Libido and Thanatos in Tobias Wolff's "The Night in Question"

By Rebecca A. Demarest
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Tobias Wolff, The Night in QuestionLucius Annaeus Seneca once said that “All art is but imitation of nature” (Bartlett’s 106) and this has held true for the centuries following him, nature and life reflected in the art and literature of its time. Art shows life in a distilled and refined vision, life perfectly encapsulated in a painting, sculpture, or short story. Tobias Wolff’s The Night in Question follows in this time honored tradition, mimicking humanity’s most basic drives and desires. Sigmund Freud hypothesized that the two most basic drives in all of mankind are the Libido and Thanatos: the will towards life, sex, and high living and the fascination with death, destruction, and entropy. Wolff’s stories are distillations of these motivations and the conflicts between them.

When Freud is asked to describe what is at the base of the libido, he explains that “The pleasure principal long persists…as the method of working employed by the sexual instincts, which are so hard to ‘educate’, and, starting from those instincts, or in the ego itself, it often succeeds in overcoming the reality principle, to the detriment of the organism as a whole” (Freud, 4). In other words, humans will go to untold lengths to satisfy their sexual and human needs as a whole. It is also explained as “the drive to experience, to love, to learn and to grow – the instinctual life force that Freud termed the libido” (Arundale, 453). We are ruled by the instinct to propagate the species, the endorphin rush from sex and even good food. We want to be satiated and whole, without the niggling upset that comes from not having enough food to eat, or being cold, or being celibate. When there is something upsetting out equilibrium, we will do anything to right it and remove the irritation from our system and it doesn’t much matter sometimes what we have to do in order to get there. People steal to eat all the time, and in poorer countries or in desperate times, people will even kill to eat. The libido demands that we right the imbalances constructed by lack of food, security, sex, shelter, and all those lovely things that we suffer long hours of work to achieve.

There are six stories in this collection that focus nearly entirely on a character’s drive to enjoy themself. The first instance of the Libido refined is in “Powder” (Wolff 33). In this story, a father is set on taking his son skiing before the holidays and they stay out just a hair too long, getting caught in the blizzard on their way home. And yet the still attempt the drive, regardless of the hazards of driving down a mountain when the road is not even visible. The libido is evident in this story in two ways. Firstly, the father and son have sought out the mountain when the powder is fresh for the adrenalin high of skiing on fresh snow. Secondly, the two of them are trying desperately to avoid an unpleasant scene when they return too late and are thus facing danger head on to halt the prospect of unpleasantness around the holiday table, and, most likely for the father, being cut off from the mother’s bed. As such, these characters play directly into Freud’s analysis that we will seek out pleasure, even unto our own detriment as they were risking the mother’s wrath by seeking out the enjoyment of the fresh slopes and are racing through danger to avoid the onset of said anger. There is no logical reason to risk driving blind down the mountain other then that the mother will be angry.

The libido also has a staring role in “Flyboys” (57). In this story, two young boys are attempting to build a jet from scraps found around the town and purchased by the wealthier of the two boys. They are firmly enmeshed in their imagination and are running about trying to make the jet of their dreams a reality. However, these boys lack the logical reasoning facilities we would have expected in more adult characters such as in the last story, so the entirety of their mind is occupied with thoughts of how to achieve their goal, mainly get their craft into the air. To do this, they are not mindful of other people in their community, including the poorer boy who offers them the windshield they desperately need for their craft. He shines the airplane cockpit to a glittering hue and offers it to the two would-be pilots in exchange for the pleasure of their company. He risks total rejection and being taken advantage of to try and regain the friend that he lost, but the other two boys do not want to have to face the reality and hardship of the poor boy’s family and reject him will still attempting to take possession of the gift. Those two boys are riding on the high of life and do not want to be presented with the reality of thanatos as presented in the poor boy’s family. They care hardly anything for his feelings and the amount of effort he expended trying to satisfy his own desires for companionship, they are focused solely on their own achievements and dreams of building the jet.

The most blatant story involving libido is “Two Boys and a Girl” (Wolff 102). This is a story of adolescent love and attraction, sexuality at a time before a person’s Ego can fully control their Id, as Freud would say. Teenagers are ruled by their hormones and desires, and the lead male of this story is no exception. He has always hung out with his best friend and his best friend’s girl, but when his friend is called away on an extended hunting and camping trip with his father, the main character is asked to “keep an eye” on his friend’s girl. And wouldn’t you know it, but an adolescent male spends long periods of time in the company of an attractive young female and he develops feelings and a sexual attraction to her. It comes to the point where he is actively pursuing a relationship with her, trying to get her to fall for him instead of remaining true to his friend. And he cannot stand that, in the end, she runs full back into the arms of the best friend. He takes his retaliation for being thwarted sexually by instigating actions that will get her in trouble with her father, namely convincing her to paint her house’s fence red instead of the demanded white. This story is libido at its most primary function, the desire and longing for sexual fulfillment and the anger and frustration that results when that desire is blocked.

The libido trend continues with “Smorgasbord” (149) wherein two boys gorge themselves and entertain sexual fantasies both about the mother of one of their friends and the concept of hiring a prostitute. They were invited to dinner with a rich classmate’s mother and when asked where they would like to go, they replied that the all-you-can-eat buffet was their first choice. They never felt full or satisfied with the meals at school and they were going to take this opportunity not for feeding on the best food, but on the most quantity of food possible. They proceed to stuff themselves at the restaurant while their classmate sulked outside and his beautiful mother entertained the two young men and the narrator developed a crush on the woman. As they were being dropped off at the school after satisfying their hunger urges, the mother offers her son money, which he refuses as a way to insult her and voice his displeasure. She then offers the money to the other two boys and they barely hesitate before taking it, their head already filled with dreams about what they could accomplish with the large bill. The reader should not be surprised when it is revealed that the goal for this money is to buy a sexual companion. They are two teenage boys and teenage boys want nothing so much as they want to experience sex. Once again, Wolff’s characters have obsessed over only that which makes them feel good, blatantly ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the situation such as the rift between mother and son and the tension caused by their presence. The fact that they are for once full and have the possibility of sex on the horizon has fully satiated them.

“Lady’s Dream” (166) is another story in which the character’s libido has firmly taken over their life. While the story is Lady and her new husband driving along while Lady day dreams about what her life is like, her motivations for even being in that situation of pure libido. She wanted to get off of her farm, into a good life, with a kind and attractive husband and no need to work to eat and have shelter. She didn’t take into account what the man was truly like, she was taken by the appearance of bettering herself and her prospects in life, thus disregarding the unpleasant aspects that may later present themselves due to her choices. She was content to jump headlong into any situation that allowed for the appearance of being more comfortable than the life she was currently in. Once more, Wolff’s characters made decisions based solely on what they wanted at that moment with no thought as to the negative consequences that their actions held.

The most heartrending picture of the libido that Wolff paints in this collection is that in “Firelight” (185). A mother and son have the habit of basically shopping for a better life. They are unhappy with where they are financially and otherwise and spend their evenings window shopping and visiting houses for rent that they will never be able to afford. One evening they find themselves in a warm apartment on a cold evening and the boy settles in front of the roaring fire and drowsily starts imagining himself in that life. The mother sits and talks with the characters that have the rooms for rent for quite a while before the mother decides it is time to go. But the boy does not want to leave the life he has constructed for himself while basking in front of the fire. He does not want to go outside into the cold, back to the life that lacked stability and heat and a sense of security. He rebels against his mother before she forces him out the door and back into his cold reality where he shivers until his mother realizes that he is so cold. The two of them only want a better life, to not have to worry about food and shelter and everything, but that is not going to happen any time soon, mainly because the mother is a bit of a flake. So while they dream the libidinous dream, they are incapable of achieving it though they may pretend differently.

It is interesting to note that in the stories of this collection, nearly all of the stories that feature children and adolescents fall firmly into the libido category. They are interested in the good things in life, they are exploring what it means to be a sexual being, and they are concerned solely with what makes them feel good, or safe, or loved. They have no concept yet of death and the decay in life, they are fixed on doing what makes them happy. This falls true with Freud’s theories on development and the general trends in a person’s life. Freud hypothesized that a person’s brain is divided into three sections, the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is a persons base desires: food, sex, shelter, happiness, etc. The Ego is the rules and strictures of society and the Superego is what dictates the balance between the two. In a child, the Id is paramount and what the Id wants causes a person’s libido. Their goals are very similar, the satisfaction and happiness of the individual on a base level. A child does not yet fully comprehend what society asks of him, nor is he particularly adept at resolving conflicts between the Id and Superego, thus they are creatures ruled by their Libido, their Id, and will do whatever they feel is necessary to come to terms with that. Wolff’s characters are certainly no exception. It isn’t until the characters become older that the thanatos instincts begin to show in both the characters and in Wolff himself.

Thanatos is an interesting concept that Freud came to rather late in life. (Freud, xi). In the 1920’s, as his friends and families started to die around him, Freud confronted the humanity dealt with death and loss and came up with the death instinct. Psychoanalyst Arundale claims, “Freud’s most striking idea is of a primal death instinct, an anti-life force in place at the very beginning of infant life that strives to foreclose the terrors involved in survival and being alive by establishing a state of quiescence or death” (453). It is not a death wish, but a fascination with that which is the final event in a human’s life: death. Scientists believe that the whole world is slowly but surely heading towards entropic destruction and chaos, so why wouldn’t a healthy human on some level confront that concept and explore it? It is the loose tooth that we niggle at, the scabs we pick at, people gathering to stare at car wrecks and the urge to just break something when we are furious. Wolff’s stories and characters are no different.

There are two types of confrontation with thanatos is his writing, that where his characters themselves are engaged in deathly thoughts and destructive actions, and those stories where Wolff appears to be confronting his own thanatos. The first story where Wolff is dealing with thanatos himself is “Casualty” (14). This is a story wherein two soldiers towards the end of their tour are faced with a new sergeant who doesn’t understand how things work on the front line when your tour is nearly up. The lead character’s best friend keeps mouthing off and standing up to the newbie and as such keeps ending up on the scouting tours that will eventually kill him. At the end of the story, we are presented with a dying soldier being cared for by field nurses on the way to a hospital but he dies before they can help him and the nurse at his side asks her friend if she has anything that might take just a little bit of the edge of off her sorrow. Most of the characters in this story do not actively want to confront death themselves, except perhaps for the mouthy private, but this story is entirely focused around the concepts of death, and the ready death that waits at the front lines of war. It explores the impact of these deaths on the people around them, nurses and compatriots alike. It is an exploration into war and its inherent aspects of death and destruction.

The other exploration of thanatos that Wolff writes directly is “Bullet in the Brain” (200). This is a rather interesting story wherein a man is caught in a bank robbery and instead of lying down and trying to preserve his life he confronts the bank robbers and gets shot for his trouble. It then flashes to his last thoughts and the memory that his brain returns to just before shutting down. It wasn’t a lifetime summary but a single instant from his childhood in playing baseball. In this way, Wolff explores the concept of dying and how it affects a person. He apparently believes, particularly if you are shot in the head, that you cannot count on your brain to give you an accurate summation of your life, the newsreel of memories that will determine if you enter heaven or hell, but you will re-experience one crystalline memory that holds a great deal of meaning to you. The man himself embraces the danger and the possibility of death as he confronts the robbers, he has no fear at the moment of rebellion, only a kind of giddy relief and the reader is given a graphic and explicit explanation of the bullet’s path through his brain before he dies. Both Wolff and his character are exploring death together such as he does in another two stories in the collection.

In “The Chain” (131), a father watches a dog attack his daughter, his friend then kills the dog in exchange for the father destroying a guy’s car, and the guy who owns the car then tries to track down who he though damaged his car and ends up killing a promising honor student instead. It is a long chain of death and destruction, where one deathly dead spawns another. The father obsesses over the fact that his daughter was hurt and that the law can do nothing about it while his friend decides that they should take the punishment into their own hands and hey, while they’re at it, here is another dude who deserves to be punished. I’ll do your dirty deed if you’ll do mine so neither of us gets caught was the general concept. But it spirals out of their control and ends up with an innocent getting caught in the mix. It is one long preoccupation on their parts with thanatos, exactly that sort of downward spiraling that Freud hypothesized about in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where the wish fulfillment of the destructive deeds is indeed a preoccupation not only with retribution, but also death.

The title story of this collection also has characters explicitly dealing with thanatos. We all know and have heard and told the rhetorical stories of having to choose who dies, how many lives would you be willing to sacrifice to save however many more, and would you be willing to sacrifice your own blood? In this story, a brother and sister are talking and the brother tells her a story he heard at a religious gathering about a train switcher and bridge operator that must choose between saving his own son and saving a train full of people. His sister looses patience when it comes to the crux of the story and confronts her brother about the idiocy of his pastor in telling the story and the logical fallacies in relating this particular story to that of God sacrificing his one and only son. But she is not immune to the fascination with the deathly story that her brother has. She compares God to the bully of a father they had and insists on protecting her brother from him as she did from their abusive father and takes great joy in the idea of that confrontation. It is second nature in humans to protect those we love from harm and confront, even ruminate, on the possibilities of sickness, death, and harm to them. We are creatures driven by the confrontation of thanatos while simultaneously struggling to fulfill the libido.

It is this confrontation and struggle between thanatos and libido which drives the rest of Wolff’s stories. It is also this struggle which Freud focuses on in psychoanalysis:

“The will to live and die is a universal struggle that can encompass one’s deepest fears regarding death, annihilation, and non-existence. On the most profound level, psychotherapy touches upon this existential struggle between the wills to live and to die. Some people respond by burying this conflict beneath an array of complex defenses. Others maintain a deep silence regarding the struggle and hold on to what they have for fear of falling into the abyss of the unknown. However, the polarities of life and death forces have the potential to combine and explode. This explosion manifests itself by a profound engagement with the struggle between the will to live and die.” (Robbins, 358)

The rest of Wolff’s stories confront this concept head-on, his characters confronting in themselves a war between life and death, fulfillment and happiness versus a preoccupation with death and destruction. These stories all deal with different ways that the conflict expresses itself, from open discussion of the dichotomy, to the drives working together, as defenses against each other, or to manipulate those drives in others. The opening story of the collection confronts this conflict openly and verbally.

In “Mortals” (3), a man confronts his own mortality by placing his obituary in the paper so as to see how people would react. His wife drags him down to the paper office and gets the reporter, our narrator, fired for not checking the factuality of said obituary. The reporter is a bit appalled at this man and feels that he has now laid a death sentence on his own head by posting that obituary while the man was just checking to see if he had accomplished in life that which he could be proud of, whether people noticed and mourned, what would happen if he did indeed die that day. Over lunch, they discuss this compulsion to declare your own death and what it means to them. The thanatos drive of the man expressed itself in a rather safe, if unusual way versus skydiving or staring at car wrecks, but it was still a confrontation of his own death and mortality. The reporter could not understand that drive, that wish to see himself dead, and had fixated on the bad omen that a living obituary presented. Between the two of them, they confront the pulling struggle between life and death and the drive towards both.

Three stories later, in “The Life of the Body” (38), the reader is once more presented by someone who is torn between the life and death impulse, but in such a way as to cause him personal damage. A teacher becomes obsessive over a woman he met in a bar, and regardless, or because, of the fact that the woman’s boyfriend beats him up he continues to pursue this veterinarian named Kathleen. He even shares the story of the evening with a former student of his. But for this poor teacher, his libidinous obsession over the woman leads straight into a thanatos confrontation because to be near her means risking personal injury. The question becomes, why does a man continue to pursue a woman who literally causes him pain? It is because his libido and thanatos drives have become linked in their struggle, they have found an activity which is mutually beneficial. He literally risks life and limb in order to try and screw this woman, just like the old knights in shining armor waging war on the elements, spells, dragons, and neighboring kingdoms for the love of a woman. Once the drives stop fighting each other and work in tandem, there is not much that can stop a person from trying. Instead of fighting with themselves, their entire being is focused on the task at hand.

The struggle between libido and thanatos continues in “Sanity” (74) a story about a mother and daughter visiting the stepfather in the hospital. In this story, instead of the drives working in tandem, the libido is used instead as a defense against the thanatos. The mother is dealing with her husband being trapped in the hospital which is a situation that always brings about thanatos. A hospital is a place designed to make you confront mortality and life, from the nursery of newborns torn from their mothers’ pain and suffering to the hospices where the old and infirm go to die. Its very halls reek of disinfectant to keep the deadly infections at bay. So when these two girls retreat from the hospital to go home, the mother begins talking about sex, about her libido, in an effort to push the thanatos from her mind. Her daughter is uncomfortable with this topic of conversation, as almost any daughter is when confronted with her own mother’s sexuality, and wanders off and finds a substitute libido manifestation for her mother; a car lot. She convinces her mother to indulge another of her libido drives, the enjoyment of the purchase, of car, food, house, whatever. It was still something of life to supersede the thoughts of death.

“The Other Miller” (86) also deals with one drive obscuring or defending against the other. A soldier is told that his mother is dead and that he needs to go home to her funeral. As he and the men who drove out to pick him up are headed back into town, the soldier cannot imagine that it is indeed his mother who is dead. There is another man in his platoon with the same initial and last name as him and he assumes that it is, in fact, this man’s mother who is dead and he spends the car ride planning how he is going to use his time away from the lines to his best advantage. He imagines burgers and movies and staying out as long as he can until he is called back to be with his squad, but he does not allow himself to even think that it might be his mother who is dead, until he is confronted with the reality of it at the end of the story. He uses a preoccupation with his libido, with all the pleasurable things he could do while off of the lines, as a defense against the thought and consequences of his mother actually being dead. He does not want to confront the thanatos and thus embraces the libido.

The final story to deal with the conflict between drives is “Migraine” (120). In this story, a woman is getting ready to leave her lover, packing up her things and trying to deal with a migraine. Apparently the only thing that works on her migraines is a massage from her lover who she is trying to leave. While she quibbles over items she wants to take and wanted to leave before her lover gets home, her headache gets worse. When her lover does come home, they end up making amends over her headache and trying to get it to go away. This is an interesting manifestation of the two drives. Illness and the preoccupation with it falls under the purview of the thanatos drive and the main character is insistent on the fact that her libidinous partner, her lover, is the only one that can make this symptom of infirmity disappear. When she is trying to leave her lover, her headache worsens, as she is getting ready to remove a support in her life she becomes infirm, but when she relents and stays with her lover, the symptom of thanatos disappears by the very hands of her libido. Trying to leave and throwing her life into chaos put her thanatos drive and her libido drive into conflict, but when she returned to the equilibrium of her relationship, the conflict disappeared.

Of course, this conflict between the libido and thanatos is not unique to Tobias Wolff’s work. As psychologist Robbins puts it, “In many instances when a person is put into the throes of this challenge, one is plunged into the polarities of the light and the dark and moves into the edge of hope and despair. Artists constantly play with the lightness and darkness of being, as a way of capturing this transformative edge” (Robbins, 358). It is simply that Wolff has expressed these drives and this conflict in such a transparent way, the drives distilled and brought forth with emotion and clarity. Freud once said, “Of love and hate,…‘If only we could succeed in relating these two polarities to each other and in deriving one from the other!’” (Arundale, 454) I do believe that Freud was missing the point that in life, these drives are not nearly as separate as he would assume and Wolff accomplishes where Freud missed out. These drives are constantly working with each other and against each other, creating the entirety of human experience. One can lead to the other or they can stand alone. The conflict and they work with each other. The sight of a car wreck makes us drive more carefully. Being in a car wreck makes us value our life just that little bit more. It brings us to the edge thanatos and in seeing the blankness of death we strive for life. And art will forever reflect this in the complexities of characters and stories, particularly in the writing of Tobias Wolff.


Arundale, Jean. “Eros and Thanatos in Context.” British Journal of Psychotherapy 20.4 (2004): 453-454. Print.

Bartlett, John. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Seventeenth Edition. Ed. John Kaplan. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002. Print

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1961. Print.

Robbins, Arthur. “The Magic Garbage Can: Thanatos and Transformation.” The Arts in Psychotherapy 32 (2005): 358-371. Print.

Wolff, Tobias. The Night in Question. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1996. Print.

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