Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717
Sister Irene is praying for the energy and resolve to get through her first semester of teaching at the Jesuit university at which she has arrived. Although she is fully confident of her teaching ability and her vocation as a nun, she is somewhat anxious and timid about the world outside her classroom, which frequently startles and confuses her. Two weeks after the semester begins, a new and impetuous young man turns up in her class. In a breach of classroom etiquette, he interrupts her as she attempts to answer his not altogether relevant question, so she asks to see him after class. He argues vigorously and somewhat chaotically for permission to attend her lectures. Against her better judgment, Sister Irene allows him to join her class. Passionate and needy, the new student, Allen Weinstein, causes a sympathetic resonance in the usually restrained and self-sufficient professor.
Sister Irene notices that her excitement about her William Shakespeare class is heightened because of the presence of Allen’s inquiring and disquieting mind. Her emotional and intellectual sympathy with Allen leads her to have expectations of him, and consequently to be capable of being disappointed by him. When he fails to meet his first paper deadline, she finds herself making an unusual concession for him, only to be given a paper that is twice as long as she has assigned, entitled “Erotic Melodies in Romeo and Juliet.” Allen becomes increasingly emotionally demanding and yearns inarticulately for some kind of human intimacy. He presses her urgently to walk with him, to talk with him, to read a long and rambling poem he could show only to her. In his great need, he is immune to subtlety; he does not respect the conventional glass wall between teacher and student. His obsessive manner, his instability, and his desperate rudeness become more and more terrifying to Sister Irene, whose cloistered life has left her unprepared to deal with such raw and undigested emotion. Because she is a contemplative person, she is forced by Allen’s very existence to consider the limits of Christian charity and her obligation as a teacher. Can one reach out to such a person and still save oneself?
For a while the question is a moot one, as Allen does not return to class to pick up his “A” paper, or to enliven the classroom discussion with his energetic defenses of humanism. Just as Sister Irene is beginning to relax into her familiar and comfortable academic routine, she receives a letter from Allen, who is in a sanatorium; it contains a veiled suicide threat, couched in references to Claudio’s speech to his sister in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604). It is clear that just as the play’s Claudio...
(The entire section contains 717 words.)
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