‘Sanity’ by Tobias Wolff

Wolff, Tobias 1991

Sanity by Tobias Wolff, 1990

The magic trick:

Disguising the story’s central conflict

It would seem to follow that when a story begins by announcing a man’s mental breakdown and subsequent admittance to a psychiatric facility, the reader can rest assured that he now knows the story’s central crisis. “Sanity” doesn’t follow this particular line of logic, though. I’d argue the mental breakdown in the opening paragraph is not the central crisis but rather a response to the central crisis, the central crisis being the impending dissolution of the marriage and Claire’s departure.

The story then shows itself to chronicle April’s response to this crisis. She doesn’t have a mental breakdown as her father has; but instead has some kind of sexual awakening. She has long been studying her stepmother, and now on the eve of Claire’s departure, April learns the power of control and self-possession, desperately cribbing the final notes she needs before her stepmom exits her life. It’s all a very fascinating study in the art of power during crisis. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.

The selection:

Getting from San Diego to San Marco State Hospital isn’t easy unless you have a car, or a breakdown. That’s what happened to April’s father, and they got him out there in no time at all. The trip took longer for April and her stepmother: they had to catch three different buses, walk up a long road from Pendleton Boulevard to the hospital grounds, and then walk back again when the visit was over. There were plenty of cars on the road, but nobody stopped to offer a lift. April didn’t blame them. They probably figured that she and Claire were patients— “fruitcakes,” her dad called them—out for a stroll. That’s what April would have thought, coming upon the two of them out here, on foot and unaccountable. She would have taken one look and kept going.

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One thought on “‘Sanity’ by Tobias Wolff

  1. I think you accidentally inserted the wrong excerpt here. It’s from “In the Garden of North American Martyrs,” not “Sanity.”

    Interesting analysis otherwise. I just finished the story and was a bit puzzled by the ending. I wondered if getting her mom to purchase a car and getting her tied up with payments might serve her purpose of keeping her around a little longer.

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