The Barracks Thief Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1984

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Character study

Time of work: 1967

Locale: Fort Bragg, North Carolina

Characters DiscussedLewis

Lewis, Barracks Thief, Thea young army recruit from Lawton, Kentucky, who is training as part of the Eighty-second Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. He is one of three new soldiers chosen to guard an ammunition dump in a woods outside the fort on the Fourth of July. the soldiers are instructed by the duty officer to shoot any nonmilitary personnel who come near the dump. When the local sheriff and a civilian try to convince them to leave the dump because they are in danger from a nearby forest fire, the three soldiers, led by Lewis, dutifully chase them off at gunpoint. the act forges a bond of friendship among the three new recruits, but Lewis’ macho display masks his personal insecurities. Lewis is homesick and lonely. His attempts to fit in with his fellow soldiers through brash and compulsive talk alienates those around him. He brags incessantly about his sexual prowess but is mortified when a sergeant calls him “Tinkerbell” because he cannot complete a rugged training maneuver. One night, a civilian teacher at the post tends to Lewis’ wounded hand, and Lewis is disturbed by the pleasure he feels from close physical contact with the man. He decides to prove his masculinity to himself by picking up a prostitute in a local bar, but the woman humiliates him when she finds out that he does not have enough money. Lewis vows to return with the appropriate sum and the next day steals the wallet of a soldier in his barracks. the ease with which he commits the theft magnifies his contempt for his barracks mates, and he enjoys the feeling of power over them that the theft gives him. Lewis’ need to steal becomes a psychologically complex compulsion. He is nearly caught taking the wallet of a soldier in the shower room and eludes capture only by punching the anonymous victim in the face. When he discovers that the man he punched was Hubbard, one of the two soldiers with whom he guarded the ammunition dump, he is struck with shame. He plans to turn over a new leaf but before he can, incriminating evidence leads to his identification as the barracks thief, resulting in his emotional breakdown and dishonorable discharge from the Army.

Philip Bishop

Philip Bishop, the most aloof and urbane of the three new recruits in the Eighty-second Airborne. He is in the Army only because the Marine recruiting station was closed the day he went to enlist. Philip enlisted to escape his broken family and rebuild his damaged self-esteem. When he was in high school, his father left his mother for another woman, and this deeply upset him. As a teenager, he vented his anger through juvenile acts of vandalism and harsh treatment of his emotionally withdrawn brother, with whom he previously enjoyed a happy relationship. He looks to the military as a means to attain personal independence and a bright future. Although he is a loner, he enjoys the camaraderie he shares with Hubbard and Lewis. He considers their standoff at the ammunition dump as a test of personal mettle that he passed, but the self-assurance it gives him is shaken by other experiences, including a confrontation with antiwar protesters outside the base and the thefts in the barracks. He feels compelled to tell Hubbard that he is not responsible for the thefts, even though no one suspects him. When Lewis is identified as the barracks thief, Philip feels betrayed and schemes with other soldiers to give him a ritual beating. He is surprised to find Hubbard contemptuous of their plan, and although the beating takes place, he does not participate. Shortly afterward, he is called up for duty in Vietnam.


Hubbard, a sensitive young man who was gulled into enlisting in the Army by a recruiter who visited his high school. He is discouraged by his experiences in basic training and frightened by the prospect of fighting in Vietnam. Initially, he is incredulous at Lewis’ behavior at the ammunition dump, but he falls in with Lewis and Philip to follow orders. Shortly afterward, he is crushed to hear that the same day he was guarding the ammunition dump, his two best friends back home were killed in a drunk driving accident. He is crying in the showers over the news when Lewis steals his wallet, breaking Hubbard’s nose in the process. Hubbard eventually identifies Lewis as the barracks thief after the letter his mother wrote him telling him about his friends’ deaths is found in Lewis’ possession. These events completely change Hubbard’s outlook on life. He is called up for service in Vietnam the same day that Philip is but flees to Canada.

Guy Bishop

Guy Bishop, Philip’s father, whose midlife crisis crystallizes the dissatisfaction with their traditional roles that the other men in the story feel.

BibliographyAllen, Bruce. “Name Book Year’s Best.” The Christian Science Monitor 77 (June 7, 1985): B7. Calls the work a powerful treatment of antagonisms and apprehensions of youth, intensified by war. Compares Wolff with Ernest Hemingway in his creation of abbreviated and understated scenes. Suggests that so many longings and fears are packed into such a short book that readers will finish it hardly believing that they and its characters have been through so much.America. CLI, September 1, 1985, p. 108.Booklist. LXXXII, October 1, 1985, p. 193.Campbell, Don. “The Barracks Thief.” Los Angeles Times Book Review 8 (July 29, 1984). Emphasizes the brush with danger in the ammunition dump scene in the novel, arguing that it marks the three men forever. Praises the book for its sharp focus on fears, uncertainties, tangled loyalties, and instincts for betrayal of the three central characters.Dubus, Andre. “The Barracks Thief.” America 151 (September 1, 1984): 109. An enthusiastic review. Points out that the story focuses primarily on the complex motivations and desires of the three central characters. Compares the book to Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897) in its dramatization of the isolation of men joined together by male work.Forbes. CXXXVI, July 15, 1985, p. 19.Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996. Features biographical information on Wolff as well as criticism of his short stories. Although The Barracks Thief is not discussed, this reference provides solid insight into themes that appear in most of Wolff’s fiction. Includes a helpful bibliography for further reading.Kendrick, Walter. “Men with Rifles.” The New York Times Book Review 90 (June 2, 1985): 42. Says the story presents a bleak world short on joy and long on suffering. Notes that Wolff does not editorialize in the novel but leaves the reader to decide whether it is better to die spectacularly or to live out a life in safe conventionality. What dignity the characters have is based on their telling their own story without apology or complaint.Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver, eds. Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. A collection of informative interviews with several well-known American authors, including Tobias Wolff.Simpson, Mona. “The Morality of Everyday Life.” The New Republic 193 (December 9, 1985): 37-38. Calls the novel a small-scale yet intense moral drama typical of Wolff’s earlier short stories. Notes the identification between Lewis and Philip, who somehow feels guilty for Lewis’s acts. Points out the irony of the story’s being told by a “good man” who is neither victim nor perpetrator and the only one of the three main characters who goes to Vietnam.Time. CXXVI, December 2, 1985, p. 97.Washington Post Book World. XV, May 7, 1985, p. 1.
Categories: Characters