Bullet in the Brain


Tobias Wolff

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Themes and Colors
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Nostalgia and Innocence Theme Icon
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Nostalgia and Innocence Theme Icon

When Anders is shot, various scenes from his life—both remembered and not—begin to play out in his mind. These scenes illustrate Anders’s past emotional innocence, showing how he used to be the type of man to attend antiwar rallies, memorize poetry, and wake up laughing. In contrast, Anders’s death is the final, unhappy culmination of his now joyless life. Wolff illustrates how Anders gradually lost his innocence and his passion, suggesting that time’s passage can erode even the most energetic and dynamic of people. In the story’s final memory from Anders’s youth, however, Wolff demonstrates how nostalgia allows Anders to “still make time” to return to these lost days of innocence, even if his life is almost over.

When Anders is first shot, Wolff describes a list of characters from Anders’s life that he does not remember. These selected characters illustrate Anders’s past emotional engagement with the world, and sometimes serve as parallel examples of people who have, like Anders, lost their innocence. For example, Anders used to “madly” love his first girlfriend, Sherry, for her “unembarrassed carnality.” He also used to love his wife, though over time, she began to bore him. A clear pattern in Anders’s life begins to emerge: as time passes, his passion for others repeatedly cools to indifference and weariness.

In addition to Sherry and his wife, Anders does not remember his daughter in his final moments. Still, Wolff makes a point of mentioning how she is “now a sullen professor of economics.” In emphasizing what his daughter is like “now,” it is implied that Anders’s daughter, like her father, has lost her sense of passion. Wolff then strengthens this comparison between father and daughter: Anders once stood “just outside his daughter's door” while she lectured her stuffed animals about their “naughtiness,” listing the “appalling punishments” they “would receive.” Like her father, the unnamed daughter once had a sense of innocence that helped her imaginatively engage with the world, in contrast to her current “sullen” behavior.

More scenes from Anders’s past emerge, demonstrating his innocent enjoyment of and engagement with the world. When Anders was younger, he memorized “hundreds of poems,” though Wolff emphasizes that in the moment of his death, Anders does “not remember a single line” of them. Anders had committed these poems to memory to be able to “give himself the shivers at will,” but they are now irrelevant and forgotten. Anders’s past dedication and emotional connection to poetry is in clear and sharp contrast to his current lack of passion. Similarly, Anders used to be equally engaged by other people’s poetic devotion. One of Anders’s professors once taught a lesson on “how Athenian prisoners” could be freed “if they could recite Aeschylus.” The professor then recited “Aeschylus himself.” Hearing the poem, “Anders eyes had burned,” as if he was moved to tears by his professor’s poetic appreciation.

In addition to his once-fervent love for poetry, Anders used to be so energized and passionate that he acted with recklessness. When he was younger, he “deliberately” crashed his “father's car into a tree,” and got into trouble at an “antiwar rally,” where he had “his ribs kicked in by three policemen.” It seems that in Anders’s youth, his emotions were so overwhelming that he needed to seek outlets for their expression, like fighting for a different world, or acting dangerously.

After this list of unrecalled past experiences ends, Wolff finishes the story with the one scene Anders does remember, which gives Anders the ability to return, indefinitely, to the innocence of his childhood. When Anders is first shot, the bullet starts “a crackling chain” of “neurotransmissions,” which prompts him to remember a specific “summer afternoon” that has long been “lost to memory.” This nostalgic memory of a childhood baseball game occurs “under the mediation of brain time,” allowing Anders plenty of time to “contemplate the scene” and get absorbed in his past.

Before the baseball game begins, a neighborhood boy, Coyle, brings his cousin to the field. Coyle’s cousin asks to play shortstop because it is “the best position they is.” Anders, struck by the words, wants to hear the phrase again. Although he does not ask the boy to repeat the words, Anders repeatedly recites “them to himself,” a harbinger of the innocent appreciation he will have for poetry later in life. Still, as this innocent memory continues to play out, the bullet is still traveling in Anders’s brain, and it “won't be outrun forever.” But before then, “Anders can still make time.” His recollection of this childhood scene gives Anders time “to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant,” like poetry, “they is, they is, they is.”

By listing a series of memories and characters from Anders’s past, Wolff provides readers with the trajectory of Anders’s personality, illustrating how he turns from an emotional, passionate young man into a discontented adult. Anders’s final memory, a scene from a childhood baseball game, delays his death and returns him to his innocent days of wonder. Wolff seems to indicate that through nostalgic memory, innocence can still be regained, even if it is too late to completely save one’s life.

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Nostalgia and Innocence Quotes in Bullet in the Brain

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

He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds.

Related Characters: Anders
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

“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:

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: