“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.”

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.