Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Pete seems to have his life well organized; he is a responsible, highly successful citizen. He has done everything right and is justly proud of the rewards of his hard work. Donald, on the other hand, seems to be a mess. He is something of a hippie, moving from ashrams to other forms of communitarian living. He seems to have little sense of the value of money, often borrowing from others, never paying them back. When he does have a bit of money, regardless of the source, he tends to give it away to the first person who asks for a handout.

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Even among his hippie friends, he stands out as childish; they eject him because he cannot function in a way that they are used to. He spills soda on his brother’s beautiful new leather upholstery and seems amazed that Pete is upset over such a meaningless possession. He even wears his clothes inside out, totally unconcerned over his appearance.

However, Pete is showing signs of having something of a midlife crisis, centered principally around the question of what all his work and accomplishments really mean. Tobias Wolff gradually reveals symptoms of the problems Pete is facing. The reader may be surprised to learn that Pete does, indeed, dream about Donald, just as Donald had suspected, which Pete at first denies. The content of the dream is rather startling, as well: Pete mentions that, in the dream, there was something wrong with him, not telling Donald that the problem was that Pete was blind, and that Donald was somehow helping him—leading him, one assumes. Even more surprising is Pete’s grudging admission that he frequently beat up his younger brother. Thus, when Donald claims that Pete has real problems, and that they center on his not having a real purpose in his life, the reader gradually suspects that Wolff is on Donald’s side in this matter.

Donald’s very presence serves as a question for Pete, who wonders how anyone can exist in such a haphazard and dependent way. Donald inadvertently wears his T-shirt inside out, so that the words “Try God” are facing inward. Wolff seems to suggest that Donald constantly reminds himself of these words and only secondarily addresses them to his brother. His focus is interior, spiritual, aimed at another world—and, therefore, bizarre in the eyes of a materialist such as Pete.

As the story ends, Pete finds himself pondering the possibility that there may be more to life than his limited view has allowed him to see. What if Donald’s naïveté is the beginning of wisdom? He finally recognizes and accepts his own dependence on Donald. Although the two brothers have little in common, the story demonstrates that they are inseparably paired and need each other. This inescapable relationship is their shared wealth.

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