This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff)

“Growing up wild in post-war America”: the search for self (Dr Jennifer Minter)

In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff charts the young boy’s trials and tribulations, growing up with a warm-hearted but ineffectual mother and her string of volatile and wounded partners. Poverty-stricken and restless, Rosemary and the 10-year-old Tobias, are often on the move — from Florida, to Utah, Seattle and Chinook — escaping boredom and violence and searching for a sense of home that constantly eludes them. The self-narrative style of writing enables Wolff to delve sharply and candidly into his past memories and recollections of a childhood marred by extreme poverty, loneliness and vulnerability.

Significantly, Wolff opens with the car “Crash”, witnessed by Toby and Rosemary as they move from Florida to Utah. Standing “at the cliff’s edge”, they do not realise at the time just how much of an ominous sign the crash will be. It foreshadows the wreck of relationships that will pursue them, and the downward spiral of these two hapless souls as they search for a change in their desperate situation. Although Utah is the place where people were “getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night” (5), the successful dream of transformation remains out of their reach. Fleeing a violent and unimpressionable man, who resembles her own brutal father, Rosemary clings to the dream of getting rich from uranium – a dream that is darkened by Roy’s glaring shadow.

The crash not only psychologically reflects their turmoil, but their poverty is clear as Rosemary reaches into her bag to give Toby some coins she cannot afford. Evidently the car is so antiquated, “our car boiled over again”, that Toby’s mother gives it away to a stranger she meets in a cafeteria in Seattle. Typically, Rosemary’s benevolence always offers a glimmer of hope and solace to the boy who yearns for love and respect.

The car careening out of control becomes a feature of Toby’s escapades, symbolizing the recklessness of his own life as well as the lack of power he has over circumstances that shape his fate. For example, later Toby will recall his terrible ordeals with Dwight as he drives recklessly on the mountain after his drinking episodes. Dwight seizes upon Toby’s sense of fear to humiliate and terrify him. It is in the car, as well, that Dwight intimidates and imprisons Rosemary; drunk, he pulls out “his hunting knife from under the seat and held it to her throat. He kept her there for hours like that, making her beg for her life, making her promise that she would never leave him. If she left him, he said, he would find her and kill her.” (174) Reflecting upon their eventual escape from Dwight, Toby notices how they become “ourselves again” – “restless, scheming, poised for flight” (221).

Father figures: a series of wounded soldiers

Apart from the mother, who makes the world seem friendly and less hostile, the biggest influence on the impressionable young boy, is a string of negative father figures who reinforce his sense of inferiority and inadequacy. His father, despite being wealthy, refuses to give Toby’s mother any money even for child support. Nor does he write to Toby or wish to have any contact with him. Nevertheless, there is a sense that he is idolized throughout his child – a myth that is deflated when he finally lives with his father, just prior to his committal to a mental asylum. True to form, Toby also finds himself at the mercy of the predatory behaviour of one of his father’s friends.

Likewise Rosemary’s relationships with men reflect her own troubled childhood growing up with a dominating, overbearing father. Rosemary recalls how her father, an erstwhile “navy officer and a paper millionaire” who lost “all his money and all his shanty –Irish relative’s money” (4) controlled her through violence, which feeds her abhorrence of all types of power, control and discipline. Her father beats her every night to warn her about the importance of being good. He makes her “think” about her suffering well in advance. Owing to the fact that her father ‘spanked her every night’ Rosemary is unable to discipline Toby. (49) “Daddy was a great believer in the rod.” Manipulatively, she must thank him for the meal.

Owing to her own wounds, Rosemary has a horror of discipline (49) and as Toby becomes increasingly rebellious, she abrogates the duties of parenthood to others, with diabolical consequences. Toby’s rebellious streak is evident during his confrontation with the vice principal over his words, “fuck you” in the toilet. The mother believes that Toby is not lying. Even when Marian, draws attention to Toby’s shortcomings, Rosemary refuses to discipline Toby (69) which, ironically, hastens her ill-fated decision to live with Dwight.

Subsequently, Toby is directly influenced by the men in Rosemary’s life who threaten and abuse her, stalk her and eventually try to kill her.

Father surrogates: wounded soldiers

Literally, a wounded soldier, Roy becomes one of the first negative surrogate father models that reinforce Toby’s sense of lack. Like all negative father figures in the novel, Roy is emotionally dysfunctional. His strangeness soon becomes “ordinary”. There are many dinners when they “didn’t talk” (14)

He plays a game of control with Rosemary; manipulating her, following her and holding her to constant account (14). Paranoid, he queries her when she leaves work earlier than usual (14). There is no sense of home; rather an overriding sense of loneliness (11). Roy, too, tries to recreate himself as the heroic soldier despite his disability. The tattoo was “full of heroic implication” (11). Toby is constantly yearning for a sense of home, as he wanders the neighbourhood tapping on doors and sitting on their steps, playing with their dogs (10).

Playing the game of archery in the school and throwing around the arrows there is a sense that the rules are being broken (9) which symbolically set the pattern of Toby’s rebellious childhood. The tacit, underlying, hidden motive of the game was to “bring somebody down”. It is a game of vengeance and power; the aim is to hurt others before one is hurt. “Among the trees I achieved absolute vacancy of mind”. “I had no thought of hurting others of getting hurt”; it is a convenient means of escape (9) — all to hide a gnawing sense of unworthiness. He has a sense that “everyone but my mother saw through me and did not like what they saw” (10). He had hoped that he had left it behind in Florida, but the sense of unworthiness constantly dogs him, making him feel furtive around those, like Sister James, whom he believes sense his problems (10).

As a reflection of his sense of inadequacy and emotional paralysis, he is unable to find anything to say in the confessional until Sister James supplies the narrative of her own deceit (17) She advises him that “keeping it in the dark is what makes it feel so bad”. Her words become an ominous warning.

Toby hankers for respect and esteem, precisely because he suffers from low sense of self esteem. Nobody seems to take him seriously. Until we meet Father Karl.

A game of “father and son”

Toby tries unsuccessfully to play father and son with both Roy and Dwight but it is doomed to failure. (84). He is complicit in Dwight’s attempt to lure Rosemary; he finds that they are too deeply entwined to stop the prevent carnage.

Dwight’s attempts to “improve” Toby and turn him into a “man”, highlight the extreme vulnerability and sense of powerlessness that pervade many of the surrogate father figures in the novel.

Dwight constantly sets him up for ridicule. For example, he makes him “shuck” horse chestnuts without gloves, which is an incredibly difficult task. His fingers become covered with a yellow stain and people think that he is hygienically unclean. He forces Toby to do the paper round but exploits him and does not give him his money which angers Toby (221); he has to pawn his rifles. He is referred to as a “sissy” because he initially he does not want to fight Arthur. He abuses him because he discards the almost-empty mustard bottle (171) and when Dwight strikes him despite his finger injury, Rosemary finally knows she must remove Toby from the household. (195)

Toby recalls his terrible ordeals with Dwight as he drives recklessly on the mountain after his drinking episodes. Dwight seizes upon Toby’s sense of fear to further humiliate and terrify him.

Perversely, Dwight projects his own sense of worthlessness, his frustration and his impotence onto the hapless boy which compounds Toby’s psychological problems. He constantly blames Toby for the family’s problems and their failures; Toby becomes another wounded soldier.
Toby realizes he will never feel at home. He defines himself “by opposition to him” (Dwight). Dwight is “someone who was offended by my existence”. He longs to escape the brutality and after his accident he spends the night in the forest. “I was all alone where no one could find me.” (87) He thinks about Dwight as “someone who was offended by my existence” . And finally, “we hated each other. We hated each other so much that other feelings didn’t get enough light. It disfigured me.” (196). Whilst he struggles to find comforting images of Chinook, he will always see “Dwight’s face and hear his voice” (196). The enduring image of brutality remains.

In fact, the only sense of connection he ever reaches with Dwight is during the fight against Arthur; know that he has successfully executed the “uppercut”, Toby imagines him “smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love” (187).

Toby’s multiple images: a series of transformations

“The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” (Oscar Wilde)

Toby’s sense of self is elusive as he contradictorily plays a variety of roles that both reflect his troublesome and disturbed sense of self whilst concealing his raw and innate capacity to rise above his tawdry life circumstances and denigrating environments.
As the mature narrator intervenes, but rarely, he offers the prescient advice: “Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself no matter how grotesque, had power over me. This much I understand now. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter nor in those that follow. The boy moves always out of reach.” (22)

In a way, Toby’s sense of self is both reflected and concealed in each one of his fanciful images. Ironically, his “true” identity will become clearest in the fake letters he concocts as he fills in the variety of applications to the colleges at the behest of his brother, Geoffrey.

Resorting to a variety of images that seem to suggest power and a false sense of bravado, Toby tries to recreate himself in order to find the control, freedom and independence, and the respect that he lacks.

Jack London

Due to his humiliation at sharing his name with a girl at his past school, Toby wishes to change his name to the name of his heroic author Jack London. Toby believes that sharing the esteemed author’s name he would inherit some of his admirable qualities. (Jack London wrote “Call of the Wild” and was famous for his novels about the wolves at the frontier.) The name change becomes a bone of contention between Rosemary and the father, and Rosemary concedes because of the irritation he will bring to her previous husband. Toby dreams of “taciturn self sufficiency” and at first believes that changing his name will afford him a greater sense of freedom and independence (9)

Letters to pen pals

Toby fabricates a sense of self and adventure in the letters he writes to the pen pal. He lacks self-respect and yearns for the “world’s esteem”.

Toby writes letters to Alice recreating himself as the owner of a palomino horse named Smiley who has a lot of adventures on the father’s ranch. The purpose is to stimulate Alice’s wonder and surprise at someone who seems to be leading an exciting lifestyle – not one of extreme loneliness as he goes home reluctantly and despairingly to the loveless and suspicious home created by Roy (11).

In Seattle, Toby once again writes to a pen pal, Annette, recreating the image of a well-to-do son of a Captain who owns a ranch. In recreating himself, he also re-imagines his father who “now owned a fleet of fishing boats”. “I was first mate”. He did not tell her he was just 11 years old (36).

The sniper: the man with a gun

From an early age, Toby is fascinated by guns as a symbol of power and control and becomes possessive of the gun given to him by Roy. The gun that Roy presents to him for his birthday grants Toby his first dangerous play tool. He spends days aimlessly pointing his gun at unaware pedestrians, which exposes the restlessness and the obsession with guns that foreshadows Tobias’s desire to join the army. (19)

Toby is obsessed with the gun because it gives him strength. “I needed that rifle, for itself and for the way it completed me when I held it.” (19) He also enjoys wearing the cadet’s uniform because it gives him a sense of pride in his status/ authority. “Roy had saved one of his army uniforms and I sometimes dressed up in this, together with martial-looking articles of hunting gear; fur trooper’s hat, camouflage coat, boots that reached nearly to my knees” (20).

Toby feels that the gun completes him and gives him a sense of the power over others that constantly eludes him. He plays at the sniper and begins to “act like one”, laughing at the “ecstasy of my power over them” (the innocent and innocuous people strolling down the road). The image of the heroic soldier gives him a sense of purpose, but he realizes that “power can be enjoyed only when it is recognized and feared”. The fact that Toby is acting behind the window undermines his sense of power (21).

“The cool boy”

With his two friends, Terry Silver and Terry Taylor, Toby becomes a thief and a liar. They exert their extreme sense of frustration at the man in the Thunderbird. They pelt him with eggs as a reflection of their own sense of wasted power, their aggression and their envy. “He had everything that we didn’t have (38) They become expert thieves and break, undetected, into the school cafeteria (50). The fact that they are not caught gives them a degree of notoriety; he becomes more confident, “cocksure, insane in our arrogance” (50) But their growing sense of violence, conceals a yawing sense of helplessness.

Toby and Terry Silver practice looking cool in front of the mirror. They try to give themselves an aura of prestige and importance because of their extreme sense of insignificance. “We wore our hair long at the sides, swept back into a ducktail. The hair on top we combed toward the centre and then forward, with spit curls breaking over our foreheads”. But despite the unlit cigarettes that hang from their mouths they do not look as “cool” as they should have (36) His mother forbids the look and he must redo his air before he enters the home.

Terry Silver, one of the notorious friends in West Seattle, exalts in a display of power by sporting the Nazi armband “that he swore was genuine”. He would wear the armband in the apartment and “strut around and treat Taylor and me like lackeys’ (35). As Toby suggests the trappings of power enable him to oppress the others, but it also suits Toby and Terry because it gives him something to do. Otherwise they would be “listlessly throwing rocks at signs” (35). Boredom is a curse.

(Friendship: Arthur and Chuck)

Because of his emotional dislocation, Toby endures a fragile, contradictory and complex relationship with Arthur, his closest friend. Whilst they both provide each other a measure of support and respect, their main encounters are through the violence they both eschew. Both seek to resist the image of the bravado male, whilst becoming, at the same time immersed in the only image that seems to afford protection. The two parallel fights with Arthur testify to their troubled relationship (94, 186). Likewise Chuck, whose unpredictability and mental dislocation also renders their relationship unstable.

The “phantom” boy (180)

Ironically, it is the “phantom” boy in the letter who that best reflects the stifled truth about Toby. The letters testify to the potential that has been thwarted; to the boy Toby might have been and to the boy that he wishes to become. They appear authentic and natural because they truly reflect Toby’s heartfelt desires and capacity for growth. “Now the words came as easily as if someone were breathing them into my ear. I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth. That was what I thought I was writing – the truth. It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the facts arrayed against it. I believed that in some sense not factually verifiable I was a straight-A student. In the same way, I believed that I was an Eagle Scout, and a powerful swimmer, and a boy of integrity. These were ideas about myself that I had held on to for dear life. Now I gave them voice” (180)

“I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. An on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face” (181).

This Boy’s Life : The Scout magazine

Whilst he is surrounded by desperate and frustrated males, he sees Boy’s Life as a positive contrast.. Their magazine is full of stories of courage. Rosemary, like Toby, are always trying to escape and look for a better life; a way out of their problems.
His experiences with the Boy Scouts and in particular his portrayal of the official Scout’s book, Boy’s Life, shows Jack different models of courage and adventure that are completely lacking in his own life. He wants to believe that he is “no different” and they stimulate his imagination, but also reveal the painful absence of courage and adventure.

Significantly, when Father Karl recognises Toby’s attempt to withdraw and “hide”. He notices that he is reluctant to trust which is a consequence of the brutal domestic environment. Toby wants to tell Father Karl that he hankers after the “world’s esteem” but feels unable to reveal his desperate struggle for recognition that fuels much of his unhappiness and restlessness. He believed in God and “I believed in the world” (210). Toby is hiding; he cannot be “reached” (cf Sister James). Toby is aware that he is often concealing part of himself that he is too fearful of showing the world. At the same, he is paranoid at people being able to see through him.

An elusive sense of home : a dysfunctional place

The young Toby yearns for a sense of home that constantly eludes him. He is emotionally paralysed and desperate for comfort and solace. Whilst Sister James “wanted to help” , no one seemed aware of what help Toby needed (16) and he drifts painfully. Toby desperately wants to break the negative cycle of behaviour but lacks the emotional tools to crack the code. He is paranoid of people reaching him, seeing through his façade and recoils from those who might or could help. His withdrawal reaches a climax when he refuses to apologise to Mr Welch.

Despite his bravado, and his rebelliousness, Toby has a fierce desire of belonging to a conventional family. He wants to be held in esteem; he hankers after respect and tries to prop up an otherwise flailing and wounded ego. “I wanted everything to go just right”.

In Chinook, he defines home as “a place I did not feel at home in” and his step-father as a “man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it”. Whilst he admires his mother’s fortitude and admits “I had never seen my mother give up” (93), he knows their extended family with Dwight is doomed. Despite her unhappiness, Rosemary tries to brighten up the house with her good cheer and spirit. “She filled the house with plants, mothered Pearl, and insisted that all of us spend time together like a real family”. (93). However, as Toby notes, “failure was ordained” because “a real family as troubled as ours would never dream of spending time together” (93). Toby becomes the convenient scapegoat; because he does “screw” up constantly, “even when I meant to do well” (93)

Later his real father tries to recreate their lost family by inviting Toby to La Jolla. Geoffrey would join them from Princeton and later
the mother. “We would be a family again.” (178). Suspiciously, the mother contends, “don’t bank on it”.

The reason Chuck resists the pressure to marry Tina Flood is because he yearns for the conventional, happy home – so much so that he would prefer to endure years in prison. “The good life he had in mind for himself was just as conventional as the one I had in mind for myself, though without its epic pretensions” (215).

Norma’s relationship with Kenneth provides yet another example of a dysfunctional family life. She visits for christmas and despite the problems decides to marry Kenneth. Dwight paints the Christmas tree and nearly ruins it; it is half bare, which symbolically represents the lack of love. (123) Kenneth is a Seventh day Adventist and lectures the father about alcohol. (126). Her life with Kenneth is plagued by boredom and dissatisfaction (126). She gives up Buddy with whom she shared a romantic and passionate relationship.

Mr Howard explains that after years of loneliness at the Hill School he gradually, like many of the students, slipped into a surrogate family home. Firstly, school was a “cold” place, but in the last year “something changed”. The members of the class grew increasingly closer until they were like “brothers”. “It came, he said, from the simple fact of sharing the same life for a period of years”. “It made them a family”. And that is how he now things of the school – “as his second family” (190) And this is how Mr Howard now speaks to Toby – as if he, too, were a member of the family. (190)

Previously, Toby ruminates: “no matter how much people pretend otherwise; that it is more fun to be inside than outside, to be arrogant than to be kind, to be with a crowd than to be alone” (35).

Toby does not completely redeem himself in the novel. But there is a sense of optimism. Readers gain a feeling that he will be able to amend his life and seek better opportunities. He fails at the new school; he refuses to apologise to the Welches because of the shame; the reflection of his own failure. He finally finds a sense of place in the army. He leaves readers with the notion that, “I might still redeem myself. All I needed was a war.”

The mother’s pain

Personable and warm-hearted, Rosemary “made the world seem friendly” (82). There are moments of compassion and poignancy between them such as the time she returns from the date with Gil. Rosemary is obviously upset and Toby hugs her sympathetically . Toby withstands a lot of personal suffering to please his mother. He withholds from her the details of his time with Dwight because he does not want to alarm her. His moods and feelings are closely aligned to his mother and whenever he senses her depression he also becomes miserable. When he thinks that she has given up he becomes very desolate. (93) His love for his mother is also one of the reasons he does not move to Paris to board with Stephen.

The unromantic and indifferent portrayal of Toby’s father shows Rosemary’s negative view of men. It also reinforces her angelic qualities. She shows a great deal of resolve and resilience in the face of brutal men. And as a result Toby respects and loves his mother.
However, despite her good intentions, her own psychological wounds at the hands of her own father, lead to an abrogation of parental responsibility. She does not provide sufficient guidance, help and support for Toby’s problems. She is often working too hard, becomes immersed in her work and is absent. At best, she ignores Toby’s vulnerability; at worst she becomes complicit in a cycle of violence that she fails to deal with. She admits, that Dwight’s exploitation was “probably a little my fault too”. “She said she should have known better than to let Dwight handle the money, she should have insisted on a joint account”. (221) But the reason she doesn’t is because her own desire to play happy families; for “all of us to get along” (221)

However, despite these failings, Jack earns our admiration because he is able to withstand a lot of brutality without wallowing in self-pity and sentimentality. Through the honest portrayal of his devastating circumstances, Jack candidly relates the devastating effect on his self-esteem and yet with an absence of sentimentality and a sense that things may improve… spirit will rebound… . Jack tries to combat the impression most people have of him as a “liar” and a “thief” and then a “sissy”, but admits that this is a constant battle. He is the first to admit that his problems are compounded by the fact he has to “take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it”. Most individuals would be destroyed by this injustice, but Jack continues to try to earn the world’s respect. This is behind his desire to recreate a fictional character that impresses others, such as the letters he writes to his pen pal, and the letters of praise he fabricates for the private boarding schools. In fact, as he tells Father Karl, it is respect more than anything that drives him, precisely because nobody seems to take him seriously.

Like his surrogate fathers, he does not look for blame but deals with his adverse set of circumstances.

For all of his faults, Jack manages to retain many admirable qualities at the end of the memoir. Discuss.
Notes: Copyright – English Works (Dr Jennifer Minter)

See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.

Please click here to download a PDF version of the Exercises in the Language of Persuasion: an essay writing guide for immediate use. By using these exercises, you will be able to follow our support material on each exercise (See “turn to exercise”). Each “turn to exercise” includes key strategies, suggested responses, students’ samples and assessors’ marks and comments.