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"This Boys Life" is a memoir about a young mans struggles with his own identity. The first section of the chapter titled, "Uncool", is a good illustration of how the young Tobias Wolff feared other peoples perceptions of his true self. The fact that Wolff and his two friends, Taylor and Silver, were raised without true father figures in their lives played a major role in the behavior and character of these three young men. Through other ing and double consciousness, the boys came to realize their weaknesses.
In an effort to hide their weaknesses, they participated in deviant behavior in order to quench their thirst for power and strength. Tobias Wolff's intentions in writing such a powerful book were to find out how he became the man he is today, and as a healing tool for him to finally let go of the pain he felt as a child. The absence of a strong father figure in the lives of Jack, Taylor, and Silver had a critical effect on their emotional health. Taylors father never returned home from Korea, Silvers father left his mother and remarried, and Jacks father lived in Connecticut. A boy learns a lot from just being around his father. He learns what a man is and how they should act, whether its good or bad.
These three boys never had that experience from a father on a regular basis. Everything that they learned at home, they learned from their mother. By no fault of their mothers, the three boys developed a sensitive feminine side. Deep down, almost subconsciously, they were all aware of their sensitivity, which made them feel weak. Their feelings of inferiority showed with their shyness around girls, their attempts at looking cool in the mirror, and in their teasing of one another. A good example of their uneasiness around girls is shown as Wolff described Taylors sisters, "As girls went they were nothing special, but they were girls, and empowered by that fact to render judgment on us.
They could make us cringe just by rolling their eyes. Silver and I were afraid of them... " (pg. 40). The fact that the girls were "nothing special" yet "Silver and I were afraid of them" is evidence of their emotional frailty. Jacks fear of the way others perceived him was a major cause for his nervousness.
By way of "other ing" and "double-consciousness", the three boys were made aware of their inferiority. The idea of someone seeing through Jacks facade made him very nervous. One person who could see the real Jack was Marian, and Jack was fully conscious of her ability to do so. "Marian and I disliked each other. Later we both found reasons for it, but our dislike was instinctive and mysterious... She knew I didnt like her, and that I was not the young gentlemen I pretended to be" (pg. 38). There was nothing "mysterious" or "instinctive" about their dislike for one another.
Jack didnt like her simply because he resented the fact that she knew of his weaknesses. Jacks association with Taylor and Silver also alerted him to the fact that he wasnt tough or cool. A good example of "other ing" is that Jack saw flaws in himself by noticing the flaws that existed in his friends. Jack wanted to be admired. He wanted people to be jealous of his life the way that he was jealous of others, but when he looked at his loser friends he knew that wasnt possible. "Taylor was a dreamy thin-skinned boy who cried easily... " (pg. 39). Silver was also guilty of being weak, ."..
a shameless coward when his big mouth brought trouble down on us" (pg. 40). When Jack looked at his two best friends and saw a "shameless coward" and a "thin-skinned boy who cried easily" he had no choice but to come to the realization that he was no better. The three boys, in an attempt to hide their weaknesses, resorted to deviant behavior to experience what they lacked; strength, power, and a sense of belonging. Since they had none of these characteristics, they admired Nazis for the fact that they, at one time, had an abundance of power. The feeling of belonging to something was also attractive. They watched television programs about the Nazis and failed to see the wrong in them.
They misinterpreted the whole purpose of these shows. "We saw that the real point was to celebrate snappy uniforms and racy Mercedes staff cars and great marching, thousands of boots slamming down together on cobbled streets while banners streamed overhead and strong voices sang songs that stirred our blood though we couldnt understand a word" (pg. 41 - 42). This was a society that had organization and togetherness, which these boys had never experienced. They didnt belong to anything. They felt lost in a world where they had already been left out and left behind. There experiences were affecting the way they interpreted how the world worked. "These shows instructed us further in the faith we were already beginning to hold: that victims are contemptible, no matter how much people pretend otherwise; that it is more fun to be inside than outside, to be arrogant than to be kind, than to be with a crowd than to be alone" (pg. 42). These ideals, "inside" rather than "outside", "arrogant" rather than "kind", with a "crowd" rather than "alone", are all attractive to one type of person, a weak one.
If a person is strong in both mind and in body he does not need to be "inside." He does not need to be "arrogant" because if he is sure in himself, than he does not have to show it or tell people he is something that he isnt. He does not need to be with a "crowd" because he is not afraid to be "alone." These boys were all on the outside, they all felt the need to be arrogant in order to impress people, and even though they had each other, they were all alone. They were all of these things and they are extremely unhappy, so why shouldnt they think that being "inside", and being "arrogant", and being in a "crowd" will bring them happiness? The incident with the man in the Thunderbird was the perfect example of the threesomes deviant behavior and their need to experience strength and power. It was an act of revenge upon the type of person that Jack, Taylor, and Silver hated for one reason; they could never be like him. They wanted people to look at the three of them in admiration the same way that people admired the Thunderbird.
The image of the man behind the wheel of a brand new sports car represented everything that they werent. The image was cool, tough, and sleek. The fact that this guy was on his way to pick up a girl made them even more envious. "One look was enough to see that he was everything we were not, his life a progress of satisfactions we had no hope of attaining in any future we could seriously propose for ourselves" (pg. 46). The fact that the boys had "no hope" filled them with resentment. In order to experience power, the delinquents set out to destroy the image that they could never attain. The anger that the boys felt towards the man in the car was really an outpouring of their unhappiness with themselves and their lack of strength.
They hurt inside. The only way to heal their hurt was to hurt the man in the car to prove to themselves that they did possess both power and strength. The incident reminded me of an influential quote that I firmly believe, "They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force- nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others" (from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"). Strength truly depends on the "weakness" of others for if nobody was weak, than how could anyone be distinguished as strong? The boys gained their strength and power through the vulnerability of the man in the convertible. The derogatory term that Silver used, "Yid!" (pg. 47) turned a teenage prank into a serious offense.
I think that as the older Tobias Wolff looks back upon this experience, he feels guilty for having participated in such an act, but most of all feels pity for his younger self. Tobias Wolff wrote this memoir in an attempt to heal the old wounds that he had suffered, and to help him figure out who he is today. He was not afraid to include embarrassing moments, or anything that might make him look like a bad person. The memoir seems completely honest and straightforward, which is exactly the way he had to write it in order to help heal himself. Writing this book must have brought back a number of painful and humiliating memories, but in doing so he allowed himself to put them to rest once and for all. Im sure that Tobias Wolff can look at himself in the mirror today and say, "This is who I am, and I am happy to be Tobias Wolff", something that he was never able to do as a child.
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