In Old School by Tobias Wolff, how does the narrator's story parallel Dean Makepeace's story?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Tobias Wolff's novel Old School, there definitely turn out to be many similarities between the unnamed narrator's story and that of Dean Makepeace, whom the narrator looks up to.

The narrator struggles in his prestigious boarding school for a couple of different reasons. One reason is because he must face anti-Semitism since his father is Jewish. Another reason is simply because he is unprepared to undertake the difficult classwork at the school. However, the one area in which the narrator excels is in English. He even joins the staff on the school's literary magazine. The literary magazine and the whole school itself are very dedicated to literary arts, and the school frequently receives famous writers as guests, including Robert Frost and Ayn Rand. In fact, as the narrator phrases it, the school is so enamored of literary arts that Robert Frost's visitation was seen as far more important than even the Nixon vs. Kennedy campaign happening at the exact time. It is also believed that Ernest Hemingway is a friend of Dean Makepeace, who says he met Hemingway during World War I. Soon the school begins to anticipate being visited by Hemingway.

Meanwhile, the narrator tries very unsuccessfully to write a story that will be competitive enough to enter for a chance to win the Hemingway prize. Feeling overcome by both self-doubt and the need to compete, a need that is a result of his school's influence, he succumbs to plagiarizing a story already published in a different school's literary magazine. At first the narrator's fraud is very successful, earning him a great deal of praise. However, it's not long before someone discovers the plagiarism, and the narrator is expelled from the school. His acceptance into Columbia University is also retracted.

At the same time that the narrator is being expelled for plagiarism, Dean Makepeace resigns from the school. The narrator soon learns that the reason why is because the dean never actually personally met nor befriended Hemingway. When the dean hears that the narrator is being expelled for plagiarism, the dean feels guilty of his own plagiarism and feels duty bound to resign. Hence, their stories parallel in that both the narrator and Dean Makepeace had to leave their places of honor for giving misleading information. However, the narrator also could not help but think the dean had "given up his work and home in protest at [the narrator's] well-deserved dismissal" (p. 173). Hence, on the one hand, the dean and the narrator parallel in that both lost their positions due to misinformation, but they also parallel in thinking that the misinformation was really too minor to justify completely changing the course of their lives.

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