Skip over navigation

This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Part One, Chapters 1–2

Themes

Escapism Via Imagination

Throughout the novel, Jack uses his imagination as a place of refuge, which is otherwise absent from his unhappy domestic life. During his years in Chinook, Jack wants nothing more than to escape from Dwight's authority and from the preconceived notions that people there have developed of him. Jack's actual attempts to run away are unsuccessful, so he frequently retreats into figurative escapes, where imagines a better life for himself. For example, when Jack cannot go to Paris as he had hoped, he envisions himself among the city's cobbled streets, green roofs, and cafés. Similarly, Jack imagines that the successful-looking men who pass him on the street are his father coming to greet him. Jack uses his imaginative fantasies as a vehicle to escape from the misery of his home life, and it is because of these fantasies that he is able to endure.

Desire and Desperation For Self-recreation

Often, the lies that Jack tells seem all too real to him, and he even goes so far as to adopt some of them as the actual truth. This staunch faith in his own lies can also be read as Jack's belief in himself, for, despite his poor grades and record, Jack is convinced that he is actually a member of the elite. This belief is especially powerful when Jack forges letters of recommendation from his teachers, all of which are full of ebullient, exaggerated praise that Jack thinks of as true and honest. Jack studies a book called The Status Seekers that instructs him on how he can "betray his origins" and infiltrate the upper class. Jack wants to leave home not only because he is unhappy there, but also because he yearns for the opportunity to recreate in a place where he does not have a tarnished reputation. He does not believe that he is the thief and liar that Dwight claims he is, but that he is a good-hearted boy pushed by circumstances to do what he needs to escape.

Promises Made, Promises Broken

From Jack's boyhood into his late adolescence, Jack is promised fantastic gifts that never actually materialize. Because of this, he feels overlooked and disappointed. From the very beginning of the book, disappointment lies around every corner for Jack. After driving across the country in search of fortune, he and his mother learn that there is no uranium left, and continue to live in poverty. Later, Dwight promises Jack that he will participate in the turkey shoot during his Thanksgiving visit, then rescinds this promise. After Jack and Rosemary begin living with Dwight, Jack wants desperately to escape, and is thrilled when he is offered trips to both Mexico and Paris. Neither trip, however, ever materializes. The ultimate disappointment comes when Jack arrives in California, excited to spend the summer with his father and with Geoffrey. Instead of spending time with Jack, however, Jack's father leaves only one day after Jack arrives in California, and is arrested as soon as he returns.

Motifs

Betrayal

Throughout This Boy's Life, Jack is keenly aware that other people betray him, although he does not realize that he often betrays himself. From his childhood, Jack feels betrayed by his father, even though he makes excuses for his father, throughout his adolescence. It is only when Jack is an adult that he can truly admit to the painful feelings that he has suppressed for his father. Jack, however, is also capable of trickery, as becomes evident when he takes Geoffrey's suggestion that he apply to private schools. Jack lies to his own brother that he is a star athlete and an A student, thereby betraying not only Geoffrey but himself as well. This betrayal of self and of one's past seems "the most natural thing in the world" to Jack, as he has long harbored fantasies of self-recreation.

Guilt and Self-loathing

Jack's feelings of guilt and unworthiness stem from his conflicting desire and incapability to be a hero. Jack adopts the responsibilities his father has abandoned and wants to provide for his mother by saving her from both Roy and Dwight, and also by bailing them out of their poverty and unhappiness. Jack is only a child, however, and the situation is beyond his grasp. Therefore, Jack ignores reality and fabricates his own heroics to find some degree of comfort. Jack also feels deeply guilty for his own existence, which he thinks hinders his mother from enjoying the independence she had before Jack was born.

White Paint

Before Rosemary arrives in Chinook, Dwight recruits Jack to help him paint every wall, and item in the house a stark and glaring shade of white. Typically, white is symbolic of purity, or a new beginning. When Jack and Dwight paint the house white, it does indeed mark a new beginning, but is more symbolic as a mask for what Dwight does not want Rosemary to see. Jack notes that after they have painted the piano, only the black keys show through, a foreboding vision that is indicative of the misery Dwight will cause them. Later, Dwight coats an entire Christmas tree with white spray-paint, as if to cover up for the miserable holiday to come.

Symbols

Jack's Winchester .22 Rifle

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, and unhappiness, and it is only when he has the rifle in his hands that Jack feels that he is more of a man than a boy, and has at last acquired some small scrap of authority that might otherwise be impossible to attain. When Dwight takes Jack's rifle to the turkey shoot, he is symbolically revoking and claiming for himself the power that Jack once had.

Dying Salmon

The dying salmon that Dwight points out to Rosemary and Jack, swimming from their home in salt water to fresh water so that they may spawn, are symbolic and darkly foreboding of the move that Jack and Rosemary will soon make from Seattle to Chinook. Having left their home, the salmon are dying, their bodies being stripped of their pink flesh as they reject their new environment. Like the salmon, parts of Jack and Rosemary will die once they move and are subjected to Dwight's cruelty and pettiness.

Moldy Beaver

The beaver that Dwight kills while driving Jack "home" to Chinook for the first time is symbolic of the future that awaits Jack, who is about to become like the beaver, helpless and at Dwight's mercy. Two years later, Jack finds the beaver in the attic. It had been left in a basin to cure and was soon forgotten about, just as Jack feels he has been forgotten since his arrival in Chinook. Over time, the beaver has decomposed, sprouting two feet of mold that bear an eerie resemblance to its living form. Jack is comparable to this beaver in that he has has become a mere shell of himself while living under Dwight, even though he is physically the same.

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