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This Boy's Life

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Emily Wood

on 1 February 2015

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Transcript of This Boy's Life

Pop trivia: What do the following books have in common?
The correct answer is:They are all
How is it different from most memoirs?
You may have noticed something in the typical memoir clip, that This Boy's Life does not do.

What is this? *Hint - it has to do with how he perceives and represents himself.

Did you get it right??? If you did 10 points to Slytherin (what, you think you should be in Gryffindor? Ha).
Thinking Box
It's time for the thinking box.
You'll need to get out your pen and writing books for this.

Today's questions are:
1. Is a memoir reliable?
Why/why not?

2. Do you think Jack/Tobias is a reliable narrator? Why/why not?
Foreshadowing in TBL
Foreshadowing - you know, when the writer does something to hint about what is going to happen. Wolff does this in the beginning of the text with the car scene. Watch from 0.30 to 3.52.

Turn to page 76 and write in your book what you think is is foreshadowing.

Chapter Titles in TBL
Take a pause now and think about how we are guided by the titles in each section of the memoir. Then, jot down your thoughts as to how the titles 'Fortune' and 'The Amen Corner' guide our understanding of those sections.

In thinking about the structure in this memoir, you might like to reflect on the how the titles of the different sections are meant to guide our understanding of what takes place in them. Are the two sections with 'citizenship' in them partly ironic, for example, as they seem more about Jack learning to subvert the rules for citizens than being guided by them?

One theory is that he gives chapters titles to draw our attention to certain features of Jack's life at various stages. It is worthwhile, therefore, pausing for a moment and thinking about what is suggested by the various titles. I have already commented on the titles with 'citizenship' in them. In thinking about what is suggested by the other titles, it is helpful sometimes to look for a quotation that will help us understand their meaning – though there may not always be such a quotation. In 'Uncool', for example, Wolff observes:

'We should have looked cool, but we didn't ... But it wasn't really our looks that made us uncool. Coolness did not demand anything as obvious as that. Like chess or music, coolness claimed its own out of some mysterious impulse of recognition. Uncoolness did likewise. We had been claimed by uncoolness'. (Page 36)

As with much of this text, Wolff's strategy in inviting us to view a section of the memoir in relation to this term is open to interpretation.

Symbolism/Motifs (pronounced Moteefs)
Earlier I mentioned the way Dwight's remarks about the salmon foreshadows the wasted time Rosemary and Jack are to spend at Dwight's place. Another way of making this point might be to say the salmon is a symbol of this waste.
Sometimes a symbol can be loosely suggestive rather than making a very specific point. Thus we might see Dwight's urge to paint everything while in preparation for Rosemary's arrival in March as reflecting his general attempt to conceal the kind of person he is and his real treatment of Jack. Some symbols may have different meanings for different readers and discussing them can help us sharpen our ideas about a text.

This Boy's Life!
How it's written

Reference Notes: Distance Education Thornbury

A memoir involves some form of narrative. Exploring a period of time in one's own life inevitably involves viewing events in terms of sequence even though this may be done in a number of ways. A memoir has to be self-contained and carefully constructed and complete in itself. No matter how chaotic a person's life may be, exploring a part of it involves creating a structure that will enable the writer to present it to the reader in a way that fulfills his intentions in writing it. Thus, whether a narrative is true or not, similar considerations relating to its structure will apply

Complete the symbols table below in your book.
The first person is clearly an obvious choice for the writer of a memoir and here – in the last unflattering admission – we can see how it can take us into Wolff's world in a very intimate way, enabling us to see and experience the situation from a young person's point of view.
Wolff's use of the first-person narrator involves the strategy of continually blending both the perspective of the child or teenager with that of the adult – whose reflections range over events and relationships that precede and come after the period of his life examined in the memoir. Over the course of the narrative, the adult narrator keeps breaking into Jack's world of puzzlement and uncertainty to fill in the background information – for example, how his mother has been made susceptible to 'men of the tyrant breed' through being mistreated by her father – and to give us an adult’s perspective on events. Part of his skill as a narrator is that even though we understand that Jack's experiences are being mediated for us through an adult consciousness, he is also able to communicate the immediacy of these experiences from a young person's perspective, as we can see in this description of his reaction to the news that Chuck will not be tried for rape because Huff has agreed to marry Tina: 'I heard myself cawing harshly. Something was breaking loose in me, some hysterical tide of joy. I could hardly breathe. I was shaking with relief and joy and cruel pleasure, for the truth was I didn't like Huff and felt no pity for Tina'. (Page 223)

First Person Narrator
The features of Wolff's voice can be felt in the first page of the memoir. Perhaps this is most noticeable in the fifth paragraph.
'It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.' (Page 3)
Here we see Wolff's way of indicating a lot about what is happening in simple words. He has a blunt, detached way of noting two quite different reasons for their journey 'to get
away from a man my mother was afraid of' and 'to get rich on uranium'. There is an irony here, too, especially in 'We were going to change our luck', considering that it comes after the appearance of an out-of-control truck and the inevitable disaster.
At time Wolff's simple statement of the facts is startling for its honesty and pathos, as when he reflects on why he could never have done well at Hill School with his background and attitude: 'I did not do well at Hill. How could I? I knew nothing. My ignorance was so profound that entire class periods would pass without my understanding anything that was said.' (Page 240)
In addition to his own voice, Wolff enables us to hear the voices of the other people in his memoir.

jot down your thoughts on the qualities that stand out in the following voices and what their voices reveal about these people.

Dwight: 'Do me. I hear you're good at doing me. Do me with the lighter. Here. Do me with the lighter.' (Page 76)
Rosemary: 'There isn't anything we can do about it. It's gone. You just have to forget about it.' (Page 220)
Geoffrey: 'That's good,' he said. 'That gives us something to go on. You're obviously doing as well as you can, and that's what they'll be looking for.' (Page 172)

Dirty realism is the term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine to define a North American literary movement. It refers to writers who to depict the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life in spare, unadorned language. Buford explains it like this...
"Dirty realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction."

After you have given some thought to this I would just like to draw your attention to the diversity of Wolff's vocabulary. It is certainly true that he can sometimes grab our attention and draw us into his state of mind with very simple words and sentences, as in this account of his confusion when Mr Welch expects him to apologize: ‘A kind of panic came over me. I couldn’t take a breath. All I wanted was to get away’. (Page 207)

He can also draw us into some of the energy and vitality in the lives of lower-class, uneducated Americans through the use of the vernacular, as, for example, when in describing the last ride home with Chuck, he observes: ‘We were rubes (hicks or rednecks), after all, and for a rube the whole point of a trip to the city is the moment of leaving it, the moment it closes behind his back like a trap sprung too late.’ (Page 242) Sometimes, however, he uses sophisticated words in carefully phrased formal – sometimes complex – sentences to convey rather complex thoughts, such as his fear of being trapped in a life without purpose or hope of achievement, the ‘damnation-dream’ he describes in relation to the sight of the Welch boys digging postholes for a fence that will be of no use to anyone: ‘They were part of the dream from which I recognized the Welches, my defeat-dream, my damnation-dream, with its solemn choreography of earnest useless acts’. (Page 206)

Dirty Realism
Imagery can be used for various purposes. Some images have a wide resonance, such as that of the 'keen, unremembering' eyes of Arthur's dog – an image which links in with Wolff's concern about the importance for all living things of being able to see and make sense of the world about them.

Sometimes Wolff uses imagery to enable us to imagine characters, not just their physical features, but something about their natures too.
Thus, he refers to his father's 'bearish bulk' (Page 177) and describes a principal as 'a furtive, whey-faced man'. (Page 66) Throughout the memoir, too, we find images connected with Wolff's themes, images of masks, for example, which link with his exploration of the 'poses' Jack and other people assume and ways in which a person's identity may change or be revealed to others.

Thus, when he and his mother are preparing for flight from Dwight, he observes, 'When she worried, she wore a pale, tight-lipped mask. Lately it had started to become her own face. Now the mask was gone'. (Page 221)

Find five examples of imagery being used, and write a few sentences of the effect it has on the writing.
Sometimes Wolff’s foreshadowing will not encompass particular events at a later point in the narrative but will give a general sense of what is to come.
We see this, for example, when Dwight's comments about the salmon seen from the bridge at Chinook evoke the wasted life Jack and his mother will spend there.

'They came all the way from the ocean to spawn there, Dwight said, and then they would die. They were already dying. The change from salt to fresh water had turned their flesh rotten. Long strips of it hung off their bodies, waving in the current.' (Page 62)

Can you find any other examples of this? Why do you think Wolff has done this?
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