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This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Part Two, Chapter 5; Part Three, Chapter 1

Part Two, Chapters 3–4

Part Four, Chapters 1–2

Summary

Part Two, Chapter 5

When Jack returns from Chinook, he brags to his friends that he has killed a turkey with his Winchester rifle in the turkey shoot. Jack's friends know that he is lying, and when Silver directly accuses Jack, Jack scratches an obscenity into the bathroom wall with his comb. Not too long afterwards, the vice-principal visits each classroom demanding to know who is responsible for the obscenity in the boy's bathroom. Jack is frightened of the vice-principal, who is new to the school and very serious about punishing misbehavior. This fear makes Jack so ill that he lies down in the nurses' office. The vice-principal finds him and violently drags Jack into his office by the ear. The nurse tries to protect Jack, but the vice-principal will not relent. The two "weed fiends" who saw Jack scratch the obscenity into the bathroom wall stand outside of the vice-principal's office, obviously having betrayed Jack. Jack denies any involvement in the crime and continues to maintain his innocence. Jack's mother arrives an hour later and ferociously defends her son. The vice-principal is adamant that Jack is guilty. He is insulted when Rosemary asks to see his superior but allows her to see the principal after a brief argument.

The principal has a timid and cautious manner, and is said to harbor a slight fear of children. He examines Jack's fingers for traces of nicotine and delivers a cautionary, personal parable about the dangers of cigarette addiction. When the principal tells Rosemary that he wants the vice-principal to decide what Jack's punishment will be, she refuses and threatens to hire a lawyer. The principal is a bit scared by this and offers two weeks suspension as the penalty for Jack's behavior. Rosemary argues that Jack is innocent and haggles with the principal, eventually convincing him not to punish Jack at all.

When Jack and his mother return home, Marian is suspicious. She badgers Rosemary for the story, and, as usual, demands that Rosemary discipline Jack with more ferocity. Jack retreats to his room and is prepared to defend himself when his mother returns from her talk with Marian. He is surprised when she makes no attempt to scold him, or even mention the day's events. That weekend, Dwight drives down to Seattle and proposes to Rosemary. He suggests that Jack move in with him and go to school in Chinook after Christmas. If all goes well, Rosemary can quit her job and join them. Rosemary is not thrilled by Dwight's proposal, but sees it as a sort of selfless duty. She looks to Jack for his approval, which he feels no choice but to give.

Part Three, Chapter 1

On the drive from Seattle to Chinook with Jack, Dwight purposely runs over a beaver crossing the road. He stops the car and orders Jack to pick up the bloody carcass. Jack refuses and Dwight accuses him of being scared and childish. Dwight picks up the dead beaver himself, unnerved when its blood drips on his shoes, and carelessly tosses it in the trunk of the car. On the way home, Dwight stops at a tavern, buys Jack a hamburger, and leaves him alone in the car for many hours. When Dwight finally emerges, he is completely drunk and nearly crashes the car, intentionally swerving and skidding to frighten Jack. When Jack tells Dwight that he feels sick to his stomach, Dwight cruelly taunts Jack for being a "hotshot" and a "performer." Somehow, Dwight knows that Jack has been mocking him behind his back, and forces him to perform his impersonation of Dwight. Jack fearfully concedes, and when he is through, Dwight warns him that he is in for a drastic change.

Analysis

Jack is not as afraid of the vice-principal's fury as he is of his vindictive righteousness. Jack's anxiety lessens when his mother arrives, as she serves as a source of protection. As Rosemary argues on her son's behalf, Jack's fear of the vice-principal is replaced by utter disgust for him, and a growing conviction that he is innocent of any crime. Again, Jack is able to convince himself of a falsehood, creating his own reality from the lies he tells to himself.

Jack is also dishonest when he gives Rosemary his approval of her marriage to Dwight and her plan to move to Chinook, although this time he does not lie in a malicious or self-serving way. Clearly, Jack does not want his mother to marry Dwight, nor does he want her to move to Chinook, although he feels obligated to support his mother in her decision, which he feels he has no influence on. Rosemary sees her acceptance of Dwight's proposal as more of a selfless duty than an option, primarily because she wants to provide Jack with a stable family life and a respectable father figure. Dwight's marriage proposal seems like the perfect opportunity to give Jack all of the things Rosemary has never been able to provide for him on her own, for which she feels deeply guilty. Rosemary does not have the foresight to see that accepting Dwight's offer of marriage will not provide for Jack, but will instead rob him of the little stability he does possess.

Jack yearns for the opportunity to recreate himself, something he does in his fantasies throughout the book. Away from the people who have preconceived notions about him, Jack hopes that he can prove himself to be different than the boy he was in Seattle, running with a dangerous crowd and wreaking havoc with the police and school administration. Jack recognizes "no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others," and this belief that he can be somebody different both propels and haunts Jack for the remainder of his adolescence in Chinook.

Jack gets his first glimpse of Dwight's violence on their drive to Chinook. Jack cannot understand why Dwight would intentionally kill an innocent beaver, just as he cannot make sense of why he shot the squirrel in Salt Lake City. Dwight's cold-blooded killing of the beaver denotes his heartlessness and violent temper. Dwight mocks Jack for not being enough of a man, a criticism that Jack will hear consistently throughout his years in Chinook, and will even aspire to remedy. When, as he drives drunk, Dwight warns Jack that he is in for a change, he is in no way exaggerating, as Jack's life in Chinook will prove more difficult than any other hardship he has had to endure in his short past.

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