Little Lies: An Analysis of Pretense in Old School
Old School is a very unique novel in its execution. It appears to contain an archetypal “coming of age” story, with Catcher in the Rye and Dead Poet’s Society being other notable examples. Such stories are told in a formulaic, almost cliched way. Catcher is a first person stream of consciousness and Dead Poet’s Society is a third person narrative. Both however, are continual and linear in their story structure. Old School seems to consist of fragments and jumps from story to story in an abrupt way. In many ways, it imitates the fragmented, post-modernist structure of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. That book also consists of fragments and is told in a nonlinear fashion, but in a more pointed way. Tim O’ Brien’s narrative is very clear in its purpose to reveal the nature of the real truth, portraying fictional events as autobiographic accounts that nevertheless, express truthful sentiments. Old School seems to do the same thing. While his story seems give off an impression of a “coming of age" story, his anecdotes bring up and highlight people’s pretences and lies. It seems that Wolff is using a similar post-modernist structure to do a similar thing as O’Brien with a different topic. In Old School, Wolff crafts his narrator’s fictional memoir to illustrate the essentiality of people’s pretenses to their true identities. He does this by creating a nonlinear, fragmented narrative, simulating the mental recall of an individual who remembers anecdotes related to this theme. The very first anecdote in the novel is one describing the unnamed boarding school that the narrator attends. It sets the context of the environment that the story takes place in and talks about the different pretenses the school assumed. For example, in describing the student body’s support of Kennedy, he mentions that “[the students] wouldn’t have admitted that class played any part in [their] liking for Kennedy. [Theirs] was not a snobbish school, or so it believed, and [they] made it as true as [they] could” (1). This conviction is made early on, but is not really supported by later anecdotes. A few anecdotes later, the author begins to describe his thoughts on his competition to meet Robert Frost. In talking about the boy’s enthusiasm and ambition in the competition, he talks about how he noticed a certain aspect of their ambition: the problem of class. He explains: “Our school was proud of its hierarchy of character and deeds. It believed that this system was superior to the one at work outside, and that it would wean us from the habits of undue pride and deference. It was a good dream and we tried to live it out, even while knowing that we were actors in a play, and that outside the theater was a world we would have to reckon with when the curtain closed and the doors were flung open” (12). Ultimately, the school’s façade of humility is simply a pretense. The narrator even concedes that it was a “good dream.” However, the narrator’s description of the school suggests a truly haughty attitude toward the rest of the world and an extreme pride regarding the quality of its “system.” So true is this that the school thought it would “wean” out the habits of pride and deference. Suddenly, the school is a moral compass and an instructor in etiquette. Despite the definitive hubris of the school, the narrator reveals that the veneer of humility that it tries to show is not just a pretense, but a concrete part of the school’s identity. According to him, portrayal of the pretense was “so deeply held it was never spoken; you breathed it in with the smell of floor wax and wool and boys living close together in overheated rooms. Never spoken, so never challenged” (1). The boys knew the truth; everyone else did as well. However, just like the smell of the floor wax and the wool and just like the fact that the boys lived close together in overheated rooms, it is part of what made the school unique; it gave...
Cited: Wolff, Tobias. Old School. Vintage Contemporaries Vintage Books. New York. 2003. Ebook.
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