Bullet in the Brain

by

Tobias Wolff

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Bullet in the Brain can help.

Cynicism and Respect Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Cynicism and Respect Theme Icon
Nostalgia and Innocence Theme Icon
The Power of Language Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bullet in the Brain, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cynicism and Respect Theme Icon

An armed bank robbery at the climax of “Bullet in the Brain” results in the death of Anders, a deeply cynical book critic. Anders is partly responsible for his own grisly end, in that his contempt for the world leads him to treat everything and everyone with mockery—even the criminal pointing a gun to his head. When one of the armed robbers threatens him using clichéd speech, Anders laughs in response, leading the robber to shoot him. Before he dies, however, Anders remembers a childhood moment when he respected others in spite of—and even because of—their simple way of talking. Wolff contrasts Anders’s current cynicism with a memory of childlike admiration as a cautionary tale, warning readers that cynicism can breed isolation and further contempt, while cultivating respect for other people—and the world itself—can be redemptive.

Anders’s self-centered and self-defeating cynicism both starts and frames the entire story. Anders arrives at a bank just before closing time, and gets stuck in a line. Two women in front of him are having a “loud, stupid conversation” that puts Anders “in a murderous temper.” This is a normal reaction for him, as he is “never in the best of tempers anyway,” and is even known, in his career, “for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything.” Anders views every situation, even if it is minor, in a way that conforms to his cynical outlook, meaning he largely bears responsibility for his own frustration and unhappiness.

This pervasive cynicism prevents Anders from interacting civilly with others. When a bank teller leaves her station despite the long line, the women in front of Anders comment on the teller’s thoughtlessness and expect Anders to complain with them. Although “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller,” his contempt for the women leads him to make fun of them instead. These contemptuous responses continue even as the situation turns dangerous. When robbers enter the bank and command the thoughtless bank teller to fill the robbers’ bag with money, Anders is not sympathetic. He turns to the women he mocked before and says, “Justice is done,” taking the time to crack a sarcastic joke.

Anders’s cynicism continues to manifest as the story progresses, and often leads him to show off his intellectual superiority. When one robber calls Anders a “bright boy,” for instance, Anders points out a textual allusion, highlighting that it is “right out of The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway. When one of the armed robbers tells everyone to stop moving or they’ll be “dead meat,” Anders continues to respond cynically, saying, “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Similarly, upon glancing at the bank’s painted ceiling, Anders distances himself from the situation at hand by scoffing at the apparent ineptitude of the artist—an objectively ridiculous concern in the moment, with a gun pointed at his head. It’s clear that he considers himself above the grotesqueries of the world, but such thinking only isolates him further; his cynicism blinds him to the fact that he is in mortal danger.

Anders’s contempt eventually grabs the attention of one of the criminals, who uses another cliché to threaten him—asking, like the stereotypical Italian gangsters of the silver screen, “Capiche?” Anders laughs at him, and the robber promptly shoots him in the head. As the bullet travels through Anders’s brain, Wolff lists events from Anders’s life that further reveal how his cynicism has long been eroding his relationships, even with those he once “madly loved.”

In his past, Anders had grown irritated by his first lover’s “unembarrassed carnality,” and “exhausted” by his wife’s “predictability.” Both instances position contempt as a destructive, alienating, and ultimately useless emotion. Contempt and cynicism were not, however, the dominant emotions of Anders’s youth; in fact, other scenes from Anders’s past demonstrate a deep sympathy and respect for others, in sharp contrast to his current behavior. Wolff rapidly summarizes various scenes that prove Anders used to be a more sensitive man. Anders once saw “a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own,” and shouted in response, “‘Lord have mercy!’” Anders also once felt “surprise” at “seeing a college classmate’s name on the dust jacket of a novel” and felt a deep sense of “respect” after finishing the book. As he grew older and more cynical, however, Anders began to forget “the pleasure of giving respect.”

The last memory Wolff highlights is one Anders himself recalls before his death, a baseball game he played as a child with the neighborhood’s boys. One of the boys, Coyle, brings his cousin along, and Coyle’s cousin claims the position of shortstop, arguing that it is “the best position they is.” Anders, surprisingly, does not mock him for the mispronunciation. Instead, Anders finds himself “elated” by the words and their “unexpectedness and their music.” In his youth, it seems, Anders was once excited and surprised by others’ perspectives, and did not make fun of, but rather celebrated, common mistakes.

Though Anders is, in his adulthood, a meanspirited character defined by his contempt for everything, Wolff lists these various scenes from his past to demonstrate how Anders used to be understanding and respectful of others and their differences. Wolff seems to contrast Anders’s ill-fated death with his childhood wonder as a warning, showing how it is easyand dangerousto lose sight of other people’s humanity.

Related themes icon Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Cynicism and Respect ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Cynicism and Respect appears in each chapter of Bullet in the Brain. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Bullet in the Brain LitChart as a printable PDF.
Bullet in the brain.pdf.medium

Cynicism and Respect Quotes in Bullet in the Brain

Below you will find the important quotes in Bullet in the Brain related to the theme of Cynicism and Respect.
Bullet in the Brain Quotes

The line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

Related Characters: Anders
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation long mobile

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. “Damned unfair,” he said. “Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions.”

Related Characters: Anders (speaker)
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

“Oh, bravo,” Anders said. “‘Dead meat.’” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

Related Characters: Anders (speaker), Robber
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

The barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red-rimmed. The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease.

Related Characters: Anders, Robber
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity.

Related Characters: Anders
Related Symbols: The Painted Ceiling
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, “Capiche-oh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.

Related Characters: Anders, Robber
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

Related Characters: Anders
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

“Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short's the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle's cousin repeat what he's just said, though he knows better than to ask. The others will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all-it's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.

Related Characters: Anders, Coyle’s Cousin
Related Symbols: The Baseball Game
Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

Related Characters: Anders
Related Symbols: The Baseball Game
Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile