Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Barracks Thief is an elusive novel, a rare work that seems so simple as to be inconsequential, yet so suggestive as to be profound. First of all, it is a man’s story; the only woman in the novel is the prostitute—the classic object of desire, good for nothing else but the sexual pleasure of the male, but at the same time a menacing figure, refusing to be loved and threatening the male with the emasculating knife. Wolff’s novel is about the kinds of things that concern men when they are together as men. Because Philip, Lewis, and Hubbard are treated as if they were sissies or children by the more experienced soldiers, they need something to prove themselves to be men—which in this context means confronting danger, facing down opponents, being sexually powerful. Thus, the ironic heart of the novel is that when the three men actually face danger at the ammunition dump, it is no danger at all. As Philip says, “Nothing happens.” Moreover, the very sense of camaraderie created by the confrontation is violated by Lewis’s need to satisfy the prostitute in the only way he can—with money that he steals from his barracks buddies.

Male bonding, which is at the very center of this novel, is a subject so easily open to ridicule that it is a tribute to Wolff’s skill as a writer that he can successfully explore the many complexities of being a male in a male world with such subtlety. As is typical of examples of the short-story or novella forms, every event in the story is motivated by its central theme. The opening episodes focus on the loss of Philip’s father as a role model and his rejection of his own role as his brother’s keeper. Particularly symbolic is a scene in which the father tries to give Philip a folding bicycle as a graduation present, telling him that with it he will never be without transportation. When the father pitches over the handlebars and lies tangled up with the bike, he calls to his son, “I can’t move. Give me a hand.” Philip, however, turns away, and he joins the Army the next morning.

The theme of male bonding crystalizes with the ammunition dump scene; like everything else in this novel, however, the event is problematical and inconclusive. Lewis feels that he must explicitly follow his orders to shoot anyone who dares to put a hand on the fence surrounding the dump, but it is a foolish, quixotic act that defies reason and common sense. The fact that the three men feel mysteriously bonded because they have faced danger...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)