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This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Part Five, Chapters 2–3

Part Four, Chapter 9; Part Five, Chapter 1

Part Five, Chapters 4–6

Summary

Chapter 2

Unexpectedly, Jack receives a letter from his brother, Geoffrey, whom he has not seen in six years. The brothers begin corresponding, and Jack decides that he will hitchhike to Princeton, where Geoffrey is attending school. Jack has no money to get to Princeton, so he plans to steal and forge a bank check. Jack's Scout society is holding a banquet in Bellingham, and Jack decides that this outing will provide him with the opportune time to run away. In Bellingham, Jack steals a convenience check from the town bank, then goes to the library for a library card, for which he uses the alias "Thomas Findon." Jack is nervous about forging the check, and walks the streets for an hour before deciding to try cashing the check with a naive-seeming drugstore clerk. The clerk is wiser than Jack hoped, and asks her boss to examine the forged check when Jack cannot remember the address he provided on his counterfeit library card. Jack runs from the store and the clerk chases after him, even though she clearly feels sorry for exposing him.

The clerk chases Jack for many blocks, but he finally outruns her and goes inside a diner to use the men's room. He changes into his Scouting uniform and washes himself in the sink. Jack looks at his uniform and expresses his resentment toward Dwight for inexplicably refusing to let him become an Eagle Scout, the group's highest rank, even though Jack has done the work required to earn the status. At the banquet that night, Jack sees the drugstore clerk and learns that she has two sons in the Scouts' honor society. Initially, the clerk recognizes Jack, but soon convinces herself that she must be mistaken, and that Jack is simply another boy who resembles the thief.

Chapter 3

Geoffrey and Jack continue their correspondence. After Dwight harasses and slaps Jack for throwing away an empty mustard jar, Jack calls Geoffrey and exaggerates Dwight's maltreatment. Geoffrey is appalled and demands that Jack leave as soon as he can. Geoffrey suggests to Jack that he apply to eastern boarding schools so that he can move in the fall. Jack lies to Geoffrey, saying that he is a star athlete and an excellent student, and Geoffrey assures him that with these attributes, Jack will easily be accepted to private school.

Meanwhile, Rosemary is depressed. The political campaigns she has been working on are over, and now she has to return to waiting tables at the cookhouse. Rosemary had mentioned to someone that she wanted to leave Chinook, but when Dwight got wind of this, he pulled a knife and warned Rosemary that if she were to ever leave him, he would find and kill her.

Jack reads Vance Packard's The Status Seekers to better understand the upper class, and decides to take Geoffrey's advice to apply to private schools. Jack convinces Arthur, who works in the school office, to steal some official letterhead and envelopes for him so that he can forge recommendations and transcripts to send to the private schools.

Jack's biological father calls and invites Jack and Rosemary to join him and Geoffrey in LaJolla, California that summer. He, too encourages Jack to apply to private school. Rosemary drives Jack to Seattle to take the SAT test, which Jack does well on. Afterward, Jack comments on the differences in dress and demeanor between himself and the other boys who have come to take the test.

Analysis

The word "betrayal" adopts a variety of meanings for Jack, who has been betrayed many times in his young life, particularly by his father, and feels that he can wholly trust no one but himself. Jack is careful when selecting a store at which to use his counterfeit check, searching specifically "for someone [he] can trust." By "trust," Jack means an easy target, someone sweet and unassuming like the drugstore clerk he chooses. Jack sees her standing behind the store counter and notes that "her expression [is] as open and direct as a young girl's" and that she has a "guileless, lovely face," traits that signify to Jack that she is the ideal type to prey on. When the drugstore clerk recognizes Jack's scam, he feels somehow as if she has betrayed him, even though he has been trying to take advantage of her. More specifically, Jack believes that the clerk herself knows that she has betrayed him and even feels guilty for it. Jack is highly sensitive to the clerk's feelings of guilt for turning him in to her manager, and recognizes the sorrow in her eyes and care in her voice, which seem to pull him toward her. Jack is not accustomed to such attention, and the clerk's care and concern leave him with a deep and debilitating sense of remorse.

Betrayal is also a crucial theme in the following chapter, in which Geoffrey suggests that Jack apply to private schools, and Jack lies to Geoffrey that he is a star athlete and an A- student. In lying to Geoffrey, Jack seems to convince himself that he can actually metamorphose into the outstanding person he has described to his brother, and he steeps himself in this deception when he reads Vance Packard's The Status Seekers, which instructs him on how he can "betray his origins" and infiltrate the upper class. This betrayal of self and of one's past seems "the most natural thing in the world" to Jack, who has long harbored fantasies of self-recreation. For a long time before he actually forges the application letters, Jack cannot bring himself to complete the forms, for he is afraid of owning up to reality and facing who he truly is. Jack equates realism with surrender and feels only bitterness when he is forced to see himself in realistic terms.

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