Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Wolff conveys his story primarily through dialogue. Character, motivation, psychological perspective, and insight, as well as meaning, are revealed mainly through utterances of the characters. They talk in the terse, clipped sentences and fragments of sentences of those who have been married for a long time and have little need for words to communicate with each other. At the same time, because they take opposing viewpoints, some verbal conversation is necessary simply to further the conflict and increase the tension.

Like most couples who have been married a long time, each knows much of what the other will say. Toward that end the author, telling the story from an omniscient point of view, indicates that both characters know the effects of their own statements before they make them. Therefore, they willingly enter the argument—and they willfully keep it going to move it to their final separation at the end of the story, which is also the evident end of their relationship.

The setting of the story is the ordinary kitchen of a typical modern home. It has no distinctive characteristics because the author is writing about all such kitchens in all such houses, and about the inevitable breakdown of such relationships. The spotlessness of the linoleum and other fixtures recalls the sterility of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933).

Wolff uses two obvious symbols. In cutting herself, Anne is offering sacrificial blood to the relationship. It falls on the floor (that is, the underpinning) of their home and relation. The husband succeeds in cleaning up the blood, but not in cleaning up the mess. When the husband takes out the trash and sees two dogs fight over it, the animals are reenacting what has just occurred in the kitchen. Human nature is animalistic. The selfishness of the dogs in refusing to share the garbage reflects the determination of the human couple to force each other to “say yes”—to agree to be submissive. The consequence of such conduct is invariably separation. The couple not only learn that they are strangers to each other, but that this has always been the case between men and women.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Republican Years
The 1980s was a decade led by Republican thinking and policy. Ronald Reagan took office as president of the...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Narration and Construction
The story is told chronologically, and the story takes place over a brief period of time: the space...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1980s: At the beginning of the 1980s, nine percent of all United States households are made up solely of a married couple. There are...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

How do you think the husband and wife will resolve their situation? Do you think they will resolve it? Write a scene that takes place the...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Wolff’s This Boy’s Life: A Memoir is a riveting, autobiographical account of the author’s teen years. Brought to the Pacific...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Banks, Russell, Review of Back in the World, in New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1985, p. 9.


(The entire section is 211 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Challener, Daniel D. Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff. New York: Garland, 1997.

Cornwall, John. “Wolff at the Door.” Sunday Times Magazine (London), September 12, 1993, 28-33.

DePietro, Thomas. “Minimalists, Moralists, and Manhattanites.” Hudson Review 39 (Autumn, 1986): 487-494.

Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff.” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 1-16.

Wolff, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception. New York: Viking Press, 1986.