Relationship Drama in Tobias Wolff’s “Awake”

7 Oct

Ask a college co-ed what one of the biggest frustrations in her life is.  There’s a good chance she will complain about how all guys her age are horny jerks who have no idea what they’re going to do with their lives.  If she could wish for one thing it would be to read guys’ minds and find out why they’re so dumb.  “Awake,” a short story by Tobias Wolff, is like the genie that grants these girls that wish.  It offers an insightful analysis of young adult relationships from the stereotypical male perspective that is entertaining and thought provoking to readers, regardless of their gender.

The entire plot of “Awake” is composed of one scene in a small attic room in Queens, New York.  Richard, a student at Columbia, lies awake in bed next to the sleeping Ana, a Russian waitress. As Richard tries to fight the urge to wake Ana and gratify his sexual urges, his mind wanders to thoughts on the nature of their relationship. Although the story is told from a third person narrator, the narrator is limited to only knowing Richard’s thoughts.

Tobias Wolff: Image Courtesy of Mark Coggins (2008)

As far as the reader can tell, Richard and Ana are just “fun buddies.”  Richard wasn’t looking to have a relationship with Ana.  “They were just having fun, that was how he’d seen it,” says Wolff.   However, Richard thinks Ana is taking the relationship more seriously and that makes him want to bail on her.

The situation is pretty common among young adults, which makes this story so relatable.   Whether they have been involved in this kind of relationship or not, readers can identify with the two characters.

We never get anything from Ana’s perspective because she is asleep, but from what Richard knows about her, Ana had lived a hard life. She survived war in Chechnya but her family had lost everything.  Now she lives with her aunt in Queens and works illegally as a waitress.

Richard is an economics student at Columbia University.  He physically appears to be a mature man but Richard thinks he still has a lot of growing up to do.   Although Ana’s attachment to Richard makes him want to leave her, he realizes that he misses her too much when they are apart.

It is during this change in Richard’s emotionally detached character at the end when the story becomes most intriguing because Wolff seems to comment on the nature of relationships among young adults. Like many young men, Richard has difficulty maintaining serious romantic relationships because he is restless, immature, and a bit self-conscious.  He isn’t ready for a serious relationship because he hasn’t matured enough yet.

Although “Awake” is short, Wolff manages to write something entertaining and thoughtful that readers can relate to.  The observation Wolff makes through Richard and his thoughts about Ana is fascinating and makes sense in the context of the story.  The language is easy to read and sounds like how a guy like Richard would speak.  And whether you’ve gotten screwed over in a relationship like Ana, done the screwing like Richard, or heard your friends complain about similar situations, the story is something you can associate with.


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