Imagine a writer who never shares his writing and who represents fiction as non-fiction. Imagine a young man who wants to be a writer so much that he believes his own “lies.” In Tobias Wolff’s novel _Old School_, the author poses an ethical dilemma to the reader concerning issues of personal identity and honor. Taking place at a preparatory school in the 1960s, the unnamed narrator struggles with moral issues that surround the development of his authentic self. His desperate desire to win the school’s literary contest to meet the famous author Ernest Hemingway results in the narrator’s singular experience of plagiarizing another writer’s short story. Throughout the novel, Wolff demonstrates that the narrator’s motivation to plagiarize results from his inability to claim his true self because his emotional choices inevitably clash with society’s moral codes. This inner crisis of identity is shown through the narrator’s denial of his own true self, which tragically results in his delusional state of mind.
The narrator’s inability to authentically accept himself leads to the unintended consequence of his further self-destruction. As the novel centers on a writer who ironically does not want to share his writing with others. In the case of the narrator, a desperate fear of failure along with an overarching ambition to redeem his self-value as a talented writer stems from a deep insecurity about his background. As an ethnically Jewish boy from the working class in Seattle with a scholarship at an east coast Catholic preparatory school, the narrator is nothing but a social outsider. Even with a literary contest, the narrator self-consciously decides to submit work that is not too revealing of his true self. In regard to one poem, he states, “It was too close to home. It _was_ home… I could see myself there, and didn’t want to.
Even more, I didn’t want anyone else to” (36). Since the narrator never claims his ethnic identity and does not mind “passing” as Catholic, he still feel vulnerable about his personal life which others may misunderstand and judge. The narrator is afraid of the judgment he may or may not get from his peers and his readers, but in reality, he is his own worst critic. Furthermore, the narrator’s lack of self-acceptance makes it difficult for others to accept him as well. His attitude towards hiding this poem displays how reluctant the narrator is to share his family, background, and story with others. Therefore, the act of writing, for him, transitions from an act of communication to one of isolation. His lack of comfort in his own skin sets the narrator up for a negative course of life all due to his flawed perspective of himself.
The narrator becomes so caught up in the delusional whirlwind of his identity that his desperation fuels a dark imagination within him. Although not religious, the narrator’s ignorance about his Jewish heritage is a significant factor in his later mental breakdown. For example, when the narrator whistles a Nazi marching song, he is truly clueless about how offensive it is. After hearing it is a racist song, he “starts to weep — to blubber. [His] lack of control mortified [him]” (21). The narrator’s strong reaction indicates that his identity is broken and he has no idea how to “fix” himself. Not understanding his own ethnic identity leads the narrator on a lost journey for his true self.
At the same time, not understanding his roots makes it easier for him to deny his own identity and to adopt instead the mainstream persona of a typical prep school boy. However, the narrator’s confusion about his place in the world sets him adrift in life. His later delusion then becomes a game of self-protection, where he subconsciously seeks to mask his own trauma to himself. Overall, not accepting his Jewish ethnicity parallels his inability to accept his own writing. He becomes the “perfect” self-hating protagonist, whose biggest barrier is literally himself.
The narrator’s increasing crisis of identity leads to a pivotal act that leads to dark consequences for his future. Given his inability to express himself, the narrator relates strongly to the characters in the other writer Susan’s story, feeling as if he has a symbiotic connection with her writing. Feeling such a profound kinship with the author, the narrator says, “I myself couldn’t tell us apart”(161). The narrator takes Susan’s identity as his own due to the parallels between her stories and his. Although he longs to win the school contest, the narrator feels that in stealing another writer’s story, he is in fact telling the truth in a new way. Therefore, Susan’s truth becomes his “truth.” His words reveal a lack of boundaries between himself and Susan, further complicating his understanding of his place in the world.
Because he lacks a stable identity, the narrator further descends into a delusional state where he feels as if the story was so true to whom he wanted to be that he simply believed the story was written by him. When confronted with physical proof by the headmaster, the narrator is perplexed: “I still thought of it as mine. I couldn’t reconcile what I knew to be true with what felt to be true. In fact I couldn’t think at all” (142). Wolff portrays the narrator’s plagiarism as a symptom of his own disintegrating mind where logic becomes divorced from emotion. This is the paradox that defines the narrator’s inability to understand his true self: he is punished for telling the most “truthful story,” but in the most untruthful way.
In essence, the narrator’s blindness to his own moral failings causes a dishonorable clash with his school for which he must later pay a price. The narrator’s delusional state leads to confusion about his moral values; he plagiarizes and breaks the ethical code because he no longer realizes that it is wrong. In fact, the narrator relates so strongly to Susan’s writing that “adopting” it as his own feels like a natural act to him rather than an unethical one. Wolff suggests that the narrator’s moral transgression is not premeditated, but clearly emotional and a tactic for psychological survival. The author proves that the power of imagination can actually override reality and that emotional truth can trump objective reality.
Wolff sheds lights on the paradoxical nature of identity and the attempt to reconcile self- judgment with self-acceptance the concept of immoral behavior should be seen in the light of an individual mental’s state. The narrator’s act of plagiarism is sadly neither a deliberate nor a conscious choice. The narrator’s conscience is cloudy and this is part of the reason why his choice is tragic. He does not understand the intellectual crime he has committed because he is so deep in his own personal identity crisis. At the end of the novel, the narrator is left alone as a waiter without a high school diploma, playing the price of an intellectual crime that he now must learn to accept. Whether the plagiarism was conscious or not, society will always judge the action over the motivation.