Study Guide

The Barracks Thief

by Tobias Wolff

The Barracks Thief Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Barracks Thief begins with a short prologue introducing the character who will narrate much of the tale. Philip Bishop, the elder son of a marriage that has ended badly, impulsively enlists in the Army, leaving behind his worried mother and vulnerable younger brother. At this point, the story shifts into the first person to recount Philip’s military experiences. Philip meets Hubbard and Lewis when he arrives at Fort Bragg. Ignored by the rest of the company, the three newcomers reluctantly become companions and form a bond when they are assigned to guard an ammunition dump together. They each reveal something about their prior lives at home. Hubbard focuses on his two closest buddies and their shared love of cars. He confesses that he could never kill anyone and worries about being sent to Vietnam. In contrast, Lewis presents himself as a tough guy and experienced womanizer. He makes light of an incident where he hesitated to rappel down a cliff during training exercises. Lewis was particularly offended when the sergeant on duty called him “Tinkerbell.” Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a car bearing two local policemen. Warned that a forest fire might ignite the dump, the soldiers rudely turn away the men, and recklessly decide to stand by their post, developing an illusory sense of power and bravery.

Soon after, some men in the company are dispatched to Oakland to await assignments overseas. One day they are assigned crowd-control duty during...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

The Barracks Thief Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tobias Wolff’s novella-length The Barracks Thief reads more like a long short story than a novel. Consisting of seven brief chapters, it seems at first to be a simple and unassuming story with little or no thematic significance; however, as is often the case with novellas, the more one thinks about the work, the more psychologically and morally complex becomes this exploration of the motivations of three inarticulate young men caught up in the demands of masculinity.

Although the story begins with the teenage brothers Keith and Philip Bishop’s reactions to their father’s desertion of the family for another woman—Keith runs off to be a hippie, while Philip joins the Army—the central focus is on Philip’s relationship with Lewis and Hubbard, two other young and inexperienced paratroopers who are waiting at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to be shipped to Vietnam. Because the book is in some ways Lewis’s story as well as Philip’s, Wolff shifts the point of view a number of times. The first chapter describes the father’s desertion, Keith’s running away from home, and Philip’s joining the Army from a third-person-omniscient point of view. In the next three chapters, however, the point of view abruptly shifts to Philip himself, who tells of his initial experiences in the Army.

This second section presents a central episode in the story. Philip, Lewis, and Hubbard—outsiders to the other, older men, most of whom have already served together in Vietnam—are assigned to guard an ammunition dump on the Fourth of July. Lewis plays the stereotyped role of the Kentucky redneck, and he brags about his prowess with women; Hubbard complains about Army life and longs to be back home with his friends; Philip remains, as he does throughout the book, uncommitted and noncommittal. It is a long, boring day until a...

(The entire section is 753 words.)