Old School Tobias WolffEssay

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¶ … Old School by Tobias Wolff. Specifically it will discuss the theme of the novel. Wolff sets his novel in 1960 at a New England prep school, an unusual setting for a novel. It is set at a time when John F. Kennedy took office, before the Vietnam War, and a time when America was on the brink of change. Some readers might think the theme of the novel is the narrator's coming of age, but in reality, the novel's theme is learning to trust oneself and in our ability to do anything, whether it is good or bad, in life.

At first glance, the novel is a story of coming of age and learning what life will be about. Wolff writes, "I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires - nothing between me and greatness itself - but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability" (Wolff 68). However, this book parallels much of Wolff's real life, and so, its theme is the reality of life and learning about one's abilities, as well. One critic notes, "His two novels, particularly Old School-which he has said grew out of an idea for a short story-allow the fictional exploration of aspects of himself and others, the element of invention that can take him beyond what may have happened in his actual life into new areas of experience" (Sharp 1429). The unnamed narrator learns about real life, how sometimes heroes can fall from grace and that ultimately, the narrator's love of literature and writing, something that permeates the school, is what truly motivates him. He states this early on in the novel. He writes, "If the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place-quite aside from the glamorous writers who visited three times a year" (Wolff 4). This love of literature and writing permeates Wolff's own life, and it forms another underlying theme in the novel. The love of the writing life teaches the young men that if they try hard enough, they can do anything in their lives, such as craft a story that wins them the great honor of meeting a legendary writer like Ernest Hemingway.

The boys meet other writers, too. One is another legend, Ayn Rand, who ends up being a major disappointment to the narrator, which proves that great and famous writers and celebrities do not always have the best character. Wolff writes, "But Ayn Rand jolted me into taking sides. She made me feel the difference between a writer who despised woundedness and one for whom it was a bedrock fact of life" (Wolff 94). After this, the narrator begins to question his own character and integrity, especially when the plagiarism event becomes public. Another underlying theme in this novel that correlates with the central theme is wanting to fit in. The narrator is Jewish, and always feels out of place in this New England prep school. He wants to fit in and be a real writer that he will do anything to make that dream come through, even committing plagiarism, the cardinal sin of any good writer. That says a lot about his character, and how much he wants to fit in with the other boys in school. He will pass on another's work as his own in order to fit in and win. Another critic notes, "Yet by plagiarizing Friedman, he has acknowledged the Jewish identity he'd been struggling to understand, and comes to a deeper, more honest self-understanding" (Contino). That leads him to learn to trust himself, rather than trusting others to do something for him. Because of this, he takes his future into his own hands, such as choosing a college. He says, "Things that mattered at Princeton or Yale couldn't possibly withstand this battering of raw, unironic life. You didn't go to eating clubs at Columbia, you went to jazz clubs. You had a girlfriend -- no, a lover -- with psychiatric problems, and friends with foreign accents" (Wolff 109). He has learned who he is and what his character is made of, and that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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