Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465
The themes of Old School by Tobias Wolff include honesty, identity, and the meaning of being a writer.
Honesty is a major theme in the novel. The narrator plagiarizes a story instead of submitting his own work to the literary competition. The weight of his actions don't seem to phase him; he doesn't express regret for stealing someone else's work or potentially damaging the reputation of his school. Instead, he seems withdrawn and it takes several years before he can look at the story as belonging to its original author. His dean, Arch Makepeace, on the other hand, has a different reaction. When the narrator is expelled, the guilt of Makepeace's own dishonesty weighs on him. He has allowed people to believe that he knew Ernest Hemingway and that he was an inspiration for a character in one of his stories. He resigns because of this, though he later returns to work at the school.
Identity is another important theme in the work. The narrator is a scholarship student with a Jewish father. He was raised Catholic, however, and doesn't have a strong connection to his Jewish heritage. One of the reasons he recognizes the story and chooses to make it his own is that the main character is Jewish. He chooses to make that identity explicit by keeping the name Levine in the story even though he changes the first name of the character. He also yearns to be recognized for his accomplishments despite having very few. That's another reason why it takes so long for him to accept that he didn't write the story; it got him close to the acclaim and status he longed for. As a scholarship student surrounded by those with more affluent backgrounds, the narrator yearned for their type of status and access.
Finally, the novel looks at what it means to be a writer and to live like a writer. Each of the teachers at the school holds themselves like an author, according to the narrator. The headmaster of the school had even published a book of poems when he worked with Robert Frost, though the copy was removed from the library and never found. The narrator meets two famous authors—Robert Frost and Ayn Rand—who don't act the way he thought they would. When he is expelled, the narrator takes odd jobs and fights in the war. Looking back, he says he was living in a way that he imagined an author would. He was living for an imagined biography on the inside of a future book jacket. However, he didn't do much writing then. Ultimately, he says that you can't write about the life that inspires writing. When he actually writes, he lives a calmer lifestyle. He gets an education, gets married, and lives quietly.