In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe illustrates grim statistics about the deaths of Navy pilots with anecdotal accounts of the young men who continuously struggle against those very statistics. In the passage below, Wolfe elaborates on the pilots' firmly held belief that no mere happenstance or unfortunate accident can result in any of the events that frequently kill pilots; rather, the pilots believe that a truly great aviator can succeed in escaping any situation unharmed. In discussing the views of these pilots, the author simultaneously undermines the argument he relates; his incessant inclusion of numerical values reinforces the strength and inescapability of the reality the aviators face.
But what about Ted Whelan, who fell like a rock from 8,100 feet when his parachute failed? Well, the parachute was merely part of the chain: first, someone should have caught the structural defect that resulted in the hydraulic leak that triggered the emergency; second, Whelan did not check out his seat-parachute rig, and the drogue failed to separate the main parachute from the seat; but even after those two mistakes, Whelan had fifteen or twenty seconds, as he fell, to disengage himself from the seat and open the parachute manually. Why just stare at the scenery coming up to smack you in the face! And everyone nodded. (He failed — but I wouldn't have!) Once the theorem and the corollary were understood, the Navy's statistics about one in every four Navy aviators dying meant nothing. The figures were averages, and averages applied to those with average stuff.
The most powerful instance of Wolfe's use of numbers in this passage is the statistic about "one in four Navy aviators dying." However, here and throughout his book, the author inserts concrete numerical descriptions of multiple varieties into his narrative in order to emphasize the essentially scientific and precise nature of the work that the pilots so strongly feel depends on the vague, indefinable "right stuff." From the 8,100 feet that Ted Whelan fell, to the "fifteen or twenty seconds" he had to save his own life, to the ordinal "first…second" structure that Wolfe uses to detail how the emergency could have been avoided, this passage supplies a rigid structure to the narrative that mirrors the hard reality of the world in which the pilots live. As the last sentence implies, the men are ultimately forced to think of themselves in terms of numbers and specifics, no matter how hard they try to transcend the mundane phenomena of life and, especially, death.
1. What is the effect of Wolfe's using scientific terms such as "theorem" and "corollary" in describing the pilots' essentially unscientific thinking?
2. In this passage, Wolfe often writes as though he himself were involved in the situation, or as though he understands the perspectives of the pilots ("Why just stare at the scenery coming up to smack you in the face!" "He failed—but I wouldn't have!" etc.) Do these interjections feel authentic? Do they help to strengthen Wolfe's credibility as a narrator?
3. How does Wolfe's shifting of the narrative voice, as when he takes on the personas of the pilots themselves, function in this passage as compared to "The Pump House Gang"?
4. Given that most of the sentences in this passage are fairly long and descriptive, what is the effect of the short sentence "And everyone nodded"? How does this break in rhythm and structure further both the argument of the pilots and the author's subtle refutation of that argument?
5. Wolfe does not place himself as a character in this passage, and yet we get the sense that he is personally involved in some way. How does the effect of this kind of removed and yet omniscient narration compare to McPhee's narration, where the author himself takes part in the story? Or to Chatwin's narration, in which the narrator acknowledges that he is present but is rarely directly involved? Which of these forms of narration seems most credible and most engages the readers?
6. How does Wolfe's characterization of the pilots through his own narrative voice serve as a kind of grotesque?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
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