The Liar Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 22 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Liar.
This section contains 486 words
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The Liar Summary & Study Guide Description

The Liar Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Liar by Tobias Wolff.

The following version of this story was used to create this study guide: Wolff, Tobias. “The Liar.” Our Story Begins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Pages 36 – 53.

James, the story’s narrator, is a 16-year-old boy living in San Francisco with his mother. James has a habit of lying compulsively, which greatly distresses his mother. One day, his mother finds a letter he has written to a friend. The letter contains the lie that James’ mother is sick. Mother, a devout Catholic, then goes to church to pray for guidance on how to help James. She then returns home and phones Dr. Murphy, the family physician. Although Murphy is not a psychologist, Mother has repeatedly sent James to see Murphy for counseling about James’ habitual lying. On the phone, Murphy says that he does not think that James’ lies are a very big problem, but Mother is not convinced. James is the youngest of three siblings. One of his sisters is married, the other sister is in college, and James’ brother Michael works with runaway children in Los Angeles.

In narration, James states that his relationship with his mother has always been fraught, as his mother seemed to find his various behaviors and interests bewildering. Moreover, his mother often worried that he was careless and unprepared for things. James’ father died of cancer years ago. At the funeral, James did not cry, which unnerved Mother. James cried a few days later, but it seems that these tears may have simply been a type of insincere performance for the benefit of his mother. James speaks in narration about his father, who was a generally pessimistic, misanthropic man. One of his main pastimes was reading the newspaper and complaining about all of the bad events in the world. However, he refused to ever try to actually help improve the world. In a session between Murphy and James, Murphy once said that he believed that James’ father did these things because he was afraid of actually striving and discovering his personal limits. James’ father became calmer after being stricken with cancer, and he and James actually seemed to develop a closer relationship then.

James apologizes to his mother for the lie that he wrote in the letter. That evening, Murphy arrives to have dinner with them. During dinner, Murphy talks about his own son, with whom Murphy seems to have a dysfunctional relationship. After dinner, Murphy sings along with Mother as she plays the piano. After Murphy leaves, James and his mother converse. Mother says that she loves James, and she implies that James’ habitual lying will never deter her love for him. The next day, Mother brings James to the bus station so that James can visit his brother in Los Angeles. On the bus, James converses with other passengers. He tells lies about his life, and the other passengers seem to be very interested.

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