In the memoir, “This Boy’s Life”, Tobias Wolff examines the attitudes and behaviours that all human beings exude in childhood. Indeed, Wolff demonstrates how exorbitant hope has the potential to blind individuals, resulting in an unfulfilled and disappointing life. Contrasting against the stereotypical 1950’s ideals surrounding convention, Wolff highlights how the many promises of unconventionality prove to be something of a myth, as those who chase their dreams often come out as failures. Furthermore, Wolff showcases that those who rely on their imagination to grasp a sense of optimism are only prolonging their misery, as their reality never equates to their dreams and expectations. Moreover, Wolff encourages self-actualisation, however urges individuals to reconsider desires for transformation, as the outcome is not always what was expected, thus suggesting that excessive hope and optimism truly is extremely misleading.
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Wolff uses the contrast between the stereotypical social ‘norms’ of 1950’s USA, those supporting the idea of convention, and the perceived benefits of unconventionality, to illustrate how those with great drive often end up in circumstances that are starkly different to their expectations. Rosemary Hansen, a single mother with “no money and no place to go”, is characterised by Wolff as an adventurous and fiercely independent woman, who dreams of unconvention and breaking the stereotype of a 1950’s housewife. With her son, Jack, they travel across America in search of uranium to “change [their] luck”, however, Wolff quickly asserts readers that this luck will never materialise in the very opening sentences, as he describes how their “car boiled over again”, indicating their repeated “[mis]fortune”. Wolff then uses the imagery of a “big truck” that “shot past” them “into the next curve” with “its trailer shimmying wildly.” It then “smashe[s] through… guardrails” and plummets “hundreds of feet” over a cliff, thus foreshadowing both Rosemary and Jack’s grim future as a result of Rosemary’s desire for unconvention due to her exorbitant optimism. Furthermore, with the search of uranium leading Rosemary and Jack to Chinook to live with Rosemary’s violent, alcoholic boyfriend Dwight Hansen, Wolff discourages the naivety that is coupled with excess faith and hopefulness as it often leads to an attraction to dangerous men such as Dwight, who use their masculine power to both oppress and take advantage of the weak and vulnerable. Thus, Wolff exposes how the demand for unconvention due to an extraordinary amount of optimism, can be truly devastating.
Moreover, Wolf further emphasises his view that individuals who rely on their imagination to gain a false sense of a bright, positive future are the ones to feel the greatest implications once they can no longer escape reality. Wolff frames his memoir in the epigraph with the quote “The first duty in life is to assume a pose.” This foreshadows the nature of Jack Wolff, as he constantly uses his imagination to adopt many ‘poses’ as part of his facade to try and obtain a sense of belonging and purpose in his miserable life. It is through the many rites of passage, including alcohol, tobacco and cars, that Jack is able to assume these poses, such as a Boy Scout and rebel, and thus, obtain a slight glimpse of positivity and hope that his future will be bright and successful. However, Wolff undermines this naivety and foolishness, using the voice of the adult narrator towards the end of the memoir, stating that “When we are green… we live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.” This exposes Wolff’s belief that excessive optimism, especially when young, blinds individuals into thinking that everything in life is easy and succeeding will not come as a challenge. Again, Wolff proves this using the adult narrator voice by describing “The elegant stranger in the glass…” as Jack is dressed ready for his new beginning at Hill. This pose is something Jack had always dreamed of, however his true identity has been ultimately lost through his ongoing facade, and by Wolff including the description of the “doubtful, almost haunted expression” that Jack is “regarded” with as he stares into the glass, it foreshadows a bleak future, one where Jack is not likely to go far and succeed and meet his demanding expectations. Therefore, this supports Wolff’s idea that those who rely on their imagination to assume poses to obtain false optimism and hope, are gravely mislead once they are brought back to reality.
Wolff condones the actions surrounding self-actualisation, however prompts individuals to reconsider their wants for transformation. Wolff uncovers how one’s true identity can be consequently lost in such a process, emphasising how the outcome proves only to be detrimental to the individual and not always as expected, suggesting the view that the optimism gained from such a ‘transformation’ is gravely misleading. Wolff characterises Jack over the course of the memoir as trying on many ‘identities’ as a poor attempt to gain the acceptance from society he so desperately craves. One such identity involved Jack transforming into a ‘rebel’ as he befriends Chuck Bolger in Chinook. Using the many materials that deemed a man as ‘masculine’ in 1950’s America, Jack obtains a false sense of belonging and purpose as he conforms to the social pressures just so others perceive him as “cool”. This allows Wolff to condemn those who challenge adult authority through deception and dishonesty, as even though rebellion is a way adolescents negotiate their way into adulthood, it always proves to do greater harm than good. Furthermore, it results in an individual questioning who they truly are, just as Jack did, as they come to the realisation they were only committing such acts due to peer pressure to gain acceptance and are left on the search of finding their real identity. Moreover, Wolff encourages honesty, as it determines the underlying reasons for transformation. Despite this, Jack is portrayed as dishonest, even to himself, which is illustrated as Jack states, “It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed the facts arrayed against it.” Indeed, this suggests that Jack’s many transformations are not truthful and thus, will never last. Instead, the only outcome to come from it will be Jack searching for self-worth and a sense of purpose. Through this, Wolff reveals his fundamental belief that although identifying your life purpose through transformation, one must be completely honest with themselves about why they are doing such a thing, or face a loss of identity and outcomes far from first expectations. Therefore also proving that the optimism and hope gained from transformation is utterly misleading and has great potential to damage the lives of vulnerable individuals.
Ultimately, by using the contrast against the stereotypical 1950’s ideals surrounding convention, Wolff showcases how the numerous promises of unconventionality prove to never materialise, as those who chase their dreams often fail. Furthermore, Wolff demonstrates that those who depend on their dreams to gain a fake glimpse of optimism are only prolonging their desolation, as their reality never amounts to their perceived desires and expectations. Moreover, Wolff condones the act of self-actualisation, although prompts individuals to reassess yearnings for transformation, as the result is not always what was anticipated, thus signifying that excessive hopefulness and optimism truly is tremendously disingenuous.