Next Door by Tobias Wolff
In Next Door by Tobias Wolff we have the theme of fear, conflict, violence, peace and harmony. Taken from his In The Garden of The North American Martyrs and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Wolff may be exploring the theme of fear. The narrator and his wife are listening to their neighbours fighting and it becomes clear to the reader that both the narrator and his wife are very much afraid of what their neighbours are doing (fighting). It is also noticeable that neither the narrator nor his wife do anything to intervene when they see their neighbours fighting the reader aware that the narrator fears a retaliation from his neighbour should he report them to the police. In many ways the narrator and his wife are mere onlookers though it is clear to the reader even though they are onlookers the narrator and his wife are affected by their neighbours fighting. If anything any peace of mind that the narrator and his wife have is being taken away by their neighbours fighting.
Not only have they been awoken from their sleep but in reality they are prisoners in their own home. Particularly because they will not report their neighbours to the police. They keep what is happening between their neighbours to themselves. Again the reader aware that the narrator fears retaliation should he pursue any action or report his neighbour. It may also be significant that neither the narrator nor his wife have any sympathy for their neighbours. The narrator’s wife finding it hard to understand how the neighbours can go from kissing one another to fighting. There is a sense that the narrator’s wife’s disbelief over the neighbour’s actions is the trigger for her lack of sympathy. She simply does not understand the dynamic of such a hostile and erratic relationship. How it is possible for two people to continuously go from love to conflict and remain together. Which appears to be the case for the neighbours. If anything it is possible that the narrator’s wife views the neighbour’s relationship as being unhealthy and as such steers clear of any compassion of sympathy for her neighbours.
The movie on the TV may also be important particularly the fact that the narrator decides not to wait for the end of the movie. There is a sense that not only does the narrator know how the movie will end but that the movie in many ways mirrors society in the narrator’s eyes. Both are predictable and both involve some type of violence. The violence the narrator predicts in the movie mirroring the violence he sees next door with his neighbours. Just as violence on TV is commonplace so too is the violence that the narrator sees with his neighbours. It is in contrast to the narrator’s own environment where he loves his wife. Something that is noticeable by the fact that he allows her into his bed and holds her till she sleeps. Though some critics might suggest that by becoming aroused while in bed with his wife the narrator is no different from other men in wanting to have sex with a woman. The reality may be very different as the narrator does not force himself on his wife which may not be the case when it comes to his neighbour.
It may also be a case that Wolff is using flowers as symbolism throughout the story. Possibly attempting to compare the idyllic world that the narrator seeks or wants to see with the Garden of Eden. The title of the story may also have some symbolic significance and it is possible that Wolff is suggesting just as there is fighting next door to the narrator, domestic violence may be next door to everybody. Whether the individual is prepared to admit it or not it is a widespread occurrence and in many ways may be normalized by people. Something that is a little clearer to the reader should we consider the type of relationship that the narrator’s neighbours have with one another (love and fighting). It is also possible that Wolff is suggesting that the violence that may exist in a relationship is deemed to be acceptable by some. In this case the wife of the neighbour remains in the relationship regardless of how she is being treated by her husband.
The end of the story is also interesting as Wolff through the narrator’s movie idea appears to be exploring the theme of peace and harmony. The narrator tells the reader at the end of his idea ‘you cannot tell one from another, man from woman, woman from man.’ This line may be important as it suggests that there is no differences between either men or women which opens the possibility to both living in harmony. Everyone is the same. Also by having the narrator end the story with the line ‘in a land where no one has ever been’ it may be a case that Wolff is symbolically suggesting that no one has yet lived in a place where there is complete peace or harmony between people. Already the reader is aware that the narrator and his wife and their neighbours don’t live in peace and it is possible that through his movie idea the narrator longs to live in an environment that is peaceful, harmonious and without incident.