Tom Wolfe's exclaiming personalities

Caroline Young '05.5, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's speaker shifts from one point of view, one voice or outlook, to another, smoothly and quickly. He gets inside the voices and thoughts of his characters in a number of ways, one of which is his sentence and paragraph structure and his frequent use of exclamation marks. Wolfe often uses a series of sentences, not dialogue, ending in exclamation marks when he describes the feelings of a character. The following quotation exemplifies how Wolfe uses exclamation marks to show how Gordo acts.

And none of this fazed Gordo in the slightest! He seemed to be oblivious of it all! He just went on drawling and lollygagging along as if he were sitting in the catbird seat the whole time! He was also given to sounding off now and then in ways the rest of them just couldn't comprehend. Like that business of the flight pay! [113]

Wolfe's speaker even uses exclamation marks to get into the mind of a chimpanzee.

Here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to those assholes! Fuck this-[177]

In "The Pump House Gang," Wolfe uses a similar tactic, in one paragraph using exclamation marks to portray two different points of view-the surfers and archaeologists through the surfers' point of view.

But exactly! Watts just happened to be what was going on at the time, as far as the netherworld of La Jolla surfing was concerned, and so one goes there and sees what is happening and comes back and tells everybody about it and laughs at the L.A. Times...It's like archaeologists discovering hieroglyphics or something, and they say, god, that's neat-Egypt!-but they don't know what the hell it is. [32-3]

The exclamation marks littering his prose give the illusion of dialogue even without actual dialogue, providing the reader with visual cues of hearing a character's inner dialogue, or the thoughts of a group as a whole.

Questions

1. Wolfe finishes the foreword by saying, "Almost all seemed grateful that someone had tried-and it had to be an outsider-to put into words certain matters that the very code of the pilot rules off-limits in conversation" (xv). How obvious is it that Wolfe is an outsider? How do these passages where he goes into the minds of pilots and others help or hurt his status as an outsider?

2. Although "The Pump House Gang" and The Right Stuff tackle very different subjects, Wolfe employs some similar strategies in portraying each one. Including his use of exclamation marks, what makes his strategies successful in a variety of different communities?

3. How does using exclamation marks change the content of the sentences?

4. How obvious was this use of exclamation marks? How does it affect an aesthetic reading of the text? Was it successful? Distracting?


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Last modified 12 April 2005