In Act IV of Hamlet, Ophelia dies at her own hand by drowning in the river.
Her corpse is found floating downstream by Queen Gertrude, who describes Ophelia’s water-logged clothes billowing out around her and her hair tangled, as she floats in a nest of flowers she wove together before submerging herself.
Her lover went insane, and her father was murdered, leaving Ophelia with no other choice.
Unlike her male counterparts who also depart in the tragedy, Ophelia dies off stage, and is robbed of the opportunity to share the final decision she’ll ever make with the audience.
Scenes depicting the tragic death of a woman left behind have since become famous in the art world, and you can likely find oil paintings of beautiful women floating downstream, their bodies on full display for aesthetic pleasure. Though these paintings are undoubtedly beautiful, the glamorization of a woman floating away, unable to kick back against the current, always made me uneasy.
While I’m not the tragic woman media and literature has long known and loved, I’m not a stranger to hardship, and like many others, I’ve struggled to feel any semblance of control over my life and body at several points in time.
Much like Ophelia, I’ve been left to the whims of the current beneath me, and it sometimes feels like there’s a power struggle on the stage of my own life to make meaningful decisions.
Unlike Ophelia, however, when I descend into the water, I feel weightless, grounded in my embodiment, and alive.
I’m a working-class student from southeast Ontario, where opportunities for upward social mobility are limited. Education is the best way for youth to ensure they’re not struggling to keep their heads above water, and I jumped at the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education when I was vying for a way out of my small hometown.
Though I’ve made several decisions about my education throughout the time I’ve been at the postsecondary level—from deciding my major as a first-year undergrad to committing to a research question for my Master’s thesis—the freedom my education is meant to grant me is dwarfed by the barriers that stand between me and my Master’s degree.
Like many working-class students, the opportunity to complete my education and fulfill my grad school aspirations has largely been achievable through money earned from service gigs.
I’ve written birthday messages on mass-produced cakes, pulled thousands of espresso shots, waited tables, and slung cases of Bud Light and Laker Ice across warehouses to get them ready for rowdy customers.
I’ve sustained shin splints, grease burns, and warded off the hands that crept under my apron while taking orders, all to save my nickels and dimes for tuition.
My efforts allow me to continue upstream and eventually earn my laurels, but there’s still pushback as my obligations weigh me down. Oscillating between my academic goals and pivoting to the service industry to simply supplement tuition and cost of living conceals the full scope of my agency when this labour doesn’t qualify as worthy of being advertised front and centre on my LinkedIn page.
Maintaining this delicate balance also holds me back by breaking my body down and leaving me fighting to stay afloat.
I’ve slept through full days I should’ve spent reading and spent what seems like hours staring at my name and student number at the top of a Word doc where I should’ve been writing. I’ve tossed and turned at night, feeling unable to lay still and relax for long enough to forget my endless to-do list. Managing academic deadlines while ensuring I’d have enough money for groceries left me so anxious, I couldn’t bear to stomach the food I’d fought so hard to afford in the first place.
My biggest scare, however, came in 2020.
A drawn-out medical crisis that climaxed in March—a mere 10 days before the pandemic stopped the whole world, in fact—left me reeling in the fallout in isolation for months on end and swept me away almost completely. I was violently ill, exhausted, and lonely for months on end, and spent hours in bed staring at the ceiling while desperately waiting for my body to return to normal.
Though I was staying afloat, I was forced backstage while my illness possessed me for three months. When I eventually felt strong enough to start taking control of my life again, I never quite felt back at home in the body that betrayed me so profoundly.
Eventually I returned to my normal routine of balancing academics and work, though this time around I was met with additional pressures of applying for graduate programs while navigating the emotional fallout of my illness. I gained a significant amount of weight for the first time in my life and struggled to feel at home in my skin. Though I was back on my feet at work and actively planning for my future, I was trapped in a body I couldn’t recognize or trust.
After deciding on Queen’s for grad school, I had the first relatively free summer in my life. I stayed on at my part-time retail job lugging beer around and spent the rest of the time relishing in the Kingston summer I’d come to know and love.
When I started biking around the city to broaden its limits, I stumbled upon a small, quiet opening on the shore where the water had a flat, rocky floor I could easily wade into away from the hordes at the pier.
As I ventured into the water, I felt the weight from my chest dissolve for the first time since it settled under my sternum. The cold waves splashed against my stomach as I dove in and watched my body turn over under the surface, the blue-green tint of the water softening the black ink on my arms. In a matter of seconds, the tension I carried with me to the water melted out of my shoulders as I stretched out on my back, feeling my skin soak up the sun and the waves wash over me.
Unlike Ophelia, who couldn’t escape the currents of her tragic fate, I found solace in the water. Though I’m still subject to the greater current of the world around me, the gentle waves feel like a kind embrace I’ve otherwise not been granted. When things get choppy—as they inevitably do—I can always hop right out.
I go to the water alone and where possible, try to keep my time in the lake separate from the rest of my life around me. I know it will be waiting for me when I climb back out.
All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.