Old School Summary

Tobias Wolff

Old School

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Old School Summary

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It can be tempting to view Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School as a parody or a sendup — after all, the New England prep school novel with a young Jewish protagonist is certainly not a new story, so why would anyone tell it again without a satirical bent? — but while Old School is very funny at times, it is wholly original and deadly serious.

The name of the book’s narrator is never revealed, but readers familiar with Wolff’s memoir Boy’s Life will most likely view the narrator of Old School as a stand-in for Wolff himself. He does not fit easily into the prestigious New England school. His fellow students are wealthy and it is paramount to him that he not reveal that he is there on scholarship. And the narrator is obsessed with winning the school’s prestigious annual literary prize.

For Wolff, art is an attempt to express the inexpressible, not the pursuit of individual glory. Perhaps, suggests Old School, it is naive for some to even attempt to leave an indelible artist mark behind. The callowness of youth — particularly the self-serious youthful artist–has fallibility built into it. In Old School, the self-seriousness of the young college student who is rapidly cycling through identities–while still remaining capable of speaking with total conviction about things with which they lack experience — results in a pretentiousness that is also shared by much of the faculty.

There are hints from the beginning that the narrator is exasperated by this pretension. The school prides itself on being “a literary place,” which is appropriate, as much of the novel comprises discussions and ruminations on exactly what literature is, what it is worth, and the honors that literary excellence should bestow upon its practitioners. But by arriving at a “literary place,” the students must then determine a set of conventions that they must live by, write by, and an image to be projected outward. The facade must be maintained or one cannot be taken seriously.

Each year the school holds a writing contest, presided over by a literary luminary. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway (or their reputations) each figure prominently in the plot and the feverish aspirations of the students. The contest concludes with that year’s famous author — who serves as a judge — choosing the winning piece, which is then published. Better yet for some, the winning student gets to stroll the campus with the author.

The novel begins with the narrator sizing up those he considers his main competition for the prize. Old School is often humorous, but the laughs are subtle and would resonate most strongly with those who have worked in English departments or have seen the ostensible, high-stakes infighting of academics craving recognition.

The pivotal arrival of Robert Frost–and the ensuing conversation regarding poetic form versus function–sets the chain of events that comprise most of the novel in motion, and lays the foundation for the literary discussions that follow. The narrator has to watch a writer he considers inferior win the prize. The winning entry is a poem that is meant to pay tribute to Frost, but which Frost interprets as an affectionate barb directed at his style and poetic conventions. This devastates the winner and sends him into paroxysms of doubt, not only about his work, but about his identity writ large.

The major theme of Old School is this desire to impress for the wrong reasons, the consequences of failing to live up to one’s creative potential, and the potential cost of lies. By structuring its plot around the climbing writers on campus, Wolff is able to demonstrate that a desire to be honored, to be seen as an important literary figure, can undercut the value of literature–and of art–itself. Art must be selfless in its inception. This theme reaches its nexus in the figure of Ayn Rand, whose visit to the school with an inconsiderate, insufferable entourage, is the highlight of the novel. Art cannot be conceived from a sheer desire to gain acolytes, and Rand’s acolytes seem oblivious to the laughable role they play in the story.

The theme of not living up to one’s artistic potential is presented as an insidious problem, one that gnaws at the narrator every waking moment. It is one of the fascinating conundrums about writing: there are those who can only see themselves as writers. Those who feel they were truly called. When that is the case, those people who have assumed the authorial mantle, in the absence of accolades and publications, feel that they are failing. Old School gently asks the reader to consider what makes anyone think they must be a writer?

This dovetails neatly with the novel’s insistence that the reader scrutinize the definition of personal identity. Is each student a Self, or are they merely the work that they produce (or fail to produce). Can the narrator truly feel that he exists in a meaningful way in the absence of praise and bona fides?

These questions and themes are synthesized beautifully in the aftermath of Ernest Hemingway’s selection as a judge of the contest. The narrator makes a poor choice that will change the trajectory of his education and career. And yet, when all is said and done, he feels a sort of liberation at leaving his artistic mindset behind him on campus.

Once again, art is an attempt to express the inexpressible. In his flailing, over-reaching, mostly endearing characters, Wolff has managed to write a novel that can be read purely for story and enjoyment, but also serves as a performance of the very themes and questions that consume the student body. His mastery over the subject has been vindicated by countless critics. Wolff is a brilliant thinker and a beloved author, and his work has received the veneration that the students of Old School crave so desperately.