Ironweed by William Kennedy
William Kennedy’s Ironweed, which was published in 1983 is a story depicting an ex baseball player who is on a journey to exalt all the things that he has done in the past. Francis Phelen has been on the run for 22 years after accidently dropping his son and killing him. I believe that the overall theme of this novel is guilt and redemption. Running away from his problems had become such a norm for Francis, that when he is granted the opportunity to have courage and face his fears, he becomes resistant. Ultimately Francis becomes a bum and an alcoholic.
This stems from guilt eating him alive. Kennedy does a great job at focusing on relatable human aspects, such as guilt. It became ironic to me that Francis continued to run away from his past, but guilt is something that one cannot get away from. The psychodynamic theory of Freud proposes that we build defense mechanisms to protect us from the guilt we would experience if we knew just how awful our awful desires really were.
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Specifically, he linked the feeling of guilt, and its related emotion of anxiety” (Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012). It is something in your consciences that is a reminder of your wrongdoings. I believe that through flashbacks, the author was able to convey Francis take on guilt. Throughout the novel we see that Francis has become a master at running away from his problems, this has become a pivotal element in the dynamic of the character. He is ultimately running away because of guilt.
Although throughout the entire novel, Francis seems to be running away from his problems, Kennedy uses flashbacks as a way to show the characters yearning to return back to a normal life. I believe that Francis is trying to run away from his problems but is also still reminded of the life that he once had. He obviously wishes to have these precious moments back. “They walked past Hawkins Stadium, hell of a big place now…he remembered when it was a pasture. Hit a ball right and it’d roll forever…” (11).
Indeed, even in his harsh fix he is helped to remember the existence that he had previously, when everything was great. In spite of the fact that he is by all accounts shot out, he appears to clutch some confidence that life will just improve and return to the manner in which it was 22 years back. These flashbacks in the novel additionally uncovers to us that nevertheless, even when you are trying to change and improve the situation, you are constantly reminded your mistakes made in the past yet it is dependent upon you to recieve the change and attempt to do as such.
The author shows early on in the novel how guilt has affected the life of the main character Francis. We discover early on, that Francis has accidently killed his son Gerald, when he was just 13 days old. Gerald watches his father not being able to cope with the fact that he killed his own son. Kennedy writes, “In his grave, a cruciformed circle, Gerald watched the advent of his father and considered what action might be appropriate for their meeting.
Should he absolve the man of all guilt, not for the dropping, for that was accidental, but for the abandonment of the family, for craven flight when the steadfast virtues were called for. Gerald’s grave trembled with superb possibility” (Page 17). It is evident that throughout the novel Kennedy uses the death of Francis’s son as a pivotal moment that resulted in his guilt. Not only is he stuck with the lingering of guilt but he is also questioning his son’s ability to forgive him for abandoning the family. With all that is going in this novel it is no surprise that Francis contemplates suicide.
“Francis did not understand this flirtation with suicide, this flight from it. He did not know why he hadn’t made the big leap the way Helen’s old man had when he knew he was done in. Too busy, maybe, figurin’ out the next half hour. No way for Francis ever to get a real good look past the sunset, for he’s the kind of fella just keep runnin when things went bust; never had the time to stop anyplace easy to die (Page 146) In my opinion, this is another way Francis tries to escape his past. Kennedy portrays Francis as being a “runner”.
Any opportunity that he gets to flee from the hardships of life he at least tries to take it. Ultimately we see that Francis’s past always seems to catch up with him. It is revealed early on that he has committed other crimes besides the accidental killing of his very own son. We see that he has intentionally killed Harold Allen, simply because he took the strike workers jobs. Although Francis is the one who committed the crime he is not the one who tells the story of the horrific incident.
Harold recalls the incident to Francis and later reveals his thoughts on Francis’s cowardness. Due to the fact that he has abandoned his entire family just to run away from guilt. This is significant because it shows his inner struggles to about leaving his family he feels guilty but tries to justify it to himself. I believe that’s what Francis has been doing since he left his family.
Near the end of the novel Kennedy shows Francis finally evolving. This is a great scene in the novel being that Francis is for the most part stagnant throughout the whole story. Within the novel Francis is visited a number of times by ghost. He is faced with constantly having to revisit the past in some form or another. Kennedy writes:
“Francis closed his eyes to retch the vision out of his head, but when he opened them the bleachers still stood, the men seated as before. Only the light had changed, brighter now, and with it grew Francis’ hatred of all fantasy, all insubstantiality. I am sick of you all, was his thought. I am sick of imagining what you became, what I might have become if I’d lived among you. I am sick of your melancholy histories, your sentimental pieties, your goddamned unchanging faces……You ain’t nothin’ more than a photograph, you goddamn spooks. You ain’t real and I ain’t gonna be at your beck and call no more. You’re all dead, and if you ain’t, you oughta be. I’m the one is livin’. I’m the one puts you on the map (Page 177).”
Guilt plays a major role in this novel because it is always lingering. No matter what Francis does he is always reminded of his past. Before Francis decides to return home, Kennedy includes a very pivotal moment within the novel. It is when Francis realizes that he can no longer run away from his own mistake that he decides to bathe and basically free himself of sin. “Sweat rolled down his forehead and dripped off his nose into the bath, a confluence of ancient and modern waters. And as it did, a great sunburst entered the darkening skies, a radiance so sudden that it seemed like a bolt of lightning; yet its brilliance remained, as if some angel of beatific lucidity were hovering outside the bathroom window”. (p. 172)
Long after he is revived from his sins he comes to realization that running away is not going to solve any of his problems. I think that this is the moment where he realizes that running away only creates more issues and does not mean that the problem totally disappears. Just through Francis taking a bath and cleaning himself of sins is when he gains the courage to return home and face what he has been running from for 22 years.
It is evident that Francis has become exhausted of the past hunting him. At this point he has come to realize that he wants to improve and become a better man for himself and also for his family. I think that this is essentially a turning point in Francis’s character. It is then when he has become so enrage at himself for allowing his guilt to make him run away from what mattered to him the most and that was family.
Approaching the end of the novel Francis finally gets the courage to return home. Although he was reluctant about returning home, he still made an effort to do so. Not knowing, the reaction that he would get from his family after returning back home for over 20 years. But even in this pivotal moment Kennedy still finds a way to make sure that Francis past resurfaces. While he is home the ghost of Rowdy Dick, Aldo, and Harold return to haunt him once more. In this moment I began to realize how much of an influence that his guilty conscious really had on him.
He was in such good spirits, being that he finally got a chance to kiss his wife after 22 years of fleeing. His guilt still haunts him of the past. Everyone who he has done wrong has catches up with him to see how his new life is going. This moment in the novel is seen to me, as Francis day in court. He is reminded of the people that he has done wrong, however, his family is the judge. Going in, there was no telling how things could have panned out. He could have come home with the resentment of his wife not wanting to take him back. Or his daughter who wanted nothing to do with him.
Nevertheless, he was still welcomed home with open arms despite him abandoning them. Francis inability to accept life for what it is, has hindered him from returning to his family. One thing that I picked up from reading this novel is that guilt will certainly eat you alive, only if you let it. As humans it hard for use to dodge our conscious. Even though Francis knew that the only way to overcome his challenge of facing his fears was to return home, he still was reluctant in doing so. It is only when he finally returns home that we see him cope with his own mistakes and mending each obstacle.
I believe that the ending of this novel was made in particularly so that we as the readers can determine their own conclusion. As readers I believe that we ultimately want to think that Francis will return back home once again and rejoin his family. It would be an awful scenario if he did not. This would only boost his family up to be let down once more. Being that his two companion; Rowdy Dick and Helen have passed away and his wife has welcomed him home, one could only hope that the story concludes with Francis living happily ever after