Discussion of Tobias Wolff's "Bullet In The Brain"

  Post your answer in the comments below. Make sure to include the number of the question you're answering and either cut and paste the question or answer in complete sentences so that we know which question you're answering.


A-12, B-13, C-1, D-2, E-3, F-4, G-5, H-6, I-7, J-8, K-9, L-10, M-11

If you have further thoughts or questions about the story, please feel to also post these below. 

13 Questions To Ask of Every Story: 

1.          What makes this story “literary”? 

 

2.          Why is this story considered one of the best stories of the past hundred years? If it’s an old story, why has it endured?

 

3.          Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?

 

4.          Plot: What is the “rich ground situation” (conflict) of the story? What happens to complicate this ground situation?

 

5.          Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?

 

6.          Character: In what ways does the writer show character?

 

7.          Character: In what ways does the character drive the action of the story?

 

8.          Point of view: Why do you think the writer chose this particular point of view for the story? How does the point of view function to establish distance or make us feel a certain way?

 

9.          Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?

 

10.      Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?

 

11.      Do a little bit of research on this author. Is this story a good example of his/her work? Is there anything else you learned that could add to our understanding of the story?

 

12.      What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it? 


13.    How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?

Comments

  1. 6. Character: In what ways does the writer show character?

    There was a very interesting shift in character when Anders was shot in the head. In the beginning of the story, he seems like an average, easily irritated man. This is shown in the second and third sentences; "Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed and now he was stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." Then there is a sort of polarity where the bank robbers enter, and there is an immediate, and dire situation that is contrasted with Anders sense of humor at laughing at strange things seemingly against his will. Because of this, he is shot in the head. This is where the big shift happens, we are suddenly almost overloaded with more specific and technical language. It almost feels like a window into the characters life. He must be educated since his daughter is a professor at Dartmouth, so the author shows character through familial relations as well. Overall, Anders true character is shown in his personal thoughts of reflection, and statements about what he wasn't thinking about in this moment.

    Elizabeth S.

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  2. 8. Point of view: Why do you think the writer chose this particular point of view for the story? How does the point of view function to establish distance or make us feel a certain way?

    A: I think on a technical level the point of view allows the author to operate in both the personal and distant aspects of the story interchangeably. This a deeply personal story that requires character insight, but it also needs an omnipotent observer to give the reader the full scope of the situation at hand. As far as the emotions the point of view evokes, I think that the aforementioned distance is key to the tone of the piece. The distance is cold and careless when compared to Anders' humanizing bullet-induced memories, which makes Anders appear more relatable as a character. Dark as it is, I think we can all agree that this story comes dangerously close to making the man who shoots Anders in the head seem like the more relatable character. That distance in the point of view is what makes us take Anders' side in the end.

    Alec

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  3. 3. Why do you think this story was considered one of the best / most iconic stories at the time of its publication? What made it a “successful” story?
    I think this is considered one of the most iconic stories at the time is because it doesn't completely end with the main character dyeing and that's it, it goes into detail about his backstory and what "wasn't" thinking about the time he was shot in the head which is something that most stories didn't (and still don't) do at all. I think this story was successful because it doesn't go in the direction that you would think it would. For example, at the start of the story, we are led to believe we are going to follow Anders the entire time and see his worldview the whole time. But Tobias Wolff surprises the reader by having him shot in the very middle of it and giving us his entire backstory for the rest of it.
    -Michael

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  4. 11. Do a little bit of research on this author. Is this story a good example of his/her work? Is there anything else you learned that could add to our understanding of the story?

    Wolff characterizes nonfiction as being nonfiction solely because the author says so, something he seems to struggle with. Because of that, prefers to refer to his work as fiction even if there are some autobiographical aspects to it. They are jumping off points for exploration rather than a story told with high fidelity.

    His work often is sharply reflective and existential, something we see in “Bullet to the Brain”. While we get the moment’s leading up to Anders’ death, the vast majority of the story’s meat comes in what he does and doesn’t think about in his last moments. Those moments are left to stand on their own. Wolff does not try to philosophize over why Anders thought about a baseball game from his childhood and the phrase “they is” instead of thinking about his mother, or his wife and their relationship’s deterioration. It simply is. The moment is both loud and quiet as we’re inundated with images and recollections not recollected, yet are left in the quiet, contemplative headspace of Anders’ last moments.

    The 80’s and 90’s, when Wolff did much of his writing, was often referred to as a Renaissance for American Short Stories, and Wolff himself was often pointed to as one of those Renaissance writers. Wolff resented this distinction, and stated,

    “To judge from the respectful attention this renaissance has received from reviewers and academics, you would think that it actually happened. It did not. This is a rhetorical flourish to give glamour, even valor, to the succession of one generation by another. The problem with the word "renaissance" is that it needs a dark age to justify itself. I can't think of one, myself... The truth is that the short story form has reliably inspired brilliant performances by our best writers, in a line unbroken since the time of Poe.”

    I think there’s a really interesting dynamic with Wolff because his work is so razor sharp in its observation that it can feel cynical, yet he himself seems to hold great respect for the writers that came before him and are his contemporaries, and there is an optimism in his speech that caught me off guard (especially given the story we read.)

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  5. 7. Character: In what ways does the character drive the action of the story?
    Anders was never in the best temper and was "A book critic known for the weary, element savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." Anders attitude and comments drive the bank robbers to shooting him in the head. If he would of stayed silent and not egged them on then the story probably would of gone a completely different way. They would of sat on the ground in silence while the bank robbers took all the money, or someone else would of got shot. But because of Anders personality and comments he is shot early into the robbery and the story shifts to what Anders does and does not remember as the bullet goes through his brain.

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  6. 9. Setting: How does the setting work within the story? What are the key places, and in how does the writer describe them?

    The setting in the story is a very common place, a busy bank. From how the bank is described it is old but has a fancy feel to it. With having pillars, marble floors, and a painted dome ceiling. Anders in the story was already in hot water with the people holding up the bank, and the painted ceiling gets him to laugh which leads to him getting shot in the head. If the ceiling was plain then possibly Anders wouldn't have had anything to "scrutinize" and lead him to laugh.
    The only other place described is after Anders is shot he remembers when he was playing ball in a field. We are told that it was hot, yellow, grass and insects. Possibly hinting that it is probably summer vacation. I feel like this setting was brought up to show the start of Anders critical view of the world. As well out of all the things he remembered in his dying (seconds?) he remembers that place.

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  7. 1. What makes this story “literary”?

    I think that this story is considered literary because of the unique perspective on life it provides. Instead of just ending with the character being shot, he delves deep into the human experience and what is important to us. It is character driven in the way that it becomes more about the character’s inner thoughts and feelings than what is happening around him, though it can be argued that the concept of the bullet in the brain takes up more focus than the character. Still, the story ends with him contemplating his life and the meaning of it, centering on a time he played baseball. That makes it a pretty character driven narrative.

    -Bailey

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  8. 13. How is this story similar to others we've read? How is it different?

    The compact length of the piece is certainly something to behold, and perhaps the most immediate difference noticeable. With a closer look, I found that the first story that comes to mind is "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor. Off the cuff of 'murderous temper', it felt natural to compare this piece with O'Connor's relevant plot, but aside from the instinctual connection, both of these pieces thematically relate with their points on human nature. I find that, alongside the normalcy of the employees and the customers, the protagonist, Anders, is usually peeved by profession. These two playing in conjunction and the title's tell, "Bullet in the Brain", felt like the story was naturally inclined to showcase, just like O'Connor's story, the inflexibility of humanity.

    Tomio

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  9. 10. Pick three of the best lines in the story. Why are they good lines?

    “The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.”
    Ander’s innocence is apparent in his memory of a pickup game he played as a kid. His adult self would criticize the boy for making a grammatical mistake, but he found the cousin’s word usage unique and intriguing as a child. This reveals that language and the human beings that said them once excited him and weren’t inferior objects he could make fun of.

    “Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter’s work. It was worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity.”
    Anders follows the robber’s command to look at the bank’s ceiling, but even while in a terribly vulnerable position, instead of fearing for his life and thinking about how to get himself out of danger, he regards the painting only to critique it. Anders sarcastically assesses the painting’s quality and deems it disdainful, which depicts a time in history that he used to admire. His self-importance and cynicism lead to his demise.

    “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him.”
    This line reveals a lot about Anders’s character from the very beginning of the story. Even though the teller’s inconsideration annoys Anders, he does not side with the women standing in line in front of him who express their grievances to him, assuming that he finds the teller’s behavior equally upsetting. Instead, his answer is contemptuous, displaying his cynical attitude that he uses to distance himself from everyone.

    -Sam W.

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  10. 4.          Plot: What is the “rich ground situation” (conflict) of the story? What happens to complicate this ground situation?

    The rich ground starts with Anders getting to the bank late. He gets upset by the teller closing her position and the woman in front of him complaining. This gets complicated quickly by armed robbers coming into the bank. The Anders picks the worst time in the world to have a laughing fit, laughing at and critiquing everything the robber says. This leads to the most final of complications, and the robber shoots him.

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  11. 12. What do you think the reader is supposed to take from the story? What can we, as writers, learn from studying it?

    Overall, I got the idea that this piece was trying to embody a form of apathy. That there is this idea of a distance between reality and the world that Anders sees himself in. In the ending especially you can see this idea of differing opinions and how his actions come to destroy him in the end. The way he lives his life adjacent to others is seen in how he doesn't pick up on social cues. Something that you see stemmed from different experiences. Ones that we see in memories that happen after he gets shot.

    I think within the character creation is something we can take from this. In how to write a protagonist that isn't a moral center or a good person. They are flawed, horribly so, but perhaps we can find some form of meaning from it. Or perhaps finding that while they have good moments, anyone can become a morally bad character no matter them.

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  12. 5. Plot: What is the climax of this story? How does the moment irrevocably change everything?

    I think the climax of the story is when Anders get shot. At first we see his inner thoughts and all of the random things he is thinking about and mentioning out loud, which makes the bank robbers angry. When the one robber forces Anders head to look up, he sees an old mythology story painted on the ceiling which makes him laugh. Then he is shot, which is when we see everything he did not think about as his "life flashed before his eyes" and what he did think about. He had a lot of things he didn't talk about which gave us further insight into how he became the man he was and the people in his life. What he did remember was playing baseball when he was young with some friends from around the neighborhood. I'm not exactly sure what the message is, but it seems to be an insignificant part to readers and very significant moment to Anders who can't stop repeating "they is, they is."
    -Taylor

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