“The Hobby” by Eric McCormack (Canada)

Eric McCormack’s “The Hobby” is a story about age and retrospection; it is also about artistic creation and, more broadly, about love. What does a person do when she/he looks back at the largest, most consuming, work of his/her life and knows it to be over? One response, of course, is to take up a hobby. Another is to withdraw; yet another, to deny one’s work is over: to “rage against the dying of the light”-to use Dylan Thomas’s phrase-or, as McCormack puts it, “[to defy] the darkness.”  The retired engineer in this short fiction can be said to adopt all three responses at once.

What is it to care about something as deeply as this man does? To wish it carefully and passionately into being? Surely there is some creative power in such a love, in such a hope. Is this not the hope that inspires legends of sub-creation from the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea to the story of The Velveteen Rabbit? But there is a flip side to this kind of creativity: if the world of one’s creation were to come to life (see Brian Moore’s The Great Victorian Collection) might it not draw people out of their own world-perhaps onlookers, perhaps the artist himself? And what would happen then?

In “The Hobby,”  this possibility is given a double spin, since the author as well as the old man and his hosts are sucked into the world of the old man’s creation. And it is a world not without its terrors, for though it is possible that the tunnel is just a tunnel, it seems more likely that it is a metaphor for the final darkness into which first the old man-but eventually his hosts and the author-must eventually travel.

Look for a definition of the word hobby, and then compare it with the following definitions:

In the 1400s the word hobby referred to a shaggy, medium-to small horse or pony. In the 1500s the similar word hobbin or dobbin was often used by workers as a name for a plough horse. By the 1700s it could also refer to a small wooden horse on which a child might ride. Children often spent many hours rocking on these horses.

By 1760 Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy used the word metaphorically to describe a person who had, in the perceiver’s eyes, an excessive interest in something. Certainly the concept of an all-consuming passion for some project is given memorable attention in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817).

By 1840, having a hobby was seen as a respectable and desirable way of passing one’s time. It was said of a certain nobleman of the period that “the library was one of his hobbies.”

Eric McCormack, 1939-

In 1966 Eric McCormack left his homeland of Scotland to attend the University of Manitoba. He decided to teach English, and in 1970 he joined the staff of St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ontario, where he still teaches, specializing in seventeenth century and contemporary literature. He has contributed stories to various literary magazines; among them Malahat Review, New quarterly, Prism International, and West Coast Review. His first collection of stories, Inspecting the Vaults, was published 1987 by Penguin Books. His first novel, The Paradise Motel, was published two years later.

Exploring the Text

  1. Some people who read this story react strongly to the final paragraph: What’s going on? What can it mean? What happens next? We are so used to reading stories that close neatly with the last word, we are surprised, and sometimes a little frustrated, when they do not. Explain how you reacted to the last paragraph of this story. Describe your feelings in one concise paragraph.
  2. Argue for or against the following statement: McCormack’s “The Hobby” is a story about one man’s “defiance of the darkness.” Begin by deciding what the word darkness suggests. Share your findings with one other student. Make certain you locate this phrase in the story and that you consider its meaning in context.
  3. Reread the paragraph beginning, “That boy wore me out”(76). Explain the function of this paragraph in relation to the rest of this story.
  4. In the final paragraph of the story there is a sudden shift in point of view that suggests we might want to rethink what the whole story is about. Who might the “me” be in the final paragraph? (Hint: The old man created the train and the train station, but who created the old man?) What might the author be suggesting about the relationship between a person and the thing that person builds or creates?

Personal Response

Write on the following topic:

If you have a hobby, focus on your own hobby. If not, imagine you have one. Now write a letter to your best friend describing a dream you had about your hobby in which you somehow entered the world of the thing you loved, collected, or created. Consider how you felt, whether or not you wanted to leave, and whether or not you could leave.


Field_of_DreamsView the film Field of Dreams.

In both the film and McCormack’s story, the world the protagonist longs for becomes the world that is. In both works, the protagonist is drawn into the world he wished for and/or created.

In the film, we see events primarily from the point of view of the protagonist, but in the story we see them from the point of view of a third-person narrator.

Events in the story, therefore, are distanced from the reader in order to make them more credible.

If you were going to turn “The Hobby” into a film, what point of view would you use? How would you make the events of “The next Sunday morning. Two a.m.” believable?

Storyboard the final scene.

“A Report for An Academy” by Franz Kafka (Czechoslovakia)

The protagonist in this story has no name-at least none that he consents to be known by-and he has no status, being caught between the world he has abandoned and the world in which he has “established” himself, but of which he is not truly a part. He speaks the language of his new world with precision-perhaps with too great a precision. He insists both on the completeness of education and on the deliberateness with which he undertook it. In his view, it is that deliberateness, that ability to use the active rather than the passive voice in describing his experience, that sets him apart from those of the same background who are merely “trained.” He represents all immigrants, converts, successful aspirants from an illiterate background to society’s haut monde, differing from them all only in one modest particular. He was born an ape.

In other words, Kafka’s former ape is not an ape, but rather any human being who, in order to absorb another culture, has estranged him/herself from his/her own. But such a reading narrows the story’s scope, for “Report” is full of asides, subordinate clauses, and other seemingly parenthetical observations that are related only remotely to the immigrant experience. And these passages are too numerous to ignore. Furthermore, to define “Report” as an allegory would be to put the reader in the shoes of a member of the academy-an auditor standing “well back from the barrier,” well back from the true voice of “the other” and it does not seem to be Kafka’s intention that this should be the reader’s experience. Kafka has mined “Report” with passages that concern all of us, passages dealing with freedom, the illusion of freedom, captivity, the awareness of captivity, and the possibility or impossibility of finding a way out. These are topics on which no prudent academy would be likely to solicit a report. But these are topics that concern the speaker and they are mirrored in the asides of his report, making it, therefore, much more than a simple report.

Kafka (himself, as a German Jew, doubly a minority in mainly Roman Catholic Czechoslovakia) invites us to discover that it is not only the majority who want to maintain the integrity of the barrier, but also the “other,” the one who teases with “frank” speech, emotive metaphors, and invitations to reflect on common experiences, but finally insists on difference with the asseveration, “all I have done is to report.”

Complete the following sentence and then follow it up with a one page report:

“I wish to thank the members of the academy (or council, or committee) for asking me to submit this report concerning my former existence as ____________.”

You should try to imagine that you were this thing/person that you have chosen and have only recently metamorphosed into your present state. You may wish to consider some of the following questions:

  • What is a report (as opposed to a story or journal entry)?
  • Who or what is “the academy?” How do you feel about appearing before it?
  • Did you prefer your former existence or do you prefer this one?
  • Why did you make the change? Were you forced to do so, or was the change voluntary?
  • Explain how the language you used in your former existence was slightly (very?) different from the one you use now.
  • Do you find it difficult to make this report? Explain why or why not.

Franz Kafka, 1883 – 1924

The writings of the Czech-born German writer Franz Kafka are dominated by portrayals of man’s alienation from modern society. Although Kafka himself was comfortable in his chosen society-the distinguished circles of intellectuals and literati of early twentieth-century Prague-he chafed under the demands of bourgeois society, represented by his domineering father. Was one, Kafka asked rhetorically “to earn one’s living, or to live one’s life?” As if foreseeing his early death, he felt that the hours he spent as a lawyer for an insurance firm were stolen from his “life”-that is, his writing. His father, a merchant, who considered Kafka’s visionary prose “unprofitable,” became the model-in several guises-for the central antagonists in many of Kafka’s works. These stories often portray a protagonist, “K.,” struggling against an overwhelming, oppressive power, or trying ineffectively to gain its approval. While many of Kafka’s short stories and short novels, such as the now famous The Metamorphosis (1915), were published in his lifetime, his three novels The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927), all considered masterpieces of German expressionism, were published after his early death from tuberculosis in 1924.

Exploring the Text

  1. When you are half-way through “A Report for an Academy,” close your book and write a post describing your responses to this short fiction so far. In particular, explain how you feel about the narrator. When you have finished the piece, continue recording your responses. Share them with one other students.
  2. The protagonist goes through a number of changes as he metaphorphoses from one state to another. Make a chart listing the narrator’s gains, after he became a human, on one side and his losses on the other. Evaluate the two existences. Explain why you feel he is or is not better off as a human.(Hint)
  3. The protagonist says at one point that he prefers metaphor for some things. What kinds of things might he have in mind? Select two of the metaphors he uses and see if you can draw some conclusions about the kinds of things that metaphor might be “better” for. Consider, too, whether or not you agree with the protagonist’s statement about metaphor. Explain your conclusions.
  4. Although the protagonist shows no desire to antagonize the members of the academy, he does not seem particularly anxious to please them either. His encounters with other humans seem to be equally, but not similarly, ambiguous. Consider how the protagonist-and perhaps Kafka himself-feels about the academy and about the human race in general. Do you agree with the protagonist’s feelings? Explore this topic with two or three other students. Remember to support your ideas with quotations from the text.

Consider any of these phrases in your discussions …
(page numbers from the J.A. Underwood translation in The Story Begins When The Story Ends)

  • “Speaking frankly, much as I prefer choosing metaphors for these things – speaking frankly: your own apehood. gentlemen, in so far as you have anything of that sort behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. But everyone who walks this earth has an itchy heal: from the little chimpanzee to the great Achilles.”(171)
  • “When it’s a question of the truth, every high-minded person drops the ultimate refinements.”(172)
  • “… but only to be in darkness I faced the crate…”(172)
  • “For the first time in my life, I had no way out.”(172)
  • “…the blissful baying of ignorance…”(172)
  • “the first occupations of my new existence”(172)
  • “I had no way out, yet I had to come up with one, because I could not go on living without it.”(172)
  • “… freedom is something that men all too often dupe themselves with.”(173)
  • “And as freedom is among the most sublime of feelings, so is the corresponding illusion among the most sublime.”(173)
  • “Oh mockery of the sanctity of Nature!”(173)
  • “… if the way out should be merely an illusion…”(173)
  • ” … he completed the theoretical side of my instruction…”(175)
  • “Was I not already too wearied by the theory? Yes, I was. Such was my fate.”(175)
  • “…in the battle against apehood we were both on the same side and that I had the harder task.”(175)
  • “I was not tempted to imitate men…”(176)
  • “I soon spotted the two possibilities open to me…”(176)
  • “the zoo is just another way out”(176)
  • “my first instructor … had before long to abandon my instruction and be admitted to a mental hospital”(176)
  • “Oh, one learns when one has too; one learns if one wants a way out; one learns relentlessly”(176)
  • “I acquired the average education of a European.”(176)
  • “It got me out of the cage and gave me this particular way out, the human way out.”(176)
  • “I disappeared in the undergrowth.”(177)
  • “I had no alternative, always assuming that freedom was not an option.”(177)
  • “…I neither complain nor am I content.”(177)
  • “She has that mad look of the confused trained animal in her eye; only I can see it, and cannot stand it.”(177)
  • “On the whole I have undoubtedly achieved what I set out to achieve.”(177)
  • “I am not interested in anyone’s opinion; I am interested only in disseminating knowledge.”(177)


You may work with one other student on this project. View the film The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (NFB), based on Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis. This is an innovative, award-winning film that uses sand on glass to create a Kafkaesque film of alienation and guilt. There is no narration.

Imagine you are the former ape.

Assuming his level of discourse and tone of voice, write a description of what you see and what you feel as you are watching this film.

See the film at least twice and discuss with your partner the best way to approach this activity.





Fill in each of the blanks in the following sentences (all from this “report”) with the correct word from the three choices found in parentheses. After you have made your choices, make certain you know the meanings of all the words in parentheses.

  1. “I find myself unable to comply with your request as ____________.” (formulated, derived, abated) (p.170)
  2. “the storm blowing after me out of my past__________________…”(abdicated, abated, propitiated) (p.170
  3. “may that first handshake be followed up by frank and ___________________ speech.” (unreputed, wanton, candid) (p.171)
  4. “my ape-nature is not yet wholly ___________________…”(sanctified, falsified, suppressed) (p.171)
  5. “the scar left by a ____________________shot.”(irresponsible, wanton, denatured) (p.171)
  6. “human words…_______________________the description.” (propitiate, sublimate, falsify) (p.171)
  7. “the kind of freedom…presented itself to me in their _______________________gaze.” (unabated, turbid, concerned) (p. 174)
  8. “then, in my desperate impatience to ___________________ him…” (emulate, describe, abate) (p. 175)
  9. “neither he nor I was ___________________…” (excused, propitiated, baffled) (p. 175)
  10. “I am interested only in ______________________knowledge…” (suppressing, disseminating, consuming) (p. 177)