Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

As in much twentieth century Irish literature, paralysis is a major theme in “All Sorts of Impossible Things.” Cathleen O’Neill’s silent rejection of James Sharkey’s proposal was the defining moment of his life, and the hat he wears inside and out is a constant reminder of his permanent state of...

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As in much twentieth century Irish literature, paralysis is a major theme in “All Sorts of Impossible Things.” Cathleen O’Neill’s silent rejection of James Sharkey’s proposal was the defining moment of his life, and the hat he wears inside and out is a constant reminder of his permanent state of loneliness and isolation. His education is another factor that separates him to a degree from most others in the town and connects him all too briefly with Tom Lennon. Lennon’s death underscores Sharkey’s isolation and paralytic inability to change his situation (in contrast with Lennon’s widow and her baby, who move away after Lennon’s death). At the story’s conclusion, it is clear that for Sharkey, there are no alternatives to the lonely life he leads. Shedding his hat, finding a new love, even training the dog to race again—all of these reasonable endeavors are classified as impossible options for the paralyzed protagonist.

Although Sharkey’s attempt to find security in marriage is thwarted, two other marriages in the story suggest the range of possibilities that such an opportunity would have offered. The bartender Charlie’s relationship with his wife is far from ideal; Charlie sneaks drinks of whiskey in secret to avoid her disapproval and perhaps to escape from the emptiness of the relationship. Tom Lennon’s marriage, in contrast, seems ideal, at least to the lonely James Sharkey, who manifests bitterness and jealousy at the thought of the fulfillment (sexual and otherwise) that Lennon derives from the relationship.

From the story’s opening scene, decay is a recurring theme. As Sharkey and Lennon follow the dogs during the first hunt, they pass a football field with only one goalpost standing. The river Shannon is described as sluggish, almost lifeless. Lennon’s home is in a single tower, surrounded by bare trees, the remains of a larger building that has collapsed. The aura of death that Sharkey later detects in Lennon’s bedroom is merely a focusing and an extension of the atmosphere that pervades the whole story.

Both paralysis and decay play roles in the theme that the story most explicitly identifies. Timor mortis, a Latin phrase meaning “fear of death,” pervades the story even as it pervades Sharkey’s life. The fear of death (suggested by his hair loss) drives Sharkey to force Cathleen O’Neill to decide between marrying him and breaking up with him. Similarly, the fear of death and the impulse to deny mortality cause Sharkey to wear his hat indoors and outdoors, even in church.

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