The Other Wes Moore

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Themes and Colors
Luck vs. Choice Theme Icon
Friendship, Family, and Brotherhood Theme Icon
Inclusion vs. Exclusion Theme Icon
Race, Inequality, and Injustice Theme Icon
Discipline and Violence  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Other Wes Moore, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Luck vs. Choice Theme Icon

The central conceit of The Other Wes Moore lies in the question of how two men born into a similar position – and who even share identical names – ended up leading wildly different lives. Is this divergence simply a matter of luck, or because of the choices that each of them made? Moore the author does not give a definitive answer, but rather presents a detailed portrayal of his own life alongside that of the other Wes in order to show how both men’s lives were shaped by both luck and choice.

As he tells his own story, Moore highlights key moments at which he made responsible decisions, which sometimes clash with the choices Wes made. For example, he explains how—after initial resistance—he ended up thriving in military school by embracing the philosophy of discipline and respect. Similarly, there are several moments at which it is clear Wes should have made a different decision; for example, when he pulls a knife on another kid in a neighborhood fight, when he steals his mother’s marijuana, and of course when he participates in the robbery that results in the murder of a policeman and Wes’s life imprisonment.

But, without denying that choices do have consequences, Moore doesn’t simply chalk up good and bad decisions to people’s intrinsic character. Rather, he shows that other factors can impact decisions. For instance, he shows how people’s ability to make good choices develops with age.

When both boys are young, they can be selfish and short-tempered; they tend to disregard the advice of their elders and are disproportionately focused on seeming tough and cool to their peers. As Moore grows older, his values change, and he comes to understand the importance of discipline, education, and compassion. Wes also matures to a degree, growing frustrated with the world of drugs and crime and deciding to get out of “the game.” However, he finds that this all but impossible—there are no longer other options available to him.

For Wes, the choices he made in his past limit the choices he can make in the present. Unable to leave behind a life of crime, he continues along that path until he takes part in the crime that results in the murder of a police officer and his own life imprisonment, which of course even further limits his choices. So even when in prison he makes selfless, responsible choices—dedicating his life to the Islamic faith and religious leadership—it is too late for him to have much impact over his own destiny.

If bad choices lead to more bad choices, though, how did Moore manage to escape the sort of cycle that Wes never could? The book’s answer to that question is luck. Moore was lucky enough to have a mother with the knowledge, ability, and resources to send him to the military school that helped him to change his values. Wes had no such luck. And while one could argue that this too was a matter of choice rather than luck – that Moore’s mother made good choices while Wes’s didn’t – the book makes clear that before Wes was born his mother had dreams of graduating college and admission to Johns Hopkins University, but couldn’t afford to stay in school when her Pell grant was terminated due to government cuts. Wes’s life is thus significantly impacted by an unfortunate circumstance that was out of both his and his mother’s control. Although Moore does not argue that his and Wes’s fates are entirely the product of circumstance, he does emphasize that people have less control over their own lives than we might like to think.

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Luck vs. Choice ThemeTracker

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Luck vs. Choice Quotes in The Other Wes Moore

Below you will find the important quotes in The Other Wes Moore related to the theme of Luck vs. Choice.
Introduction Quotes

The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his. Our stories are obviously specific to our two lives, but I hope they will illuminate the crucial inflection points in every life, the sudden moments of decision where our paths diverge and our fates are sealed. It's unsettling to know how little separates each of us from another life altogether.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), The Other Wes Moore (Wes)
Page Number: xi
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has explained that the book tells the story of himself and another man named Wes Moore, both born in Baltimore. Yet while the two men’s lives began in a similar way, they diverge drastically; Moore lives a successful life he “never even knew to dream about,” while Wes has murdered a father of five and will spend the rest of his life in prison. Although both men are unique individuals with different personalities and life experiences, Moore emphasizes that they each could have ended up with the other’s destiny. He does this not to excuse Wes’s crime or diminish the importance of the choices each man made, but rather as a way of exploring how each person’s destiny is shaped.

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Chapter 1 Quotes

Johns Hopkins University was only five miles from where Mary grew up, but it might as well have been a world away. To many in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins was the beautiful campus you could walk past but not through. It played the same role that Columbia University did for the Harlem residents who surrounded it, or the University of Chicago did for the Southside. It was a school largely for people from out of town, preppies who observed the surrounding neighborhood with a voyeuristic curiosity when they weren't hatching myths about it to scare freshmen. This city wasn't their home. But after completing her community college requirements, Mary attempted the short but improbable journey from the neighborhood to the campus. Her heart

jumped when she received her acceptance letter. It was a golden ticket to another world.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Mary
Related Symbols: Johns Hopkins University
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has introduced Wes’ mother, Mary, who is the first in her family to enroll in college. After earning her associate’s degree from the Community College in Baltimore, she moves on to fulfill her “longtime” dream of earning a bachelor’s. In this passage, Moore describes the tense relationship between Johns Hopkins University—a prestigious institution located in Baltimore—and the city that surrounds it. It is not proximity that separates Mary’s world from the world of Johns Hopkins, but rather race, poverty, and other forms of social inequality. Although there is no physical barrier telling Mary that she doesn’t “belong” on the Johns Hopkins campus, other, more subtle signs indicate that it is a world for white “preppies” and not single, black teenage mothers from West Baltimore.

Mary’s miraculous acceptance in spite of this barrier indicates that such barriers can be overcome, and foreshadows Moore’s acceptance to Johns Hopkins later in the book. However, although Moore describes Mary’s admission as “a golden ticket” in this passage, the reality turns out not to be so magical. The forces dividing the elite world of Johns Hopkins and the impoverished reality of West Baltimore turn out to be more stubborn than Mary anticipates.

Chapter 2 Quotes

The walls and floors were coated with filth and graffiti. Flickering fluorescent tubes (the ones that weren't completely broken) dimly lit the cinder-block hallways. The constantly broken-down elevators forced residents to climb claustrophobic, urine-scented stairways. And the drug game was everywhere, with a gun handle protruding from the top of every tenth teenager's waistline. People who lived in Murphy Homes felt like prisoners, kept in check by roving bands of gun-strapped kids and a nightmare army of drug fiends. This was where Tony chose to spend his days.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Tony
Related Symbols: The Murphy Homes Projects
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has explained that Tony, who is six years older than Wes, is the closest thing that Wes has to a father figure. However, Tony isn’t around all the time because he lives with his father and grandparents in the Murphy Homes, a notorious housing project nicknamed the “Murder homes.” Moore’s description of the Murphy Homes brings to mind a warzone more than a residential community. It emphasizes the extent to which West Baltimore is a neglected, forgotten community forced to deal with living conditions that would horrify many affluent and white Americans.

Although many in the Murphy Homes Projects would undoubtedly rather live elsewhere, Moore emphasizes that the Homes are “where Tony chose to spend his days.” This comment illustrates the way in which luck and choice intermingle in the cruel environment of West Baltimore. While Tony likely doesn’t enjoy spending time in “urine-scented stairways,” he has made the decision to participate in the drug trade. The consequences of his role as a drug dealer can never be blamed on either choice or luck alone, but rather a combination of the two.

'Wes searched around his room for his football jersey. He played defensive end for the Northwood Rams, one of the best rec football teams in the nation. Wes loved football, and his athletic frame made him a natural. Even if he was just going out to play in the streets with Woody and some other friends, he wore that jersey like a badge of honor. The crimson "Northwood" that blazed across his white jersey gave him a sense of pride, a sense of belonging.”

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), The Other Wes Moore (Wes)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Mary and Wes have moved to Northwood, a safer neighborhood populated by members of the black professional class. Mary is thrilled about the move, and in this passage Moore describes Wes’s increased feelings of belonging as a result of playing football for the Northwood Rams. Thanks to his innate talent, Wes is able to secure a place on the team; however, the prestige of the team means less to him than the simple fact of feeling like he belongs to a community. This moment of hope becomes tragic in light of Wes’s broader trajectory. What would have happened if he had had more opportunities to develop his skills and feel like a valued member of a team?

Chapter 3 Quotes

My mother saw Riverdale as a haven, a place where I could escape my neighborhood and open my horizons. But for me, it was where I got lost.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Joy
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has explained that his mother was nervous about the prospect of sending him to public school in the Bronx, and thus opted to enroll him at the prestigious Riverdale County Day School, an institution with a “lush” college-like campus and a decidedly affluent student population. However, in this passage Moore indicates that his mother was mistaken in her excitement about the opportunities Riverdale presented. Moore finds himself “lost” at the school because he feels alienated from the other students—who are almost all wealthy and white. It is impossible to reconcile the “horizons” presented by Riverdale and the reality of his life in the Bronx. Without feeling like he is a welcome and valuable member of the Riverdale community, Moore is unable to take advantage of the potential opportunities presented to him there.

Later in life I learned that the way many governors projected the numbers of beds they'd need for prison facilities was by examining the reading scores of third graders. Elected officials deduced that a strong percentage of kids reading below their grade level by third grade would be needing a secure place to stay when they got older. Considering my performance in the classroom thus far, I was well on my way to needing state-sponsored accommodations.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prison
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Due to his feelings of social inadequacy, Moore starts to perform badly in school. His grades slip to Cs and Ds, and in third grade he is reading at a second-grade level. Moore notes that third grade reading scores are in fact often used to determine the amount of prison space that will be needed in the following generation.

Immediately, Moore’s casual anecdote of his slipping grades becomes much more sinister. If third grade reading levels can be used to accurately gauge the number of prison beds needed, what does this say about the possibility of second chances, personal improvement, and social mobility in American society? While it is true that Moore does not end up incarcerated, this passage emphasizes the extent to which he truly is the exception to the norm. His observation proves that many children’s fates are sealed by the time they are 10 years old.

Part II Interlude Quotes

From everything you told me, both of us did some pretty wrong stuff when we were younger. And both of us had second chances. But if the situation or the context where you make the decisions don't change, then second chances don't mean too much, huh?

Related Characters: The Other Wes Moore (Wes) (speaker), Wes Moore (Moore/The Author)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

During prison visitation, Wes has asked Moore when he felt like he first became a man. Moore replies that it was when he felt he was accountable to people other than himself; Wes responds that “providing for others isn’t easy,” and that it can be difficult to get second chances when you mess up. In this passage, Wes further explains that it seems like both he and Moore made mistakes when they were younger. While they both got second chances, Wes’s second chances were not really meaningful, because they had no impact on the circumstances in which Wes made the decisions in the first place.

Wes’s understanding of second chances places a heavy emphasis on the influence of external circumstances rather than people’s individual choices. This foreshadows his and Moore’s conversation in the third and final interlude in which Wes argues that people’s destinies are shaped by the expectations of others. Wes’s observation also suggests that he has a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of second chances, perhaps more so than Moore. Whereas Moore places a heavier emphasis on people’s ability to autonomously make the right decisions and turn their lives around, Wes emphasizes the importance of external change, which in turn allows people to change internally.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Wes, you are not going anywhere until you give this place a try. I am so proud of you, and your father is proud of you, and we just want you to give this a shot. Too many people have sacrificed in order for you to be there.

Related Characters: Joy (speaker), Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) , Westley
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

After four attempts to run away from Valley Forge, Moore is brought to the office of Colonel Battagliogli, who allows him to make a five-minute phone call. When Joy answers the phone, Moore immediately begins begging to be allowed to come home; however, Joy cuts him off and tells him that he has no choice but to stay. This passage demonstrates Joy’s particular mix of strictness and support, the combination of which ultimately enables her son to flourish. Although Moore is miserable at military school, it is clear that he needs the discipline and boundaries of the institution in order to make a positive change in his life. Joy’s mention of the sacrifices made to facilitate Moore’s attendance then emphasizes the fact that Moore’s journey is not being taken alone, but rather with a whole community supporting him.

In Baltimore in 1991, 11.7 percent of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen had given birth. More than one out of ten. He also didn't feel burdened by the thought that early parenthood would wreck his future plans––because he didn't really have any future plans. And he wasn’t overly stressed about the responsibilities of fatherhood––he didn’t even know what that meant. But in some unspoken way, he did sense that he was crossing a point of no return, that things were about to get complicated in a way he was unequipped to handle.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), The Other Wes Moore (Wes)
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Wes has discovered that Alicia is pregnant and that he is about to become a teenage father. Wes’s first reaction to the news is shock; he cannot bring himself to believe that Alicia is really having a baby. But after this initial disbelief subsides, Wes treats the pregnancy with a kind of numbed apathy. At the same time, Moore mentions that this does signal a turning point for Wes, a comment that relates back to their conversation in the interlude in which they discuss being responsible for others. While Moore describes the onset of this responsibility as a positive thing—the moment at which he becomes “a man”—Wes is more ambivalent. He is neither happy nor sad about Alicia’s pregnancy; he has no emotional investment in his future.

In the Afterword, Moore mentions that some readers believed the major cause of Wes’s downfall is his “indifference to contraception.” Although this is perhaps a rather crude understanding, Wes’s attitude toward his life is undeniably characterized by profound indifference. However, rather than placing blame entirely on Wes for this fact, it is important to view this indifference in the larger context of the resources and opportunities available to Wes. Given the environment in which he lives, how could he have much hope of a brighter future?

Chapter 6 Quotes

I had to let this one go. I had to look at the bigger picture. My assailant was unknown, unnamed, and in a car. This was not a fair fight, and the best-case scenario was nowhere near as probable as the worst-case scenario. If I was successful, who knew how the fight would've ended? If I failed, who knew how the fight would've ended? I thought about my mother and how she would feel if this escalated any further. I thought about my father and the name he chose for me.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), Joy, Westley, Colonel Bose’s Son
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

During a trip to town with his fellow cadet Dalio, Moore is attacked by a group of drunk teenagers, one of whom identifies himself as Colonel Bose’s son. As the teenagers’ aggression escalates, one of them shouts a racist slur at Moore and throws something hard at his face. Although Moore is tempted to retaliate, he reasons that this is too great a risk. The kind of reasoning Moore displays in this passage is a direct contrast to Wes’s reaction to the conflicts with the young boy during the football game and with Ray. In these cases, Wes leaves no time for rational reflection, but simply recalls Tony’s advice to “send a message” and grabs a weapon.

Moore’s words in this passage emphasize the extent to which he is able to make rational, responsible decisions because of the love and support of his family. Rather than fixating on his own pride, Moore’s thoughts immediately jump to the impact his injury or death would have on his family. This moment thus reveals a turning point in Moore’s maturity, in which he has left behind the desire to prove himself and is more focused on the responsibility he has toward others.

Part III Interlude Quotes

"I think so, or maybe products of our expectations."
"Others’ expectations of us or our expectations for ourselves?"
"l mean others' expectations that you take on as your own."
I realized then how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.
"We will do what others expect of us," Wes said. "If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. lf they expect us to go to jail, then that’s where we will end up too. At some point you lose control."

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker), The Other Wes Moore (Wes) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Prison
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

During one of his visits to prison, Moore has asked Wes whether he thinks that people’s fates are determined by their external circumstances. Wes replies that he does, and that he thinks people internalize others’ expectations. Once again, Wes reveals a notably sophisticated understanding of the way in which people are influenced by external circumstances. While some may argue that Wes shifts the blame too far away from personal responsibility, his words are also supported by much of the evidence in the book. Although both men make mistakes when they are young, Moore is consistently surrounded by people who hope and expect him to achieve great things. Meanwhile, no one seriously expects Wes to achieve much at all.

Chapter 7 Quotes

As I started to think seriously about how I could become the person I wanted to be, I looked around at some of the people who'd had the biggest impact on my life. Aside from family and friends, the men I most trusted all had something in common: they all wore the uniform of the United States of America.

Related Characters: Wes Moore (Moore/The Author) (speaker)
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

Moore has explained that over the course of the time he has spent at military school, he has begun to excel at academic work and genuinely enjoy reading. One of the books he most enjoys is Colin Powell’s My American Journey, which describes Powell’s relationship to the United States and to the military. This book particularly resonates with Moore because of his own experiences as a cadet at Valley Forge. Military school has given him a new sense of perspective and direction, and inspired him to devote his life to the kind of disciplined public service encouraged by his teachers and mentors there.

Moore’s words also highlight the importance of the sense of belonging provided by the military. His comment about the “uniform of the United States of America” emphasizes that the military creates a feeling of united community as much as it does an individual sense of purpose and responsibility. It is Moore’s membership in this community that ultimately facilitates his success in life, both within and beyond the Army itself.

"Fuck God," he said, drawing in a lungful of smoke. "If He does exist, He sure doesn't spend any time in West Baltimore."

Related Characters: The Other Wes Moore (Wes) (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Wes and his friends have gone to get tattoos together. When it is Wes’s turn to decide which design to get, he opts for a black devil’s head. Although Wes attended church services occasionally when he was younger, he now no longer believes in God—or at least, doesn’t believe that God is present in his own community. As a young man, Wes does not often vocally express his feelings and beliefs and thus this is one of the only points in the book in which he provides any insight into his personal view of the world. Where most of the time Wes projects a kind of tough apathy, in this passage it is clear that beneath that apathy is a deeper and more painful form of anger and resentment.

It is difficult to blame Wes for having such a bleak view of the world and of God. Throughout his life, he has been surrounded by injustice, poverty, violence, crime, and suffering. Even people who try desperately to improve themselves—such as Wes’s mother Mary—rarely succeed. Rather than channeling his anger at this injustice in a constructive way, Wes becomes increasingly cynical and indifferent to his own fate. Yet can we really blame him, considering how powerless life in West Baltimore makes him feel?