A Rhetorical Analysis: The Passive Non-Identity

In Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, Wolff recounts a life of secretive rebellion under the rule of his abusive stepfather and submissive, peace-making mother. Tobias lives, from the beginning, in two worlds. The world of passivity and submissiveness around authoritative adults and the world of activity within himself and around his peers. Though they exist in balance in the beginning of Tobias’s life, his infantilizing, disempowering relationship with dwight drives him to external passivity and, eventually, a similar lack of control within his own mind. Tobias comes to believe that his own inaction is inescapable and creates an identity, or rather lack of identity, around what he is not or cannot be. Ultimately, leaving him without a self at all. Wolff’s use of increasingly vague, passive language to describe his external interactions, and later internal thoughts, demonstrates the fated nature of his choices and, therefore, his inability to cultivate his own identity.

Tobias uses passive voice and other linguistic elements to convey inaction whilst around domineering adults. So, as his contact with Dwight intensifies, so too does his passivity until he eventually internalizes this voice and creates a non-identity. Early on in Tobias’s life, he demonstrates a passivity around powerful adults that is otherwise sparing in his language. As he speaks to Roy — who has power over him in a physical sense and in terms of his identity — Tobias leaves out the quotations around only his own words, effectively removing himself from the conversation (43). Though Tobias may be able speak the words he believes Roy wants to hear, he cannot actively communicate his true feelings. This inaction establishes a foundational thread of passivity in Tobias’s identity. Yet, at the same time, when Tobias is by himself or with his peers, his language remains vividly active and dominating, showing that he reserves this passivity for powerful adults. However, when Dwight enters Toby’s life, his use of passive language increases rapidly, as Dwight takes control of Toby’s choices, actions, and identity. Where Tobias’s mother “couldn’t control” him, Dwight “[makes] a study of him,” relegating Tobias to a direct object that “is controlled” by the subject Dwight (73,108). His stepfather insults his character, asserts dominance over him, and “fixes…his [abundance of] free time,” inserting his dominance into every aspect to Tobias’s life (109). As Dwight takes over Tobias’s external world, he begins to internalize his stepfather’s disparaging comments. Believing that “he [is] a liar…he [is] a theif,” because Dwight says so, Tobias loses control of even his own thoughts (76,147). Passively, Tobias fights none of this, having “come to believe this [is] all fated, that [he is] bound,” to inaction and, in believing this, he creates a cycle (119): failing to take control of even his own language drives him to believe that he has no control and believing that he has no control makes him fail to try and take control. By deciding that his passivity is fate, Tobias makes it his identity.

However, cultivating an identity around inaction and lack of control, ultimately, is not an identity at all and leaves only ambivalence, demonstrated by Wolf’s repetition of the noun clause “who I was.” Wolf reflects upon the escapist fantasies of his teenage years and interprets these personas as effects of “not knowing who [he] was,” but he still uses a noun clause — demonstrating how, even after adulthood consideration, his boyhood identity remains undefined, never fully-formed (41). Tobias’s lack of identity — and his complementary use of “who I was,” — persists and grows as he ages and begins to forms personality around his “opposition to [Dwight]” (148). Using apophasis to define himself around a negative, he negates himself, leaving him without an identity at all. Later, as Tobias settles into his life with Dwight, he realizes that “everyone,”- meaning the noninteractive, disparate community of Concrete – knows “who [he is]” (147). Yet, using a noun clause, Tobias himself fails to give a definition to “who [he is],” aligning his understanding of himself with that of strangers who identify him only by his existence, only the mere fact that “he is.” Furthermore, stating that “[he is] also a thief,” Tobias only concretely identifies himself using Dwight’s words, which are based on facts Tobias himself admits are inconsequential, demonstrating how Tobias is still powerless to craft his own selfhood (147). As the culmination of Dwight’s abuse occurs on the eve of Tobias’s escape, Tobias realizes he’s “forgotten who [he is]” (245). However, simply by using the phrase, Tobias proves he has never really known his identity past an acknowledgment of his own existence; and so, in the midst of Dwight’s pain, as he “forgets” the last remnants of his already- fragmented self, he ultimately loses his very “being” (245). Disempowered by dwight and forced to define himself around passive inaction, Tobias fails to form a concrete identity at all, leaving him with only vague ambivalent noun clauses to describe himself.

In Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, Wolff broaches subjects of abuse, escapism, and identity, showing how intertwined they truly are. Tobias, foundationally, lives within a duality: external passivity and internal activity. Yet as Dwight takes advantage of that passivity, determining for Tobias who he is and who he should become, that internal, imaginative activity is lost. Ultimately, Dwight’s abuse, dismissiveness, and domination, gives power to his disparaging and confusing words — seeping into Tobias’s concept of selfhood and taking away his control within his own mind.

Symbolism in This Boy’s Life

Symbolism is a literary device used throughout literature in which a concrete image represents something deeper and more implicit. It is an effective strategy used to enhance the meanings of novels and memoirs and also to reveal certain things about characters within the text. In the memoir This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff is a young boy trying to find himself with his mother Rosemary, and the two are always together and on the move throughout the United States. When Rosemary mistakenly settles down with Dwight, Wolff must adapt to the situation, a tough thing for him to do. Throughout the memoir, Wolff uses symbolism in many different scenarios to extend the reader’s knowledge of the young Wolff. As Wolff searches for himself, and his new step-father tries to deny him doing that, Wolff’s real character is revealed. In the memoir This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff uses the symbolism of a dead beaver, a spawning pool of salmon, and a .22 Winchester Rifle to represent how mistreated Wolff is throughout his young life.

The symbol of the beaver crossing the road that Dwight purposely runs over with his car represents Wolff and what will take place in the future between him and Dwight. When driving Toby to his new home, Dwight “pulled the car hard to the left and hit a beaver that was crossing the road. Dwight said he had swerved to miss the beaver, but that wasn’t true. He had gone out of his way to run it over.” (87). Dwight intentionally running down the beaver with his car represents the way Toby is treated by Dwight. Dwight would make Toby miserable on purpose, but when Rosemary asked he would let her know that he and Toby were getting along great. “He had gone out of his way to run it over” shows how deliberate it was of Dwight to ruin Toby’s life. Not only did he just run over the beaver, he “pulled the car hard to the left.” This shows how blindsided Toby was when Dwight becomes a strict and malicious person, as it was unexpected, just as the beaver dying was. Later in the memoir, young Wolff finds the same beaver in the attic and describes it as being “covered with mold,” and having “no features.” (154-155). This shows that the beaver in the attic represents Toby, as they are both just a shell of what they used to be since they came across Dwight.

Another symbol that represents the mistreatment of Toby throughout the text is a spawning pool of salmon showed to Toby and Rosemary by Dwight. When driving Toby and Rosemary to Seattle one morning, Dwight shows the two of them the salmon and Wolff states, “They (the salmon) had come all the way from the ocean to spawn here, and then they would die. They were already dying. The change from salt to fresh water had turned their flesh rotten.” (75). The salmon making a journey only to die in the end represents Toby and the way in which his life is about to turn. He is about to live with Dwight, and, just like the salmon, is going somewhere just to die. Wolff does not die with Dwight, but he is physically and mentally drained, just as the salmon. Wolff stating that “the change from fresh water to salt water had turned their flesh rotten,” shows that Toby and Rosemary used to be in fresh, clean water, just like the salmon, but moving in with Dwight would turn their water dirty and salty, something they could not handle.

Lastly, the .22 Winchester Rifle represents Wolff and his safety, but when Dwight takes it from him, it reveals the unfair treatment Toby receives from Dwight. When Roy, Rosemary’s ex-husband, gifts the rifle to Toby, Wolff states that he “needed that rifle, for itself and the way it completed me.” (23). The rifle at this point represents safety, because when Toby has it by his side he feels safe and like a man. He feels as though he has power and this is a feeling Toby rarely has, so he appreciates it. However, that does not last. At a turkey shoot in which Dwight and Rosemary are participating, Dwight states that Toby’s rifle is the “most stupidly constructed firearm (he) has ever seen, bar none.” (72). By saying this, and also taking his rifle from him, Dwight is stealing away any sense of manhood Toby has, and also contributing to the overall theme of Toby being treated poorly. Toby’s sense of safety that he feels with the rifle is now gone, and his sense of power as well. This also reveals the sudden change in Toby’s life. He used to have all the power with the rifle, but now that Dwight is entering his life and stealing his rifle, all power is now given to Dwight and Toby must adjust in some way.

Without symbolism in literature, many novels and memoirs would be read completely differently and would change the way in which these books are read. Symbolism used throughout This Boy’s Life is effective in the way that it reveals aspects of Toby’s life we cannot see explicitly. The overall meaning of the text is shifted with these symbols, as it gives readers a more vast knowledge on Wolff as a boy and the way he perceives different parts of his life, like Rosemary and Dwight, for example. Symbols like the beaver hit by Dwight, the salmon spawning, and the .22 Winchester Rifle reveal the awful treatment of Wolff throughout his young life, and also his extremely negative feelings toward Dwight. Without these images being used in a symbolic way, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life would not be as well respected as it is today, and the lack of substance throughout the memoir would result in a more negative reading of the story of Wolff’s young life.