The Fragile Faith/Tobias Wolff's The Chain

By Mari A. Gomez


You are not fiction. You cannot edit yourself out. You cannot erase parts of yourself, although an argument is to be made that those parts can be forgotten. If you step in front of a train, there will be blood.  That’d be the end of it.

There is a short story I've come to appreciate. The story is called "The Chain" by Tobias Wolff. It traces a series of events set in motion by a reaction. This reaction is triggered from the natural tendency to want to right a wrong. The reaction then prompts a chain of occurrences that ultimately end in unnecessary and unspeakable tragedy.

At the receiving end of this chain is an innocent person, far from the source of the original event that prompted the reaction and therefore undeserving of the consequences. We encounter this frequently: people  seemingly undeserving of their fate: a young man hit by a drunk driver, a sick child, a young mother dying of leukemia. There is perhaps no traceable logic to it, as there is often no logic to our lives, but we'd like to believe there is.

 "The Chain"  argues that we are all inextricably connected, that paths cross all the time and one single moment can have tremendous ramifications for others.  Our universe is perhaps not as immense as we imagine it to be. It is but a  million lighted paths crossing and meeting at odd times and intersections. 

 "The Chain" is simple: it leaves the reader no room for interpretation. It traps you in its conclusion, but that conclusion contains an inherent moral question about human nature, about providence and justice, and about how we are limited  by our inability to often see beyond ourselves and our own narratives. 

The opening scene begins, not coincidentally, with an animal: 

“A big black wolf-like animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow…”

This dog attacks Brian Gold’s daughter as she goes down a sled on a snow hill. The dog represents the dark instinct, the creature we often don't recognize in ourselves.  The dog catches his daughter as Gold is on top of the hill, unable to come down fast enough. When he gets down  he fights off the dog by biting its ear. The girl lives, the skin doesn’t even tear, but Gold is left with a sense of injustice when the owners of the dog refuse to take responsibility or even apologize. Instead, they claimed that because the dog was chained up, no laws were broken and therefore they are absolved from any and all responsibility. This rattles Gold.  So, he’s telling the story to his cousin Rourke, who then suggests to him that they should get payback. Gold tries to stay out of it, but he is pulled in by a strong current already in play beneath his feet. 

The truth about yourself is that you don’t know it. It is impossible to understand the entirety of yourself as you’re moving in time, as you are being written, drafted and composed.

“But you drew blood, right? You tasted blood…” Gold’s cousin Rourke asks in regards to the biting of the dog's ear, “It tasted good, didn’t it? Come on, Brian, don’t bullshit me, it tasted good.”

The suggestion is that Brian Gold, in defense of his daughter, reached over to some kind of malevolent territory and that the change is irreversible. The taste of blood means tasting violence and whatever dark animal lurks in our hearts.  His cousin convinces Gold that he go out, create an alibi, and he’ll kill off the dog for him. They do it, though Gold is uncomfortable and apprehensive.

Rourke calls the dog owners Nazis and this sticks with Gold, it brings up some ancestral memory and arouses in him a deeply buried anger.

“Once he heard Rourke say it, though, Gold could not forget it. The picture that came to mind was one he’d pondered before: a line of frenzied dogs harrying Jews along a railway platform.”

Of course Nazi's have absolutely nothing to do with the vicious dog. It is the brewing that goes on in the subconscious that surfaces occasionally, where we get to know our deepest and darkest parts of ourselves. You are familiar with this. The constant attempt to read others the way you read a story, with an assumption that the details are absolute. And you interpret the world the way you would a film. God is the director, framing the world into specific images.

The story takes a good amount of time in describing Gold’s “fragile faith." This is the idea that he's teetering on the edge, not fully committed.

“There were things he saw in himself that he thought of as Jewish…Corrosive self-mockery. Bouts of almost paralyzing skepticism. Physical awkwardness. A disposition towards passivity, even surrender, in the face of bullying people and oppressive circumstances.”

These details set up what will become Gold’s breaking point towards the end of the story and the moment where he pierces something, tears through some invisible universal fabric that will connect with another’s path. Gold summons an anger that doesn’t directly belong to him, but it is real, it is maddening, and is deeply embedded in him and while it has no connection to the present situation, he makes that connection, he rationalizes it, he internalizes it and it blinds him.

“In the already familiar picture that Rourke had conjured up, of Jews being herded by dogs Gold sensed an instance of the resignation that he disliked in himself…Why didn’t one of them hit a guard? -grab his gun-take some of the bastards with him?…And with that old image vivid in his thoughts, it seemed to him that the question had now been put to him…”

 Gold harbors rage that he uses to rationalize his behavior.

Then comes the return. Months after Rourke kills the dog, a man rudely runs into his car and makes a dent in it. The man denies responsibility, does not acknowledge the damage; instead is bothered by the idea that he did anything wrong. This irks Rourke and inevitably Gold feels obligated to return the favor his cousin had done for him months earlier. He is the avenger and is sent to the place where this guys works to damage his car.

“Gold hefted the crowbar.It was a strange thing. You sold drugs to your own people, ruined their neighborhoods, turned their children into prostitutes and thugs and you become a big shot. A man of property and respect. But try to run a modest business, bring something good into their community, and you were a blood sucking parasite and a Child of Satan…”

Gold had made this whole thing about himself, without even realizing it. He had turned his own frustration and anger onto the situation and onto someone else, as if the universe had singled him out. 

And as Gold stands there with the crowbar, something comes over him.

“He touched the door again and then crocked the crowbar like a bat and swung it with everything he had, knowing just as the act passed beyond recall how absolutely he had betrayed himself.”

When the drug dealer comes out and sees his car, he assumes he knows the perpetrator. Gold had stepped into a path that was not for him. He goes looking for this presumed assailant, encounters his young nephew, and kills the boy.  Gold had, in effect, caused this boy's death.

The chain continued. You have the power to reach others, to make an impact, and oh what a great and terrible power that is.  And it kills you, in some way or another, but no matter where you run, where you turn to, who you think you’ll become, what you think you deserve, where you live, there you are, all the time, dragging along all the bad phrases and sentences from a few pages ago. That is, until you can transcend or subvert it.

Revenge doesn't seem to work out well for Gold. 

Gold's search for justice produced something else entirely.  The only reality is that you must live with yourself and whatever it is you believe, or think you believe,  cannot become fragile. But it will. And those are the moments that change everything. 

And what recourse does one have, in the realization that yourself is all you got, that if you stop yourself everything else is over. The recourse is prayer, in its various forms; as I see it, tiny little acts of patience, beauty, kindness, forgiveness. At the end of the story, when Gold finds out what his action causes, how is he to live with himself?  What else is there, except the acceptance that for a moment you  missed the guiding light? You betrayed yourself and that is the worst betrayal of all. What else is there except trying to counterbalance those wrong impulses with right ones?  To try and make a good impact, to reverse pain, in tiny ever-insignificant ways.  To outweigh it, it is the only chance at grace. 


On Dying is about things I read here and there, but it is also about dying, not completely dying, rather the little deaths we suffer throughout the days. Those short little deaths, some bigger than others, and the tiny little awakenings that might follow.  

Mari GomezComment