Old School Summary
by Tobias Wolff

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Old School Summary

Old School is about a young boy's time in school and how he loses his chance to go to a good college and win accolades when he plagiarizes a story for a contest. The boy's dean, Arch Makepeace, is also a central character in the story; he leaves the school as a result of the boy's actions.

The unnamed narrator wants to be a writer and wants to be a member of high society. He was raised by a Jewish father but in the Catholic faith. Though the atmosphere at his school frowns on obvious displays of wealth, he yearns for the kind of background that his peers come from. When he finds out that three famous authors will be visiting the school during the year, he hopes that he can win a contest that will allow him a face-to-face meeting with one of the authors, along with the publication of his piece. This will help give him some of the status he desires.

When Robert Frost and Ayn Rand arrive, they choose other students as the award winners. The narrator feels increasingly despondent. He already knows he'll be attending Columbia on a scholarship, but he doesn't feel like it will be enough if Hemingway doesn't choose his entry.

When he comes across a story by a girl he doesn't know, he sees himself in the main character. The main character comes from a lower-class background and exhibits many of the qualities he doesn't want to admit to. The narrator starts writing a story with the same sentence and continues until he's plagiarized the entire story.

Mr. Ramsey tells him that Hemingway chose his story. The story is published along with Hemingway's positive comments about it. The narrator thinks about the story as if it's his own and as if Hemingway's comments reflect his own ability. When the headmaster and staff confront him about the plagiarism, he still thinks of the story of his own and seems almost confused at the accusations.

The dean says that he will have to contact Columbia and tell them that he didn't complete his studies and that the dean "can't vouch for [his] character." This means that Columbia will take away his scholarship and acceptance to the university. He leaves the school in disgrace and chooses not to go home.

The narrator moves to New York and can't find a job at a newspaper with his background. He ends up busing tables near Times Square and mentions that he was working there when Ernest Hemingway killed himself. He works at several other jobs and then fights in Vietnam. The narrator says that his life seems like an author's biography, likely because that's how he pictured it as he lived it. Later, though, he grows up and lives a responsible and respectable life with his wife and family. He writes more during these times.

While speaking to Mr. Ramsey as an adult, he learns more about Dean Makepeace's life. Makepeace didn't know Hemingway, but through an unclear conversation, he accidentally allowed people to believe he did. After the narrator's plagiarism is revealed, Makepeace quits his job out of guilt over allowing people to believe in his connection to Hemingway. After a year, he writes and asks to return, saying that he made a mistake. The headmaster welcomes him back.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Wolff calls Old School a novel, its plot follows the events of his own life beginning with his enrollment at prep school (in other words, it begins where This Boy’s Life leaves off). The narrator of the story, Wolff’s stand-in, is intimidated by the class snobbery at his...

(The entire section is 909 words.)