Style and Technique
This story has strong biblical overtones, beginning with its ironic title. The reader assumes that Pete is the rich brother but learns by story’s end that this may not be so. Donald has a certain freedom that comes from his independence from material goods, and this brings him a richness that Pete can never experience. Wolff makes indirect allusions to several similar stories from the Testaments.
Anyone familiar with the biblical story of Cain and Abel will hear implicit echoes of Yahweh’s question, “Where is thy brother?” and Cain’s sarcastic reply: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is Pete’s question throughout the story, and he finally comes to the conclusion that yes, he is his brother’s keeper. Leaving him out on the road would, in his view, be equivalent to sentencing him to death—a guilt that he cannot bear.
The story of the prodigal son echoes in Wolff’s story as well. Here is Donald returning to the fold of Pete’s home after losing everything out in the world. Pete is the resentful older brother who has labored all day in the field; Donald implicitly teaches Pete the need for generosity.
The story of the rich man and the publican seems an appropriate parallel as well. Pete is much like that rich man, proud of his accomplishments, especially proud of his generosity toward his worthless brother. Donald, on the other hand, if not especially humble, is nevertheless on a fumbling quest that preoccupies his whole life. Early on, he admits that he has made a mess of things and asks for a kind of mercy from Pete.
Some of Wolff’s language also recalls the Bible, especially the simplicity of his story’s opening. Thus, Wolff uses a kind of intertextuality to pack a great deal into a simple story of internecine struggle.