Of the two short stories I read this week, “The Liar” by Tobias Wolff was my favorite. Maybe it was the subject matter, but I spent more time pondering this story after I finished reading it than I did with the other. From the very first line, I was intrigued. There were so many questions to which I couldn’t wait to find the answers. What exactly was in the letter that the main character’s mother found? Why did James lie so much? Of course, I found answers to these and many other questions while reading through the first time, but I discovered even more things to think about upon reading it a second time.
One thing I liked most about this story was how many different things could explain why James lied as much as he did. The first thing I noticed was that James wanted attention. This came to my attention when James and his mother were discussing the woman Frances and her paranoia. When asked if she believed Frances’s stories, James’s mother said, “I don’t think she knows what she’s saying, she just wants someone to listen.” While James clearly knew he wasn’t telling the truth, he probably just wanted to know that someone was listening and paying attention to him.
There is more to his lying than just wanting attention, however. I think it is safe to say that James was a very lonely boy. With his father dead, his siblings out of the house, his best friend no longer living close by, and his mother’s possible disappointment in him, James didn’t really have anyone to turn to. So why not make up stories to tell strangers? It’s not likely he’d ever see them again, so he could get the comforting feeling he sought without having to worry about anyone finding out anything different.
As for the morbidity of his lies — mostly about his mother’s health — James claimed to not know why he said what he did. My guess is that he was secretly worried that he would lose his mother like he did his father. Since he didn’t seem very close to his mother, he might not have known how to express his feelings about the subject and was, in a way, preparing himself for the worst.
I really liked the ending of this story because I didn’t understand until then why the fact that James couldn’t sing was important and kept being brought up. But when James was singing to the other passengers on the bus, I realized that it wasn’t so much about whether or not he could sing, but rather the fact that he just wanted someone to listen and enjoy it, and he never got that feeling when his mother constantly spoke of how he wasn’t a good singer.
This story really made me think about just how many things could affect people and why they do the things they do. There isn’t always one set reason behind why someone does something, including lying. Sometimes the person doesn’t even know themselves.