Study Guide

This Boy's Life Themes

By Tobias Wolff

  • Transformation

    We can just as easily put "Coming of Age" here instead of transformation, but "Transformation" does just as well. Jack constantly tries to change who he is in This Boy's Life: to put on different masks and pass himself off as something he isn't. Ironically, in the process, he changes his core being far more than any of the masks he wears. He learns to love and appreciate storytelling, he finds he has a knack for writing, and—most importantly—he gets a very good idea of who he really is. Okay, some of that involves low-key hooliganism and some rather ugly habits from Dwight. But it is a transformation… starting before he enters high school and continuing even after Wolff has finished writing the story.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Does Jack ever settle on a permanent identity? How does his constant attempts to present a false front contribute to who he really becomes?
    2. Why does Jack need to change who he is? What does he hope to gain by a change like that?
    3. How much does Dwight affect Jack's transformation? How much does his mom affect it?
    4. Why don't Jack's friends change the way he does? Or, more accurately, why do they change in different ways?

    Chew on This

    Jack's transformation is something extraordinary, something that very few other people have ever experienced.

    Jack's transformation, though uniquely his own, is typical of teenagers who come of age and could happen to anyone.

  • Family

    Jack's permanent family in This Boy's Life is his mother, who he loves but who is low-key kind of nuts. To that, he gets Dwight and Dwight's brood, who range from the indifferent to the flat-out psychotic. It's a pretty dysfunctional family, even though they're all trying to pretend that it's normal and happy. They stick to the surface details of what they should do—tending to appearances instead of doing things like loving and caring about each other. Some real love slips in there, but by and large, family here is about who they try to be instead of who they really are. (Nobody thinks of themselves as an abusive alcoholic…or a sponge for that matter.)

    Questions About Family

    1. Does Jack ever feel like his mother is his "real" family? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Dwight do what he does to make life more "family-like" for everyone? Does that have anything to do with his decision to marry Jack's mom?
    3. How to Dwight's kids handle the question of family, especially when they head out to have families of their own?
    4. Does Jack see other people's families as something better than what they really are? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Jack is rebellious because he wants a "real" family and can't have one.

    Jack would be rebellious even if he had a "real" family like the kind he wants.

  • The Home

    Hand in hand with family comes the Home… something Jack doesn't really have since he and his mom essentially live the lives of wandering Gypsies in the story. People in This Boy's Life think of home as a specific place: a house where they can live and be safe. Even Dwight wants that, despite the fact that "home" can't really exist in the same place as "angry fists." Part of Jack's journey is looking for the feeling that home brings, and the hope that the next place—wherever it is—will be that place. He's still looking when the book ends, suggesting that he's never going to find it (or at least, if he does, that it's not going to be the Christmas-presents-and-Scout-jamborees place that he imagines it is).

    Questions About The Home

    1. Does Jack want his father because he wants a sense of home? Or is it something else?
    2. What's so important about Dwight's house being a former POW camp?
    3. Is Jack's Mom looking for a home? What proof do we see in the text of this (one way or the other)?
    4. Does Jack ever develop a sense of the home apart from a particular place? Does the book even think that's possible?

    Chew on This

    Jack can find a home if he looks hard enough and the right circumstances show up.

    Because of who Jack is—shaped by circumstances and mom and wicked stepfathers—Jack can never truly find a home.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Jack is, to put it mildly, a fibber. So are a lot of other characters, but Jack really raises it to an art form. The question isn't that Jack lies; it's why he lies (besides the obvious answers, like impressing girls and getting out of trouble). This Boy's Life is all about the search for identity and belonging: the way insecure square peg Jack can find his square hole without getting hammered into the wrong one by guys like Dwight. His lies aren't so much deception as a way to reinvent himself: to find some identity that he likes and stick with it. As you may suspect, unless you're Madonna, it's not the greatest way to go about finding yourself.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. How often does Jack believe his own lies? What does he hope to accomplish by that kind of wishful thinking?
    2. What happens to Jack when he's caught in his lies? Why isn't he able to accept the consequences of them?
    3. How do Dwight's lies compare with Jack's? How do Dwight's reasons for lying differ from Jack?
    4. Does telling the truth ever make Jack happy? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Jack's lies help him find out who he really is.

    Jack's lies are a distraction and only keep him from discovering his true identity.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Religion doesn't play a central role in This Boy's Life, but it's kind of lurking there in the background from time to time. It's especially prominent early on, when Sister James tries to make a Catholic out of Jack. Part and parcel of that is guilt, where Jack grapples with the things he's done to other people, and the way people often blame him for things. It doesn't stop him from doing bad things, but it's interesting where and when he applies it. Guilt seems to spring from his own mind, and exists independently (or at least semi-independently) of other people's attempts to blame him. That makes it very personal, and maybe even a little spiritual as well.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. What do other people hope to gain by filling Jack with guilt? Are they trying to change him in some way?
    2. Why doesn't Jack let guilt stop him from continuing to do bad things? Does he crave the guilt in some weird way?
    3. How much of Jack's self-blame is his own and how much is him repeating what other people have told him?
    4. Does Jack's guilt help shape his identity? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Jack's guilt is completely self-inflicted.

    Jack's guilt is heaped upon him by other people and he has to find a way to develop his identity around it.

  • Power and Powerlessness

    As a poor teenage boy, Jack doesn't have what we traditionally associate with power in This Boy's Life. (He would if he got bit by a radioactive spider, but then this would be an entirely different kind of story.) He's keenly aware of his powerlessness and looks for ways to change that. He gets into guns. He advances through the ranks of the Boy Scouts. He tries to manipulate people with his lies and stories. All of them are attempt to grab some kind of power, and through it exercise control over his life that he really doesn't feel he has.

    Questions About Power and Powerlessness

    1. In what ways does Jack demonstrate his power over other people? In what ways is he shown how powerless he is?
    2. How does Jack's mother powerless to affect her circumstances? How about Dwight?
    3. Is Jack a better person when he has some kind of power or when he doesn't? Why?
    4. How do Jack's attempts to reinvent himself give him power or take it away?

    Chew on This

    Jack sees power as the key to his identity.

    Jack's identity has nothing to do with how helpless or empowered he feels.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Jack comes of age in This Boy's Life, which means he has manliness on his mind: how to show it, who to exercise it and what that makes him as a human being. Dwight is also focused on masculinity—specifically, on "making a man" out of Jack, which doesn't go quite the way he'd planned. Either way, we got us a helping of macho here, which Jack tries to work his way through in a typical halting and awkward teenage manner. We've all been there big guy, though admittedly, it didn't always involve a boxing match with our best friend to do it.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. How does Jack's concept of masculinity differ from Dwight's?
    2. Does Jack have any viable masculine role models in the book? Who are they (if any) and why does he respond to them?
    3. Does the fact that Jack lacks a father figure change his outlook on men at all?
    4. How does Jack's mother respond to the need to provide masculine role models for Jack?

    Chew on This

    Jack's search for masculinity is compounded by the fact that he lives with his mother.

    Jack's mother helps him learn to be a man (either deliberately or inadvertently).

  • Rules and Order

    Every teenager engages in a pitched battle against The Way Things are Done. With Jack, it's kind of a two-edged sword in This Boy's Life. He rebels against the rules… but he's also looking for a set of rules he can believe in. He desperately wants to find some system that makes sense, and is constantly disappointed when he can't… which leads him to rebel until the next batch of potential rules comes along. It's a bit of a mess. Then again, that seems to fit with Jack's life pretty well, doesn't it?

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What, specifically, does Jack look for to fulfill his need for rules and order?
    2. What does a good set of rules offer Jack? What does he hope to accomplish by following them?
    3. What separates the rules systems that Jack tries to follow with those that he rejects outright?
    4. What do Dwight's various rules say about him? Why don't they work the way he wants them to?

    Chew on This

    Jack rebels because he can't find a set of rules that work for him.

    Jack doesn't rebel so much as try to find his own rules.

  • Dreams

    Jack has dreams just like everyone else. So does his mom, his friends, Martin Luther King, and even Dwight (though Dwight's dreams are probably these freaky David Lynch numbers where everything is spray painted white.) Dreams are even more important to Jack in This Boy's Life because his reality is pretty darn crummy. They become a way for him to look towards something better down the road… which in turn helps him get out of bed without screaming every day. Dreams are something of a double-edged sword though. Sure, they make things seem less crummy for Jack, but they also blind him to certain facts he needs to come to grips with if he's going to go on to do something other than shoplift all his life.

    Questions About Dreams

    1. Are Jack's dreams more important to him than his mother's? Why or why not?
    2. How does grown-up Jack—narrating from adulthood—view his dreams as a boy?
    3. Do any of Jack's dreams come true? If they don't, then what benefit do they bring to his life?
    4. How does Jack reconcile his sometimes unreasonable dreams with the reality in which he lives?

    Chew on This

    Jack's dreams end up helping him, even when they don't come true.

    Jack's dreams aren't helpful; they only blind him to the real world he needs to deal with.