This Boy’s Life: As If We’d Been Saved

The final sentence of This Boy’s Life captures in one line a creative tension of this narrative and the way Wolff’s autobiography works. The tension is particularly strong in the concluding chapters of the novel. The sentence reminds us, in case we had momentarily forgotten in the joy of Toby’s singing, what we know and he doesn’t yet. Things aren’t going to work out; he is, as the narrator puts it earlier, headed for trouble, on his way to a war.

It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.

So Toby isn’t saved. That’s the final word. But the complication is that he also makes it out, is in some way released; the final section, after all, is titled ‘Amen.’ In other words, Toby is and isn’t free. Wolff leaves this ambivalence as the final note of the autobiography. I wonder what you think of that. Why end here? Why leave us, leave Toby, this way?

As I mentioned in class, this isn’t the Hollywood ending. As I recall, the movie version of the book points forward to Dwight’s arrest, possibly mentions in voice-over Toby’s problems at Hill (I can’t recall exactly), but focuses attention on the mother and Toby getting into the car once again for the summer. The image seems to be from around page 263, when Toby gets his scholarship and the mother a job in Seattle: “We were ourselves again–restless, scheming, poised for flight.” This is, of course, where we begin the narrative (poised for flight); but it is not where Wolff leaves us. Instead, we get Toby in the car, yes, singing and scheming, but heading back into a trap long ago set.

Does this mean that Wolff’s vision of his childhood is ultimately pessimistic? Why leave it here, or even write it, if that is the conclusion? What’s the point?

My view is that this ambivalence, this inability to separate the future from the past, the good from the bad, freedom from some sort of enslavement, or even true self from false or other self, is precisely what this autobiography is about. And at some level, what every autobiography gets into: the ambivalence of memory and identity. In the case of Franklin, this potential for self-invention and self-making is powerful and even, potentially, virtuous–his ‘art’ or plan for virtue. But it also means that the self is always on the move, always in process. Recall how Franklin puts it with his analogy, his metonymy: I failed to achieve the virtue completely, but was mended in the process of writing it down, just as the hand learns to write in the process of copying letters.

In Toby’s case, we see this ambivalence poignantly in the reflection of the mirror when he is trying on clothes with Mr. Howard. Note how wonderfully complicated and symbolic this moment, otherwise mundane (trying on clothes), reads. It picks up nicely the way Wolff earlier frames the moment that leads to this: the applications, and fabrications, that get Toby into Hill–where he claims to be telling the truth as he imagined it, and to see, finally, his own face. In the store, this is image given back:

The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.

But the man, as Wolff earlier puts it, is no help to the boy. And there is the complication of this story’s freedom. Because this stranger, this imagined truth, doesn’t know the truth yet, Toby has to find out the hard way. He is free and stuck, caught, at the very same time. I think Wolff knows, as a writer of memory and identity, that this is always the case with reflections. We don’t see things purely; we don’t get saved. We have, instead, songs and prayers as if it were so.

This deliberate ambivalence of the conclusion points to elements of the narrative’s structure–indeed, highlights the ways that this narrative is highly structured. I would even say, crafted in terms of film structure. What we see is that the structure of autobiographical nonfiction need not simply be given by the chronology or events of the life. In classic film structure, there are three acts. The first act (usually about 20 minutes long) sets up the normal world of the film, a problem for the protagonists, and a turning point–a surprising complication of the problem that sets the rest of the film in motion and will need to be solved by the end. In this narrative, the clear turning point happens with Toby in the car with Dwight, bracing for the next curve: Toby’s ‘father’ problem is complicated, not solved, by Dwight–but also Toby’s own complicity in it. The second act offers a series of complications, leading up to a final complication (second act turning point) that leads to the climax of the film in the third act. The third act is usually a two-part conclusion: a climax (in TBL, the escape from Dwight, heading off to Hill) and then a resolution in which the new reality for the protagonist is established. In this narrative, the resolution should be the happy ending pointing toward the future. Instead, we get a future that isn’t so bright, and a resolution that takes us back to a happy moment of the past. Why structure things this way?

Whatever your answers, keep this narrative structure in mind for later consideration with your final project. Remember the three-act structure of film writing that I associate with nonfiction narrative–and even further, with a thesis of academic argument.