Tobias Wolff Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How is Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life related to other American narratives about childhood, such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)?

How does Wolff develop themes of friendship and the betrayal of friendship?

In what ways does Wolff explore the theme of conformity versus rebellion?

Many of Wolff’s characters tell lies. What is the moral status of lying in his work?

Wolff’s short stories have sometimes been called “realistic” or “minimalist.” Are these useful terms for describing his work?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Besides short stories, Tobias Wolff has published a novella, The Barracks Thief (1984), and a memoir, This Boy’s Life (1989). He also edited short-story anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories 1994 (1994).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The quality of his work has earned for Wolff much critical respect and numerous literary prizes. He received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in 1975-1976 to study creative writing at Stanford University, and even before he published his first book, he won creative writing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978, 1985), a Mary Roberts Rinehart grant (1979), and an Arizona Council on the Arts and Humanities fellowship in creative writing (1980). He has also won several O. Henry Awards (1980, 1981, and 1985) and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1982). Wolff’s In the Garden of the North American Martyrs received the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction (1982), his The Barracks Thief (1984) took the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (1985), and he won the Rea Award for short stories (1989). His This Boy’s Life: A Memoir (1989) won The Los Angeles Times book prize for biography and the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994) won Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone’s Prize for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Award (1994) and The Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography (1995). He has also received a Whiting Foundation Award (1990), a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award (1994), and a Lyndhurst Foundation Award (1994).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Challener, Daniel D. Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff. New York: Garland, 1997. Compares the poverty-stricken childhoods of several notable writers, analyzing what led them to overcome early hardship and go on to literary greatness. Includes a bibliography and index.

Desmond, John F. “Catholicism in Contemporary American Fiction.” America 170, no. 17 (1994): 7-11. Notes Wolff’s Christian ethos and comments on his use of liars and lying as means of exploring the manipulation of reality in his fiction.

Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction 64. New York: Twayne, 1996. A good critical study of the short fiction of Tobias Wolff.

Kelly, Colm L. “Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff’s ‘Say Yes.’” Mosaic 32 (March, 1999): 149-166. In response to sociological approaches to literature, argues that stories like Wolff’s are polysemous and therefore not reducible to any single interpretation; provides a deconstructive reading of the story, setting it off against three possible readings derived from current sociological theory, in order to show how the story deconstructs the theories that...

(The entire section is 500 words.)