Bullet in the Brain

by

Tobias Wolff

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The Power of Language Theme Analysis

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Anders is a jaded and unforgiving book critic, known for his distaste for everything he reviews as well as his bad temper. Yet Anders was not always so judgmental: Anders’s past is filled with scenes that illustrate his past appreciation for language in particular. Language, in Anders’s youth, had the power to deeply affect him, and was a means of connecting him to the world and other people. Anders slowly lost the ability to appreciate language, however, and that loss seems to coincide with his turn towards bitterness and isolation. Anders’s youthful respect for language, in contrast with his current lack of enjoyment, demonstrates how language has the power to shape one’s engagement with the world.

In Anders’s adult life, his relationship to language is dominated by dissatisfaction, particularly with the books he reviews. Still, even in everyday situations, Anders’s relationship with language is mainly defined by negativity. For example, when he gets stuck behind two women in a line, their “stupid conversation” puts him in “a murderous temper.” The women’s perceived misuse of language, more so than the tedium of being stuck in a line, provokes Anders’s anger.

This isolated incident of dissatisfaction is compounded by the fact that Anders now resents having to critique writers’ language, and, in general, views “the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread.” In fact, his career dissatisfaction is so thorough that he has become resentful and “angry at writers for writing” the books he is meant to review. This deep-seated anger illustrates a larger, psychological problem: Anders’s inability to register novelty or to feel excitement. Anders has not recently experienced anything exciting and new; he does not “remember” how long it has been since “everything began to remind him of something else.” To Anders, books and language have become repetitive and uninteresting, and his life reflects this monotony.

In describing scenes from Anders’s past, Wolff makes clear that Anders’s current lack of engagement with language is uncharacteristic. He used to be deeply affected by language, and found language to be a catalyst for his passion. When Anders was young, he committed “hundreds of poems” to memory, so he could “give himself the shivers at will.” In fact, one of the lines Wolff highlights is from On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, a poetic tribute to the power of language. Anders once treasured poetry so deeply that he dedicated time to memorizing it, in order to keep it on hand.

In addition, one of Anders’s unremembered memories is from a poetry class. His professor lectured on how ancient prisoners would be “released if they could recite Aeschylus,” and the professor then recited a poem himself. Anders’s “eyes had burned at those sounds,” as if he were about to cry. Watching someone else recite poetry once had the potential to move Anders deeply, without thought of criticism or judgment. Anders also once saw “a college classmate's name on the dust jacket of a novel,” and respected the classmate more “after reading the book.” In his adult life, however, Anders does not “remember the pleasure of giving respect.” In his adulthood, then, Anders’s disconnection from language prevents him from feeling sympathy or respecting others. In his youth, however, language had the power to provoke admiration for a stranger.

Near the end of the story, the one memory Anders recalls before he dies involves appreciation and wonder for the uniqueness of language, and highlights the joy Anders feels when the conventions of language are subverted or made new. Anders starts to remember a baseball game from “forty years past.” In this memory, a newcomer to the neighborhood, Coyle’s cousin, asks to play shortstop because it is the “best position they is.” This type of lexical mistake would be an easy target for Anders as an adult, as he is deeply critical of language mistakes, but Anders’s response as a child is appreciative, not dismissive. In fact, he wants the boy to “repeat what he's just said,” though he stops himself, worrying that others will think he’s “ragging” Coyle’s cousin for his words. This illustrates Anders’s thorough sensitivity to language; he not only appreciates the mispronunciation, but also realizes that the others could misread his fascination in a mean-spirited way.

Although he does not get the boy to repeat the phrase, Anders is so struck by the “unexpectedness” of the mispronunciation that he “takes the field in a trance.” Even though the mispronunciation breaks the rules of grammar, Anders seems enthralled by the newness of the words. In Anders’s past, then, language was a source of joy and mystery; in contrast, as an adult, language has lost its emotional power, and is rote and monotonous toh im.

This final memory, which emphasizes language’s power to evoke wonder, shows how language helped Anders engage with the world. Anders’s past demonstrates that he used to be a man who was moved by language, and drawn to its novelty. In his current career, however, he is uninspired by language, only able to criticize its improper or dull use. Wolff seems to caution that once someone loses the ability to be awe-struck by language, their worldview can turn bitter, dominated by anger or unhappiness.

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The Power of Language Quotes in Bullet in the Brain

Below you will find the important quotes in Bullet in the Brain related to the theme of The Power of Language.
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:

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:

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:

“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: