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People’s childhoods affect how they grow up, see the world, and interact with other people. In “The Night in Question,” Tobias Wolff deals with this topic in many different ways, including justifying his own childhood and how it affects how he writes this story. Wolff was raised by his mother, Rosemary Loftus, a devout Catholic. Wolff was born on June 19, 1945, which places him in the beginning of the silent generation, a generation known for not asking questions and working with, not against, the government. When he was little, he was a Boy Scout, and later served in the U.S. Army.  Eventually, Wolff got his degrees from Hertford College, Oxford, and Stanford in creative writing. Despite pursuing a creative career, Wolff’s informative years were heavily influenced by strict rules and social norms that had to be followed. All of this influences the story “The Night in Question,” in which the main character not only rejects the religious beliefs of her brother, but the moral perspective of it as well.

The story Frances’ brother, Frank, tells is a variation of the Utilitarian trolley problem. The trolley problem is often used to demonstrate how, in the utilitarian viewpoint, the best option morally is to save the trolley full of people because it has the largest number of people being saved. There are, however, subtle and distinct differences between the two scenarios which changes the perspective. In the Utilitarian problem, none of the participating characters are named, but in Frank’s story they are. Frank’s story is originally told by a preacher and therefore has more religious/Christian undertones. Also, a preacher wants to pull on the heartstrings of the audience more than philosophers debating moral ambiguity would.  The name of the switchman is Mike, which means gift from God. His wife’s name is Janice, which means God is gracious, and their son’s name is Benny, which means right-hand son. A similarity is, in the trolley problem the switchman would have to pull the lever in order to save five people, killing the one or does nothing and five people die. In Frank’s story, Mike could save his son by doing nothing and the train full of people would die, or he could pull the lever and kill Benny, but save the train. Another difference in the stories is that Mike has to decide between his son or a train full of strangers, but in the trolley problem it is a stranger who has decide to save one stranger or five. There are variations of the trolley problem in which the switchman has to decide whether or not to sacrifice a loved-one, but more commonly the moral dilemma is presented with strangers. Wolff uses Frank’s story to contrast Frances emotional nature.

Frank has a troubled past full of drugs, and irresponsible choices. Despite the fact Frank has turned his life around, Frances still sees him as someone who needs to be protected, and someone who doesn’t know how to make the right choices. Frances sees Frank as someone who is being manipulated by the church, and as someone who cannot make rational decisions.

Three years earlier he has driven Frances’ car into a highway abutment and almost dies, then almost died again, in detox, of a grand mal seizure. Now he wanted to preach sermons at her. She supposed she was grateful. (637)

Frances wishes she could still take care of Frank, because despite all the trouble he got into, at least she had a role in his life. Frank has replaced Frances with God. “From the time she was a scabby-kneed girl she’d taken on her own father, and if push came to shove she’d take on the Father of All, that incomprehensible bully. She was ready.” (642) In Frances’ mind, the only one who truly knows how to take care of Frank, and teach him right from wrong, is her. When she is confronted by the idea that Frank would value a train full of strangers over her own life she feels threatened. “Frances would say no to him in nothing,” except when she tells him no while he is telling the story, a huge moment in their relationship (639, 641). Franks is so bewildered by her exclamation that, “he couldn’t remember who she was,” (641).

Ultimately Frances ended up being the bully in Frank’s life, not because she didn’t love him because she did, but because she enabled him again and again even when she knew he would get in trouble or even worse get hurt. “She could still taste that smoke and hear her father’s steps on the stairs, Frank panting beside her, moving closer, his voice whispering her name and her own voice answering as fear gave way to ferocity and unaccountable joy” (643). Frances objects to Frank’s story because she cannot stand the idea of Frank being loyal to anyone besides her, and Frank placing her needs before anyone else’s, just as she has done for him. Just as Frank’s story is morally ambiguous, Frances’ motivation is as well.

Furthermore, I believe it is ignorant of Frances to assume to know what she would do in a situation like this. The trolley problem and Frank’s story both have contradictory endings to what Frances “would choose” because they are supposed to make the audience think, not choose. I believe it is impossible to know what one would do in an impossible situation. Some would put family above all others, some would put the many over the few, and some would be incapable of even moving. The brain goes into overdrive in a high-stress situation, and it would be impossible to predict the rationalizations or emotions one would be making in a moment of chaos. Personally, I have been in high-stress situations and I black-out and my brain makes decisions for me that I would not have made consciously. For Frances to assume the “right answer” is to completely undermine the decisions real people had to have made. It may be fun to debate over a dinner table the choices you would make and why, but in the end you are just playing with hypotheticals.

One Response to “Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question””

  1. Grace: This is a thoughtful and interesting discussion. The opening paragraph suggests you did some research for this. You ought to include your sources in a note at the end of the post.

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