Tobias Wolff’s “The Rich Brother” and The Barracks Thief each present childish, flawed men pursuing independent paths to escape their crippling family life. The main characters’ relentless rivalries, and family transgressions have provoked them to underestimate their need for others. “The Rich Brothers’” Pete and Donald are complete opposites in every aspect of their lives; therefore, living very different journeys. The Barracks Thief’s Philip, Hubbard and Lewis join the army in search for something better, leaving their respective families behind. In both stories, the characters push their family away when in reality they are yearning for togetherness and love from them.
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Because the main characters feel neglected by their families they turn down acts of affection from anyone attempting to care for them. In The Barracks Thief Philip feels betrayed and starts to “despise” (Barracks 10) his father who abandoned him and his family for a younger woman. In attempt for forgiveness his father offers him a bicycle, in which he gets tangled in and injures himself; as a response to his father needing his help to get back up “Philip turned and walked toward his car” (Barracks 22) showing no remorse. Similarly, Pete in “The Rich Brother” “[turns] his back on Donald” (Brother 90) when he tells him that he doesn’t blame him for everything he’s done to him in the past. Both men reject their loved ones attempt to reconcile and escape the situation to avoid facing their need for togetherness. In addition, at the ammunition dumb, chief Ellingboe’s tells the paratroopers “Boys, be reasonable” (Barracks 40) and offers them refuge from the fire, which they harshly refuse. They seem to want to leave their post; however chief Ellingboe’s way of addressing them reassembles a father caring for his children. Lewis and Philip have unresolved issues with their father that chief Ellingboe resurfaces. Philip’s father, on a previous July 4th, called him and his brother in “That’s enough, boys. Come in. It’s late” (Barracks 30) while they were playing in the pool. For Lewis his father recently passed away leaving him alone without any family. As a result, chief Ellingboe reflects the image of to their own fathers who hurt them by leaving them; so they turn down his offer of refuge to prove to themselves that they do not need their fathers in their lives. Likewise, Donald is “praying for [Pete]” (Brother 74) because he feels he is too superficial and simply wants to help his brother become a better person. He does this out of good will, but rather than being thankful Pete’s response is to insult Donald’s beliefs consequently dissevering their relationship. These actions demonstrate Pete and Philip’s struggles with endearment, which causes them to reject their family members’ nurturing.
Lewis’s and Pete’s egos prevent them from truly connecting with their loved ones. While Pete has always felt superior to his younger brother by compulsively “[making] [him] look foolish” (Brother 80), Lewis on the other hand, constantly brags to Philip and Lewis about his sexual accomplishments with “[the] girls back home” (Barracks 34). Ultimately, both men are too preoccupied with boasting their egos to notice they are pushing away family and friends. Moreover, Pete and Lewis respectively insult and brag to others in order to hide their insecurities. Pete is described by his brother as “a very frightened individual” who is “very threatened” (Brother 80) by others, similar to Lewis who is nicknamed “Tinkerbell” (Barracks 34) by his general because he was scared to jump off a cliff during a drill. Following these accusations rather than facing the facts, both men turn the attention to someone else. For example, Lewis says the other men of the company are “pretty stuck on themselves” (Barracks 34) for isolating him likewise Pete ignores Donald’s attack to his egotistic character by saying that Donald “[makes himself] look foolish” (Brother 80). Lewis and Pete desire love and friendship from the other characters, but because they are too focused on maintaining a strong image they are incapable of properly acknowledging their desire for love. When Lewis is questioning himself about the other soldiers feeling towards him, Philip senses Lewis “[wanted] something from [him]” (Barracks 35). This “something” is obviously Lewis yearning for acceptance from Philip since the rest of the company also rejects him.
Although Pete and Philip don’t want to admit it to themselves they need the burdens of their brothers in their lives. Pete and Donald’s competitive relationship has always been marked by their constant need to prove their value to one another. Pete has repeatedly felt he was “stuck with [Donald]” and has him “on [his] hands for good” (Brother 89), similarly to Philip’s condescending attitude towards Keith. Keith disagrees with Philip joining the army, but Philip believes his little brother “[has] no right to an opinion on any subject” (Barracks 19). Both Philip and Pete act as if their younger brothers’ are impediments to their lives. However, Pete willingly stays in contact with Donald and goes out of his way to help him. For instance, when he didn’t want him hitchhiking back from the farm “all alone, […] where anything could happen” (Brother 75), he drove for hours to pick him up himself. In the same way, Philip wants to take care of Hubbard in Keith’s absence: “partly out of concern and partly for some need that was not clear to him” (Barracks 50). Because Philip associates his brother to weakness “[Keith] cried easily, sometimes for no apparent reason” (Barracks 10); Hubbard’s state of weakness during his injury helped him realize the importance of his role as a brother in his life. Both Philip and Pete’s superiority complex blind them from seeing that caring for their brothers is an essential part of their lives as they represent the little family they have left.
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The brothers and Philip both share vulnerable memories from the time before they escaped their family life, which enlightens them about their genuine feelings towards their family. Pete and Donald take advantage of their road trip to reveal dreams they’ve had about each other. Donald claims Pete has always “wanted to get rid of [him]” (Brother 81) when they we’re kids; Pete would beat him in his sleep after his surgery, which could cause very serious health issues. Feeling undesired by his brother has caused Donald to always thrive for Pete’s love and acceptance. Comparatively, Keith wants to prove his independence to Philip “whenever he offered a suggestion Keith went on as if he hadn’t heard” (Barracks 28). Both Keith and Donald ache for their brothers’ respect unknowing that their older brothers actually care a lot about them. For instance, Pete also shares his dream about “[Donald] taking care of [him]. Just the two of [them].” (Brother 81) leaving out the part that “he was blind” (Brother 81). Pete’s blindness suggests that he needs to open his eyes and recognize the importance of his relationship with Donald, since no one else was there to take care of him in his darkness. Analogously, when Philip is asked about his family, he chooses to talk about a happy memory of him and Keith as kids playing in a pool “shaking hands underwater” (Barracks 30). This illustrates Philip’s appreciation of his family in a time before he was alone isolated in the army.
The main characters’ have left their damaged families in order to feel togetherness again; however Philip, Lewis and Philip fast discover the army is far from a family likewise Pete and Donald’s different journeys don’t stop them form coming back together when one is in need of the other. In both stories, the protagonists realize that what they were escaping is truly what they are yearning for: a loving family.
Wolff, Tobias. The Barracks Thief. HarperCollins, 1984, New York.
Wolff, Tobias. “The Rich Brother”. Our Story Begins, Vintage Books, 2008, New York.