Recurring Imagery and the Objective-Correlative in Tobias Wolff's "All Ahead of Them"

Unlike some New Yorker stories, Tobias Wolff’s latest in the July 8 & 15 issue is immediately engaging and consistently powerful. It strikes me as a standout in contemporary American fiction, maybe even an instant classic. If you haven’t read it, you should. 

Wolff’s main character, Thomas, walks out on the balcony after a phone call from his brother has revealed that his newlywed wife Arden is “a liar and a thief.” His mouth is dry. He’s dying for a cigarette, but he can’t smoke because he’s recently quit. Stunned and confused by the revelation, he looks out at the view of sunlight on the boats in the harbor of a quaint seaside town somewhere on the Italian Riviera. And then we get this image:
“A pair of paisley pajama bottoms hung from a clothesline on the roof across the street, the legs dancing madly in the gusty breeze. He and Arden had laughed at the spectacle barely an hour ago; now he found it unsettling, humanly desperate.”
It’s a memorable image. In this first occurrence Wolff uses it to refract Thomas’ suddenly disturbed mindset, from celebratory and carefree to unsettling and “humanly desperate.” The pajama bottoms provide an animated visual echo of Thomas’s inner turmoil, and the vision sticks in our minds. Along with our curiosity about what exactly Arden has done, the creepy fascination the dancing pajama bottoms provoke within our subconscious heightens our desire to read on.

We get a little more backstory on the marriage and on Arden’s family. The backstory is fascinating and somewhat troubling, hinting at familial strains of dishonesty and secretive lawlessness. Thomas is shaken, pondering this history in light of his new knowledge about his wife.

Wolff is too smart a writer to let us know exactly what Arden has done; not yet. But he does bring back the pajama bottoms, as Thomas goes back out on the balcony to break his resolution not to smoke:
“He took another hit off the cigarette and opened his eyes to the astonishing sight of the pajama bottoms performing a cancan – one leg up and down, then the other, again and again. He laughed in spite of himself.”
What is it about these pajama bottoms? They seem to be providing comic relief, but it’s disturbing, too, the way they persist in this mindless exuberance, this spirited zombie-like celebration of themselves. It’s as if they’re taunting Thomas, or possibly trying to entertain him. Or maybe it's just random laundry, hung out to dry and blowing in the wind.

We do finally discover Arden’s sin (no spoilers – you’ll have to read it), and the rest of the story consists of Thomas dealing with the internal fallout, a cascading epiphany about the true character of his new wife and the first outlines of their future together. As in the best short stories, a new equilibrium has been reached: Thomas is a smoker again, and he no longer has any illusions about Arden. We get one more look at the trousers:
“Thomas shook out another cigarette and let it dangle unlit from the corner of his mouth. The breeze was dying, the sky darkening into evening. The pajama legs hung listless from the line, now and then giving a little ripple as if in a faint memory of the dance they’d performed.”
With this final description, the role of the pajama bottoms in the story’s architecture clicks into focus. Because the drama takes place almost entirely in Thomas’s head, the recurring image provides a crucial link to the concrete physicality of the fictional world. It serves as a stand-in for Thomas’s state of mind, while at the same time providing a visual read-out -- like an echocardiogram -- of the story’s dramatic arc. In other words, the pajama bottoms allow Wolff to reveal his character’s internal turmoil without spelling it out.

This is, it seems to me, a wonderful example of what T.S. Eliot called the “objective-correlative.” The half-comical, half-desperate, brainlessly mechanistic movement of the pajama bottoms provides a visual representation of Thomas’s state of mind -- and of the story's underlying metaphysics -- that is at once more precise, more profound, and more nuanced than a straight-up telling could ever be.