Tobias Wolff Wolff, Tobias (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Tobias Wolff 1945–-

(Full name Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff) American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, editor, and journalist.

The following entry provides criticism on Wolff's short fiction career from 1982 to 2001. See also Tobias Wolff Literary Criticism.

Wolff has been a preeminent force on the American literary landscape since receiving the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novella The Barracks Thief in 1985. He has since earned additional acclaim for his short fiction and memoirs. Often compared to Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, Wolff writes stark, ambivalent portrayals of contemporary existence that are often humorous and piercing exposés of hypocrisy. His prose, understated and lyrical, serves to illuminate critical points in the lives of his characters, generally failures or discontented individuals who find themselves at a moral crossroads. Despite occasional criticism for plot gimmicks or using a tone irreverent to his subject-matter, Wolff is generally recognized as a skilled storyteller whose narratives candidly portray the human quest to establish order or purpose in life.

Biographical Information

Born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Rosemary Loftus Wolff, a secretary and waitress, and Arthur Saunders Wolff, an aeronautical engineer, Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff grew up in Chinook, Washington (outside of Seattle) with his brother Geoffrey Wolff, also a writer. Tobias's experiences with his mother and abusive step-father made his a troubled childhood; his unhappiness and feelings of powerlessness led him to lying and petty thievery as a means for rebellion. After being expelled from an esteemed preparatory school as a teenager, Wolff enlisted in the Army and served for four years (1964-1968) in Vietnam as a lieutenant with the Special Forces. Upon his return Wolff was accepted into Oxford University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1972 and an M.A. in 1975. He also earned an M.A. from Stanford in 1978. In addition to writing, Wolff has served as a reporter for the Washington Post and has held academic posts at Goddard College, Arizona State University, Temple University, and Syracuse University. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at Stanford. He and his wife Catherine split their time between Northern California and upstate New York. They have three children.

Major Works

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Wolff's highly praised first collection of short fiction, contains twelve stories that focus upon lonely characters facing the consequences of past decisions. In the title story, an overly obsequious university teacher is interviewed for a position at a prestigious college in the East. When she discovers that she was never under serious consideration for the opening, she speaks out eloquently and controversially for the first time in her career. In “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke,” a man discovers how far removed his values are from those of most people, and that he is unable to positively affect the lives of others through his work in academia. “Face to Face” depicts the failure of a romantic weekend vacation for a couple increasingly isolated from each other. Critics commended these stories for the wealth of metaphorical meaning beneath simple, natural language.

Wolff's novella The Barracks Thief concerns three American paratroopers stationed in North Carolina during the Vietnam War; they bond together through a shared temptation to allow an approaching forest fire to consume the ammunition dump that they are guarding. Told retrospectively by a soldier named Bishop, The Barracks Thief explores the question of whether it is better to die young and tragically or to live a long, but dull, conventional life.

Back in the World (1985), Wolff's second collection of short fiction, takes its title from the hopes of American Vietnam War veterans for clarity and purpose after their tour of duty. Other stories include “Coming Attractions,” featuring a lonely fifteen-year-old girl who makes phone calls that reveal her lack of close relationships, even among her family. “The Missing Person” is a comical story concerning Father Leo, whose failures include his latest assignment at a parish that has little use for his spiritual guidance. In general, Wolff's stories include a character whose circumstances lead him or her to dissembling as a way of creating a new self or revealing hidden truths.

Wolff's The Night in Question (1996) collects fifteen short stories in which the characters search for the essence of life that lies hidden beneath quotidian surfaces. In “Chain,” a man seeking revenge after a dog attacks his daughter gratefully accepts a friend's offer to kill the animal, the first in a series of reprisals that ultimately results in tragedy. “The Other Miller” is about a boy whose plan to punish his mother by joining the army proves futile. “Mortals” tells of a man who, eager to know what his friends say about him, sends his own obituary to the local newspaper. Other stories feature a book critic who is shot and killed while standing in line at the bank, a young woman who visits her father after his nervous breakdown, and a devoted sister struggling with a sermon her brother insists on reciting. Salvation is hard to come by for these characters, all of whom lack self-awareness. Their self-deceptions are not only humorous, but also morally tenuous, laying the groundwork for a collection of stories that read like parables and are often as edifying as they are ironic.

Critical Reception

Wolff has received a great deal of critical acclaim for his precise, evocative language as well as his insight into the lives of a diverse range of characters. Wolff often addresses the complexity of human experience in his work, considering related themes prismatically. Moral choices and familial connections are the primary concerns of his oeuvre, which many interpret as an inquiry into the conditions necessary for the establishment of positive identity or self-esteem. Wolff's prose style is direct and his vocabulary consistently accessible. Some have called his stories gimmicky, others have faulted him for failing to resolve his plots, but even Wolff's worst critics seem impressed by the depth, power, and candor of his narrative voice.

Thomas Sutcliffe (review date 30 July 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sutcliffe, Thomas. “Things Falling Apart.” Times Literary Supplement (30 July 1982): 815.

[In the following review, Sutcliffe calls Hunters in the Snow dispiriting and remarks that the stories' individual strengths are overshadowed by the collection's dejected tone.]

Short stories are sometimes referred to as if they were an endangered species, urgently in need of acts of conservation by well-disposed publishers and fiction editors who can commission collections and anthologies. Reading Hunters in the Snow it is hard not to feel that in some cases benign neglect might be a more effective policy, leaving the genre to work out its own survival in the environment of glossy monthlies and literary reviews. It isn't that Tobias Wolff's collection contains a single story that shouldn't have been published at some time, somewhere. His melancholy and regretful accounts of the hazards of sociable solitude and the pitfalls of the urbane jungle might have contrasted well with the sophisticated enthusiasms of Tri-Quarterly or Vogue. A story about social emulation in an American prep school probably sounded an effective dissonance when printed in Atlantic Monthly, just as an account of the humiliations of the academic life would have an extra edge for the readership of Anteus. But when they are removed from their natural habitat, the effect of the stories is increasingly dispiriting; reading them is like touring a menagerie in which the cages all contain the same restless, morose animal.

None of Wolff's characters is really happy, and by and large they seem to be unhappy for similar reasons; loneliness, a vagueness about the best way to behave, and continuing distress at the inefficiency of mere politeness as a means of doing good. They resign themselves to their inertia, to grey fates dictated by other people's expectations and the consequences of decisions already taken. The prevailing conditions are gloomy and overcast, with intermittent rain and occasional mist.

In “An Episode in the Life of...

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Richard Eder (review date 17 November 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. Review of Back in the World, by Tobias Wolff. Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 November 1985): 3.

[In the following review of Back in the World Eder says that Wolff “writes with a lavish display of skill.”]

The land of disquiet explored by a segment of American fiction is prosperous, druggy and largely devoted to games. A lot of work gets done, or it couldn't be paid for. But you don't see the work; it isn't really part of life except as an off-stage drain on the spirits.

The games that the inhabitants consider their real life are played in a state of crowded anxiousness. They offer an illusion of...

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Perry Glasser (review date December 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Glasser, Perry. “Reading in Love.” North American Review 270, no. 4 (December 1985): 76-7.

[In the following review, Glasser praises Back in the World for its candor and poignancy.]

Reading a good short story is like falling in love. Some quirk, some strangeness, some difference, piques your attention. That difference becomes enchanting. You smile at it, wondering briefly how it could come to be, but not caring really because it has the charm of novelty, so you go with it, lingering a bit longer out of interest and bemused curiosity. Then you begin to become aware of imperfections. There's a wart of self-consciousness here, a compulsion to...

(The entire section is 1627 words.)

Mona Simpson (essay date 9 December 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Simpson, Mona. “The Morality of Everyday Life.” New Republic 193 (9 December 1985): 37-8.

[In the following essay, Simpson traces the recurrence of certain moral questions throughout In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, The Barracks Thief, and Back in the World.]

People in Tobias Wolff's stories often ask each other questions like “What's the worst thing you've ever done?” They say these things while driving cars, while on watch at United States military installations, and during parties. They say, “You are about to hear my absolute bottom-line confession. The worst story ever told.” Less often, it's “Why don't you tell us something...

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Jay Woodruff and Tobias Wolff (interview date spring 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Woodruff, Jay and Tobias Wolff. “Tobias Wolff: Interview.” In A Piece of Work: Five Writers Discuss Their Revisions, edited by Jay Woodruff, pp. 22-40. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

[In the following interview, originally published in Contemporary Literature, spring 1990, Wolff discusses his approach to the writing and revision of the title story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.”]

[Woodruff]: How did [“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”] get started? What was its genesis?

[Wolff]: Well, there are a few things that I can trace it to. One is a job interview I had several years...

(The entire section is 9118 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 13 October 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Child Is the Father of the Man.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 October 1996): 2.

[In the following review of The Night In Question, Eder discusses how Wolff handles the subject childhood and adolescence.]

Like Antaeus, the mythological giant who was invincible as long as his feet touched ground—Hercules defeated him by hoisting him over his head—Tobias Wolff needs earth to stand on. The solidity it gives him liberates an artistry shot through with colors, subtleties, nuances and fantasy. He finds his Antaean earth mainly in two things: war and childhood. On other themes, seeking an equivalent ground, his stories sometimes...

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Robert Stone (review date 15 November 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Stone, Robert. “Finding Mercy in a God-forsaken World.” Times Literary Supplement (15 November 1996): 23

[In the following review of The Night in Question, Stone remarks on Wolff's moral perspective and the religious overtones in his work.]

The work of Tobias Wolff provides a blend of satisfactions not always available in combination. Wolff is both subtle and passionate. He often appears as a wry but sympathetic observer of the disappointments and petty strategies that define obscure unexamined lives. Yet, his true subject is nothing less than the world, how it goes. He is not a wringer of significances from everything in sight; few writers are less...

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Joan Smith and Tobias Wolff (interview date December 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Joan and Tobias Wolff. “Speaking into the Unknown.”, (December 1996).

[In the following interview, Wolff discusses short fiction as a genre and also describes his approach to writing a short story.]

Short stories, like poems, demand a lot from their readers. Novels may be longer, but they don't require the same compressed attention. They allow moments of relaxation; their narratives promise to hold you, however casual the concentration you invest.

But Tobias Wolff, who is one of our great contemporary masters of the short story, says that the difficulty of the short story...

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James Hannah (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hannah, James. “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-44. Boston: Twayne, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hannah studies each of the twelve stories that compose In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, focusing on how each reflects themes about changing one's life for the better.]


It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it's one of the affirming arts. It's one of the most intimate things that people do together. … A writer may have a certain pessimism in...

(The entire section is 18115 words.)

James Hannah (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hannah, James. “Published but Uncollected Stories.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 89-100. Boston: Twayne, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hannah reviews several stories that have appeared in anthologies and magazines but that Wolff has yet to include in a collection of his short fiction.]


When I sit down to write, I discover things that I have, for one reason or another, not admitted, not seen, not reflected on sufficiently. And those are the things that I live for in other people's fiction as well as my own.

Tobias Wolff, from an interview with...

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Colm J. Kelly (essay date March 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelly, Colm J. “Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff's ‘Say Yes’.” Mosaic 32, no. 1 (March 1999): 149-66.

[In the following essay, Kelly uses Wolff's short story “Say Yes” to help delineate the nature of a deconstructive approach to literature, as opposed to a sociological-contextualist one.]

Addressing the current emphasis on broadly sociological-contextualist approaches to literature, this essay uses Tobias Wolff's short story “Say Yes” to explore the viability of three possible interpretations and attempts to delineate the nature of a deconstructive approach....

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Martin Scofield (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Scofield, Martin. “Winging It: Realism and Invention in the Stories of Tobias Wolff.” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 93-108.

[In the following essay, Scofield argues that realism and experimentalism in literature are not mutually exclusive concepts.]

What is the best way to get a critical purchase on the stories of Tobias Wolff? Inevitably, he has hitherto been put in the critical filing cabinet in one of the sections of the drawer marked “Realism.” As long ago as 1963 Gordon Becker wrote in the introduction to his Documents of Modern Literary Realism: “Certainly it would add to ease of discourse in the future if whatever happens next...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Peterson, Anne Palmer. “And Finally … Talking with Tobias Wolff.” Continuum Online, (summer 1998).

Interview with Tobias Wolff.

Schrieberg, David. “Interview: Tobias Wolff.” Stanford Today Online, (September/October 1998).

Interview with Tobias Wolff


Clute, John. “Reports from the Regions.” Times Literary Supplement...

(The entire section is 245 words.)