Social Concerns / Themes

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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.

Themes

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ReligionShoeless 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, unimaginative, and joyless.

In contrast, baseball is presented as a kind of quasi-religion. "We're not just ordinary people, we're a congregation," says Ray of the baseball fans. A ballpark at night "is more like a church than a church." Ray imagines fans waiting for a game to start, sitting "in silence, in awe, in wonder, in anticipation, in joy"—rather like worshipers in a cathedral. The element of joy is what is conspicuously lacking in Ray's perceptions of the way Christianity is normally lived.

Baseball provides the experience of calmness and stability for which people often look to religion. Baseball is soothing because "it is stable and permanent." As he looks around Boston's Fenway Park, Ray remarks that "the year might be 1900 or 1920 or 1979, for all the field itself has changed. Here the sense of urgency that governs most lives is pushed to one side." Baseball also offers the possibility, like religion, of miraculous events that can transcend or reverse time. In a baseball game, Ray says, anything can happen: "Tides can reverse; oceans can open." And of course, this is exactly what happens in Ray's magical baseball park. Through Ray's dedicated love of baseball, the dead can live again—another promise that traditional Christianity makes to its followers.

Imagination, Dreams, and RealityShoeless Joe is a wish-fulfillment, fantasy...

(This entire section contains 983 words.)

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novel in which the dead come back to life, dreams come true, and old wounds are healed. It asserts the primacy of imagination over the demands of practical life. For example, Ray makes no attempt to get out of his mounting pile of debt. To all outside observers (except for his loyal wife, Annie), he is heading for disaster and his only practical option is to sell the farm. But Ray is one of the least practical characters imaginable. He insists on following his dreams and making them into reality. To accomplish this, he must be alert to the prompting of his intuition and his heart. He must do apparently crazy things, like driving cross-country to take a reclusive writer to a baseball game. He must never lose sight of his goal, he must ignore advice by well-meaning people, and he must trust in his vision. He must also work hard at the physical task of turning his cornfield into a baseball park. He seeds, waters, sands, and rakes the field. This is clearly a metaphor for watering his own imagination, allowing the hidden desires and hopes to push up to the surface. In digging deep into his own consciousness, Ray accesses the things that need healing, both in himself and in others. He taps into the universal level of life, where everything is connected. From there he can become the instrument by which the "cosmic jigsaw puzzle," in which everything has its proper time and place, can move to completion. As long as Ray sticks to his task, providence will take care of the rest. It is significant that, in the end, there proves to be no dichotomy between the imaginative and the practical life. By following his imagination, Ray also creates the means to pay off his debts—through the throng of tourists that come to see the magical ballpark—and to continue to live at the farm.

Father and Son
The relationship between father and son is at the heart of the novel. Ray's father passed on his love of baseball to his son, and his hero was Shoeless Joe, whom he believed to have been innocent of the charges that led to his lifetime ban from baseball. This is why Shoeless Joe is the first player to appear on Ray's baseball field. It is not only a chance for him to right the wrong that was done to him, but it also makes it possible for Ray to appease the spirit of his father, who has been dead for twenty years.

When Ray first sees and talks to Shoeless Joe, his thoughts quickly turn to his father, and he wants him to play catcher with the resurrected White Sox. When this dream comes true and he sees his father as a twenty-five-year-old man, he does not know how to approach him, but, after making the first move and speaking to his father as a friend, he thinks of all the things he will want to talk about: "I'll guide the conversation … and we'll hardly realize that we're talking of love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing." What Kinsella suggests here is simple: those to whom we are closest can remain so, even after death, if our hearts and minds remain open; the barriers between the living and the dead are not as insurmountable as they might seem. Ray's twin brother, Richard, is the immediate beneficiary of Ray's discovery. Unlike Ray, Richard quarreled with their father. Richard had not reconciled with his father by the time of his father's death—but Ray teaches the initially uncomprehending Richard to see his father on the ballpark, so Richard can also be a part of the restored wholeness of the family.

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