Tuesdays with Morrie
The Orientation, The Classroom
As Mitch pulls up to Morrie's house in his rental car, he is on the phone with his producer. Morrie sits in a wheelchair on his front lawn waving at Mitch, though Mitch slinks down in the seat of his car and finishes the conversation with his producer before he greets him, their first reunion in sixteen years. He regrets this, and wishes he had immediately dropped the phone and run to hug and kiss his professor. Mitch is surprised at the intense affection with which Morrie greets him, and, hugging him, feels that no trace remains of the good student Morrie remembers him as being. Inside, Connie, Morrie's aide, serves the men food and administers Morrie's medication. After he takes his pills, Morrie asks Mitch if he shall tell him what it feels like to be dying. This conversation, then unbeknownst to Mitch, marks the beginning of their first lesson.
Mitch flashes back to his freshman year of college. He is younger than most of the students and tries to look older by wearing an old gray sweatshirt and dangling an unlit cigarette from his lips, even though he does not smoke. He builds a facade of toughness, though it is Morrie's "softness" that he finds so inviting. He enrolls for another class with Morrie, who he reports is an easy grader. One year, Morrie gave A's to all the young men who were in jeopardy of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Mitch nicknames Morrie "Coach," and Morrie tells him that he can be his player, as Mitch can play the parts that Morrie is now too old for. They eat together in the cafeteria, and Mitch notes that Morrie is a slob when he chews; during their friendship, he has harbored two great desires for Morrie: to hug him and to give him a napkin.
Morrie's appearance on "Nightline" has made him somewhat of a celebrity, and many people call and ask to come visit. This makes Mitch remember the college friends he has lost touch with. He wonders what has happened to him in the time that has lapsed between college and the present. Essentially, he has traded the dreams he had in youth for wealth and success. However, his financial success alone does not satisfy him. Morrie struggles to eat his meal, and when he is finished, tells Mitch that many of his visitors are unhappy, which he thinks is a result of the culture. Morrie expresses the gratitude he feels for having love around him while he dies, which he says is better than living unhappily. Mitch is shocked by his lack of self-pity, namely the gratitude he feels for his slow, painful death. He is forever haunted by Morrie's explanation that he will die of suffocation, as the ALS will eventually attack his lungs. Mitch avoids an honest response, and Morrie urges him to accept death, as it is clear that he has no more than five months left to live. To prove his imminent death, Morrie demonstrates for Mitch a test that his doctor asked him to take. He first asks Mitch to inhale, then exhale while counting to the highest number he can. Mitch counts to seventy. Morrie can only reach eighteen before he must gasp for air. When he first saw the doctor, Morrie was able to count to twenty-three. At the end of the visit, Morrie asks Mitch to promise to come and see him again, as he did at Mitch's graduation sixteen years before. Mitch promises he will, and tries not to think of the last time he made and broke this same promise.
In another flashback to his college days, Mitch remembers Morrie's love of books. One afternoon, he complains to Morrie of feeling confused about what is expected of him versus what he wants for himself. In reply, Morrie explains his theory on the "tension of opposites," meaning that life pulls alternately back and forth, like a wrestling match. Love, he says, always wins.
Mitch's behavior upon his reunion with Morrie reveals the enormous transformation he has undergone since he has last seen him. He has not seen his beloved professor for sixteen years, yet he waits to finish the phone conversation he is having with his producer before he greets Morrie. The mannerisms and general behavior that Mitch exhibits at the beginning of the book differ from his behavior as described in the flashbacks to his college years to understand the drastic transformation he has undergone in growing older. Mitch has yet to undergo another transformation, a sort of reversion, in his new relationship with Morrie.
Even during his college days, Mitch had been concerned with impressing others, and did so by hiding his age behind a facade of toughness. It seems that even now, in his adulthood, Mitch hides behind this same screen. There is only a small trace of tenderness in his character, a trace that is eventually drawn out by Morrie. But prior to his reunion with his professor, Mitch seems driven only by the prospect of financial success and professional power, obvious when he chooses to remain on the phone with his producer, though Morrie sits waving at him from his lawn. Afterwards, however, Mitch is ridden with guilt for making this choice to ignore a beloved friend for a business prospect, and it is this glimmer of remorse that marks Mitch's remaining traces of goodness. His reunion with Morrie helps him to realize that his priorities are backwards, and to eventually tap the goodness that he has somehow lost during his years as a cutthroat journalist.
It is implied that Mitch reunites with his professor because, upon seeing his interview on "Nightline," remembers the good student — and the good person — he had been during his time with Morrie at Brandeis. Mitch is nostalgic for his former self, and seems not to recognize the man he has become. Just as Morrie's "softness" had been attractive to him in college, Mitch now needs this compassion and tenderness from Morrie to regain some sense of the man he had been, the man he would like to be. The relationship that Mitch and Morrie share, however, is not one-sided. Morrie, too benefits from his time with Mitch, as he is able to live in vicarious spirit through Mitch and the escapades he is now experiencing for the first time in his young life. This rare dynamic between Mitch and Morrie is embodied by the nicknames they call one another, Morrie being the "coach" and Mitch being the "player." Morrie has lived a long, experienced life and passes his experiences on to Mitch, so that he may learn from them, as Morrie has, and literally play them out in his life.
Although he has learned much from Morrie, Mitch is still learning his most pressing lesson: to reject the cultural norm if it is not conducive to one's own happiness. Mitch is clearly entangled in the norms of culture, living the life of the young, successful professional who is too overrun with work to think of anything else. His trouble with breaking from these cultural norms is most obvious in his hesitation to be honest about death and the physical embarrassment that comes with aging. Eventually, with more Tuesday visits, Mitch will learn from Morrie how to break free of these norms, and will gradually come to accept Morrie's physical debilitation and impending death as a natural part of the life cycle.
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