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 wants his sister to part with her purity to save him from Angelo’s malice, Allen wants Sister Irene to risk some small part of herself to answer his overwhelming need. This she partially does, by going to Allen’s parents and trying to persuade them of their son’s despair in Birchcrest Manor, where he is being given shock treatments. The parents’ frustration and unwillingness to yield to this stranger, so new on the scene of their chronic troubles, give some idea of the turmoil that their son Allen has been causing them over the years. Sister Irene returns defeated after her charitable exploit, far from the mystery of Christianity with which she had begun, but curiously resigned to her own human frailty.
A month later, Allen comes back into Sister Irene’s life one last time—to tempt her into some real gesture of affection—and finally to alienate...
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her entirely by a request for money to escape to Canada. His exaggerated anger at her emotional frigidity and her lack of generosity is unwarranted and explosive, and it paradoxically purges her of any ambiguity, guilt, or responsibility she might have felt for him. Months later, when she hears of his suicide by drowning in Quebec, her mind drifts vaguely for a moment; then she pulls herself together and accepts the fact that she can only be one person in her lifetime, and that person could not even truly regret Weinstein’s anguish and death. She feels no guilt, precisely because she cannot really feel anything at all.