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Moral Judgment

Tobias Wolff’s “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke” was lavished with irony in the telling of moral judgment through a third person narration that focused on various and well developed characters.

Professor Brooke had no real quarrel with anyone in his department, but there was a Yeats scholar named Riley whom he could not bring himself to like. Riley was flashy, so flashy that even his bright red hair seemed an affectation, and it was said that he’d had affairs with some of his students. Brooke did not as a rule give credit to these rumor, but in Riley’s case he was willing to make an exception.  He had once seen a very pretty girl leaving Riley’s office in tears.”

With simple details of these two characters within the first few sentences of the short story, Wolff has already captivated the reader into the lives of Brooke and Riley.  The reader may already begin to build an interpretation of their qualities and flaws: Brooke’s judgmental character and Riley as Brooke perceived him.  Wolff doesn’t include Riley’s perspective, and this caused you to dislike Riley based on Brooke’s alleged opinion.

Riley clearly had him down for a good-goody.  And, in a way, he was; that is, he tried to be good.  When you tired to be good you ran the risk of seeming a prig, but what was the alternative? Brooke did not want to know. Yet at times he wondered if he had been too easily tamed. “

Brooke considered himself a good person and his morals were clearly illustrated through his opinion on Riley’s supposed affairs.  After the first few pages, you felt like you had a precise understanding of Brooke’s judgmental character, until Wolff blindsided you with just how dynamic he truly was by introducing Ruth, who Brooke became enthralled with during the literary conference.

“Do you know ‘Sunrise near Monterey?’ ” she asked. “Vaguely,” Brooke said. He remembered that it ended with the command “Embrace!” He had thought it silly.”

Brooke considered Ruth’s favorite poem to be “silly”, and he disliked the writer, but still he had a one-night-stand with her.  After all the moral judgment he poured onto Riley, he committed the same act of adultery.  Wolff created this morally upright character, who then parallels a man you consider to be bad.  He exposed the consequence of judgment and hypocrites.

From now on he would sit in the front of the church, and let Riley, knowing what he knew, watch him. He would kneel before Riley as we all must, he thought, kneel before one another.

After returning home to his wife, Brooke felt guilty for his indiscretion with Ruth and forced himself to repent for it with the judgment of Riley.  Wolff concluded the story with such controlled structure and full completeness of the characters.  You’re forced to face their reality and see them outside of what they believed themselves to be.

Then she went through the laundry hamper and discovered the same heavy scent all over one of his shirts.  There had to be an explanation, but no matter how long she sat on the edge of the bed and held her head in her hands and rocked back and forth she could not imagine what it might be. And her husband was so much himself that night, so merry and warm, she felt unworthy of him. 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.”

Wolff didn’t simply end the story with Brooke, but left the reader with a deeply sad paragraph about his wife, which lead you to resent Brooke even more.  Wolff did such a skillful job at allowing these last paragraphs to illustrate a picture of their lives after the story.  “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke” was such a fully developed story with no questions left for the reader to ask.


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