  In fact This Boy’s Life is really the story about two boys, Toby and Jack.  Toby is an ‘A’ grade student, a boy deeply concerned about the world’s esteem, a loyal support to his mother, destined for Princeton like his brother Geoffrey.  Jack, on the other hand, is a liar, a thief and violent.  Both boys are versions of the same boy, a dreamer constantly searching for his identity, but never belonging to the world he craves.  His alter ego is “the splendid phantom who carries all [his] hopes” of fleeing the harsh environment of his horrific childhood.

Breaking Down an Essay Prompt on This Boy’s Life

Let’s look at breaking down an Essay Prompt on This Boy’s Life using the TEEL structure for Expository Essays.  We begin with a Draft Introduction that contains the Main Contention and Topic Sentences that will form our Body Paragraphs and finish with a Draft Conclusion.  Remember that the body paragraphs are not complete in this draft essay but are simply a starting point to build on for the rest of the essay.

Here’s the Prompt:

“We were ourselves again – restless, scheming, poised for flight” (p.221)  Explain what Toby means by the statement.

Draft Introduction

On the surface, This Boy’s Life seems bleak and pessimistic and the hardships faced by Jack and Rosemary certainly test their resilience.  Yet Jack and Rosemary are dreamers in constant search of changing their circumstances.  Rosemary confidently strives to better her situation and seeks change from a characteristic need to be unconventional.  Jack, however, is forced into an imaginary life to cope with a reality that is too grim to bear.  The quote appears late in “The Amen Corner” when Rosemary has landed a job in Seattle and a woman she knew has offered to put her up instead of renting.  This means Rosemary can leave her abusive marriage to Dwight and look forward to a future based on her capabilities.  For Jack he had just applied and won a scholarship to the elite Hill College, all based on a total fabrication of his talent and suitability to that life.  Together they are ready for a new life using their survival strategies to demonstrate a hope of eventual triumph over adversity.

Draft Body Paragraph 1

Topic Sentence = Jack and Rosemary are dreamers looking for a brighter future which bonds the two of them together.

Evidence = “I was caught up in my mother’s freedom, her delight in freedom, her dream of transformation”.

Explanation = Jack relates the powerful influence of his mother on his character.  Unfortunately, Rosemary’s unconventional search for freedom and fulfilment has had serious consequences for Jack.  Rosemary has moved through three abusive marriages and is not able to support Jack properly.  All her abusive husbands put Jack into vulnerable situations and none of them are responsible enough to stop Jack’s bad behaviour.

Draft Body Paragraph 2

Topic Sentence = Jack believes in his invented world to cope with a reality that is too grim to bear.

Evidence = “I believed that in some sense not factually verifiable I was a straight-A student”. In the same way Jack believed that he was “… an Eagle Scout, and powerful swimmer, and a boy of integrity”.

Explanation = Jack’s imagination helps him construct successful versions of himself which often verge on fantasy.  His application to the elite school Hill is an example of his belief in his fabrication of his true self.  The truth according to Jack was “… known only to me, but I believed it more than I believed the facts arrayed against it”.  Jack’s alter ego carries his hopes of fleeing his horrific childhood and of belonging to a world of stability, capability and convention.

Draft Body Paragraph 3

Topic Sentence = Both Rosemary and Jack are excited and alive at the prospect of change but the truth is both fraught with one disaster after another disaster with them always on the verge of “flight” from the bad situations they find themselves in.

Evidence = After three marriages Rosemary learns that staying away from Jack’s father was sensible not living with him “I’d be a fool if I did”.  Jack sees the Army provides his craved-for stability and regularity.  “It was good to find myself back in the clear life of uniforms and ranks and weapons”.

Explanation = Both Rosemary and Jack learn from their bitter experiences that the optimism and freshness of being “still half-created, being green in life” exacts a high price in terms of comfort, security and integrity.

Draft Conclusion

Although the prospect of change is a necessary aspect of the lives of Rosemary and Jack, its origins are steeped in negativity rather than any true creativity.  For both the need to act on bad circumstances becomes so familiar it fashions the ideas of their own identities.  Yet they continue as dreamers in a constant search of personal freedom and fulfilment.   Together they refuse to be defined by their circumstances despite all the evidence to the contrary.

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