Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849
The school the narrator attends prides itself on being a place where students' backgrounds don't matter. Tobias Wolff writes, "If the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place—quite aside from the glamorous writers who visited three times a year." The teachers, the narrator says, hold themselves like famous authors or have known famous authors. The pride of the school for its literary tradition is one of the reasons the boy is expelled when his plagiarism is discovered. The administrators feel his actions have made fools of them.
One of the annual traditions at the school involves famous writers coming to visit. The narrator says,
There was a tradition at my school by which one boy was granted a private audience with each visiting writer. We contended for this honor by submitting a piece of our own work, poetry if the guest was a poet, fiction if a novelist. The writer chose the winner a week or so before arriving. The winner had his poem or story published in the school newspaper, and, later, a photograph of him walking the headmaster’s garden with the visiting writer.
The boy doesn't feel he's done anything to distinguish himself and yearns to have done so. This is one of the reasons why, after losing the first two literary prizes, he submits a plagiarized work to the competition. Though the work is published, he never gets to meet Hemingway because the school finds out he plagiarized his story.
When the narrator reads the original story that he copies, he's transfixed by it. It makes a strong impression on him. He says,
I went back to the beginning and read it again, slowly this time, feeling all the while as if my inmost vault had been smashed open and looted and every hidden thing spread out across these pages. From the very first sentence I was looking myself right in the face.
This identification is likely one reason why he's able to plagiarize it and still maintain the feeling that it's his own work. He sees himself in the character.
The narrator makes some changes to the story in order to make it his own. He says,
Word by word I gave it all away. I changed Ruth’s first name to mine, in order to place myself unmistakably in the frame of these acts and designs, but kept Levine, because it made unmistakable what my own last name did not. I changed the city to Seattle, Caroline to James, and brought other particulars into line. I didn’t have a lot of adjusting to do. These thoughts were my thoughts, this life my own.
He chooses to keep Levine because it makes his Jewish heritage explicit. He changes other details to bring them in line with his life not only so the story can pass as his, but also to enhance his connection to it. By the time he's done, the story feels like something he's created.
Mr. Ramsey, one of the narrator's teachers, tells him that he won the final literary prize. He says,
I chose the final entries, he said. Seeing my surprise, he said, Really, now, you didn’t suppose we sent Mr. Ernest Hemingway every story you fellows came up with, did you? All thirty-four of them? Oh no. I skimmed off the three best and sent him those, though I knew it was strictly pro forma after I’d read the first page of “Summer Dance.” And I was right, wasn’t I?
Even his teacher recognizes how good the story is. He's proud of him and claims that he knew it would be selected when he sent it. The narrator doesn't feel a sense of shame at this because his feelings of ownership over the story are so intense.
When the narrator is shown the original story by the administrators, he feels a kind of shock and disconnection. He doesn't recognize the author's name on it. He writes, "It had flown my mind as soon as I’d begun reading the story that night in the Troubadour office and seen my own life laid bare on the page, and in all the time since then I’d never thought of “Summer Dance” as anyone’s story but mine." It takes years for him to lose the sense that he'd written the story. Not until he's about to leave for Vietnam does he look at it again without a sense of ownership.
In the end, the narrator says that he designed his life after getting out of school as if it were the biography of an author. He worked odd jobs and fought in a war. During that time, he did very little writing. Once he went back to school, got married, and settled down, he wrote more. He says, "The life that produces writing can’t be written about." It took him years not to learn to write but live in a way that facilitated writing and let him claim his own heritage, identity, and experience.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support