Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir (1989)

Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life: A Memoir (1989) provides in a series of unsentimental anecdotes an account of the celebrated author’s childhood and teen years growing up in small-town America in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Believing he had an interesting story to tell, the author provides a detailed, intimate, and insightful first-hand account of his juvenile delinquency, covering the behaviours and attitudes in a confessional and confronting manner.  In this same manner, the author covers other subject matter, including a loving mother and son relationship that is at the centre of the story.  However, the author’s numerous references to the circumstances of his divorced single-mother, who is trying to make a decent life for herself and her young son, speak of the oppressive patriarchy of that era and the lack of rights and opportunities afforded to women who may feel forced by their predicament to marry or stay married in unsatisfying or abusive relationships for reasons of economic viability. 

In addition, the memoir paints an unsentimental portrait of small-town America during the late 1950s and early 1960s that contradicts the idealisation of this period of affluence and economic growth.  In this story there are many references to an unsavoury militarism and gun culture that are related to equally unsavoury codes of domineering masculinity, which includes a culture of toughness and violence.  This can include domestic violence against women and children, prejudice against homosexuals and racial tensions with local native-Americans.  There are also telling references to there being limited economic prospects, class divisions and snobbery, as well as the existence of an underclass with little prospect for upward social mobility.  Furthermore, the celebrated rock-and-roll youth culture of that era is put in perspective as being somewhat incidental and, despite the claims of its defenders, sometimes linked to juvenile delinquency although it is not a cause of juvenile delinquency. 

Importantly, the memoir is also notable for its writing style, utilising polished literary techniques associated with fiction to add colour and atmosphere to make the text more engaging.  Meanwhile, the direct, confessional and unsentimental tone of the story-telling lends the text additional credibility. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: This Boy’s Life meaning, This Boy’s Life themes, This Boy’s Life analysis, This Boy’s Life notes