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This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Part Four, Chapters 1–2

Part Two, Chapter 5; Part Three, Chapter 1

Part Four, Chapters 3–5

Summary

Chapter 1

Dwight constantly berates Jack now that he is living with his family in Chinook. In Dwight's eyes, Jack can do nothing right. Dwight arranges for Jack to work as a newspaper delivery boy and collects all of Jack's earnings. Dwight claims that he is saving Jack's money in an account, but Jack later discovers that he has spent it all on himself. Dwight also orders Jack to do household chores. Cruelest of all, Dwight forces Jack to husk several boxes of chestnuts, and Jack spends every night that winter in a utility room bloodying his hands husking the nuts. Initially, Jack wears gloves to protect his hands, but Dwight deems them too effeminate. The juice from the nuts turns Jack's hands orange and makes them smell foul, and for this he is criticized mercilessly.

Norma is dating Bobby Crow, an Indian boy from Marblemount, and tells Jack that while she and Bobby were getting intimate in a car, they heard a noise and found a bloody hook hanging from the door handle. Norma makes Jack promise not to tell anyone.

When Jack visits Rosemary, who is still living in Seattle, Dwight will not leave them alone together because he does not want Jack to tell her the truth about Dwight's alcoholism and abuse. Dwight even signs up as an Assistant Scoutmaster so that he can monitor Jack at his Boy Scout meetings. Dwight gives Jack an old, over-sized scouting shirt that used to belong to his son Skipper, and buys himself a new uniform with frivolous accessories. Jack enjoys being a Scout, and absorbs himself in an outdated copy of the organization's handbook, which makes "being a good boy seem adventurous, even romantic." Jack longs to be one of these good boys the book describes. When Rosemary finally tells Dwight that she will move in with and marry him, Jack feels as if it is a fate he must accept. Before her arrival, Dwight recruits Jack to help him paint the entire house and most of the furniture, including a Baldwin piano, a stark, glaring shade of white.

Chapter 2

Jack gets in a fistfight with a boy named Arthur Gayle, the biggest nerd in sixth grade. Jack has felt for a long time that he is somehow destined to be friends with Arthur. Because Arthur is overweight and rather effeminate, everyone at school calls him a "sissy." But when Jack calls him this after a brief exchange of insults, Arthur flails at him wildly. Arthur and Jack swing at one another and roll into a ditch while Arthur's dog Pepper tugs at Jack's pants. The fight is fairly even, with neither of the boys emerging as a clear victor. Arthur demands that Jack apologize to him and Jack does.

Dwight is proud of Jack for fighting, especially against Arthur, and gives Jack boxing tips. Jack did succeed in giving Arthur a black eye, which leads Dwight to believe that Jack has incontestably won the fight. After they fight, Arthur and Jack avoid one another, but one afternoon they bump into one another in the same place where they fought. They greet each other and then talk for a while, and everything seems cordial between them.

Dwight and Rosemary are not getting along. They came home from their honeymoon two days early, and since then Rosemary has been acting downtrodden and depressed. Jack fears that Rosemary will not display her usual resilience, but is reassured when she climbs out of her rut and joins the Parent-Teacher Association and the rifle club. Rosemary also finds a job waiting tables part- time.

Analysis

As Jack sets out on his early morning paper route, he feels oppressed by the predawn darkness and is reminded of "other absences" in his life, especially now that he is on his own. Jack is lonelier than ever in Chinook, and misses his father, his brother, and, most of all, his mother, who seems further away even as the date of her arrival approaches. Jack's loneliness is intensified by Dwight's ceaseless criticism of his every move and Dwight's cruel methods of punishment. The scathing criticism that Dwight doles out does not hurt Jack as deeply as he intends. In time, Jack becomes somewhat immune to Dwight's cutting remarks and eventually they "lose [their] power to hurt" him, as Jack cannot bring himself to believe that they are true. In criticizing Jack, Dwight is trying to redefine him, but Jack is too strong to believe Dwight's insults and insinuations.

However, the blame that Dwight lays on Jack for his own troubles lays the foundation for the guilt complex that plagues Jack throughout his childhood and adolescence. As adamant as Jack is that he will not allow Dwight to control him, he bows to Dwight's pressure to conceal the truth about life in Chinook from his mother, and is disgusted with himself when he tells her that everything is "fine." Jack is disgusted with himself because he is being dishonest with his mother, who he loves more than anyone else, and the only person with whom he shares a mutual trust. Jack's self-loathing is also due in large part to his surrendering to Dwight's control. The time that Jack spends with Dwight and Dwight's family in Chinook undermines Jack's idealized image of the stable and happy traditional family. Dwight and Jack may leave the Scout meetings looking like father and son, but beneath that superficial veneer there is a penetrating hatred. Despite his disillusionment, Jack's fantasy of becoming a "good boy" is not hampered. Jack not only dreams of becoming one of the "adventurous, romantic" young men he reads about in his Scout handbook, but honestly believes that he is already is such a young man beneath his tough exterior.

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