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It is difficult to imagine not feeling at least some sympathy for the young narrator of This Boy's Life, a vibrant protagonist who refuses to surrender his belief in himself and his future despite a turbulent adolescence.

Jack relies on his imagination to escape from the grim circumstances of his childhood, which is riddled with domestic violence, alcohol abuse, criminal activity, and emotional neglect. As a coping mechanism, Jack pays little attention to how he is perceived and instead imagines himself wherever he wants to be, free of the restraints placed on him in real life. Jack's imagination is what drives him to overcome the adversity he must endure at home, especially at the hands of Dwight. Sometimes, however, Jack is overcome by the power of his fantasies and is convinced that they are even more real than reality. For example, when Jack forges letters of recommendation from his teachers, he is fully aware that he is writing lies, but to him they seem more real than the facts, unveiling the core of virtuosity and intellect that Jack believes are inside of him. Whichever school Jack attends, he has a knack for befriending the school's most notorious troublemakers. Jack possesses a strong sense of self and refuses to allow anyone else, especially Dwight, to define him, but he cannot help but be influenced by his delinquent friends to drink, steal, and generally wreak havoc.

At heart, Jack remains a kind person, and is especially caring and compassionate toward his mother. Jack's relationship with his mother is complicated and intimate, and it is not unusual for him to sometimes act as her parent, comforting her when she is sad and offering her guidance. In this way, Jack is more mature than most boys of his age, and feels he must accept responsibility even for situations and events that he could not have controlled, such as his father's abandonment of the family. This sense of responsibility and duty manifests itself in Jack as a deep sense of guilt, which plagues him throughout his youth. As a young boy especially, Jack feels inadequate and unworthy of any good fortune that presents itself to him. However, as he grows older, Jack realizes that he deserves more than the meager attention and care he is given.