This Writer's Life: Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff

By Contino, Paul J. | Commonweal, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

This Writer's Life: Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff


Contino, Paul J., Commonweal


I can't live without it." Tobias Wolff was talking to me about irony. He paused, his eyes scanning the book-lined walls of his Stanford University office, and repeated: "I can't live without it. But I do think it has its temptations, and one of them of course is to make flippant what is not to be taken flippantly."

Like any morally serious person, Wolff knows that irony has its risks: "Irony [can be] a way of not talking about the unspeakable," Wolff wrote in his introduction to Matters of Life and Death, an anthology of short stories he edited in 1983. "It can be used to deflect or even to deny what is difficult, painful, dangerous--that is, consequential." Yet, as the award-winning author of the memoirs This Boy's Life (1989; made into a film starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio) and In Pharaoh's Army (1994; an account of his tour of duty in Vietnam), three splendid short-story collections, and the 2003 novel, Old School, Wolff has never shied away from irony. As a Catholic, he recognizes the myriad ways that irony can unsettle our imagined autonomy, and sharpen an awareness that we need and are needed by others. Indeed, as the gospel narratives demonstrate, the Christian faith itself is made vital by an ironic story: the savior comes as a helpless infant, dies as an executed slave, and rises in glory on the third day. It is this kind of rich irony that Wolff's writing suggests: the stories we tell, the narratives of our lives, are upended to make room for what we call God's story.

Irony is also a word that could describe Wolff's relationship with Catholicism. As a ten-year-old in Salt Lake City, he was sent by his Irish-American mother to catechism classes--"a wonderful experience," he calls it. But after his family moved to Washington State, they stopped going to Mass, mainly because there were no churches near their home in a remote village of the Cascade Mountains. Wolff's Catholicism went largely neglected throughout his four years of voluntary service with the Army, his last in Vietnam in 1968. Next, with the help of tutors, he prepared for the entrance exam to Oxford University, and was accepted. There "some friends of mine were starting to become more interested in [religion]. I started looking around a bit and found myself drawn very much to the Newman Center at Oxford, started going to Mass there, and then I took instruction from a priest there and was confirmed. It was my last year at Oxford."

It was not a naive conversion, and Wolff is candid about the difficulties he's encountered as a Catholic. Back in the United States, and for "about a year," he and his wife Catherine were involved and finally disillusioned with a charismatic renewal group. "We left it and again found some sanity in the church's traditions. They were some consolation, I have to say. But some of those traditions are a problem for me [when they lead to] the abuse of authority and the idea that the church as an institution is somehow more important than its members as a body of the faithful." Wolff offered the example of his brother-in-law, the late distinguished theologian William C. Spohn, who was a Jesuit for thirty-two years until he left the priesthood and, later, married. "To think that a church could be allowed to go without a minister before they would allow someone like Bill [to minister], because he was married ... It is a loss."

Another complicating factor for Wolff's faith is the tragic history of the church's relations with Judaism. Wolff, whose father was Jewish, is saddened and angered by the church's history of anti-Semitism. "That my church would not have lifted a finger to help me or my family in Europe," he says, his words trailing off. He discerns in the church "a kind of evasiveness about the subject," an unwillingness to engage in much-needed "honest sorting out," a "reflective defensiveness" on the subject.

These difficulties with the church are anything but minor, and can even be occasions of doubt about one's faith, a theme Wolff has explored.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

This Writer's Life: Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.