This Boy’s Life


Tobias Wolff

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This Boy’s Life Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tobias Wolff's This Boy’s Life. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1945. His father, an aeronautical engineer, was the son of a Jewish doctor, but his family had covered up their Jewish roots and joined the Episcopal Church. Wolff’s parents separated when he was five and his older brother was twelve; the young Tobias and his mother lived a transient life, traveling all over the country and eventually settling down in Concrete, Washington, when his mother remarried. The years they spent there, living in the household of an abusive worker for Seattle City Light, became the basis of Wolff’s most successful and notable book, the memoir This Boy’s Life. After an unsuccessful stint at the Hill School in Philadelphia—he was expelled for forging his transcripts and letters of recommendations—Wolff served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1972 and fought in the Vietnam War. He attended college at Oxford, and, after returning to the U.S., was offered a prestigious fellowship at Stanford—the Stegner Fellowship, a grant of which many notable writers have been recipients. Wolff wrote and taught at Syracuse for a number of years, where he mentored notable contemporary writers such as Alice Sebold and George Saunders. He currently teaches writing and humanities at Stanford University.
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Historical Context of This Boy’s Life

This Boy’s Life is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The young Tobias—or Jack—observes many significant cultural moments unfold around him over the course of his early teen years. His mother works on John F. Kennedy’s political campaign, and as Jack and his friends roam the streets of the towns surrounding theirs, TVs in shop windows run programs glorifying the Allies’ victory over the Nazis and the Axis powers over a decade after the end of World War II. As the young Tobias observes the world around him, the narration—delivered by the older Tobias—is tinged with a sense of exhaustion with the patriotism and optimism of the country in the fifteen or so years following World War II—while TV shows like The Donna Reed Show proliferated an image of wholesome, squeaky-clean American families, Tobias’s own home life was a disastrous maelstrom of fear, abuse, and misery. At the end of the text, Tobias reveals that after being expelled from his boarding school, he joined the Army in 1968 and “prayed” for a war, so that he would have something exciting to involve himself in; he would soon go off to Vietnam, and would learn to be careful what he wished for. No doubt the violence, corruption, and brutality the older Wolff witnessed in Vietnam has tinged his past recollections.

Other Books Related to This Boy’s Life

Tobias Wolff’s seminal memoir is both inspired by and the inspiration for several other key titles within the genre. Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, published in 1967, is a memoir of his American adolescence as he wrestles with many of the same trials and tribulations the young Toby faces in This Boy’s Life: hardships at home and at school, life on the road, and figuring out what it means to become a man. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina—though written and sold as fiction—is a largely autobiographical text published in 1992, just a few years after This Boy’s Life, and set largely in the same time period—the mid-to-late 1950s. Bastard, which also details a child’s hardships in the face of their mother’s abusive partner, was, like This Boy’s Life, critically acclaimed and later adapted into a popular film.
Key Facts about This Boy’s Life
  • Full Title: This Boy’s Life
  • When Written: Late 1980s
  • Where Written: Syracuse, New York
  • When Published: 1989
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Seattle, Chinook, and Concrete, Washington
  • Climax: Jack’s mother, Rosemary, decides once and for all to leave her abusive husband, Dwight, and get Jack out of his house.
  • Antagonist: Dwight
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for This Boy’s Life

Life on the Big Screen. This Boy’s Life is arguably Tobias Wolff’s best-known work; it was so successful that in 1993, several years after its publication, it was adapted into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro. The film was critically and commercially well-received, and cemented the book as one of the landmark memoirs of its time.