Alice Munro’s Magic

As many of you know, Alice Munro has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In celebration I’ve written an analysis of two of my favourite Munro stories, “Vandals” and “Something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” 

I’ve been teaching a Munro course at Dawson College for 10 years. I’ve taught “Vandals” in my introductory course for over 15. It’s a story I never tire of teaching and that’s because its rendering of abuse and survival is both daring and hopeful. It never fails to awe my students, which is one reason I won’t stop teaching it, at least not for the foreseeable future.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading this text as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you’ve never read a Munro story, Open Culture has posted several onlineMany of the observations I’ve made here apply to her writing in general.

Spoiler Alert: if you want the pleasure of discovering “Vandals” for yourself, stop reading here. This article is roughly 1,900 words long.

munro-opensecretsAlice Munro’s “Vandals” appeared in her 1994 collection, Open Secrets. It’s a complex story of incipient alcoholism, pedophilia and survival. Despite its dark themes, the story isn’t entirely bleak and that’s because there’s an alluring character, Liza, at the centre of it. She’s a young woman, a survivor of sexual abuse, who turns to Christianity for succour. Her religion gives her a design for living, some structure in a life whose natural structure has been assailed by the narcissism of her de facto parents, a nascent alcoholic named Bea and a sexual predator named Ladner. In typical Munro style these characters aren’t revealed definitively until the end: Bea and Ladner’s relationship, with each other and with Liza, forms a savage subtext that only breaks the surface calm of the story in retrospect. It’s Liza’s childlike description of male orgasm, kaleidoscopically rendered in a coda, that points to unsettling undercurrents that have been there all along.

“Something I’ve been meaning to tell you” is another story about human instincts gone awry. Et, the plain younger sister of a local beauty, Char, is a small-town version of Arthurian sorceress Morgana Le Fay. She’s a scheming character whose urges are sublimated in good humour and familial concern. A dual story structure means we see the sisters both as teens and as seniors, with the intervening years left to our imagination.

The achievement of “Something” is what one of Munro’s characters would call a “marvel.” Senior citizens are put forth as doubles for those mainstays of Camelot: King Arthur and his wife Guinevere relive their struggles while Morgana and Lancelot take aim at the placidity of their lives. As card-playing 70-somethings, Arthur, Char, Et and Blaikie have surprising depths, with blackhearted Et’s being most fully realized. It’s through her that Munro launches one of her best literary surprises: despite being elderly, Et’s actions beg the question: who hasn’t ever felt like killing a loved one?

9780143054986_cover_coverbookpageLiza has murderous impulses too and her story is told in a postmodern jumble I tell my students is like a game of 52-pick up. Munro herself has said she structures her stories as a “tour through a house,” rather than as a linear progression. That’s apt since her postmodernism does not extend to the non-narrative form. Instead, we discern a beginning, a middle and an end, but only once the story is finished. We see Liza as a young, unself-conscious girl, swinging from trees, skipping on dirt paths and splashing playfully in a pond. There’s a buoyancy to her character, a buoyancy that will be struck down by a darkness only apparent in shadow form. That darkness finds its conduit via her willingness to please and her induction into a world of responsibility far beyond her years.

Et, by contrast, is not innocent. As a young woman she’s capable of her own rash stunts, cartwheels included. But the mental twist that decides the trajectory of her life is self-generated in a way Liza’s is not. She remembers when she first realized her older sister was beautiful:

All the same it would have suited her better to have found one of those ladies beautiful, not Char. It would have been more appropriate. More suitable than Char in her wet apron with her cross expression, bent over the starch basin. Et was a person who didn’t like contradictions, didn’t like things out of place, didn’t like mysteries or extremes.  

To compensate for being in Char’s shade, Et develops her own reputation. She becomes the town’s ribald comedienne with a caustic edge. As a seamstress (at a time when most women still had their dresses made), Et has other women at a disadvantage. She sees their ” bellies blown up and torn by children,” and yet cannot refrain from making amusing, but pointed, barbs. Seeing a customer wearing a competitor’s clothing, she tells her “You can’t see yourself from behind anyway.” Like Camelot’s sorceress, Et is known, albeit jokingly, as a “terror.” The comedy stops with her sister however. Suspecting Char of pining for her erstwhile lover, Blaikie, Et, like Morgana conjuring over Lancelot and Guinevere, schemes to keep them apart.

14283How do these stories end? Years later we see Liza as a young married woman. She’s been asked by Bea and Ladner to check on their house while they are in Toronto, waiting for Ladner to have heart surgery. In a spree of violence striking for its deliberation and calm, Liza, now a born-again Christian, trashes their house. She then phones Bea to tell her what she and her husband Warren have “found:”

Even maple syrup, you wouldn’t believe it…Oh, and the beautiful big front window, they threw something at that, and they got sticks out of the stove and the ashes and those birds that were sitting around and the big beaver. I can’t tell you what it looks like…Then she went on describing things, commiserating, making her voice quiver with misery and indignation. 

Warren, as a witness to the destruction and the narrative voice of the scene, is shocked and disturbed, but finally ambivalent. He admits he always knew “that’s what she’s got in her,” but is still unaware of Liza’s motives. When he does ask, she says “I already told you what she did to me. She sent me to college!” It’s a non-sensical answer, but riding high on adrenaline, her pronouncement gets “them both laughing.” The scene seems lifted straight from Bonnie and Clyde, its mystery heightened by the incongruity of the perpetrators and the crime. Liza and Warren are both serious Christians after all, Christians who met and married at the Walley Bible Chapel.

“Something I’ve been meaning to tell you” ends with Char’s death. Acting on her suspicions that Char’s interest has been stirred by Blaikie, the lover who once jilted her, Et keeps a close eye on her sister. When she discovers rat poisoning in Arthur and Char’s kitchen and takes stock of Arthur’s recurring illnesses, Et’s concerns for her brother-in-law escalate. Admitting she may be acting on an “old maid’s” fears, Et tells Char that Blaikie, having been absent from their card games for several days, has repeated history and eloped with a wealthy widow from Toronto.

9780099459712Later Et tells herself that “she never knew where she got the inspiration to say what she said,” but that “somebody had to, before it was too late.” Believing she has saved Arthur from Char’s machinations, she has similar suspicions about Char after her death. Having died in her sleep, and ending up beautifully laid out, Char’s death is written off as a heart attack. However, when Et looks for the poison, the bottle is gone. Munro arranges events in ways that are intractably ambiguous, but the implication is clear: Char took her own life just as she tried to the first time Blaikie humiliated her. The title of the story references this: having pushed her sister to suicide, Et debates, daily, the prospect of revealing Char’s motives to Arthur. Her sister’s death, it appears, is not enough for her.

Death comes to Liza’s rescue as well. With breath-taking symmetry, Ladner dies the day Liza trashes his and Bea’s house and writes The Wages of Sin is Death on their kitchen wall. It seems her religion is not so incongruent with violence after all. Taking a page out of the old testament, Liza’s revenge is an affirmation of her strength as well as a statement about the redeeming power of the path she has chosen. While many survivors of abuse displace their anger in destructive ways, Liza hits her target. However, what is even more remarkable is this: Liza’s allure as a character is not based on sexuality but its polar opposite: it’s Liza’s morality — her willingness to fight sexual wrongdoing — that makes her an irresistible heroine. She may be born-again, but she’s also delectably subversive.

LivesOfGirlsAndWomenPart of Munro’s magic is this: actions are experienced or enacted by characters with highly filtered perceptions and these filters, or lack of them, are what cause them pleasure or pain. For example, Bea in “Vandals” does not see her common-law husband’s pedophilia. Her heavy drinking keeps her life out of focus in a way that is both hazy and comfortable. However, the money she gave Liza to go to college, we realize belatedly, is suspect. The question is, does Bea have the capacity to see it? Could she have been paying Liza off? Sending her away because she sensed Liza’s closeness to Ladner? The story does not answer these questions. It only tells us that Liza was hurt — over being abused by Ladner and not being rescued by Bea — and Bea’s failure has left its mark on her. However, Munro does tell us this while Liza is in the midst of her agonies: “What Bea has been sent to do she doesn’t see. Only Liza sees.”

Et’s perception of events is coloured by a life lived in the shadow of beauty. However, Et gives into her fate and grudgingly embraces her role as second-best. While she ends up with Arthur, the prize she wanted, it’s the decidedly ambiguous prize of a platonic relationship with a passive man. It’s certain that unlike Char, Et will never see the “look in a man’s eyes when he made love” and that’s because Et has made a bargain with herself. In exchange for intimacy and love, she has chosen control over those closest to her. As an evil sorceress, it’s a loss she deserves to bear.

Recently Christian Lorentzen, at the London Review of Books, admitted he had difficulty understanding Munro’s popularity. He wondered whether he was “some sort of big city chauvinist, or a misogynist, or autistic, or a decadent reader deaf to the charms of simple sentences.” Believe it or not, I empathized with him. As a graduate student reading The Lives of Girls and Women for the first time, I too failed to grasp its importance, failed to find the door at the back of the wardrobe. In hindsight, however, I know I read Munro’s stories hastily, distracted by the many demands being made on my time. I didn’t absorb the nuances of her prose because they slid right past me, disguised as ordinary sentences. Reading Lorentzen’s assessment of Munro’s oeuvre, an assessment based on a speed-read through all her work, it was clear he’d had the same experience.

As many critics have observed, however, the real delight of reading Munro — slowly and deliberately — is this: one awakens to the beautiful and perverse in the very ordinary people living among us.


Read my review of Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial and of artist Nicke Gorney’s show at Galerie D in Montreal.

Rex Murphy interviewing Alice Munro in 1991. 
Author’s bio: Irene Ogrizek teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. Previous to that, she was cross-appointed in both English and Humanities at Vanier College, also in Montreal. In her 20s, she worked in the airline industry, both in Canada and abroad, spending two years living and working in countries in the Persian Gulf. Later, she worked on contract for both the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Canada’s International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, led by Ed Broadbent.

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A Murder is Announced: the Death of the Classroom

A revolution is coming to U.S. higher education, one that will sweep away an archaic business model, erase the value of many venerable brands, and enhance the brands of new entrants and nimble incumbents. It will be a tough time for many U.S. colleges and universities but great news for the rest of the world.

This is an excerpt of an article in Forbes, one written by Bruce Guile, president and co-founder of Course Gateway, an online education consultancy, and David Teece, executive director of the Institute of Business at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. (See link below.)

I read this with some amusement. A murder is being announced here, à la Agatha Christie. The victim? Classrooms. The perp? Technology as defined by Silicon Valley.

Articles and arguments like this are sweeping the media and their purpose, it seems, is to shift the balance of power away from universities and colleges and to a new world of techno-ed, a world shaped by ideals of openness, democracy and free online education. This world will level the playing field: students in Mumbai will study alongside students in Toronto and Honolulu and all will emerge with equal degrees and, presumably, an equal shot at making it in the world.

A youthful spirit of rebellion is fueling this movement, providing followers with the added incentive of feeling they are doing some good: they are freeing their equally young and intelligent counterparts in other, poorer parts of the world, making it possible for them enjoy the same privileges and wealth. What this utopian vision of education is missing, however, is a realistic accounting of how all this will be achieved.

I’m going to look at two reasons why this thinking is flawed and I’m going to use some real-life anecdotes from my academic career to do it.


I’m an English professor and I’ve taught at three different colleges in Montreal. Many years ago, I volunteered to give breaks to colleagues who were overseeing a provincial exam. I had a schedule that took me from classroom to classroom in a building where hundreds of students were writing simultaneously; I went to each room and took over for 20 minutes while the attending professor left. In one classroom, I noticed a student I’d taught previously. Because I was bit bored, I picked up the attendance record, which had just been delivered, and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles, checking student photo IDs against the names on the list.

I hadn’t gotten to the student I recognized before he came to me, agitated, and told me he had to leave. He said it was because of a “family emergency.” I was puzzled because cell phones were not allowed in the exam and I wondered how he knew an emergency was taking place. I concluded something must have happened earlier in the day and that he was too distracted to write. I took in his exam booklet, advised him he would have to wait a few months before he could sit the exam again – a fact that could delay his graduating – and then reluctantly let him go.

christie_a-murder-is-announcedHe left and after I finished the attendance, I sat down and opened his exam booklet. Pages had been ripped out, and on the cover, he’d completely scratched out his name. Curious, I looked at the remaining pages underneath. And that’s when I solved the mystery: he was writing for another student, one that I had also taught. He’d scratched out the name so that I wouldn’t make the connection. This imposter student had the bad luck of having me as a relief professor, and having me – as opposed to my less-knowledgeable colleague – check the attendance records during her break. He likely knew I had taught the student he was standing in for and knew I would catch the switch. No wonder he was so agitated.

When it came to light, this event caused quite a scandal. The evidence was taken to Quebec City – where our province’s Ministry of Education is located – and much discussion ensued about what to do. In the end, and because this is Canada after all, a mild warning was issued to both students and the real student was allowed to sit the exam several months later.

I’m relating this story because I want people like Guile and Teece to understand that cheating, even in brick and mortar institutions, is a real problem. I also want the public to understand that because of incidents like the one above, institutions are taking proactive steps to prevent cheating scams. For example, programs like Turnitin have made online, for-purchase essays far riskier for students. Now cheaters who want to skip essay-writing have to turn to sites like Craigslist to find writers willing to write more expensive on-demand essays. Universities in some countries, like India, are planting signal jammers on campuses to prevent students from using their phones during exams. I images (15)predict institutions in North America will eventually follow suit. There are also programs like Lanschool – one that I use – that make it possible for teachers to turn off the internet in computer labs during essay writing sessions.

So while technology may be delivering information to a broader base of eager, international learners, as Guile and Teece correctly assert, elements of that same technology are also making it possible for colleges and universities to test individuals’ learning more accurately. And therein lies the problem: the dissemination of information online is not a problem, but verifying its uptake in individuals is. And contrary to what Guile and Teece are saying, this is where conventional institutions have an undeniable advantage.

And this brings me to my second point. Self-directed learning, of the sort promoted by many e-tech enthusiasts, can be problematic too.

Here’s another anecdote from my life: I will admit, in writing, that I hated a lot of the courses I took in graduate school. I took four in one year and the only one I enjoyed was Canadian literature. What did this mean? It meant I had to write essays on topics, like Romantic poetry, that I enjoyed a whole lot less. It meant I had to slog my way through tomes of theory about structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and feminism without being able to apply these theories to narrative texts. It meant I had to read other poetry, poetry by early Canadian poets, some of which was patriotic and nationalistic and of truly dubious quality. I am one of those literary types who will admit there are certain forms of literature and of literary analysis I simply do not like.

Why is this important? It’s because my undergrad years were halcyon by comparison. I had professors who let me write on topics I’d invented and who encouraged imaginative free-thinking; these were professors who, at the time, I rather grandiosely felt recognized my genius. Yes, once upon a time, I really was that young and self-centered.

images (16)So graduate school felt like boot-camp and for the most part, I hated it. That being said, I knew even then that writing on topics I didn’t like was good for me. Tackling texts I was not prepared for frightened me into doing thorough and exacting research. Focusing on ideas outside my chosen purview broadened the scope of my knowledge and changed the way I looked at what I already knew. Being a teaching assistant prepared me for the disappointment of having to teach students uninterested in literature. These experiences combined gave me the patience to forgo quick routes to gratification and to strategize, meaningfully, against boredom and indifference, both mine and others’.

And this is the problem with self-directed learning. Left to my own devices, I would have kept researching the things I liked best. I would have kept to the same trajectory I’d started in my undergraduate years. If I hadn’t been forced to read about deconstruction, I wouldn’t have done so. Furthermore, not indulging myself caused me to take a trip to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto and to hold in my hands the same text of Greek and Roman myths Keats used when he wrote Endymion; it caused me to write a comparative analysis of that poem using these two bodies of myths, an analysis that was deemed publishable by the professors and Ph.D students who attended my presentation. Moreover, studying the patriotic poetry of my country’s first settlers may not have been an aesthetically pleasing experience, but it did teach me a few things about history and the hardships early Canadians faced. And deconstruction, god bless it, taught me that none of this really signified.

images (19)I taught Euripides’ play Medea for many years. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of living outside the precepts of the Golden Mean, a design for living first formulated by Aristotle. The Golden Mean is about staying on the middle path between two extremes, about not giving in to the temptation of dramatizing one’s circumstances in life. An attribute commonly used to illustrate this point is courage: a man with too much courage can be reckless; a man lacking it can be cowardly. In Medea the Golden Mean is expressed by the women of Corinth. They surround a devastated Medea in the aftermath of her betrayal by Jason. They urge her not to be alone with her feelings.

She listens to advice,
even from friends, as if she were a stone…and weeps,
crying to herself for her dear father, her home,
her own land, all those things she left behind,
to come here with the man who now discards her.
Her suffering has taught her the advantages
of not being cut off from one’s own homeland…
Her mind thinks in extremes.

A nurse, who knows Medea well, describes the Golden Mean:

It’s better to get used to living life
as an equal common person. Anyway,
I don’t want a grand life for myself—
just to grow old with some security.
They say a moderate life’s the best of all,
a far better choice for mortal men.

images (17)Even in this age of nanosecond communication, the Greeks have something to teach us: it’s better not to be alone with strong feelings. I haven’t taught Medea for a few years, but I still talk about the Golden Mean in my classes. I discuss it in the context of the 2006 school shooting we had at Dawson. I talk about how going to sites, like the Goth one shooter Kimveer Gill frequented, can be fun in moderation. I tell them that an excessive reliance upon the reality presented on those sites can start us on a troubling path, a path where our framework for reality starts moving away from the center in increments too small to notice. The Greeks didn’t have the internet, but even they knew that the company we keep can be crucial to our mental health. The women who surround Medea, the ones who sense her capacity for violence, are Euripides’ mouthpieces. Their warnings presage Medea’s murderous actions: she kills her two children to get back at Jason, the husband who has abandoned her for a younger wife.

How does this centrist approach apply to conventional teaching? Because I deal with students face to face, I can gauge the effect my words have on them. And like most teachers, I try to nudge them away from extreme positions. Those of us in the arts and humanities, especially, teach students there are usually several ways of looking at a problem and taking into account all factors is best. It’s how one arrives at a measured response to circumstances.

Despite all the hype and magical thinking, the internet is not a live teacher with its students’ best interests at heart. In fact, it’s a forum that allows young people to self-direct their learning in ways that aren’t always positive. Those with extreme views can always find their soulmates and can collectively reinforce one anothers’ beliefs. While Kimveer Gill’s association with the online Goth scene is an extreme example, the same paradigm of funneling can be applied to education. With less formal requirements and without the intervention of teachers — individuals there to read expressions on students’ faces, answer questions and provide support — we risk creating a population of young people whose world views are narrow and circumscribed. The extremity of the views expressed by Guile and Teece provide a good example. I’m not sure where they’re getting their dire projections from: college enrolment, at least in my neck of the woods, is higher than ever.

Goth-gothic-6148265-600-896There is another reason to heed Medea’s story: she is a foreigner in Corinth. She was a princess of Colchis and abandoned her homeland and royal status to become Jason’s wife. In other words, she is at one remove from her origins, away from family and friends. What does this suggest? To me it suggests a student, sitting at a computer, away from the positive influence of experts and peers who might play a role in shaping that student’s consciousness. It raises questions: exactly what is this student learning and how is he or she learning it? More prosaically: is it really the student’s work the professor is grading?

Aristotle and Euripides may not have seen the internet coming, but it doesn’t really matter. Their ideas are still powerful today and I doubt that either they or Agatha Christie would be foolish enough to announce the death of classroom education. I’ll leave that for the likes of Bruce Guile, David Teece and those other naysayers — naysayers of both conventional education and wisdom.

Here’s a link to the Guile and Teece article:


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Shakespeare on Addiction: Sonnet 129

Sonnet 129:

Something interesting happens every time I teach Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. I’m reasonably certain the term sex addiction didn’t exist in his day – and neither did 12 step groups for it, with Elizabethans turning up in their flamboyant garb – but that doesn’t mean that the problem, and its attendant degradations, didn’t exist. Just ask Shakespeare about his Dark Lady.*

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

A few years ago, I came across an hour-long documentary made about Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. The area has been ravaged by an influx of drugs and its victims, earning it a reputation for being something of an elephants’ graveyard: it’s where addicts go to die. The film was called Through a Blue Lens and was shot, mostly, by two beat cops who wanted to portray the lives of the addicts living there. It’s not a warm and fuzzy film about drug addiction, but it’s not condemnatory either. Here’s an excerpt:

The plight of those living in that part of Vancouver became a minor cause célèbre in 1999, in part because The Globe and Mail published a photo essay of its denizens that left a lot of Canadians gasping. It made us aware, in a none-too-gentle way, that we had inner city problems just as bad as some cities south of the border. Vancouver’s port is a gateway for the drug trade and it seems at least some of these drugs don’t travel far: they form the lifeblood of those immiserated souls living in the downtown area.

So why look at Canada’s Skid Row when we’re talking about Shakespeare? It’s because his definition of addiction is one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s relevant today and that’s because when addicts talk about their addictions they report having the same feelings and experiences described by Shakespeare. Those haunting sounds of agony — the addict’s anguish — are distilled, painfully and thoroughly, in this poem.

It begins:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Shakespeare believes we forfeit our spirit – our soul – when we engage in addictive behaviour. The expense, or the price of the addiction, is paid with it. Waste here is used literally (implying that lives are wasted by addiction) and also symbolically to denote a place. This double meaning is made obvious by the use of the preposition in, as “in” a waste of shame. Waste as a place bookends neatly with that other inferno, hell, mentioned in the closing couplet.

Lust is Shakespeare’s drug of choice and the belief is that it was aimed at the infamous Dark Lady, that promiscuous creature that had Shakespeare, and others, utterly intoxicated.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust

What are the signs of Shakespeare’s enslavement? The form of a sonnet is strictly prescribed: it is made up of three quatrains — three groups of four lines — and a closing couplet. The rhyme scheme tends to alternate lines, meaning the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth, etc. The lines are usually made up of phrases that go towards forming sentences. However, in this quatrain, the last half is simply a list of adjectives or adjective phrases, enumerating Shakespeare’s agonies. And these agonies are stated strongly, with words like murderous, bloody, savage and extreme.

This is a man in the throes of an obsession, an obsession that won’t even allow him to form coherent thoughts; instead he spits out a list of adjectives to convey his feelings. Shakespeare the wordsmith created this list for a reason. It’s there to denote a burst of feeling that can’t be contained.

But does this fury of Shakespeare’s capture the state of those sad and emaciated souls wandering the downtown eastside? I would argue it does and the key word here is shame. Ask any active addict how they feel about their life and you are bound to discover, underneath the anger and street braggadocio, a deep and murky well of it. That shame is what keeps them using; it’s what keeps them from wanting to feel.

After Shakespeare establishes his narrative voice, he turns to the cyclical nature of his malady. In the second quatrain, he states:

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Here we see the structural and thematic rendering of the cycle of addiction. Let me translate: the addict no sooner enjoys (uses) his drug when he starts to despise its consequences straight (right away). However, beyond all reason he continues to hunt for it, and again, as soon as he consumes it, he hates it beyond all reason. Why?  Because he can’t stop. Shakespeare then expands the subtle animal imagery and lays blame on suppliers and enablers. His drug is like a trap laid on purpose and it makes him, the taker, mad. Mad here is being used in the British sense of the word, meaning insane.

It’s usually at this point in my class that I stop and ask students to think of an activity, any activity, they do to excess. Do they spend too much time online? Eat too much of the wrong kind of food? Text incessantly? And it’s also here that I tell them my own little story of addiction, the one that had me frequently rushing to my neighbourhood corner store, in Toronto, when I was a student.

I had an addiction and it was to Swedish berries, those soft red candies that taste heavenly but are of no nutritional value whatever. These darlings came in handy at midnight when I had an essay to finish and needed a sugar boost. However, the problem was that I didn’t know when to stop. The store sold them in bulk and I didn’t have the discipline to buy only a few. My reasoning, as I stood in front of that bin and ladled in scoop after scoop, was that I would save some for later.


So I would eat them until I felt sick and this process, over the last two years of my undergrad degree, repeated itself more times than I care to remember. But it was the sequence of events in the process that was important. I would come to the realization it was late. I knew I had to keep working but didn’t want coffee. Then I would think: Hey, Swedish berries! Great idea! And I would haul myself off to the store, come back and over-indulge. Only afterwards would I say to myself: “Did I really have to scarf down that whole bag?” Or: “Good idea? What was I thinking?”

So too goes the cycle of addiction: there is the chase, the consummation and the aftermath. In other words, the anticipation, the imbibing and the remorse. This cycle will be expanded upon in the next quatrain.

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

The first quatrain establishes, through the use of enumeration, Shakespeare’s loss of control. The second establishes the cyclical nature of his addiction. This last is significant because it does not provide new information. However, it does repeat the three part cycle and repetition in Shakespeare is always significant: he uses it to let us know we need to pay attention. Here we are told, again and with more emphasis, that an addict is mad while chasing the drug and mad while consuming it. And of course it is that madness — that inability to reason — that starts the cycle all over again.

But take a look at the second line. Shakespeare reverses the order of the cycle: he starts with the aftermath: had, moves to the consummation: having, and then moves to the first stage of the cycle, the chase: in quest to have. He does this to create the impression of a back-and-forth motion: the addict moves forward and backward, forward and backward, ad infinitum. Why? Because that’s what happens when one becomes addicted: life stalls.

At the start of this article, I said something interesting happens every time I teach this sonnet. Here it is: after I read it out loud, I tell my students to look closely at the panhandlers, especially the young ones, when they pass through the Atwater metro, the metro that services Dawson College. I almost always get the same reaction: the class goes silent, the flow of air in the room stops, and these young people, with their futures ahead of them, pay closer attention. This suffering, rendered so poetically by Shakespeare, is only steps away.

And it happens elsewhere. When I drive home, I stop at a busy intersection leading onto the highway. That’s where I often see a young woman, her blonde hair in dreadlocks, holding up a sign asking for spare change. I always give her some and now she knows to come to me. If the traffic light permits, we may even exchange a few words.

I’ve been criticized for doing this — “she’ll just spend the money on drugs” is what I hear — but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how we can stop people from “committing suicide on the installment plan,” as a good friend of mine puts it.

Shakespeare didn’t know either, but luckily for us, that didn’t stop him from looking deeply into that darkness and writing about it anyway.

*I will be, for the sake of brevity and compression, be referring to the narrator as Shakespeare.

More literature? Read my article on Alice Munro here.

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