Bullet in the Brain


Tobias Wolff

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Bullet in the Brain Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tobias Wolff's Bullet in the Brain. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff, separated from his brother and father after his parents’ divorce at age four, grew up in various states across America, traveling with his mother and settling in Seattle, Washington. He would later write about his nomadic childhood and his mother’s relationships in his 1989 memoir This Boy’s Life. At the age of 19, Wolff joined the army as a paratrooper during the Vietnam War, and then went on to receive his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Oxford. He then received a fellowship and began his professional writing career at Stanford University in 1978. Afterwards, he taught creative writing at Syracuse University from 1980 to 1997, where he mentored other well-known writers such as George Saunders and Mary Karr. His first short story collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, appeared in 1981, followed thereafter by a memoir, an award-winning novella (The Barracks Thief), and a short story collection about his time in Vietnam. Wolff was also a productive short story editor and anthologizer from the 1980s to the 1990s, helping to publish works like A Doctor’s Visit: Short Stories by Anton Chekhov. He then wrote 2003’s Old School, a novel about plagiarism, and another collection of short stories in 2008, Our Story Begins.
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Historical Context of Bullet in the Brain

One scene from Anders’s past mentions his attendance at an antiwar rally, an oblique reference to the era of the Vietnam War—Wolff was a soldier in the Vietnam War himself, and his stories often feature this topic.

Other Books Related to Bullet in the Brain

Tobias Wolff’s stories are often compared to works by other famous short story writers, such as Raymond Carver or Richard Ford. Stories by these writers are considered exemplars of minimalism and “dirty realism” for their sparse use of language, grim or gloomy subject matter, and gritty characters. Many of the writers linked by the label of “dirty realism” disavow it, but there remains a strong association between the works of Carver, Wolff, and Ford, as well as the poetry of Charles Bukowski. “Bullet in the Brain” itself references Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which also features a sudden encounter between violent criminals and an unsuspecting bystander. In both stories, the criminals threaten others when they feel they are being laughed at or disrespected, and ask rhetorical and menacing questions to further intimidate their victims. Unlike Hemingway’s short story, however, Wolff’s story ends in a tragic climax, with the protagonist shot dead for his insolence. In addition, when Wolff recounts Anders’s past, he makes various references to other literary works and poems, such as John Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. References to these works, which Anders used to memorize in his youth, illustrate how passionate Anders used to be about literature and language. Despite his adult cynicism, some of that literary passion is still evident in Anders’s personality, as he cannot stop himself from pointing out a Hemingway reference even in the midst of a robbery.
Key Facts about Bullet in the Brain
  • Full Title: "Bullet in the Brain"
  • When Written: 1995
  • Where Written: Syracuse University, during Wolff’s residency.
  • When Published: September 25, 1995
  • Literary Period: Twentieth century literature
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: The story takes place in an unnamed bank, just before closing time. A key scene from the story also takes place at a summertime baseball game.
  • Climax: The bank robber shoots Anders in the head.
  • Antagonist: The unnamed bank robber
  • Point of View: Third person limited

Extra Credit for Bullet in the Brain

Zeus and Europa. When Anders looks up at the ceiling, he sees a mural of Zeus and Europa, two figures from ancient Greek myth. In the story of Zeus and Europa, Zeus appears to Europa disguised in the form of a white bull. Europa, trusting the bull, climbs on Zeus’s back, and is then abducted by Zeus to the island of Crete. In Wolff’s story, the mural on the ceiling depicts Europa as a cow and Zeus as a bull, and Anders is struck by the mural’s cartoonish style.

Aeschylus the Tragedian. One of the memories that Wolff highlights from Anders’s past is a college class. In this class, the professor recites the work of Aeschylus, an ancient Greek playwright and tragedian. This reference to Greek tragedy is an appropriate allusion, as Wolff’s story ends in the grisly death of its protagonist.