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This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Part Five, Chapters 4–6

Part Five, Chapters 2–3

Part Six, Chapters 1–2

Summary

Chapter 4

Jack and Arthur have drifted apart somewhat since the start of high school and have become rather brutal in their treatment of one another. Mr. Mitchell, the gym teacher, notices them mock wrestling near the school bus stop and insists that they fight one another in his annual "smoker," an organized school event in which enemies battle one another in a boxing ring. The smokers are unruly and brutal, and Jack knows that Arthur will fight wildly, just as he fought Jack years before. Dwight is excited for Jack to fight Arthur, a renowned sissy, and trains Jack for the smoker. When the fight actually takes place, Jack can feel the pain his punch delivers every time he hits Arthur. When Jack punches Arthur in the face, he recognizes in himself a frightening connection to Dwight. Dwight is proud of Jack for fighting, but Rosemary is sickened and disappointed that Jack would participate in such a cutthroat event. Ultimately, Arthur wins the smoker fight, although the match is close.

Chapter 5

Jack is rejected from all of the private schools he has applied to, with the exception of the Hill School. Mr. Howard, an alumnus of Hill, is sent to interview Jack. He picks Jack up from school in his Thunderbird, and Jack suggests that he and Mr. Howard go to the Concrete drugstore, as Jack wants to flaunt both the Thunderbird and his newly acquired father figure. Jack notices Huff in the drugstore and worries that Huff will greet him with a vulgar and embarrassing joke. Luckily, Huff does not see Jack, and Mr. Howard assures Jack that he will recommend that Jack be accepted to Hill. However, Mr. Howard does warn that Hill may be difficult. Jack assures Mr. Howard that he is ready for any challenge that Hill may present.

Chapter 6

Jack nearly slices off his finger in shop class and spends an entire week in the hospital, drugged with morphine to dull the pain. When Jack returns home, he craves the numbness he felt while taking the morphine and steals some of Dwight's alcohol to ease the aching in his finger. Dwight notices that his whiskey is watered-down and confronts Jack. When Jack talks back to him, Dwight pushes him. Although Dwight does not push Jack violently, Jack stumbles, landing on his injured finger. This incident proves to be the last straw for Rosemary. She sends Jack to live with Chuck Bolger and his family, and promises that once she finds a job in Seattle, they will leave Chinook and start a home of their own. The Bolgers are reluctant to take Jack, but Rosemary convinces them that he will be on his best behavior during his stay. Jack promises his mother that he will not cause trouble while he is in the Bolgers' care, but it is a promise soon to be broken. As Jack is leaving the house to go to the Bolgers', Dwight extends his hand and wishes Jack good luck. Instinctively, Jack does the same, although neither his gesture nor Dwight's is sincere. On the way to the Bolgers', Chuck and Jack drink liquor in the back seat of the car, indicating the trouble to come.

Analysis

The closeness that used to exist between Jack and Arthur is over and their match at the school smoker clinches the bitterness between them. Jack does not want to fight Arthur, but he is unable to refuse, possibly because of the feelings of rage he has suppressed. Although this rage is not necessarily aimed at Arthur, the smoker is Jack's first chance to unleash his rage. As a direct result of his changed relationship with Arthur, Jack's relationship with Dwight is altered as well. Dwight begins to express tenderness and patience toward Jack, but only because he is excited by the violent event Jack is going to enter in. The only other instance in the novel in which Dwight behaves similarly is when Jack fights Arthur for the first time, which indicates that Dwight exhibits this tenderness because he is thrilled that Jack is beginning to emulate his own destructive masculinity. Naturally, having been abandoned by his own father, Jack craves a paternal mentor and enjoys the training and attention that Dwight gives him.

When Jack punches Arthur, he can feel the pain that he's inflicting, but this feeling is in no way sympathetic. Instead, Jack feels a "surge of pride and connection" to Dwight, recognizing in himself Dwight's violence, vindictiveness, and brutality. Dwight also recognizes this piece of himself reflected in Jack, and watches him with pride and "something like love." The word "love" used in association with Dwight feels wrong and distinctly perverse, and Jack reacts negatively to the thought of it. Later, in his adulthood, when Jack speaks to his own children in anger, he is both startled and sickened by the sound of his own voice and its similarity to Dwight's, the same way he was sickened that afternoon in the boxing ring.

Jack is afraid of Arthur not because he knows Arthur will beat him in the smoker, but because Arthur is the only person who knows that Jack is merely imitating the person he wishes himself to be. More than anything else, Jack fears exposure, which would mean having to confront a reality that he wants no part of. Jack even lies to himself about who he is and eventually begins to believe he has become a figment of his imagination, a different boy with a different past.

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