Skip over navigation

This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Part One, Chapters 3–4

Part One, Chapters 1–2

Part Two, Chapters 1–2

Chapter 3

Jack pesters Roy to give him a Winchester .22 rifle that Jack is fixated upon. When Roy eventually does give Jack the rifle, Rosemary is angry. She demands that Roy take the rifle back, which he does. Roy begs Rosemary to let Jack have the rifle, and after a few days, she relents, but only on the condition that Jack not use the rifle unsupervised. Jack breaks this rule, at first only taking the rifle out to clean its barrels, but then loading it and aiming it at passersby under the apartment window. Jack relishes the power he has over the passersby. One afternoon, Jack shoots and kills a squirrel. He fears being caught, but is never accused. Rosemary and Jack bury the squirrel behind their apartment. Jack, who loves animals, is riddled with guilt for killing the squirrel and cries himself to sleep. The temptation to shoot the rifle is so powerful that Jack grows fearful of being alone, and for a number of days does not go home after school, but wanders the streets instead.

Jack eventually begins to play with the rifle again. One day, while Jack is looking out the window through the gun's sights, he sees a car full of nuns pull up outside of his apartment building. He watches as Sister James gets out of the car and hides when she knocks on his door. Jack is tempted to answer, but does not for fear that Sister James will not understand his behavior. She slips an envelope under the door addressed to his mother, which Jack immediately reads and then burns to ashes.

Chapter 4

Roy asks Jack offhandedly what Jack thinks about having a little brother. Jack does not like the idea at all, but passively nods at Roy's suggestion that a little brother would be "a lot of fun." The next morning, Jack sees Roy packing up his Jeep and wishes him good luck as he drives away. Jack never sees Roy again. When Jack returns home from school that day, he finds his mother cheerfully packing up her belongings. She excitedly tells Jack that they are moving, although she is not yet sure where they are going. Jack packs the Winchester .22 rifle that Roy has given him, but Rosemary refuses to let him bring it, claiming that there is not enough room for it in their luggage. Jack breaks the rifle down into smaller parts and Rosemary begrudgingly allows him take it with him.

On the cab ride to the bus depot, Rosemary and the cab driver have a meaningful exchange, though their exact conversation is unclear. When she tries to pay the driver, he refuses to accept the payment, and only takes it when Rosemary offers the money a second time. Jack is excited to leave Salt Lake City and suggests they go to Phoenix, where his pen pal Alice lives. When they arrive at the bus depot, however, the bus for Phoenix has already left, so Rosemary decides on Seattle instead. Jack is disappointed that they are not going to Phoenix, but is glad they are finally leaving Salt Lake City.

Analysis

The Winchester rifle Roy gives to Jack serves as a symbol of the power and control Jack so desperately craves. Because he is just a boy, Jack is powerless to protect himself and his mother from violence, poverty, unhappiness, and all of their other chronic afflictions. It is only when he has the rifle in his hands that Jack feels, for the first time, that he has at last acquired some small scrap of authority that has otherwise been impossible to attain. The mere idea that he could take a life elicits a surge of emotions that both thrills and frightens Jack. He is so delighted by his newfound position of authority that he laughs at the passersby who stroll the streets, unassuming and ignorant of the immense power Jack has over each of them. Jack scoffs at their false confidence, and is seized by an ecstasy he has never felt before as he wields his power from the apartment window.

Although Jack thinks he has ultimate control over the creatures on the street, Jack clearly has no control over himself, and this lack of self-control is precisely what scares Jack most of all about the rifle. In killing the squirrel, Jack commits an act he deems heinous and unearths a hitherto undiscovered part of himself. This self-discovery is startling; Jack is afraid of himself and his own capabilities, as he cannot know what they are or how far they will reach. He feels deeply guilty for killing the squirrel, and cannot understand why or how he could have killed an innocent creature. Throughout the book, there are many instances in which Jack's thoughts conflict with his behavior, and these instances are typically followed by a bout of intense guilt, repentance and self-examination. Without the rifle, however, Jack feels completely without power and control. When asked by Roy how he feels about having a baby brother, Jack knows immediately and definitely that he has no desire for a sibling, but his answer is completely passive. Because he does not think he has any influence over Roy or his mother, or over any of the characters who appear as the book goes on, Jack suppresses his feelings and forfeits his right to feel and to have opinions. Throughout his boyhood, Jack answers direct questions with a passive, apathetic shrug. The only power he seems to have over any aspect of his life is the world he creates in his imagination.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us