Drowning Eyes and Green, Cold Stares: Eye Imagery in the Stories of Tobias Wolff

by Steve Otfinoski

Finding just the right word to create an image or craft a metaphor is a constant quest for a writer. A fresh, original image can not only capture a moment in a story but illuminate a character or theme.Tobias Wolff is not a writer known for his use of vivid imagery. His prose tends to be colloquial, his rather sparse descriptive writing uncluttered by metaphors or similes. This is less true of “Bullet in the Brain,” the most audacious story in his sizable collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. It centers on an insufferable book critic named Anders who wanders into a bank robbery and can’t keep his mouth shut to literally save his life. When a masked robber threatens to make everyone in the bank “dead meat,” Anders finds the cliché uproariously funny, addressing his remarks to the woman standing in line in front of him. “She looked at him with drowning eyes,” Wolff writes. The image is one I can’t get out of my head, even several months after first reading the story. It’s zoomed through my brain, leaving its mark, just as the bullet did in poor Anders’ brain.
Why “drowning” eyes and not “panic-stricken,” “fearful,” or “tear-filled”? Because it’s fresh, original, and unexpected — an extreme word that fits an extreme situation. The woman is already sinking into hopelessness amid this threat of violence, and now this moron behind her is drawing more unwanted attention to them. You can picture this poor lady going down for the third time, looking at Anders, pleading with him to shut his damn mouth so they might have at least a chance to survive this catastrophe. Her reaction, wordless but eloquent, is perfect. It also prefigures Anders’ own helplessness. Unable to keep his snide comments to himself, unable to turn off his hypercritical mind even under such dire circumstances, he will shortly bring about his own death.

Eyes are said to be, so the cliché goes, the windows of the soul. Writers work hard to find ways to capture the expressiveness of eyes and the characters looking at the world through them. During his confrontation with one of the masked robbers, Anders tries to settle himself down by staring into the eyes of the robber. They were “clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red-rimmed. The man’s left eyelid kept twitching.” Wolff has deftly defined this sociopath through his eyes, the only part of his face that Anders, and the reader, can see. Disturbed by Anders’ stare, the robber orders him to look up. Anders is confronted by another scene that offends his finer sensibilities – the ersatz mythological art of the bank’s dome. The seduction of Europa by Zeus in the painting is cartoonish and comical and again is filled with eye imagery.

…the one that caught Anders’s eye was Zeus and Europa – portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had…given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there’d been a caption bubbling out of his mouth, it would have said HUBBA HUBBA.
It is this sight that causes Anders to again lose it and leads to that fatal bullet. The last two pages of “Bullet in the Brain” is a brilliant tour de force, a fascinating meditation on neurology, memory, death, and redemption.

There is more starling eye imagery in another story in Wolff’s collection, “The Deposition.” A lawyer named Burke, on his way to court, has been accused of stalking a young girl by an older woman. “Finally he looked up and met her stare, so green and cold.” A cold stare is to be accepted but “green and cold?” The women’s eyes may be green, but Wolff doesn’t say that. Green is a color usually associated with nature, fertility, life, warmth. But a cold green is a kind of paradox and makes for a strongly effective image. It also might suggest jealousy and the intense hatred that accompanies it. A moment later the woman strikes Burke. “The shock scorched his eyes with hot, blinding tears. His face burned.” Scorched is a powerful verb and effectively describes both Burke’s physical pain and shame and embarrassment.

Finally, in the story “Nightingale,” we are confronted by eyes we can’t see. A father is bringing his bookish son to a military academy to make a man out of him. They no sooner arrive, than the strict authoritarianism of the place gives the father second thoughts. As they approach the academy’s gate they are confronted by a pair of guards “Their eyes were shadowed by the gleaming bills of their caps.” The academy is a cold, expressionless, extension of authority, bereft of humanity. Its blindness allows the father to see his son for who he really is and to want to protect him. But as he tries to return to the academy to take him home, he gets lost. But lost as he is, the father “sees” his son clearly for the first time:

As he drove he pondered his son’s face as if it were a map, as if he were learning where to turn from the curve of Owen’s neck, the slant of his eyebrow. And then it began to fade. At first he barely noticed. The long fine line of the nose blurred subtly. The cheeks paled, the smile grew faint, the light dulled and died from the eyes.

Thus a father learns to let go, in spite of himself. In the fictional world of Tobias Wolff, eyes can redeem or damn, but they always reveal character.


steve_21Steve Otfinoski, a member of the first graduating class of the Fairfield University MFA in Creative Writing program, earned an honorable mention for the 2011 Fairfield Book Prize for his novel Throne of The Third Heaven. His short stories have appeared in two anthologies for young adults, Short Circuits and Within Reach, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He is a produced playwright and the author of more than 150 books for young adults as well as two volumes on rock music for Billboard Books. He has taught screenwriting at the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Yale University and is currently teaching a playwriting course at Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Connecticut. Call him crazy, but unlike some of his fellow alumni, he actually enjoyed writing the required craft essays in the MFA program.

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