Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life illustrates the harsh realities of growing up in the 1950’s and the failures associated with it. Wolff uses his experiences growing up from a child’s point of view and the interactions of his characters to illustrate that society of the 1950’s produced a landscape of unsustainable beliefs and misplaced optimism. He demonstrates this through extensive use of vivid and disillusioning language and various characters. However, Wolff also alludes to the possibility that there are triumphs in the characters lives amongst all their shortcomings. Through the eyes of various characters, Wolff is able to display the extent to which being in a broken family constitutes failure in throughout the memoir. The idea of having a nuclear family is a prominent theme through the text. To readers surprise Wolff foreshadows this effect of being a part of a broken family through Jack’s infatuation with Annette.
This point is taken further by Jack who ‘imagine[s] a terrible accident in front of her house’. This showcases Jacks yearning for love and affection which he doesn’t receive from his mother who is too busy trying to support them both. The impacts of a broken family are further displayed through Terry Taylor and Terry Silver. The failure of Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Silver to not raise their sons properly is seen through they hooligan like acts such as shoplifting and vandalism. However, being part of a split family can constitute a fail in the memoir, there are those who fail to determine who they are. Furthermore, Wolff explores the struggle to find one’s identity in the 1950’s. Jack’s constant battle between his imagination and reality are not only a source of ease but also a source of conflict. This is displayed through the moment sister James catches Jack acting in a way that to her uncharacteristic. This disturbs jack as he thirsts for a better version of himself which ultimately ends in him feeling ‘unworthy’ of his aspirations. In addition, Chuck Bolger experiences conflict with his identity.
Chuck is characteristically the tough guy outlaw. However, there are momentary shifts where the reader witnesses a remarkable side to chuck which is impossible to imagine. Wolff attempts to demonstrate to readers that the cause of his identity crisis is the failure of society to accept people for who they are this further demonstrated through Tina Flood a promiscuous 15 year old girl who lives a life of poverty and pessimism. Through her character he displays the sad but honest truth of the double standards of the society in the 1950’s. However, Wolff not only portrays the negative aspects of his memoir but also displays the relationships that make the characters human. Wolff also uses his characters to demonstrate that there are times the beauty of human relationships that there to be witnessed. One of the defining moments of Jack as a character is the moment he is comforting his mother after a horrible night out with potential husbands. In this scene Wolff intends to showcase to readers that is very capable of becoming what he intends despite his circumstance.
This also draws sympathy from the reader as they begin to realise Jack is much more than what he seems such as a ‘thief’ even if he adamantly believes he is. Also, Jack’s short lived but honest friendship with Arthur presents the reader with a startling image of jack finally being honest with himself and putting aside the lies he creates. There for suggesting that when Jack makes an honest connection with someone all the walls he builds to keep people out just comes crumbling down. Thus, the human connections that are made not only make the memoir not just about failure but also the struggle for a better life. The Iconic Ideal in the American dream, especially in the 1950’s is a shining light throughout the memoir. This ideal in the memoir is immediately seen through Rosemary’s laborious trip to Salt Lake City to mine for uranium. However, despite her failure to find any uranium in Salt Lake City she immediately packs up and moves to Utah.
This unwavering commitment to her cause is a true depiction of the ideals brought forward by the American dream, which is to get rich and own your own property. Also this infatuation with the American dream can be seen through Jacks attempts to get into an Ivy League prep school. Also The book ‘The Status Seekers’ also serves as a reference point for Jack as he is an outsider in a relatively harsh new environment he wishes to become part of. Hence, suggesting to the reader that obtaining such an ideal is much easier said than done. However, Mr Howard serves as an example to Jack that if he is to work hard enough and persevere then he will be able to reach similar heights Mr Howard has. Tobias Wolff’s powerful memoir provides readers an opportunity to witness the harsh failures that society of the 1950’s has imposed on the unfortunate and the splendour on the fortunate. However, Wolff also provides insight into the positives that lie underneath the underwhelming negativity that if not carefully examined can be overlooked easily.
Courtney from Study Moose
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