Discuss  Tobias Wolff's short story "Smokers."

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An American writer, Tobias Wolff writes memoirs or autobiographical stories.  Wolff's first published short story, "Smokers,"  takes place in a preparatory school in the East, and replicates an event in his life:  he was expelled from a prestigious high school. 

Narrated in first person point of view, the main character not only tells the story but interacts with the other characters.  Much of the story progresses through the dialogue.  The setting is Choate, an actual all-boys preparatory school in Connecticut, probably in the 1960s. The main characters include the narrator, who remains nameless; Eugene Miller, an eccentric dresser and competitive swimmer; and Talbot Nevin, a wealthy boy whose family financially endows the school.

The story circulates around the school and the few events the narrator shares with the reader.  Eugene stands out because of his odd dressing and his apparenteasy personality .  He is even featured in Life magazine in an article about a typical eastern prep school.  Talbot has no interest in academics and seems interested in nothing  in particular.  The narrator sets out to become Talbot's friend.  Most of the boys are basically interested in breaking the school rules:  smoking; drinking cokes laced with cough syrup, and sticking Ben Gay up their noses.

Eventually,  Talbot and the narrator become friends. Talbot takes advantage of his friend by manipulating him into writing his essays for him for English class. Thoughtless and immature, Talbot does not even appreciate his friend's efforts.

The rising action of the story occurs when the narrator visits Eugene and Talbot's room.  The reader learns that Eugene has broken the conference record for the butterfly stroke in swimming.  Eugene leaves to run an errand.  When Talbot comes into the dorm room, he suggesta that the two share a cigarette. The narrator takes just a "drag."

Later, he learns that the dorm master smelled smoke and discovered cigarettes in Eugene and Talbot's room.  With Talbot nowhere to be found, Eugene denies smoking.  Dismissed from the school, Eugene leaves crying and humiliated.  The  narrator almost tells the headmaster the truth:

For all I knew Eugene had been smoking...If you want to get technical about it, he was guilty as charged...it wasn't as if some great injustice had been done.

Thematically, the narrator faces the challenge of doing the right thing.  He, unfortunately, fails this opportunity for growth by justifiying  his decision not to stand up for his friend.  The great theologian, Thomas Aquinas taught that man must live with his own integrity:

Every judgment of conscience be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves,  in such wise that he who acts again his conscience always sins. 

No redeeming qualities come through for either of the boys who could have saved Eugene.

The narrator never redeems himself by rescinding  his decision and helping  Euguene.   Talbot never displays a guilty conscience and admits he was the "smoker."  Only the reader can see the dramatic irony.   Eugene, the boy that everyone liked and won awards for the school, was dismissed in shame:  the cheaters, who broke the rules, are able to stay in school. In the final analysis, the narrator convinces himself:

I even considered sending the dean an anonymous note, but I doubted if it would get much attention.  They were big on doing the gentlemanly thing at Choate.

Yet, no gentleman here!


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