On Being A Real Westerner
The adult individual is oftentimes defined by a childhood image of himself so that even if he tries to move away or change his personality, the old personality still emerges again and again so that ultimately it becomes hard to lie to the self. Furthermore, one cannot regret one’s childhood or past as much as one cannot bring them back and change what happened. The individual is only left to deal with what has become of him because of his experiences during childhood.
These truths are what Woolf imparts to the reader in his essay, On Being A Real Westerner.
He explicitly states this idea in the final paragraph when he confesses that “all my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque had power over me. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter nor in those that follow. ” The entire essay focuses on a single experience which the writer believes defined him throughout life. This was the moment when he assumed the image of a rifle-toting Westerner. The introductory paragraph begins the story: the day when the author receives the rifle.
The introduction hooks the reader who likes action in his stories because it presents the image of a young boy and a rifle. One would get intrigued as to what a young boy would do with a rifle and sense a foreboding tragedy coming on. Wolff follows through the episode with chronological scenes, as events happened from the time his brother gave him the Winchester rifle to the time he succumbed to the burning desire to pull the trigger and experience both the pleasure and guilt of killing a living thing even if it is only a squirrel.
This single experience is narrated through a series of eight separate cut-scenes: Roy gives him the rifle but his mother asks him to give it back; his mother eventually relents after much convincing and cajoling; the author is cleaning the rifle and then marching around the house with it while dressed in Roy’s army uniform; he is crouched by the drawn shades, following the people on the street and pretending to shoot; he takes some real bullets, loads the rifle and practices cocking; he pulls the trigger and kills a squirrel; he tells his mother about the dead squirrel and he helps her bury it; and, lying in bed at night while thinking about what he had done earlier. Presenting these series of images cued by phrases like “after a few days” or “for a week” moves the story along and makes the reader understand that the child grows up emotionally through the succession of scenes until the final realization of what that episode in childhood has affected him in life.
It is notable to mention one scene that sticks out in the sense that it talks about a different time, that of the author as a grown-up and herding Vietnamese prisoners during the war. This one paragraph introduced halfway through the narrative makes the reader understand that the story being narrated refers to the author’s past. The only other time when this point is reiterated is during the last paragraph. Except for these two instances, the entire essay is a narrative of a single experience in the author’s childhood. The mention of the Vietnam War scene is included for the author to illustrate the feeling of how it is like to hold a rifle but not to use it.
According to him, both as a child and as an adult with a rifle aimed at others, the satisfaction is to have these people being aimed at to be aware that they are facing the possibility of death so that they might fear the power of the one holding the rifle. He inserts the image of him as a grown-up while describing the same act being done by himself as a child, for the reader to compare the similarities of both images. Both the child and the man holding a rifle are supposed to evoke the same emotions on the part of the reader, further reiterating the theme of the essay. The concluding paragraph summarizes for the reader the meaning and purpose of the entire narrative. The boy has become a man but somehow, he has not been able to shake off the childhood image of himself as a rifle-toting Westerner.