Same Old Product in a Brand New Box
One can easily say that Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life experiences what nearly every boy encounters while progressing toward maturity—he faces the challenges of fitting in and growing as an individual. Throughout the book, Toby finds himself altering his behavior and attitude to both escape the past and cope with the pressures of adolescence, yet in each case, his superficial transformations cannot destroy his true identity. Still, the struggle continues from the first pages of the book to its conclusion, while Toby attempts to change himself and fails to honestly do so each time.
Toby’s first change begins to occur the moment he and his mother leave Florida and his father behind. At this point, Toby decides to change his name. In response, he dons “Jack” to escape the past; the name itself is symbolic of the transformation from his old life to his new one. He leaves behind, or rather tries to leave behind, his old home, his old family, and his old ideas and fears. Wanting nothing to do with previous restraints, such as his shyness with girls, and even less to do with his father, Toby tries to change who he is and to leave all remnants of his previous life behind, even going so far as to create an ideal life for himself, as he did in his letters to his pen-pal, Alice. Yet, he finally finds he truly cannot alter himself so deeply:
I was subject to fits of feeling myself unworthy . . . There was no reason for me to have this feeling. I thought I left it back in Florida . . . but here it was, come to meet me. (11-12)
At this point, Toby realizes he will be unable to maintain his charade, feeling that someone knew “all about [him]” and that he “wasn’t fooling anyone” (12). Even so, the desire to change himself still does not leave him.
Later in the book, Tobias Wolff recollects his experiences upon first moving to Chinook and going to school in Concrete. He tries to be a ‘tough guy’—smoking and exchanging “facts not available to the general public about women” with his new friends, Taylor and Silver (76). He seems only to be trying to make the best of his new situation by fitting in, but he soon realizes that he once again is pretending to be someone other than himself:
All my life I have recognized almost at a glance those who were meant to be my friends . . . Arthur was one of these. I liked him . . . But I had withheld my friendship, because I was afraid of what it would cost me. (108)
The advent of Arthur, socially considered an outcast among the “in” crowds, causes a conflict between Toby’s true self and the person he is pretending to be, for often the burden of popularity is the high cost of maintaining it. Toby cannot continue to hold his place among his friends if he rejects the general consensus—such is the nature of peer pressure and social status during adolescence. But no matter how much he tries, Toby finds he cannot dismiss his real self, and finally gives in and befriends Arthur.
Yet, once again, Toby learns little from his experiences and tries to transform another time when applying to prep-school. Wanting desperately to flee from Dwight and his life in Chinook and Concrete, Toby again creates a new life for himself, making up for years of neglected studies by changing his grades and forging recommendations. And, upon his acceptance to Hill, he assumes that his effort in reinventing himself as a superb student had finally produced a return. But, the young Tobias Wolff was in for a surprise. “I did not to well at Hill,” he writes plainly in the last chapter of the book (285). The education he had made up for himself did him no good when he was forced to draw from it in a setting that required that of him.
Throughout This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff finds himself changing to accommodate his situation and the pressures he encounters caused by the need to “fit in.” The transformations he makes, however, cannot be and are not more than superficial changes, and so, in time, each fails. He cannot escape his past or his father, and ultimately returns to him the final chapters of the book. He cannot escape his true feelings toward Arthur or, for that matter, to any situation, and must then sacrifice popularity and acceptance by his peers. Finally, he realizes that he cannot rely on the lives he invents for himself. And, while Toby does not seem to realize why his personas collapse until perhaps the very end of the book, This Boy’s Life still provides an effective commentary on the struggles of a boy in adolescence, faced with the social pressures of his age, trying to develop and mature.