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Truth and Guilt

In Tobias Wolff’s An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke” the idea of truth and guilt are presented to the reader. From the beginning we see the main character, Professor Brooke, judging Riley whom is a flashy professor in the same department. He first judges Riley on his outward appearance and then for the rumors that Riley is cheating on his wife. As the story progresses and the two go to a conference, Professor Brooke meets Ruth. Professor Brooke is known as being a “goody goody” and he meets Ruth shortly after Riley asks him what is the worst thing he has ever done. The question ways heavy on Brooke and he doesn’t know what to say, there is actually a guilt of being too innocent, and then he meets Ruth. She is a truthful woman from the start and she opens up to him about her favorite poet and after he accompanies her to the reading, he follows her back to her apartment.

It is evident to the reader that Professor Brooke has been playing with this idea of honesty and guilt from the beginning of the short story when he is judging Riley. However, when he follows Ruth back to the apartment, he is continuing to think internally about stopping what is about to happen, but he never does. He hopes that she will have a boyfriend or fiancé and Professor Brooke will be able to leave without wondering what would have happened, “Brooke had intended to go back to the hotel after he’d seen Ruth to her door, but he couldn’t think of the right words to say and followed her inside”…”…Brooke said, thinking that she was going to tell him about a boy friend of fiancé. He hoped so.” (39). What is the most unnerving about Professor Brooke’s situation isn’t that he is about to just cheat on his wife, but that there is this enormous emotion connection that he has made with this woman. Professor Brooke didn’t just cheat on his wife in a physical need for something that meant nothing, he went into it telling himself it was wrong but being emotionally drawn to this woman anyway. Ruth became a paradox when Professor Brooke knew that he had been nothing but a rule follower and someone who was a do-gooder and suddenly he meets a woman who he let’s all of this go for, perhaps to prove something to himself that he had been missing out on all these years; but the even more uneasy answer is that he might have actually had a connection with this woman and the fact that they connected a more intimate level than just cheating is what makes the guilt so real and evident in this story. Wolff didn’t even need to go into the details of him staying the night or even staging a full on cheating scene, because the reader already feels this painfully uneasy “chapter” of Professor Brooke’s life in which he knowingly allows himself to be honest with the one person who will know him like he is on that night, something his wife will never experience. This eerie thought is perpetuated by the final paragraph, “And Brooke’s wife, unpacking his clothes, smelled perfume on his necktie…The doubt passed from her mind to her body; it became one of those flutters that stops you cold from time to time for a few years, and then goes away” (43). How depressing! How scary! His wife will never know, but even more than that, it will continue to be a ping of guilt for the two of them. While the guilt may subside, the unknown timing of when it will come again to their minds is unnerving and scary for the reader. Wolff has perfected these characters and Professor Brooke’s actions so well that the reader gets this chilly flutter for the wife at the end of the story. The truth that Wolff has evoked from this short story is enough to make any reader think about their own life and their own guilt and lies in a most organic and real way with how he characterizes each individual in this story.

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