This Boy’s Life, set in America in the 1950’s, is a compelling memoir by Tobias Wolff, whom recreates the frustrations and cruelties faced throughout his adolescence, as he fights for identity and self-respect. During this period of time, America underwent major changes in the political and economic spheres, which in turn were responsible for its social makeover. Society in this time was geared toward family; marriage and children being part of the national agenda. The 1950’s was also an age of male dominance, where even if women worked, their assumed proper place was at home.
Throughout the memoir, the protagonist, young Jack Wolff, makes it difficult for the reader to feel much affection towards him, as his actions prove to be troublesome and unruly. However, as the memoir progresses, Jacks struggle reveal the reasons for his actions which sequentially shape his character, providing the readers with understanding and sympathy towards his inexorable situation. The fraudulent lies and deceitful ways of Jack can be frustrating upon the reader; though we come to realise that he does this in order to be accepted by the people around him.
Jack also engages in fights and unfaithfully betrays his best friend Arthur, although it becomes evident that he only does this in order to gain Dwight’s approval of him. The lack of a real father figure in Jack’s life has a profound impact on him and his desperate attempt to develop his identity, which further supports the readers’ emotions of sympathy towards him.
Jack lies relentlessly in order to escape the grim circumstances of his childhood. His life is fuelled with emotional neglect and verbal abuse; Dwight, his indignant step father, being the foremost cause. He desires of transforming himself into the person that he truly wants to be; an image he believes will help him to belong and to be happy. The lies he tells are a constant source of comfort for him, as he relies on them to provide stability and hope in his otherwise unstable life.
“I couldn’t help but try to introduce new versions of myself as my interests changed, and as other versions failed to persuade”, demonstrates an essential part of Jack’s character, as he lies in order to fit in. His identity would change with the different people he met, in order to meet their expectations of him and to obtain their acceptance. This greatly contributes to the sympathy felt for Jack, as he renders the reality that he finds so difficult to accept as a young boy.
Among many other lies throughout the memoir, Jack has the intention of creating a new identity for himself. “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”. At this point, Jack takes his re-creation of identity to a new level. Jack is completely aware of what he is doing, although he does not stop.
His incessant lies and then believing that they are the actual truth continuously reoccur throughout the memoir. This serves to show his insecurity of who he was, and his imprudent belief that he had the ability to become something better than what he was. Jacks fabricated attempts to re-create “new versions” of himself, reveal his instinctive lying nature, thus contributing to the annoyance the readers occasionally feel towards him. However, it becomes clear that Jack is confused; he wants to belong. This misperception, and yearn to fit in explicates why feelings of sympathy by the readers towards Jack are inevitable.
Jack is forced to live with his violent stepfather Dwight. Dwight cruelly exercises authority over Jack, in order to create a sense of dominance over him “Dwight would dump a pile of nuts on the floor of the utility room and put me to work with a knife and pair of pliers until he judged that I’d done enough for the night”. Because of this, Jack is determined to prove to Dwight, himself and the reader that he is not the person Dwight defines him as. Jack is not hurt by Dwight’s accusations that he is a thief and liar because “I did not see myself that way”.
However, when Dwight calls Jack a sissy, Jack thinks of Arthur, who is his best friend and the biggest “sissy” in school, and remembers how the word sparked the fight between him and Arthur. Dwight treated Jack differently for a few days; with certain deference – “Dwight took the calls and explained that the papers had been ruined in a fight, adding that his boy Jack hung a real shiner on the Gayle kid. ”
This was the only time he expressed a genuine interest in Jack that bordered on admiration, rather than disgust. Dwight was always associated with hatred and negativity, but because of this certain deference after he fought, Jack felt a certain connection to him as a father figure.
He felt as though he finally impressed Dwight, and even felt loved because of Dwight’s respect towards him. This discloses that Dwight’s actions had significant influence over Jack, as he continued to engage in these violent fights, in order to demonstrate his masculinity to Dwight. Jacks violent nature is driven by his belief that he has to prove his masculinity to Dwight. This attests annoyance within the reader; as Jack claims he “defined myself in opposition to him”, he ironically shares the traits of Dwight, such as violence and his desire to be regarded as powerful and masculine.
However, Dwight’s deference towards Jack after he fought contrastingly draws sympathy for Jack from the readers, as it reveals his desire to belong; his desire to be loved. Jack’s friendship with Arthur plays a significant role in the re-creation of his identity. Arthur was recognised as a “notorious sissy”, and because of this Jack worried of the social implications it would consequently have on him by being friends with Arthur.
“To put myself in the clear I habitually mocked Arthur, always behind his back, imitating his speech and way of walking, even betraying his secrets”, demonstrates Jacks desperation to acquire acceptance from others, even if it meant denying a part of himself- a friendship- that actually made him happy at times “but I had withheld my friendship, because I was afraid of what it would cost me”.
Jacks betrayal of Arthur imparts anger in the reader, as he attempts to impress people who are not his real friends. However his confused identity and lack of self-confidence justify his disloyal actions, particularly because of the circumstances he was faced with at such a young age. Parental neglect plays an important role throughout the memoir.
This is first evident in the text when Jack says “after all, he was in Connecticut and we were in Utah”, signifying the substantial physical and emotional distance between his birth father and himself. Fathers play an important role in their child’s upbringing and development. Due to this lacking in Jacks life, the responsibilities of growing up prove to be difficult for him, evident through his confused identity and troublesome ways.
Furthermore, Rosemary’s ex-husband Roy plays a significant role in shaping the way Jack thinks and reasons, particularly from such a young and susceptible age. “I thought Roy was what a man should be”, reveals Jack’s naivety at such a young age; as Roy, abusive and indignant, was in fact the complete opposite of “what a man should be”. Wolff is once again faced with a man, Dwight, who abuses him and sets a terrible example for him.
His violent nature plays a major part in Jack’s development, which ultimately forms his identity. Dwight’s actions have such an influence that “Jack” writes about Dwight’s voice being ever-present in his head and own voice, even as an adult; even as a father. “I hear his voice in my own when I speak to my children in anger”. The sympathy felt by the readers for Jack is inevitable, as his brutal childhood is left with him for the rest of his life.
Although Jack makes it difficult for the reader to feel much affection towards him on some occasions, the abusive, neglectful and violent experiences he is confronted with at such a young and vulnerable age conveys a sense of understanding, which in turn rouse feelings of sympathy towards young Wolff. Jack lies constantly; whenever he is presented with the opportunity to. This frustrates the reader is some instances. Generally though, reasons for this are understandable, such as his confused identity due to the violent and emotionally unstable life he lives.
The violent fights he associates himself with, and the betrayal of his “best-friend” Arthur, leave the readers in a position to question whether his motives can be justifiable. However, these fights and betrayal are a reflection of his desire to be accepted by others, and the masculine, powerful man Dwight’s expects him to be.
The lack of a real father figure largely affects Jack and all aspects of his character, from his deceitful ways, to his violent involvement in fights. Because of this, compassion and sympathy prevails over the occasional frustration felt towards Jack by the readers. In supposition, Jack is a helpless child seeking a happy life; an identity he is truly happy with.