Last Reviewed on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
"Follow me, buckos. Up the mainmast!"
"Daddy, what are you doing?" Mary cries.
"We'll use the fire escape." He pushes up the hatch and sunlight pours down. "Come on, it's fun!"
This passage from the story "Midair" shows the first time the main character, Sean, has an experience in "midair." His father has recently left a mental hospital—termed a "rest home" in the story—and picks the children up from school. They are locked out of their apartment, so their father tries to persuade Sean and his sister, Mary, to climb into their apartment using the fire escape. Sean's father jokingly refers to the fire escape as "the mainmast." The "mainmast" is the tallest mast on a ship, and by using this word, Sean's father is simultaneously joking with the children and trying to establish a game for them to play. At the same time, his words show that his grasp on reality is not strong. While it might seem fun to pretend to be on a ship, climbing into the apartment from the fire escape is scary and dangerous, and not an activity most fathers would do with their children.
When Mary responds by crying, "Daddy, what are you doing?" it signals that she feels uncomfortable with the "game" that the children are playing with their father and does not understand why they have decided to do it. It also serves to underline how out of the ordinary the father's behavior is. It becomes clear later in the story that Sean responded to not understanding what his father was doing by repressing the memory. When the father says, "Come on, it's fun!" it heightens the idea that the children are playing a game, but it is also ironic in that it is not fun at all, and later the reader will realize exactly how terrible the experience was. Later that day, the father is picked up and returned to the "rest home," and Sean seems to repress the memory of the entire afternoon.
He writes a book, but it contains nothing, since he knows very little about people, or himself.
This quote comes from the middle of the story, after Sean has repressed the memory of his father and has persuaded a woman he met in college to marry him. Sean and his wife are both wealthy: they both have trust funds, and her parents own a brownstone, which is an expensive type of townhouse in New York City. Sean is somewhat aimless at this point in the story, neither feeling fulfilled by his marriage nor excelling in his writing career. Although he manages to write a book, the book is not of good quality, because Sean has not come to terms with who he is and is not critical of himself or of other people. This quote shows that the narrator, who is possibly a stand-in for the author, Frank Conroy, believes that in order for books to be of value, they must be grounded in an understanding of people. Because Sean does not understand people, his book is not of value. In a meta-critical sense, this leads the reader to consider if the short story "Midair" itself shows an understanding of people.
He remembers looking down at the cracks in the sidewalk. Here, in the darkness, he can see the cracks in the sidewalk from more than forty years ago. He feels no fear—only a sense of astonishment.
These are the last three sentences of the story. At this point, Sean has faced his fears of being in "midair" after comforting a younger man on a malfunctioning elevator. Sean now no longer represses the memory of his father's erratic behavior; instead, it returns to him as he lies calmly in the darkness of his bedroom. The darkness of Sean's room Sean also stands in contrast to the daylight that was described earlier, when his father took the children onto the fire escape. While Sean was then a scared child in the light, he is now the father figure in the darkness. Conroy here shows an understanding of the psychology of trauma. Because Sean has faced his fears in a different context—taking on the role of an older, wiser male mentor to a scared younger man—he is no longer too afraid to remember. Sean can now remember the minute details of that day from the vantage point of having moved past his earlier childhood trauma. Although Sean remembers the "cracks in the sidewalk," he is not concerned that he will fall toward them. Instead, he is "astonished" that his mind has hidden this memory from him for so long.
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