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In: English and Literature

Submitted By Danielle188
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Danielle Marshall
Mrs Fletcher
June 21, 2016

ENG4U Culminating Essay
Swing Low: A Life

The novel Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews is a phenomenal, yet gut-wrenching and

heart-breaking story of the last year of the author’s father’s life. The novel, based in Melvin
Toews’ point of view, depicts his thoughts and actions as he lives out the end of his life in a hospital with a diagnosis of manic depression that he received at age seventeen. The atmosphere and environment Mel finds himself in throughout his life causes more harm than good as it contributes to his struggle to live what is considered a normal life among society. The setting of
Swing Low: A Life causes Mel’s character to develop in such a way that he himself becomes anxious, paranoid, and confused, sometimes without meaning to be that way.

From the beginning of his life to the end, Mel Toews lived in the small and reserved

mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. When Mel was diagnosed with manic depression in the
1950’s, he was just a child at seventeen years of age. Mel found it incredibly difficult to fit into his town’s norms as he was constantly trying to conceal his disorder from the eyes of the people around him. In his later years, the hospital he was forced to live in made Mel became increasingly anxious. His disorder often caused him to worry far too much and his thoughts became sporadic. While thinking to himself in his hospital room, he thinks to himself, “I have

CULMINATING ESSAY

DANIELLE MARSHALL

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forgotten the time. I see red numbers on the clock radio but I don't know what they mean, or what they signify. It is the ‘time’ I know, but…I have forgotten my call again, or have I forgotten to make my call.” This quote shows one train of thought simply coming to a halt and jumping to a completely different strand. This sporadic thinking causes Mel to feel constantly anxious almost all of the time. During his time in the hospital, Mel did not have much entertainment to keep him busy. So, his mind eventually got the better of him and took advantage to have him reminisce on his life. However, due to Mel’s disorder and his age, many of his memories were twisted up and some facts were missing entirely! One conversation Mel remembers (or thinks he does) and he thinks to himself as he is remembering, “She patted my hand, though, and murmured, Mel I know you’re insane. No, no, she didn’t. She said, Mel, I know you’re in pain.” (108) This thought shows that Mel’s brain misplaces words and situations extremely easily.
Mel’s deteriorating mind has taken full control over his mentality and, using the setting he has experienced, Mel becomes steadily more and more anxious as the novel goes on.

The setting in Swing Low: A Life also results in Mel becoming incredibly paranoid. In the

beginning on the novel, Mel appears to be a protagonist who is kind and loving towards his family and is respectful towards the people who work at the hospital and care for him on a dayto-day basis. However, as the novel continues and his disorder progresses, Mel gradually turns into a very paranoid figure. He takes hostility towards one nurse in particular; she is the one who spends the most time tending to Mel and cleaning his room. As she was asking Mel to remove his shoes for a foot massage, Mel hastily refuses out of pure stubbornness. The nurse begins to talk under her breath and Mel goes to his desk to write (his usual- and only-hobby), “Nurse still here.
Still muttering. Must think quickly of something to write. If she dares to take my notebook away from me I’ll hit her. No, no I won’t. I don’t know what i’ll do. Keep writing.” Mel does not enjoy

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DANIELLE MARSHALL

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the nurse’s company and developed a sense of paranoia that she is out to upset and/or bother him. This same paranoia also applied confusion to Mel’s mentality. He would often be not sure whether he wanted this or that, and would always second guess himself on if he had made the correct decision. Concerning his children’s well being he thinks to himself, “I wanted more than anything for my children to be happy and well cared for, and at the same time their happiness seemed to cut me like a knife.” (136) Mel is very undecided on what he wanted for his family and why. He did not know why he had these mixed emotions towards his children and this effect on his decisions only futures his paranoia. Having been visited by constant nurses as well as his own children physically and in thought, Mel’s paranoia grows and grows until he chooses to do the unthinkable. The setting that Mel is involved in also developed his character in that it causes him to

endure being mentally confused or lost. Mel’s manic depression already causes him to be a very unpredictable individual, but being forced to live out his days inside a sterile hospital room does not do much good for him mentally or physically. On days where his memory is not being as cooperative as usual, Mel will become very confused as to how and why he has ended up in a hospital. One time he confronts this thought is when he thinks to himself, “If I can continue to remember right up to the present, then I will know why I’m here. Slowly, I will creepy towards the present, step by step, memory by memory.” (112) When his memory begins to fail him, Mel resorts to a sort of denial that his mind is fading away from him. Sometimes, Mel will completely ignore the fact he is being forced to life in a hospital and he wouldn't be able to realize it if he tried! Mel’s hobby before he was living in the hospital was walking. He would walk for many hours a day and go wherever his feet would take him. Because of his previous escapades, Mel suffers from constant blisters on his heels. If he puts on shoes and ventures around too much, the

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DANIELLE MARSHALL

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blisters will break and, because this happens so often, the nurses do eventually get quite annoyed with the occurrence. One day when Mel decides he will leave the hospital he is confined to, he thinks to himself, “I’ve decided to go for a walk! Have realized in the same instant that my feet are bleeding… The nurse came in and asked me what I was doing. I said I was going for a walk and Id be back in time for breakfast.” (34) Being a confused elderly person, the walls of the hospital only amplify Mel’s confusion and how lost his mind truly is.

The novel Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews has a complicated variety of settings that

take the shape of Mel’s thoughts and memories as well as the ever-so-bland hospital room. The setting of this novel brings out the anxiety, paranoia, and confusion in Mel’s character and it does not seem to benefit his well being in any way. The novel is a touching true story that certainly gets to one’s heart (and rips it into a million pieces) as the entire novel builds up to Mel’s suicide.

CULMINATING ESSAY

DANIELLE MARSHALL

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