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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

“Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa” was published first as a self-contained short story about the 1919 Chicago baseball team brought back to life. Having been banished from the game in their lifetime, the players received a second chance through the magic of reincarnation. The author was encouraged to expand his idea into a full-length book. What resulted was a collection of five stories about people with frustrated life goals, loosely tied together by their love of baseball. Shoeless Joe, J. D. Salinger, Moonlight Graham, and Ray Kinsella’s father were all real persons who are summoned back to live again, to try again. The concept of reincarnation has appeal because it is optimistic about the future. It suggests that a person who does something wrong, or fails to do something right, will have a chance to do better in a later lifetime. Using the sport of baseball as an analogy, there will be another game tomorrow, or next season, to overcome the memory of a defeat.

The hero of Shoeless Joe has the same last name as the author, which suggests an autobiographical connection. In the novel, Ray had a strained relation with his father that was never resolved while the father was still alive. Perhaps it is Ray’s lingering pain over this relationship that brings his father back to life so that the son can play ball with him on the magic baseball field and finally put his mind at ease. It is part of the human condition that everyone has feelings of regret; Shoeless Joe is an appealing book in part because it provides a light-hearted, magical solution for such “if only” speculation.

Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Somewhat similar to what he does in his Cree Indian stories, Kinsella hints in Shoeless Joe that the world changes rapidly and that these changes often destroy some irreplaceable treasures and resources. Within the novel's plot, for instance, Ray Kinsella's (no relationship to author Kinsella intended) small Iowa farm is in danger of being taken over by a computer-farming conglomerate, a fate that has befallen other neighboring farms. In addition are oblique contempts for academe, religion, and "all the forces that control our lives." In the main, however, Shoeless Joe is basically an entertaining narrative, or, as Kinsella admits: "I am an old-fashioned storyteller. I try to make people laugh and cry. A fiction writer's duty is to entertain. If you then sneak in something profound or symbolic, so much the better."

Kinsella claims that Shoeless Joe is not a novel about baseball but rather about the "power of love in all directions." This theme becomes evident, for example, when protagonist Ray Kinsella lists the loves of his life: his wife Annie, his daughter Karin, Iowa, and the "great god Baseball." J. D. Salinger, a fictionalized characterization of the author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), also is a great lover of baseball. In its more universal implications, the love of baseball is typified by those old-time players who have long since died but who mysteriously appear to play on Ray's field and who all love baseball for its own sake.


(Novels for Students)

Shoeless Joe has countless references and allusions to religious beliefs and practices. Kinsella presents a strong contrast between traditional Christianity and what he regards as a truer, more life-promoting form of religion, mediated by the game of baseball. Traditional religion is presented in an entirely negative light. It is epitomized in Ray's perceptions of his wife's family. Annie's mother is self-righteous and judgmental, and she makes a point of bringing her religion into any conversation. Mark, Ray's ruthless brother-in-law, is also a fundamentalist Christian, who dislikes atheists and Catholics. Mark has three brothers, named Matthew, Luke, and John. Together with Mark, these are the names of the evangelists who wrote the four gospels, which underlines Ray's quarrel with Christianity. Other examples of people who adhere to traditional Christianity are Eddie Scissons's three daughters, who are presented as dour,...

(The entire section is 1,497 words.)