Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“Midair” is about the protagonist’s blocked memories of a childhood event related to his father’s mental illness and how this repression impedes his personal development as an adult. When similar incidents trigger the release of those memories, Sean, the main character, realizes how seriously it had impacted his youth and why he was unable to move past it. The themes of father-child relationships, mental illness, and memory are all effectively combined in Frank Conroy’s story.

The Difficulty of Father-Child Relationships

Because Sean had a father who was largely absent from his life, his limited interactions with his father assumed an outsize significance in his childhood. When he was very young, he lacked a full understanding of the reasons that his father had to live apart from the family. Both the abruptness of his father’s reappearance and the drastic elements of his behavior that day were as shocking as they were sudden. The father appears, almost by magic, as a manic character who boldly sweeps his son off on a dangerous escapade. Just as suddenly, he disappears when captured by the institutional representatives. Apparently the boy’s mother does not then adequately explain these harrowing events. The protagonist’s now-suppressed understanding of a father’s behavior is that it is fleeting and violent. Unable to process those childhood experiences, his adult self understands the necessity of being a good father but cannot understand why he finds it so difficult to do so.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

The boy pushes away his impressions of his father’s behavior. He seems to place in a conceptual box the idea that there is mental illness in his family, but he does not develop the tools to understand what that illness entails. The adult version of the boy is unequipped to delve deeper into the kinds of problems that his father had, but it may be that he harbors a fear of developing such problems himself. More broadly, the author conveys the stigmas attached to mental illness several decades ago, which kept people from openly discussing them.

Memory and Its Repression

The father’s extreme behavior made a vivid impression on the boy in the short term, but as he was unable to process the experience at the time, he pushed it back into his unconscious. Years later, after his personal life has gotten derailed, he reenacts part of the episode, involving climbing a fire escape. In another random experience, he gains the opportunity to help a young man through a dangerous situation. Finally, the juxtaposition of danger and confinement serves as a trigger that unleashes the memory of his father’s abduction.

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