Exploring Contrasting Characters in Tobias Wolff's "Powder"

Categories: Andre Dubus


Tobias Wolff, a prominent American writer, has left an indelible mark on the literary world, particularly through his mastery of the memoir and short story genres. Among his notable works is the short story "Powder," featured in his 1996 collection, "The Night In Question." This essay delves into the intricacies of character development in "Powder," focusing on the contrasting personalities of the two main characters—the teenage narrator and his father.

Characterization of the Father

The story introduces the reader to a unique father-son dynamic set against the backdrop of Mount Baker, a skiing resort.

The father, whose aggressive nature is subtly portrayed through phrases like "he had to fight for the privilege," "he wouldn't give up," and "he was indifferent to my fretting," emerges as a complex character. These descriptions paint a picture of a determined man who pursues what he desires, evident in his insistence on keeping the flashy Austin-Healey, taking his son to a club, and being focused on bringing him home despite the challenges in his marriage.

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As the narrative unfolds, the son provides his own set of adjectives to describe his father—“rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty. He was a great driver. All persuasion, nor coercion.” These seemingly contradictory traits create a multifaceted character. The initial carefree and spontaneous characterization transforms into that of a man with a gentle demeanor and a gregarious tone. The father compensates for his son's lack of youthfulness and spirit, showcasing the depth of their relationship.

Methods of Character Development

The story employs various methods of character development, shedding light on the differing personalities of father and son:

Narrative Summary Without Judgment

While the father is explicitly judged through specific mentions of behavior and mindsets, the son's true character of being methodical and systematic only surfaces towards the end of the story.

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The initial assumption of the son being easily influenced by his father gives way to a revelation about his meticulous nature.

Narrative Description with Implied or Explicit Judgment

Explicit judgments about the father's character are made through specific mentions of his behavior and mindset. The contrasting surface details of their dress and appearance contribute to the nuanced portrayal of their personalities.

Character’s Actions

The father's eagerness, spontaneity, and disregard for rules, except when facing dire straits, highlight his carefree nature. In contrast, the son's methodical and forward-thinking nature is revealed through his system with clothes hangers, portraying him as someone less inclined to take risks.

Character’s Speech

The father's casual use of words like “Vamanos” and “Buck up” exemplifies his carefree personality, while the son's prim manner and speech validate his guarded and more reserved nature. These speech patterns contribute to the depth of their characterizations.

Realization and Symbolism

Amidst the exploration of their characters, a symbolic element emerges in the concept of "fresh powder." It represents the boy's realization about new and uncharted territories beyond his always-prepared itinerary. Without his persuasive father, who believes in influencing people to give in or help, the boy would have never experienced the unpredictability of life and learned that sometimes one has to venture into the unknown.


In conclusion, Tobias Wolff's "Powder" intricately weaves the tale of a father and son, revealing their contrasting personalities through nuanced character development. The father's carefree nature and the son's guarded demeanor create a rich tapestry of emotions and realizations. The story not only explores their relationship but also utilizes symbolism to convey broader themes about life's unpredictability and the necessity of venturing into the unknown.

Written by Noah Jones
Updated: Jan 18, 2024
Keep in mind: this is only a sample!
Updated: Jan 18, 2024
Cite this page

Exploring Contrasting Characters in Tobias Wolff's "Powder". (2016, Dec 27). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-short-story-powder-by-tobias-wolff-essay

Exploring Contrasting Characters in Tobias Wolff's "Powder" essay
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