Throughout the novel, the theme of writing and literature is a heavy motivator for all the boys. Early in the book he says, "My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed" (Wolff 7). This is where the book becomes more like a memoir than a novel. While this is Wolff's first full-length novel, he began writing decades before, and has always been involved in literature and journalism. It is clear from this novel and its themes that he is in love with the craft of writing, and that he believes it can teach people about themselves and their abilities, just as the boys learn about themselves in the novel as they turn into young men.
One of the reasons this novel is so successful is that Wolff also bases it on his own life, adding real emotions and themes to the novel. A critic notes, "Wolff attended a prep school much like the one in Old School, the Hill School in Pennsylvania, and was himself expelled not for anything dishonorable, but for failing grades" (Contino). The novel resonates with readers because it is real, and the situations the boys face are real. They illustrate the pressures and angst of coming of age, but they illustrate how young men mature and learn about themselves, and come to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. The narrator gives in to his weakness in an attempt to fit in, but that teaches him something valuable about his character, and that is what this novel attempts to convey to the reader. We as humans are capable of just about anything, both good and bad. Once we understand that, we can master the evil in us and turn it into good. Another critic notes, "For all the disillusionment -- both explicit in the plot, and implicit in the novel's political backdrop -- Wolff's simple yarn is a reminder that those who gaze deep into dishonesty find greater truths than those who never question the facts" (Brown 52). The narrator learns this, and ultimately, it sets him free to chart his own course through life.
The novel evokes a sense of timelessness, even though it evokes a sense of place and sentimentality, too. Another critic notes, "Throughout Old School, Wolff displays exceptional skill in capturing the small sights and sensations that evoke the whole rarefied world he's taking us back to: 'the smell of floor wax and wool and boys living close together in overheated rooms'" (Mallon). He knows how to place the reader in the center of the action, and that helps underscore the themes, as well. The boys live together, and while they are growing up, they are still boys in many senses. They litter the floor with cookie crumbs, they roughhouse, and they are beginning to ogle girls. They are typical boys on the verge of being men, and discovering who they really are. The narrator embodies this, and in that, he embodies all boys who are growing into men.
In conclusion, the theme of this book is that people are capable of anything, both good and bad, and they need to know that to form the foundation of their lives. The narrator learns this through his own bad judgement, but it helps him form his future and gives him a sense of relief. Other themes in this book can translate into understanding and awareness for the reader. A love of literature and writing permeates the book, coming directly from the writer, it seems, and coming of age, the need to fit in, and even truthfulness all form underlying themes that move the novel along. It is a fascinating book that contains great characters and a compelling theme, and it illustrates a young man learning about his abilities very well.
Brown, Helen. "Literary Lies." New Statesman 9 Feb. 2004: 52.
Contino, Paul J. "This Writer's Life: Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff." Commonweal 21 Oct. 2005: 18+.