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Mastering the Game: A Summary of ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Michael Cunningham

Mastering the Game: A Summary of ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Michael Cunningham

“The Art of Fielding” by Michael Cunningham is a novel that explores the world of college baseball and the lives of the players and coaches involved. The story follows the journey of Henry Skrimshander, a talented shortstop who is recruited to play for Westish College. As Henry navigates the pressures of being a college athlete and the complexities of his relationships with his teammates and coaches, he must also confront his own fears and limitations. In this article, we will provide a summary of “The Art of Fielding” and explore some of the key themes and ideas presented in the novel.


The Art of Fielding by Michael Cunningham is a novel that revolves around the lives of five characters, each with their own unique personalities and struggles. The main character, Henry Skrimshander, is a talented shortstop who is recruited to play for Westish College. He is quiet and reserved, but his love for the game of baseball is evident in his dedication and hard work. His roommate and best friend, Owen Dunne, is a gay literature major who struggles with his identity and finding his place in the world. The college’s president, Guert Affenlight, is a middle-aged man who falls in love with Owen and must navigate the consequences of their relationship. Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, is a troubled young woman who returns to Westish after a failed marriage and must confront her past mistakes. Lastly, Mike Schwartz, the team captain, is a hardworking and determined player who takes on the responsibility of mentoring Henry and leading the team to success. Each character’s story intertwines with the others, creating a complex and engaging narrative that explores themes of love, identity, and the pursuit of excellence.

Plot Summary

The Art of Fielding by Michael Cunningham is a novel that follows the lives of five characters who are all connected through the sport of baseball. The story is set at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, and revolves around the college’s baseball team, the Harpooners. The main character, Henry Skrimshander, is a talented shortstop who is recruited to play for the Harpooners. However, when Henry makes a crucial error during a game, his confidence is shattered and he begins to struggle both on and off the field. As the novel progresses, the lives of these characters become increasingly intertwined, and they must all learn to navigate the challenges of love, friendship, and ambition.


One of the central themes of ‘The Art of Fielding’ is the pursuit of perfection. The characters in the novel are all striving to be the best in their respective fields, whether it be baseball, academics, or relationships. However, as they push themselves to the limit, they begin to realize that perfection is unattainable and that the pursuit of it can lead to destructive behavior. Another theme is the importance of teamwork and community. The baseball team at Westish College is a tight-knit group that supports each other both on and off the field. The novel shows how the bonds of friendship and camaraderie can help individuals overcome personal struggles and achieve success together.

Baseball as a Metaphor

Baseball has long been used as a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, successes and failures, and the importance of teamwork and perseverance. In Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Art of Fielding,” baseball serves as a central metaphor for the characters’ personal struggles and growth. The game becomes a way for them to confront their fears, overcome obstacles, and find meaning and purpose in their lives. As the characters learn to master the game, they also learn to master themselves, discovering their own strengths and weaknesses and learning to work together as a team. Through the lens of baseball, Cunningham explores themes of identity, ambition, love, and the search for meaning in a complex and ever-changing world. Whether you’re a baseball fan or not, “The Art of Fielding” offers a compelling and insightful look at the human experience, and the ways in which we can all learn to master the game of life.

The Importance of Mentorship

Mentorship is a crucial aspect of personal and professional growth. In Michael Cunningham’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” mentorship plays a significant role in the development of the characters. Henry, the protagonist, is mentored by Mike Schwartz, a former baseball player, who helps him hone his skills and become a better player. Similarly, Owen, another character, is mentored by Guert Affenlight, the college president, who helps him discover his passion for writing.

Mentorship provides guidance, support, and encouragement to individuals who are striving to achieve their goals. Mentors can offer valuable insights, share their experiences, and provide constructive feedback to help their mentees improve. They can also serve as role models, inspiring their mentees to work hard and pursue their dreams.

In “The Art of Fielding,” the mentor-mentee relationships are not one-sided. The mentors also benefit from their interactions with their mentees. Mike Schwartz, for instance, learns to let go of his own ambitions and focus on helping Henry succeed. Guert Affenlight, on the other hand, finds renewed purpose in his life through his relationship with Owen.

In conclusion, mentorship is an essential component of personal and professional growth. It can help individuals develop their skills, gain confidence, and achieve their goals. In “The Art of Fielding,” Michael Cunningham highlights the importance of mentorship and how it can transform the lives of both the mentor and the mentee.

The Dangers of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can drive individuals to achieve great things and strive for excellence. On the other hand, it can lead to a never-ending cycle of self-criticism and anxiety. In “The Art of Fielding” by Michael Cunningham, the dangers of perfectionism are explored through the character of Henry Skrimshander, a talented baseball player who becomes consumed by his desire for perfection. As Henry’s obsession with being the perfect player grows, he begins to lose sight of what truly matters and ultimately suffers the consequences. This serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who may be struggling with perfectionism and the toll it can take on one’s mental health and well-being.

The Power of Friendship

In Michael Cunningham’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” the power of friendship is a central theme. The story follows the lives of a group of college baseball players and their relationships with each other. Through their shared experiences on and off the field, they form a bond that helps them navigate the challenges of college life and beyond. The novel shows how friendship can provide support, encouragement, and a sense of belonging. It also highlights the importance of communication and honesty in maintaining strong friendships. Overall, “The Art of Fielding” demonstrates the transformative power of friendship and the positive impact it can have on our lives.

LGBTQ Representation

In “The Art of Fielding” by Michael Cunningham, LGBTQ representation is a prominent theme throughout the novel. The main character, Henry Skrimshander, struggles with his sexuality and coming out to his teammates and friends. Cunningham portrays Henry’s journey with sensitivity and authenticity, highlighting the challenges and fears that many LGBTQ individuals face. Additionally, the novel features a diverse cast of characters, including a gay couple who serve as mentors to Henry. Overall, “The Art of Fielding” offers a nuanced and important portrayal of LGBTQ experiences in sports and beyond.

Writing Style

The writing style of Michael Cunningham in “The Art of Fielding” is both elegant and accessible. He uses vivid descriptions and metaphors to bring the characters and setting to life, while also maintaining a clear and concise narrative. Cunningham’s prose is often poetic, but never overly flowery or pretentious. He has a talent for capturing the inner thoughts and emotions of his characters, making them feel real and relatable to the reader. Overall, his writing style is a perfect match for the themes and tone of the novel, creating a truly immersive reading experience.

Criticisms and Controversies

One of the main criticisms of “The Art of Fielding” is that it perpetuates the idea of the “Great White Hope” in sports. The novel centers around a white baseball player, Henry Skrimshander, who is hailed as a prodigy and potential savior for his college team. Meanwhile, the few characters of color in the book are relegated to supporting roles or are portrayed as obstacles for the white characters to overcome. This lack of diversity and representation has been criticized by some readers and reviewers. Additionally, some have argued that the novel’s portrayal of college athletics is unrealistic and overly romanticized, ignoring the darker aspects of the sports industry such as exploitation and corruption. Despite these criticisms, “The Art of Fielding” remains a beloved and popular novel among many readers.

Symbolism and Imagery

Symbolism and imagery play a significant role in Michael Cunningham’s novel, “The Art of Fielding.” The baseball diamond serves as a metaphor for life, with each player representing a different aspect of the human experience. The character of Henry Skrimshander, the talented shortstop, symbolizes the pursuit of perfection and the pressure that comes with it. The whale, which appears throughout the novel, represents the unknown and the uncontrollable forces of life. The use of these symbols and images adds depth and complexity to the story, allowing readers to connect with the characters on a deeper level and explore the themes of the novel in a more meaningful way.


One of the most prominent motifs in Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Art of Fielding’ is the idea of perfection. The characters in the novel are all striving for perfection in their own ways, whether it be on the baseball field or in their personal lives. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that perfection is unattainable and often leads to disappointment and failure. This motif is exemplified through the character of Henry Skrimshander, who is initially seen as the perfect baseball player but ultimately struggles with the pressure to maintain that perfection. The motif of perfection also ties into the larger themes of identity and self-discovery, as the characters must learn to accept their flaws and imperfections in order to truly grow and succeed.


The Art of Fielding is set in the fictional Westish College, located in the small town of Westish, Wisconsin. The college is situated on the shore of Lake Michigan, and the novel frequently references the lake’s vastness and beauty. The campus itself is described as sprawling and picturesque, with a mix of modern and historic buildings. The baseball field, Harbach Field, is a central location in the novel and is described as a well-maintained, classic ballpark. The setting of Westish College and its surroundings play a significant role in the novel, as the characters navigate their personal and academic lives in this idyllic but isolated environment.


The tone of “The Art of Fielding” is one of introspection and contemplation. Cunningham’s writing style is reflective and thoughtful, allowing readers to delve into the minds of the characters and their innermost thoughts and feelings. The novel is not fast-paced or action-packed, but rather focuses on the emotional journeys of the characters as they navigate their relationships and personal struggles. The tone is also infused with a sense of nostalgia and longing, as the characters grapple with the passage of time and the inevitability of change. Overall, the tone of “The Art of Fielding” is one of quiet contemplation and emotional depth, making it a poignant and memorable read.


Narration in “The Art of Fielding” is a complex and multi-layered aspect of the novel. Cunningham employs a third-person omniscient narrator who shifts perspectives between the various characters, allowing the reader to gain insight into their thoughts and motivations. The narrator also provides detailed descriptions of the setting and the game of baseball, creating a vivid and immersive world for the reader. Additionally, the use of flashbacks and foreshadowing adds depth and complexity to the story, as the reader is able to piece together the characters’ pasts and anticipate their futures. Overall, the narration in “The Art of Fielding” is a masterful example of how a skilled author can use language to create a rich and engaging story.

Character Development

One of the most notable aspects of Michael Cunningham’s “The Art of Fielding” is the intricate character development throughout the novel. Each character is given a unique backstory and personality, making them feel like real people rather than just fictional creations. The protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, undergoes a significant transformation throughout the novel as he navigates the pressures of college baseball and personal relationships. Other characters, such as Mike Schwartz and Owen Dunne, also experience growth and change as they confront their own struggles and insecurities. Cunningham’s attention to detail in character development adds depth and complexity to the story, making it a truly engaging read.

The Role of Women in the Novel

In Michael Cunningham’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” the role of women is significant in shaping the lives of the male characters. The female characters in the novel are not just mere accessories to the male characters but are portrayed as strong and independent individuals who have their own goals and aspirations. One of the main female characters, Guert Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, is a successful businesswoman who is trying to find her place in the world. Another female character, Owen’s sister, Schwartzy, is a talented artist who is struggling to find her voice. These women are not just there to support the male characters but are integral to the plot and the development of the story. The novel shows that women can be just as important and influential as men, and their contributions should not be overlooked.

Literary Influences

One of the most notable literary influences on Michael Cunningham’s “The Art of Fielding” is Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” The novel’s protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, is a talented baseball player who is compared to Melville’s Ishmael, the narrator of “Moby-Dick.” Both characters are outsiders who become obsessed with their respective pursuits, and both novels explore themes of obsession, identity, and the search for meaning. Cunningham also pays homage to Melville by naming one of the characters in “The Art of Fielding” after him: Owen Dunne, whose initials are a nod to Melville’s own.

Reception and Legacy

The Art of Fielding has received widespread critical acclaim since its publication in 2011. The novel was a New York Times bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by numerous publications, including The Washington Post and The New Yorker. It has been praised for its beautiful prose, complex characters, and insightful commentary on the nature of success and failure. The book has also been adapted into a television series, which is currently in development. The Art of Fielding has become a modern classic and is sure to be remembered as one of the great American novels of the 21st century.