Rather than forging radically new means for fiction, the novels of James Joyce--A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939)--as well as his single short-story collection, Dubliners (1914), changed the way fiction has been written in the twentieth century by subtly refining the advances made by others. Joyce's strict narrative focus in such a story as "The Sisters" (1904), for instance, had been used by Henry James in What Maisie Knew (1897); his use of free indirect discourse had been suggested by Gustave Flaubert's style indirect libre employed so successfully in Madame Bovary (1856-1857). In Joyce's hands, however, such techniques became seamless, almost invisible parts of the narrative structure. What could at times seem awkward in other writers makes itself known in Joyce's texts only after repeated careful readings.
James Augustus Alyosius Joyce was born on 2 February 1882 in Rathgar, a modest borough of Dublin, Ireland. He was the eldest of what his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, estimated as "sixteen or seventeen children," ten of whom survived infancy. By the time of his birth the fortunes of his father were already declining. Stephen Dedalus, the autobiographical hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was to describe his father as "a medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody's secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past." The description was an apt one of Joyce's own father, as well. His mother, Mary Jane (Murray) Joyce, seems to have been precisely the kind of calming influence John Joyce sorely needed; as James Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann puts it, if John Joyce "was the principle of chaos, she was the principle of order to which he might cling."
In the fall of 1888, at age six, Joyce was enrolled as the youngest of the boarders at Clongowes Wood College, an academically sound Jesuit boarding school outside Dublin in Salins, County Kildare. He was to live at the college, except during holidays, until June 1891. By the end of the 1890-1891 school year, however, his father's mounting financial difficulties dictated that he be withdrawn from the college. He was allowed for a time to study at home by himself, which he seems to have done conscientiously. Sometime during the fall or winter term of 1893 John Joyce finally enrolled James in the Christian Brothers' School, a considerable descent both academically and socially for the Joyces. Fortunately Father John Conmee, who had been rector at Clongowes while James had been a student there, was now the prefect of studies at an outstanding Jesuit day school, Belvedere College. Hearing of James's somewhat compromised situation, he arranged for all the Joyce boys to attend Belvedere without fees, and James began his studies there on 6 April 1893.
Joyce distinguished himself at Belvedere, and upon graduating in 1898 he matriculated at University College of the Catholic University in Dublin founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1853. Again Joyce did exceptionally well. In the fall of his sophomore year he prepared a paper defending Henrik Ibsen's drama, a paper titled "Drama and Life," for presentation to the college Literary and Historical Society. The paper was suppressed, however, by the college president. Joyce protested and prevailed, but when the paper was read on 20 January 1900 it was roundly condemned by Joyce's classmates, who found the morality evidenced in Ibsen's plays reprehensible, just as the president had.
Joyce replied to his attackers' objections, apparently with little efficacy, but his was the last word. On 1 April 1900 Joyce published an essay, "Ibsen's New Drama," in the venerable Fortnightly Review. As Ellmann writes, "his fellow-students were dumbfounded.... From now on Joyce was the man who had published the article in the Fortnightly and his confirmation of his good opinion of himself encouraged him to stand even more aloof." Stand aloof he did, producing a diatribe essay, "The Day of the Rabblement," in 1901 that attacked the social, political, and literary climate of Ireland. In February 1902 he read another paper before the literary society, this one on James Clarence Mangan, a victim (in Joyce's view) of the provincialism that he had decried in "The Day of the Rabblement."
Joyce took his degree in October, and in November 1902 he left Ireland for Paris, aiming to fulfill his fictional Stephen Dedalus's promise to try to "fly by" the nets of nationality, language, and religion via the strategy Stephen had articulated: "silence, exile, and cunning." Joyce's announced purpose was to pursue a medical degree, but the haphazard nature of his preparations and the half-hearted manner in which he approached the medical school curriculum belied the sincerity of his devotion to this career. The medical degree seems to have been a smokescreen behind which he could hide from his parents, and perhaps even from himself, his quest "to discover," as he later wrote in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "the mode of life or art whereby [his] spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom."
That exile in Paris--at least the first such--was to end rather quickly in April 1903: Joyce returned hastily to be with his mother, who was suffering from liver cancer that had been misdiagnosed as cirrhosis. Her final illness was slow and painful; she died on 13 August 1903. In the fourteen months that followed, before his second (and permanent) emigration from Ireland, Joyce wrote a two-thousand-word autobiographical essay, "A Portrait of the Artist"--a tentative gesture toward his first great novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also began "Stephen Hero," the abortive first-draft version of the autobiographical novel, and he met, made a lifetime commitment to, and made plans to elope with Nora Barnacle, the woman he would formally marry in 1931. At this time, too, he wrote his first work of short fiction, "The Sisters," which was later to be the keystone of the collection Dubliners .
Joyce seems to have begun writing Dubliners with the conscious intention of reforming the craft of fiction. Many of his early letters to his brother Stanislaus reflect his impatience with a lack of subtlety in the fiction of both his forebears and contemporaries. In November 1904, for instance, while working on an early version of the story "Clay," Joyce complained of George Moore's collection of stories The Untilled Field (1903):
Damned stupid. A woman alludes to her husband in the confession-box as "Ned." Ned thinks & c! A lady who has been living for three years on the line between Bray and Dublin is told by her husband that there is a meeting in Dublin at which he must be present. She looks up the table to see the hours of the trains. Tis on DW and WR [the Dublin, Wicklow, and Wexford Railway] where the trains go regularly; this after three years. Isn't it rather stupid of Moore. And the punctuation! Madonna!
Joyce's influence on the modern short story is especially remarkable, for his output was so slim--just the one volume of fifteen stories called Dubliners. The volume began as a single story, "The Sisters," written in response to a request from Irish poet and mystic AE (George William Russell), an editor for the agricultural paper The Irish Homestead. Russell had seen some chapters of Joyce's unpublished novel "Stephen Hero" and had admired them; he wrote Joyce in July 1904 to request a submission for The Irish Homestead:
Dear Joyce: Look at the story in this paper, The Irish Homestead. Could you write anything simple, rural?, livemaking?, pathos?, which could be inserted so as not to shock the readers. If you could furnish a short story about 1800 words suitable for insertion the editor will pay £1. It is easily earned money if you can write fluently and don't mind playing to the common understanding or liking for once in a way. You can sign it any name you like as a pseudonym.
This seems to have been all the suggestion Joyce needed; indeed, the tight format Russell dictated may have come as a welcome relief from the sprawling novel which Joyce had seemed unable to control. He must have written the story easily, for it appeared as "Our Weekly Story" in the 13 August 1904 issue of The Irish Homestead. "The Sisters" was revised considerably for its appearance in Dubliners, where it introduces the collection and introduces many motifs woven throughout the other stories of the volume.
Much of Joyce's creative credo seems to have been firmly in place before he ever seriously put pen to paper. To a greater extent than he later did with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce attempted to articulate both his aesthetic and moral goals for Dubliners in letters to Stanislaus as well as in the sometimes acrimonious correspondence to his fainthearted British publisher, Grant Richards. In August 1904, fresh upon the publication of "The Sisters," Joyce wrote to his friend Constantine Curran about what he was already calling Dubliners, which he described as a series of ten "epicleti"--apparently his plural form of the Greek word epiclesis, a term that denotes the moment in the Greek Orthodox mass when the priest invokes the Spirit of God to come down and transform the elements of the Eucharist. His volume, Joyce wrote to Curran, was intended "to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city."
By the time Joyce offered Dubliners to Grant Richards--William Heinemann had already declined Joyce's invitation to consider the manuscript--the story had grown to twelve stories. The Joyce household had also grown by one, as Georgio had been born on 27 July. In his 15 October 1905 letter to Richards, Joyce underscored his moral aim in writing the collection: "I think," the letter closes, "people might be willing to pay for the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories." Owing to his sense of the ethical function of the stories, Joyce was intractable when Richards began to express concern over potentially actionable phrases and passages in the stories. For instance, Joyce insisted on using the vulgar expression bloody in his story "Grace," presumably because that is the word that a man like Tom Kernan would have used. In response to Richards's suggestion that he would not publish the story without changes in such language, Joyce replied: "I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art." Joyce closed by duly informing Richards that the collection had expanded to fourteen stories.
Joyce's battle to have Dubliners published raged for a full decade. In May 1906 he wrote Richards again to assert the high purpose of his sometimes-low prose: "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.... I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform, whatever he has seen and heard." In Joyce's mind, the realistic language of the Dubliners stories was something more than an aesthetic decision--it was akin to a moral imperative. He interpreted the reluctance of the Irish people to read such prose--or even, indeed, Richards's own reluctance to publish it--as a sign of moral cowardice and hypocrisy: "It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass."
"The Sisters" is the first of three stories in Dubliners that Joyce referred to as "stories of my childhood." It is told by a first-person narrator, a young boy perhaps thirteen to sixteen years old, whose identity raises many unanswered questions: what is the boy's name, for instance, and why is he living with his aunt and uncle? Many more important mysteries are suggested as he tells his tale, although the basic outlines of the story are quite simple: the boy, who has spent much of his time under the tutelage of an old priest, the Reverend James Flynn, learns that his mentor has died after a long decline. Together with his aunt, he makes a call at the house of mourning and hears vague suggestions of the old priest's mental and moral, as well as physical, corruption. As with all the Dubliners stories, such a bare plot summary suggests almost nothing of the story's haunting power: the story depends on no hidden secret brought to light, no surprise ending that a plot summary might betray. This is perhaps partly what Joyce had in mind when he described his technique in the stories as "a style of scrupulous meanness": as in real life, events unfold rather regularly and unremarkably.
"The Sisters" is largely a story of the initiation of a young boy into the adult world. Real-world experience collides repeatedly in the story with the boy's expectations, and that world comes to seem a different place from that which he has been led to expect. The first significant shock occurs the day after the priest's death when, after his breakfast, the boy heads down to the priest's little house and reads the card posted on his door and adorned with a black crape:
July 1st, 1895
The Rev. James Flynn
(formerly of S. Catherine's Church, Meath Street), aged sixty-five years.
Reading the card, the narrator tells us, "persuaded me that he was dead and I was disturbed to find myself at check.... I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death." Social decorum, of course, demands that he put on mourning dress and a mourning mood; indeed, his Romantic reading seems to have suggested to him that even the natural environment should go into some cosmic mourning, according to the logic of what John Ruskin (Modern Painters, 1856) called the pathetic fallacy. But the truth of the situation is that the boy feels not loss, but freedom; the forms he has been taught simply do not account for the feelings he experiences.
Nor do social forms help him deal with the banal conversation that transpires at the traditional Irish wake in the last scene of the story. The sisters of the title--James Flynn's sisters, Nannie and Eliza--serve sherry and cream crackers, and Eliza and the boy's aunt trade all the predictable, socially sanctioned clichés: "Did he ... peacefully?" the aunt asks. Eliza replies, "O, quite peacefully, ma'am.... You couldn't tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised." In the face of such talk the boy just sits silently, listening to everything, and without warning the conversation turns. After a moment's silence Eliza says shrewdly: "Mind you, there was something queer coming over him latterly." These words, and those that follow, sound almost vindictive, coming suddenly from Eliza's mouth: something like genuine feeling seems again to be breaking through the thin veneer of social convention. In Eliza's case what breaks through perhaps betokens her feeling that she had been taken advantage of for years in the service of her brother, in the service ultimately of the church--for which she has perhaps paid the price of diminished possibilities of ever marrying and finding her own happiness.
"An Encounter," more specifically than "The Sisters," is based on an experience of Joyce's own childhood: a day's "miching" (playing truant) planned and executed by Joyce and his younger brother Stanislaus. "In `In Encounter,'" as Stanislaus recounted the story,
my brother describes a day's miching which he and I planned and carried out while we were living in North Richmond Street, and our encounters with an elderly pederast. For us he was just a "juggins." Neither of us could have any notion at the time what kind of "juggins" he was, but something funny in his speech and behaviour put us on our guard at once. We thought he might be an escaped madman. As he looked about fifty and had a military air, I nicknamed him "the captain of fifty" from a phrase I had seen somewhere in a Biblical quotation.
This incident clearly made an impression on the young writer; in a letter of 10 October 1905 Stanislaus writes of "that astonishing unravelling of the sodomite's mind" that James Joyce captures in "An Encounter," and additionally of "the sensation of terror--you were afraid he might catch you by the ankles."
The story in many ways recapitulates the theme of freedom versus socially imposed oppression that Joyce presents in "The Sisters." Its narrator has a youthful enthusiasm for stories of the Wild West, as popular literature such as The Union JackPluck, and The Halfpenny Marvel stirs up his desire for freedom and adventure. By contrast, the stifling atmosphere of his Catholic school is also nicely evoked in opening pages: "when the restraining influence of the school was at a distance," the narrator reports, "I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me."
The narrator and two of his friends plan a day's miching, for, as the narrator recounts, "I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad." The boy and his friend Mahony define abroad rather loosely; their great escape consists of a meeting at the Canal Bridge and an excursion to the Pigeon House, a grand total of just a few miles. Their trip is more or less uneventful, everything taking a bit longer than expected. After a light lunch the boys lie down on the bank of the River Dodder, too tired to complete their journey to the Pigeon House.
But here in a deserted field on the bank of the Dodder the boys have their "encounter" with the "old pederast" that Stanislaus Joyce described. Like the narrator, the pederast remains nameless; Mahony calls him "a queer old josser." The man's talk is friendly enough, and yet, as in Stanislaus's recollection of his real-life encounter, there is "something funny in his speech and behaviour" that puts at least the narrator "on his guard at once." The narrator and the man talk about literature; the man's taste seems to prefer Romantic poetry and prose, the verse of Thomas Moore and the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Lytton. The narrator, hoping to impress the older man, pretends to have read everything he mentions. The unintended result is that a kind of bond is implicitly built between the two: "Ah, I can see you are a bookworm like myself," the man says; "`Now,' he added, pointing to Mahony who was regarding us with open eyes, `he is different; he goes in for games.'"
The talk quickly turns from literature to love, and though the old man expresses attitudes toward love "strangely liberal in a man of his age," something about his manner rings false: "He gave me the impression," the narrator says, "that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit." As his monologue about young girls winds to a close, the old man excuses himself for a few minutes and walks off some distance; he is still visible, though, and Mahony, who has followed him with his eyes, exclaims: "I say! Look at what he's doing! ... I say ... He's a queer old josser!" The Oxford English Dictionary records that the word queer did not become synonymous with homosexual until the early 1920s, but that definition seems implied here; quite likely, the word had begun to take on connotations of homosexuality in spoken English and schoolboy slang before appearing in public, written contexts with this meaning. Certainly when the old josser returns from his errand--masturbation, in all likelihood--his subject has changed from little girls to little boys as new objects of his interest, and he declares that he would like to give a "rough and unruly" boy "a nice warm whipping.... [T]here was nothing in this world he would like so well as that." Mahony has by this time wisely left the two bookworms, and while baring his soul to the narrator in all its corruption, the old man seems to the narrator "to plead with me that I should understand him."
The sexual mystery that the "queer old josser" attempts to unfold before the boy parallels the religious mystery that Father Flynn tries to impart to his young protégé, and both men seem to their young friends to be pleading for understanding or forgiveness--Father Flynn in the protagonist's dream. Also like Father Flynn, the queer old josser of "An Encounter" embodies the paralysis that Joyce felt pervaded the Dublin of his time: both men point out quite vividly to the young protagonists the futility that their provincial environment seems to breed. As "An Encounter" ends, the protagonist is forced to call on his friend Mahony for help--really as an alibi to permit him to escape politely from the old josser. To the forms of paralysis suggested in the collection's opening story, "An Encounter" adds two further: the sexual "paralysis" of the old man, and the paralyzing force of social convention, especially of ideas of social and intellectual superiority. By arrogantly insisting on his level of culture in talking with the old man, the protagonist ironically identifies himself so closely with the man that he finally has trouble extricating himself. Better, perhaps, to admit not having read Lord Lytton than to suggest that you are a soul mate to such a character as the old josser.
"Araby," along with the closing story, "The Dead," is the most frequently anthologized of the Dubliners stories. This may be partly because in "Araby" Joyce's device of the epiphany--focusing the story on a dramatic moment of self-revelation, or of revelation about the nature of the world--seems particularly evident. In fact the story closes on two distinct epiphanies--the first "dramatic," promising insight into the outside world, and the second lyric, suggesting that the narrator/protagonist has gained some measure of self-knowledge by the story's close.
The opening paragraphs of "Araby" are among the most tantalizing in all of Joyce's writing. The flood of realistic details--the house that stands at the blind end of a blind street, the paper-covered books that the boy discovers in the spare room, the "wild garden behind the house" with its "central apple tree"--prods us to read beyond these surface details to another level of significance. The most useful detail is probably the reference to Scott's Romantic novel The Abbot, for if this young protagonist has not simply seen but actually read Scott, his penchant for old-time romance makes more sense. When he introduces the object of his affection into the story, for instance, the evidence of lush Romantic prose stylistics is palpable: "The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns." The girl with whom he has fallen in love is the older sister of a friend, Mangan, and so great is the boy's reticence that we never learn her name; indeed, he may never have learned it himself. She remains, throughout the story, just "Mangan's sister."
Yet the boy does know that this is the woman of his dreams--his lady fair on whose behalf he will go in quest of exotic tokens of his love at the bazaar, Araby. Beneath this hackneyed world borne of romance fiction, however, an altogether different one exists, signaled in the text by a fresher, more evocative prose style. To learn to speak and write of love from Scott is, of course, no education in writing about the desires and attractions of the flesh; and when the narrator resorts to the voice of the Romantic fiction with which he has been brought up, Mangan's sister lacks not only a name, but more significantly a body as well. But in surprising moments something else breaks through his narrative: he dares to talk of "her figure," for instance, in that first paragraph about her, and describes how "her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side."
At last, after months of worship from afar, the silence is broken--and, as we might expect, not by the boy himself, but by his ladylove. She speaks to him and asks if he will be going to Araby; abashed, he quickly answers that he will and that since she will be unable to attend, he will bring her something. Like all true romantic knights, the boy encounters obstacles before reaching the bazaar: he must get permission and money from his aunt and uncle, and while he and his aunt await his uncle's return home, the man is out drinking. He is quite drunk, and late, when he finally returns home, but the boy insists that he must make his journey that evening, and after a late start he does arrive at the "large building which displayed the magical name."
When he enters the great hall, he can see that the bazaar has shut down for the night, but after finding his way to a still-open stall offering various curios for sale, he begins to look over the merchandise in hopes of finding something suitable for Mangan's sister. As he shops, he overhears a banal conversation--some mild flirtation--between the shopgirl and two "young gentlemen" with English accents. Something about this overheard conversation troubles the protagonist, and though we are not given a precise analysis of his thoughts through the first-person narrator, their overheard banter suggests to the boy that a romance in the real world is nothing like the romantic visions his reading has conjured for him: "O, I never said such a thing!" "O, but you did!" "O, but I didn't!" The fact that this occurs not between a romantic couple, but among a threesome reinforces the boy's growing uneasiness about the romantic dreams that he has attempted to realize in his own life.
Still disturbed by this scene, the boy lingers awhile, pretending interest in the girl's wares, and then "turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar." In a scene that is played out, with variations, by others among Joyce's autobiographical figures in Dubliners (James Duffy in "A Painful Case," Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead"), the protagonist has here "turned away" literally and figuratively from his moment of realization--from what Joyce in the draft novel "Stephen Hero" called the moment of "epiphany." In a paragraph meant to sum up the boy's insight, the narrator instead turns away from the implications of the insight which the boy might have attained: "Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."
Gazing into real darkness, of course, one finds only the image of the mind's eye; what the boy figures here as "one good look in the lookingglass" is instead a falsifying moment of re-creating himself, one in which the boy attempts to supersede, through overblown rhetoric and prose style, the reality of what his senses have tried to teach him on this night. Talking with his friend Arthur Power in Paris, Joyce remarked of Anton Chekhov's plays that "As the play ends, for a moment you think that his characters have awakened from their illusions, but as the curtain comes down you realize that they will soon be building new ones to forget the old." Though perhaps the first, the young boy of "Araby" is by no means the last of the Dubliners protagonists to extinguish real self-awareness in this fashion.
In "Eveline" one finds another class of Joyce's narratives, those he called "stories of adolescence," which are written from a third-person perspective though influenced subtly with free indirect discourse. Joyce's choice of the word adolescence to classify these stories is used to denote the period of entry into adulthood, rather than strictly the period of transformation to bodily maturity. Thus, Eveline Hill is a bit more than nineteen years old and is a creature of habit. As she sits at her window in the story's opening tableau and watches the world pass by outside her house, Eveline is perfectly passive: rather than smelling the curtains near her head, for instance, the text insists that "in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne."
Eveline, who has the responsibility of caring for her widower father and two younger siblings, has of late taken up with an exciting young sailor named Frank; he, in turn, has proposed that she run off with him and sail to Buenos Aires. As Eveline awaits the time of her rendezvous with Frank, she thinks over the rather dreary life she would be leaving behind in narrative tones that color it with some affection: "She had hard work to keep the home together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work--a hard life--but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life."
As Eveline's thoughts unfold on the page, they present the process of rationalization at work. Eveline's father is a profligate drunkard who abuses her psychologically--with the possibility of physical, perhaps even sexual, violence included: "Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father's violence.... Latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother's sake. And now she had nobody to protect her." Nevertheless, as the possibility of running off with Frank begins to sound frighteningly real, Eveline evokes her father as a warm, nurturing parent: "Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mother's bonnet to make the children laugh." A more objective head might protest that two warm moments in nineteen years do not a benevolent father make, but Eveline is not evaluating the evidence objectively. Her reflections are cast in the light of what she secretly knows she wants to do--to stay.
Eveline does keep her appointment with Frank at the North Wall port; she does not, however, board the ship with him. As they walk up the gangway, Eveline freezes--in Dubliners this is the most vivid illustration of paralysis: "She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.... It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy.... She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition." Given a chance for change, Eveline rejects it in favor of the familiar. It is important not to overstate the stakes at the story's conclusion, however, for Joyce writes not in stark black-and-white terms but in morally ambiguous shades of gray, even if his characters incline to melodrama. Eveline's father is something of a monster; but Frank, for all we know, may not be any saint. Eveline thinks, during her reverie, about the respect that being married would bring her, and yet for all the narrative tells us, Frank may never have explicitly proposed marriage. Eveline's assumption that they would, of course, marry once out of Dublin may just be a convenient fiction that she uses to salve her Catholic conscience. While Frank promises change for Eveline, there is no guarantee that her life will change for the better. In order to escape with Frank, Eveline would have to take a chance, to make a change that would invite an outcome that she could not foresee. But Eveline, like so many of the Dubliners characters, perceives any and every change as loss. "Everything changes," Eveline thinks early in the story; yet while she knows this with her head, her heart rejects it, and she chooses the hell she knows rather than the possible hell of the unknown.
"After the Race" is perhaps the most universally ignored of the Dubliners stories. Joyce called it one of "the two worst stories" in the collection--but he was certainly wrong about his estimation of the other story, "A Painful Case." "After the Race" grew out of Joyce's experience interviewing French race-car driver Henri Fournier in Paris in April 1903. Joyce's story shifts the setting to Dublin, and the central character is not Frenchman Charles Ségouin, the car's owner, but rather Jimmy Doyle, the young Irishman who has been "taken in" (in both senses of that term) by Ségouin and his friends.
The Dublin setting for the race--in which the French teams "were virtual victors," placing second and third behind the Germans--makes a rather stark backdrop for the Europeans' displays of wealth and engineering know-how. The cars coming over the hill at Inchicore are described as "careering homeward and through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth and industry." Joyce is unusually unsubtle in criticizing the people of Dublin in this story. In the opening paragraph, for instance, they are described as "rais[ing] the cheer of the gratefully oppressed." The Dubliners who line the streets to pay homage to "their friends, the French" are, we later discover, not so very different from Jimmy Doyle, who does not want to appear uncultured or naive--and instead pays a large price for his false sophistication.
As Ségouin's car speeds through the city, Jimmy is one of its four occupants; he has become acquainted with Ségouin during a term at Cambridge, and Ségouin has not only allowed Jimmy to keep company with him but has honored him so far as to allow Jimmy to invest some of his money in the automobile company Ségouin is about to open in Paris. "Of course, the investment was a good one," the narrative informs us; "Ségouin had managed to give the impression that it was by a favour of friendship the mite of Irish money was to be included in the capital of the concern." What Ségouin regards as a "mite," however, was to Jimmy no such thing: "Ségouin, perhaps, would not think it a great sum," Jimmy thinks, "but Jimmy who, in spite of temporary errors, was at heart the inheritor of solid instincts knew well with what difficulty it had been got together." Already, the investment was paying off handsomely: Jimmy's being allowed to ride with the other men and Ségouin's introducing Jimmy to another of the French competitors are owing in part to Jimmy's "investment" rather than to any debt of friendship, for on a personal level Ségouin appears singularly uninterested in Jimmy. Yet Jimmy feels he is receiving a good return on his investment, for "he had been seen by many of his friends that day in the company of these Continentals."
At age twenty-six Jimmy is younger than his years. Caught up in the glamour and excitement of this "fast" crowd, Jimmy allows himself to be seduced by the atmosphere of bonhomie that hangs over the evening. As the young men head out to the yacht of an American named Farley, Jimmy begins to drink perhaps more than he should, to relax perhaps more than he should, and as cards are proposed and dealt, Jimmy begins to bet perhaps more than he should, especially in his intoxicated state. A false sense of merriment pervades these last pages; via free indirect discourse, we see Jimmy bravely forcing expressions of his pleasure that he seems not to feel: "What merriment!" "What jovial fellows! What good company they were!" "What excitement!"
When the reckoning comes (and Jimmy must entrust the reckoning to others, for he "frequently mistook his cards and the other men had to calculate his I.O.U.'s for him"), Jimmy has lost heavily. Heavily enough that his investment in Ségouin's motor company has been consumed? The text is not clear on this point--because Jimmy himself is not. Much of the evidence that would be crucial for a retelling of this story from another perspective is missing, because the final scenes are narrated so narrowly, from Jimmy's perspective; but it is certainly possible to construct an alternative narrative for what facts we have, a narrative of betrayal about how a cunning Frenchman has deliberately exploited Jimmy's lack of sophistication, his desperate need to hide it, and his typically Irish intemperance. Jimmy has been had, but his desire for acceptance by these men he admires is so strong that he would rather silently allow himself to be robbed than call attention to his victimization by protesting it.
"Two Gallants," the sixth story in Dubliners, was thirteenth in date of composition--having been written, in fact, after Joyce had submitted a twelve-story Dubliners to his publisher, Grant Richards. Yet it was one of Joyce's favorites: "It is one of the most important stories in the book," Joyce wrote Richards; "I would rather sacrifice five of the other stories (which I could name) than this one. It is the story (after Ivy Day in the Committee-Room) which pleases me most." The story focuses on two Dublin "gallants," Lenehan and Corley. As the two men walk the city streets in "the warm grey evening air," Lenehan is trying hard to ingratiate himself with Corley--for some unknown reason--and Corley seems largely uninterested in Lenehan's company or attention. Lenehan is clearly what Stephen Dedalus's schoolmates at Clongowes Wood College would call Corley's "suck," or toady, for Lenehan "wore an amused listening face.... Little jets of wheezing laughter followed one another out of his convulsed body. His eyes, twinkling with cunning enjoyment, glanced at every moment towards his companion's face.... When he was quite sure that the narrative had ended he laughed noiselessly for fully half a minute. Then he said: 'Well! ... That takes the biscuit!--... That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit!'"
Corley has apparently been telling a story about a woman whose favors he has recently enjoyed--or so he would have Lenehan think--and Lenehan is cunning enough to feed Corley's vanity ("Maybe she thinks you'll marry her," said Lenehan). One-third of the way through the story, though, Lenehan makes a remark to Corley for which no ready interpretation seems evident: "`Well ... tell me, Corley, I suppose you'll be able to pull it off all right, eh?' ... `Is she game for that?' asked Lenehan dubiously. 'You never know women.'" Exactly what Corley expects to get from "her" is unknown, and it remains so until the conclusion. Given the conversation that has transpired between the two gallants, however, a reasonable guess might be that Corley is after some sort of sexual favor and that Lenehan experiences a vicarious thrill at merely hearing the tale told.
It becomes clear that the two are walking toward an assignation with the woman Corley intends to victimize. As they approach the young woman standing on a street corner, Lenehan insists that Corley let him "have a squint at her," and Corley does so, seemingly in order to make Lenehan more jealous of his sexual prowess. Joyce's prose spares no indignity to the woman whom Lenehan sees, but she is nonetheless attractive to him: "Lenehan's eyes noted approvingly her stout short muscular body. Frank rude health glowed in her face, on her fat red cheeks and in her unabashed blue eyes. Her features were blunt. She had broad nostrils, a straggling mouth which lay open in a contented leer, and two projecting front teeth." The two men part--Corley on his rendezvous, Lenehan to kill time until "half ten," when he will rejoin his friend.
Lenehan goes into a restaurant for a cheap meal and compares unfavorably his own situation--romantic, fiscal, spiritual--with Corley's. He wonders intermittently whether Corley has successfully handled his secret mission, and Lenehan begins to worry that Corley might achieve his conquest and then "give him [Lenehan] the slip." But Corley keeps the appointment; Lenehan is at the meeting place in time to watch Corley walking the young woman back to her door. As the two approach, Lenehan notices that they are not talking, and he assumes that Corley has failed. They stop at her door, however, and talk for a few minutes before she descends the steps to her house, while Corley waits outside. After a short while, a woman--and the narrative does say "a" woman, rather than "the" woman--emerges from the house for a moment, her form hidden by Corley's, and is just as suddenly back indoors.
As Corley walks away from the house and toward Stephen's Green, Lenehan approaches his friend to learn whether or not he has been successful. Corley apparently wants nothing to do with him and will not speak to him. To Lenehan's repeated entreaties, however--"Well? he said. Did it come off? ... Can't you tell us? he said. Did you try her?"--Corley silently answers by slowly opening his fist "to the gaze of his disciple": "A small gold coin shone in the palm." In one respect the story's central puzzle has been solved, but many more correlative puzzles are simultaneously posed. How has Corley "earned," or coerced, this money from the young woman? Why does the narrative leave unclear the identity of the woman who comes out to Corley? What does Corley see in the young woman--or, perhaps, what does she see in him--a man whose "head was large, globular and oily; it sweated in all weather; and his large round hat, set upon it sideways, looked like a bulb which had grown out of another"?
If "Two Gallants" shows that sexuality in turn-of-the-century, working-class Dublin has become a debased currency, "The Boarding House" shows the exchange value of a woman's sexuality from three viewpoints: the woman's, her lover's, and her mother's. Mrs. Mooney, having petitioned for and received a legal separation from her alcoholic husband, now runs a boardinghouse in Hardwicke Street, and the empty rooms of her home are let to young men who work in the city. "Mrs. Mooney's young men paid fifteen shillings a week for board and lodgings (beer or stout at dinner excluded)," and most of the boarders spend the weekend away. When they return on Sunday nights there is often "a reunion in Mrs. Mooney's front drawing-room," with singing and dancing. Polly Mooney, the owner's nineteen-year-old daughter, often sings at these gatherings, and her song is a rather coy production: "I'm a ... naughty girl. / You needn't sham: / You know I am."
The boarders, we learn, have taken to referring to Mrs. Mooney as "The Madame," and not without cause; after Polly has served a short stint at secretarial work, Mrs. Mooney has brought her daughter back to help at home. Mrs. Mooney's parental supervision of Polly, however, amounts to pandering: "As Polly was very lively the intention was to give her the run of the young men. Besides, young men like to feel that there is a young woman not very far away. Polly, of course, flirted with the young men but Mrs. Mooney, who was a shrewd judge, knew that the young men were only passing the time away: none of them meant business."
Bob Doran, as it turns out, does mean business; or Mrs. Mooney means to do business with him. As she is about to despair of Polly ever establishing a relationship with a suitable suitor, she notices "that something [is] going on between Polly and one of the young men." She watches the pair, and although Polly knows that she and Mr. Doran are being watched, she does not let on. Finally, when the affair has progressed far enough that Mrs. Mooney feels certain Mr. Doran is trapped, she takes action. In order to confirm her suspicions, she has a frank discussion with Polly, a conversation made more awkward than necessary by both parties feigning ignorance of the motives and complicity of the other.
The bulk of the story plays with the anticipation of Mrs. Mooney and the anxiety of Mr. Doran as they await their showdown. As she waits, Mrs. Mooney, like a seasoned poker player, reviews her cards:
She was sure she would win. To begin with she had all the weight of social opinion on her side: she was an outraged mother. She had allowed him to live beneath her roof, assuming that he was a man of honour, and he had simply abused her hospitality. He was thirty-four or thirty-five years of age, so that youth could not be pleaded as his excuse; nor could ignorance be his excuse since he was a man who had seen something of the world. He had simply taken advantage of Polly's youth and inexperience: that was evident. The question was: What reparation would he make?
The language of social convention, socially constructed roles, is predominant in Mrs. Mooney's thoughts. Most of her assertions are partially or wholly undercut by the narrative--her assertion, for instance, that Doran has taken advantage of Polly. But the importance of these phrases would seem to lie more in their strategic resonance than in the veracity of what they denote: an "outraged mother," for instance, has by definition been wronged and deserves compensation. Mrs. Mooney is not "in the right" in any absolute moral sense here; yet, as we listen to her thoughts while she anticipates her meeting with Bob Doran, we can see that she has one right--because she can marshal the rhetoric of moral outrage to her purpose.
As for Bob Doran, he tries vainly to console himself with equally formulaic narratives of domestic bliss, but the best he can manage is the feeble "Perhaps they could be happy together." Rather than anticipating that he will be happy ever after, Bob Doran has "a notion that he was being had." "She was a little vulgar," he thinks to himself; "sometimes she said I seen and If I had've known. But what would grammar matter if he really loved her?"
After these vignettes of Mrs. Mooney's and Bob Doran's thoughts, Joyce's narrative finally presents the consciousness of Polly Mooney. As her beau marches downstairs to meet with her "outraged mother," she goes "back to the bed again and [sits] at the foot. She regard[s] the pillows for a long time and the sight of them awaken[s] in her mind secret amiable memories." Polly's head has lain on those pillows before, and the "secret amiable memories" that flood her mind are secret amorous memories. Though the story does not baldly say so, Polly has enjoyed sharing the (pre)marital bed with Bob.
When her mother calls her from downstairs, Polly rushes to the railing to answer, and only then does she "remem[ber] what she had been waiting for." According to conventions, according to the lies mother and daughter allow each other to hide behind, Polly is waiting for a proposal of marriage. The reader has seen Polly waiting on Bob's bed; the reader knows better.
"A Little Cloud" is the first of those stories that Joyce dubbed "stories of mature life." The problems exposed in these later stories are as weighty as those in Joyce's first two classes of stories, but they are less likely to be solved. Joyce strongly believed that people are all, more or less, creatures of habit--and are less likely to change as they go on living. Thus Thomas Malone "Little" Chandler, the protagonist of "A Little Cloud," lives a fairly regular and uneventful life. He flatters himself that under other, more propitious circumstances, he might have been a writer, a poet: "Could he write something original? He was not sure what idea he wished to express but the thought that a poetic moment had touched him took life within him like an infant hope.... He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet's soul." Such musings become all the more urgent for Chandler, because on the day of the story he is to meet with an old friend, Ignatius Gallaher, who has apparently enjoyed some success as a London journalist.
When Chandler meets with Gallaher that evening in Corless's, the mighty Gallaher is something of a disappointment to both Chandler and the reader. Whether a successful journalist or not, Gallaher is certainly a blowhard. Chandler has a mind full of poetic clichés ("The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions"), and Gallaher, who lives in London and spends time on "the Continent," is full of the worst kind of condescension and "worldly" wisdom: "Damn proofs and printers, I say, for a few days. I'm deuced glad, I can tell you, to get back to the old country. Does a fellow good, a bit of a holiday. I feel a ton better since I landed again in dear dirty Dublin."
Gallaher's pretentiousness and patronizing boasting nevertheless depress Chandler, and he returns home despairing of what he has accomplished in his own life. His wife, Annie, decides to run out to buy some tea, and Chandler is left to care for their infant son. In Annie's absence Chandler sizes up the material evidence of the success of their life together and finds it wanting: "He ... glanced nervously round the room. He found something mean in the pretty furniture which he had bought for his house on the hire system. Annie had chosen it herself and it reminded him of her. It too was prim and pretty. A dull resentment against his life awoke within him." Chandler tries to escape the restraints of his provincial, middle-class life via Byronic poetry, but Byron's poetic cry is interrupted by the cry of Chandler's infant son, and Chandler is again convinced of the futility of his situation: "It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life."
Annie returns home to find her son crying hysterically and her husband unable to do anything to comfort him. She immediately takes her child's side: "What have you done to him?," she accuses Chandler, and then turning to the child she coos, "My little man! My little mannie! Was 'ou frightened, love?" Among his acquaintances Chandler is called "Little Chandler" because, "though he was but slightly under the average stature, he gave one the idea of being a little man." Yet for Annie, her "little man," her infant son, has replaced her husband in her affections. To be thus rejected by his wife when he has just minutes earlier been wondering whether she is worthy of his love comes as a devastating blow to Chandler. But of his final state of mind Joyce provides little to judge: Chandler "listened while the paroxysm of the child's sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes." Remorse for what he has done, or remorse for the course of life he has chosen? Such ambiguity is intentional.
"Counterparts" is among the bitterest, most hopeless of the Dubliners collection. The story's protagonist, Farrington, works as a copyist in a law office, and from the time he arrives in the morning until he leaves at night, Farrington transcribes copies of legal documents--or at least he is supposed to. Farrington is frustrated in his job and is inclined to satisfy his powerful thirst in local public houses rather than to carry out his scribal duties. His boss, Mr. Alleyne, is a petty tyrant, and as the story opens Farrington is being summoned to his office. There Farrington is upbraided for his tardiness in copying out a contract and is warned that if the work is not completed by the close of business that day, Mr. Alleyne will bring the matter to the attention of the other partner, Mr. Crosbie.
As Farrington returns to his desk, however, he finds that he cannot contemplate returning to his contracts without slipping out for a drink. After a quick glass of porter in a dark pub, Farrington returns to his office but can make no progress in his work. The Delacour contract that particularly plagues him is reduced to a meaningless fragment in Farrington's consciousness and is thus fittingly rendered meaningless to Joyce's reader: "In no case shall the said Bernard Bodley be...." Even with the threat of being fired hanging over his head, Farrington cannot bring himself to make the copy.
With Miss Delacour by his side Mr. Alleyne approaches Farrington's desk to inquire about the correspondence in the Delacour case; the folder that Farrington hands to Mr. Alleyne is incomplete, and though Farrington knows it, he denies it to his boss. As Alleyne's temper flares, he demands ironically of Farrington, "--Tell me ... do you take me for a fool? Do you think me an utter fool?" Farrington's answer, though unpremeditated, is savage: "--I don't think, sir, ... that that's a fair question to put to me." Alleyne is furious, not least of all because Farrington has humiliated him in front of Miss Delacour, whom Alleyne is rumored to be "sweet on," and as Farrington leaves for the day, he realizes that tomorrow he will be looking for work.
Characteristically Farrington seeks oblivion in alcohol. He pawns his watch chain and manages to spend the entire six shillings--enough to purchase perhaps seventy-two glasses of Guinness--in bars. While drinking to forget, however, he is ironically condemned to remember his indiscretion with Mr. Alleyne. When recounted to his drinking buddies, Farrington's retort comes to sound heroic, but just as Alleyne was made to look foolish in front of a woman, Farrington in the pub is ritually humiliated before a woman in whom he is interested. If he has hoped to forget his troubles or perhaps even to regain a measure of his self-respect during his time in the pubs, Farrington is bitterly disappointed. He returns home "full of smouldering anger and revengefulness. He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket." Rather than conquering, Farrington has again been conquered: "He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him."
When he returns home, his wife has gone out to the chapel and left his young son, Tom, to heat up his father's dinner for him. Tom clearly has done nothing to deserve his father's wrath, but that wrath must be spent--and Farrington contrives an excuse to take it out on his child. "`--I'll teach you to let the fire out!' he said, rolling up his sleeve in order to give his arm free play." The story fades out before that arm is given free play, but the reader can only assume that Tom is made to pay for his father's various humiliations during the day and evening. Thus Tom becomes his father's counterpart, suffering upon his body the emotional stripes his father has taken.
"Clay" is a deceptively complex story. This is owing largely to Joyce's willful obscurity about many of its realistic details. Maria, the story's protagonist, works at a place called the Dublin by Lamplight Laundry. What is not spelled out explicitly is that the laundry is a benevolent enterprise run by zealous Protestant women who rescue prostitutes from the streets and attempt to provide them with a more dignified way of supporting themselves. A reader might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that Maria is one of these fallen women who has been shown the error of her ways, but in fact, rather than being one of the laundry's reclamation projects, Maria seems to have been hired to work with the fallen women. The story's opening paragraphs repay careful reading, for in them one detects the linguistic presence of Maria herself, hiding behind the third-person narrative and coloring the narrative with the language of her desire. This is evident through the subtle ways in which she attempts to distance herself from the other women working at the laundry.
Maria is preparing to visit old friends, Joe Donnelly and his family, when she gets off work. The precise nature of her relationship to the Donnellys is unspecified; most likely, she had been some kind of domestic servant in the Donnelly household when Joe and his brother, Alphy, were boys. The early pages present Maria's consciousness as she prepares for her excursion. The evening, as it turns out, is filled with minor blows to Maria's sense of herself, to the narrative she tells us and tells herself about who she is. The first blow comes on her way to the Donnellys', as she stops in a cake shop to buy some sweets for the gathering. The woman behind the counter, a "stylish young lady," is quite impatient with Maria's indecision and asks her "was it a wedding-cake she wanted to buy"? At the shop girl's rudeness Maria merely blushes and smiles; she settles on a plumcake, and heads for the tram to Drumcondra.
The tram is full, but "an elderly gentleman made room for her." The description continues, "He was a stout gentleman and he wore a brown hard hat; he had a square red face and a greyish moustache." Though nothing about his dress or deportment suggests that he is a gentleman, Maria proceeds to give him a kind of promotion: "Maria thought he was a colonel-looking gentleman." In retrospect, the reader will surely return to this passage and question what might suggest that a man in civilian (indeed lower-middle-class) clothing is a colonel. The answer is nothing but the fact that Maria would like her tram conversation to be dignified by thinking that it has occurred with a man of substance, of quality. Maria knows, however, that this wish is not the truth of the situation, for she reflects as she leaves the tram "how easy it was to know a gentleman even when he had a drop taken." Maria's "gentleman," to a more cynical eye, is a shabby-genteel old drunk "making time" with Maria not because of who she is, but because he loves the sound of his own voice. It is Maria's interest, however, not to make such fine distinctions.
When she arrives at the Donnelly's Hallow Eve gathering (for a celebration of what the "colonel-looking gentleman" had told Maria that Americans call Halloween), she no longer has her plumcake. In order to assuage Maria's hurt feelings over the missing cake, it is suggested that her gentleman must have stolen it; Maria's sense of self is so fragile that she is willing to allow her gentleman to suffer such a precipitous demotion in order to cover over her error. After much drinking, mostly on the part of Joe Donnelly, the Donnelly children and their neighborhood friends persuade Maria to take part in a traditional Irish Hallows' Eve game in which the participant is blindfolded and forced to choose from plates which contain a prayer book, a ring, water, or clay. These substances symbolize various fates for the participant: the prayer book (in some versions of the game) suggests that she will enter a convent; the ring, that she will soon marry; the water, that she will make a trip across the ocean and emigrate; and the clay, that she will die.
In a passage of remarkable narrative complexity that Margot Norris calls "narration behind a blindfold," the scene that presumably gives the story its title unfolds: the game participants
led her up to the table amid laughing and joking and she put her hand out in the air as she was told to do. She moved her hand about here and there in the air and descended on one of the saucers. She felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that nobody spoke or took off her bandage. There was a pause for a few seconds; and then a great deal of scuffling and whispering. Somebody said something very cross to one of the next-door girls and told her to throw it out at once: that was no play. Maria understood that it was wrong that time and so she had to do it over again: and this time she got the prayer-book.
The narrative nicely skirts the issue of whether or not Maria understands the cruelty to which she has been subjected, because at some level Maria herself seems to be filtering the perceptions that are presented in the text. Readers certainly have no other ground from which to judge; they too are blindfolded, or at least forced to wear blinders.
The story closes on a poignant scene in which Maria is asked for a song before she leaves, and after some hesitation Maria agrees to sing "I Dreamt That I Dwelt," from Irish composer Michael William Balfe's opera The Bohemian Girl. The title of the opera suggests that this is an ironically inappropriate part for Maria to sing, and Maria perhaps magnifies that irony by singing the first verse a second time, in place of the second verse, the lyrics of which would have underscored the loneliness of her life. Maria reads in the lachrymose response of her audience a real pity for her situation: "Joe was very much moved." The final sentence of the story seems to undercut Maria's readings of events, however, for like the "colonel-looking gentleman" on the tram who had "a drop taken," Joe is so intoxicated by the story's close that readers can no longer take his reaction at face value: "his eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was."
Mr. James Duffy, the protagonist of "A Painful Case," is a creature of habit to a greater degree than any other character in Dubliners. Compared to Eveline Hill, for instance, Duffy has had many years to let his habits harden into rigid, inflexible patterns for living. The story introduces him metonymicly--through a careful description of his room, where nothing is out of place. Mr. Duffy "abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder."
Duffy's life is also a solitary one: "He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died"; "his life rolled out evenly" and forms "an adventureless tale." Then, almost in spite of himself, adventure enters Duffy's tale in the form of Emily Sinico, a married woman about his age. Meeting her three times by accident at various cultural occasions in the city, Duffy decides to make an appointment with her and is accepted. Although Mrs. Sinico is married and has an adolescent daughter, Duffy's influence over the narrative tries to downplay the adulterous aspect of the relationship: "Neither he nor she had had any such adventure before and neither was conscious of any incongruity."
Then, suddenly, their relationship ends: "One night during which she had shown every sign of unusual excitement, Mrs. Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek." Though entangled in this relationship, Duffy has done his best to keep it one-sided and intellectual; deep down he retains the instinct of the celibate, and this outburst of Mrs. Sinico destroys his belief that their relationship might continue. In his private writings Duffy later renders the moral of his story this way: "Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse." Thus doing his best not to let the Sinico affair leave any sort of mark on him, Duffy returns to the dull regularity of his life.
Joyce's story then skips four years ahead. Duffy's life once again rolls out evenly, "an adventureless tale." His one brief experiment in community having gone terribly wrong, he returns to keeping company with no one but himself. Then one evening as he is eating his supper in an inexpensive restaurant, he reads in the newspaper a narrative of Emily Sinico's death. The text of the story is fully reproduced in Joyce's story; it relates that Mrs. Sinico had been struck by a train the night before, apparently while out buying liquor. The story, as Duffy notices, is full of euphemism and circumlocution, but between its lines both the reader and Duffy realize that Mrs. Sinico's life has described a downward spiral for quite some time. Duffy, however, in his self-important moralizing about her immoral death, conveniently suppresses one important fact: while he reads of her death four years after the breakup of their affair, the newspaper reports that Mrs. Sinico's husband has testified that his wife had taken to drink only "about two years ago." Thus, while Duffy affirms his own importance in Mrs. Sinico's life by assuming that his departure has occasioned her drinking, and ultimately her death, the facts would seem to be otherwise.
Her "commonplace vulgar death" disgusts Duffy; indeed, he refers to the god who would allow such poetic justice as "Just God," and concludes that his onetime soul's companion "had been unfit to live, without any strength of purpose, and easy prey to habits, one of the wrecks on which civilisation has been reared." The reader is struck, in working through Duffy's reaction to Mrs. Sinico's death, that there is no apparent hint of sympathy; instead, he seems to feel only betrayed, as if she has humiliated him by dying in such a degraded fashion. Uncharacteristically Duffy decides to try to shake off the specter of her death by retreating to the warm anonymity of a public house, but alcohol--surely an ironic anesthetic for Duffy to choose, in the wake of Mrs. Sinico's death--does nothing to ease his pain. As he walks back to his room Duffy does his best to erase all memory of the one emotional dissipation in his life. In one of most savage endings of any story in the volume, Duffy, having seen the ghost of his own egotism, turns from the wisdom it would communicate and instead makes the cowardly decision that it was unreal: "He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him.... He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear." Again, the character apprehends no epiphany here, but rather steadfastly refuses to deal with the crisis that such self-reflection should precipitate.
Critic Vivian Mercier once described Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot as a play in which nothing happens, twice; Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" might similarly be called a story in which nothing happens, once. In a letter to his brother Joyce called it the story that pleased him most; its most striking formal characteristic is its spare, static presentation. Stephen Dedalus, in his famous aesthetics disquisition in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, declares that proper art is static rather than kinetic, and that in the evolution of literary forms, the dramatic represents the highest, purest form of literary art. "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" impresses with its dramatic presentation and finely nuanced evocation of character through subtle differences in idiolect--but it is not a memorable, participatory story in the ways that "Araby," "Eveline," "Clay," or even "The Dead" are. It is closer to formal perfection than any other story in Dubliners, but for that reason it reads more like a morality play than a tale that turns the tables on its readers.
Its setting and story are easily described. The cast of characters--which is somewhat fluid, with various election-day canvassers drifting in and out during the day--are convened in a dark, cold room that serves as a political campaign headquarters. The date is significantly 6 October--the anniversary of the death of Ireland's "uncrowned king," Charles Stuart Parnell, and locally known as "Ivy Day" for the custom of wearing an ivy leaf in memory of "the Chief." The various campaign workers who appear at the committee room in Wicklow Street--Hynes, Crofton, O'Connor, Henchy, Father Keon--are poignantly aware of the significance of the date and of the way that Irish history is repeating itself as farce. None of the workers seems to care about, or even believe in, the candidate for whom they are working; most of the conversation concerns when their candidate, Richard J. Tierney, might appear with their pay or, failing that, whether some stout might not be sent to them in the interim. Politics, a matter of passion on both sides during Parnell's rise and fall, has now become simply a matter of money; even the most militantly nationalistic of the campaign workers, Henchy, is able to swallow his objections to the announced visit of the British monarch, Edward VII, because "What we want in this country ... is capital. The King's coming here will mean an influx of money into this country.... It's capital we want."
Ultimately aided with a dozen bottles of stout, the conversation of the men around the dying fire is clichéd, tired, banal. Hynes has, sometime in the past, written a poem on the death of Parnell. As the story closes with the dim light from the coal fire growing dimmer, the others persuade Hynes to recite his poem as a tribute to their dead Chief. It seems clear that Joyce meant this poem as a fairly slight production, both in its diction ("Shame on the coward caitiff hands / That smote their Lord or with a kiss / Betrayed him ... ") and sentiment ("But Erin, list, his spirit may / Rise, like the Phoenix from the flames, / When breaks the dawning day"). In a sense Parnell is being confirmed as dead through this poetic monument/mausoleum erected over his memory. Like the ivy leaf worn on the lapels of the campaign workers, an emblem that makes absolutely no difference to their daily lives, this poem verbally embraces a promise of Parnell's rebirth--yet in effect drives another nail into his coffin. As Henchy sacrilegiously puts it before rapprochement with the British monarch is suggested, "Parnell ... is dead." Such, too, seems to be the burden of the story's final line--presented in third-person narration, rather than in direct discourse from the conservative Crofton: "Mr. Crofton said that it was a very fine piece of writing."
Unlike "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," which is a static, almost inhuman set piece, "A Mother" insists that its readers take a stand vis-à-vis the events it presents. A daughter, Kathleen Kearney, has been contracted to play accompaniment for a series of four concerts, but in fact (as the title suggests) her mother holds center stage. Mrs. Kearney (née Devlin) holds pretensions to a higher place in society than has been allowed her, and this injustice she seeks vicariously to right through her daughter. Kathleen, like her mother, is sent to the best convent schools and taught French and music; additionally she is sent to the Royal Academy of Music. On top of these gifts her mother adds yet another, shrewdly calculated to assist Kathleen in her social climb: "When the Irish Revival began to be appreciable Mrs. Kearney determined to take advantage of her daughter's name and brought an Irish teacher to the house." The pronominal slippage in this passage is intentional and indicates Mrs. Kearney's destructive characteristic: her tendency to confuse Kathleen's accomplishments, and disappointments, with her own.
The narrative of "A Mother," like those of so many other Dubliners stories, is subtly influenced by the cast of the protagonist's mind. Its readers hear cadences of Mrs. Kearney's speech, and her high opinion of herself, in this description of her promotional activities on behalf of the concerts: "She forgot nothing and, thanks to her, everything that was to be done was done." That last phrase, echoing John's description of the work of the Logos at the creation of the world ("All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made"), sounds like Joyce's ironic deflation of Mrs. Kearney; certainly, though her voice has some role in the constitution of the narrative, that narrative is not wholly sympathetic to her or her project. Superintending both her daughter's career and her life, she embodies the stereotype of the stage mother too closely to win reader sympathy.
The conflict builds slowly, but in the closing pages it is as dynamic as anything in the collection. The narrative leaves an impression that most of the other artistes are comfortable working without formal contracts, but Mrs. Kearney has negotiated Kathleen's contract for her--one that promises payment of eight guineas for four concerts. When the concert series is not as well attended as had been hoped (owing, in Mrs. Kearney's opinion, to improper management and promotion), the decision is made to cancel the performance set for the third night and to concentrate the sponsoring organization's resources to promote the fourth and final performance on Saturday night. This immediately raises for Mrs. Kearney the question of whether or not Kathleen will be paid for all four performances. She insists, reasonably enough, that the contract obligates the committee to pay her daughter eight guineas, regardless of how many concerts are actually performed.
Mrs. Kearney, however, gets no satisfaction from Hoppy Holohan, the assistant secretary of the society with whom she had made the contract. On the night of the final performance not only is Kathleen's fee in doubt, but she has not received any part of her wages; this, for Mrs. Kearney, is just too much. She creates a stir backstage and holds up the beginning of the performance until her daughter is paid. The concert begins when Kathleen is paid only four pounds, but under Mrs. Kearney's threat that her daughter will not return after the intermission unless she is paid the rest of her fee.
Mrs. Kearney is, by most standards, behaving quite badly; none of the artists have been paid in full for their performances, and Kathleen is hardly the most distinguished of the group. But the dismissive way in which Mrs. Kearney is treated by Holohan, his boss Mr. Fitzpatrick, and the male artistes helps explain her distrustful conduct and shrillness toward these men. At the same time, since she is so easily characterized as a stage mother, all these men seem to understand that she need not be taken seriously. Both parties are thereby hardened in their prejudices.
If "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" exposes the reduction of political passion to pure financial self-interest and "A Mother" suggests that art in contemporary Dublin has become nothing more exalted than a fiscal transaction, "Grace" diagnoses modern religion as nothing but a minor branch of modern economics. The story begins quite literally with a fall, which has obvious metaphoric import: Tom Kernan, drunk and unsteady ("peloothered," Martin Cunningham calls him), pitches headfirst down the stairs into the men's room of a bar, where he is discovered semiconscious. Kernan is quickly resurrected through recourse to the substance that precipitated his downfall: "A young man in a cycling-suit cleared his way through the ring of bystanders. He knelt down promptly beside the injured man and called for water.... The young man washed the blood from the injured man's mouth and then called for some brandy.... The brandy was forced down the man's throat. In a few seconds he opened his eyes and looked about him."
Alcohol causes Kernan's fall, but it also allows him to rise. So when Kernan leaves the bar with Power, Power expresses regrets to the man in the cycling suit that "they could not have a little drink together." When Power gets Kernan home, Mrs. Kernan apologizes that she has "nothing in the house to offer" him. Power's plan for reforming Kernan is to persuade him to come on a Catholic retreat with Power and some of Kernan's other business friends. When the three friends come to make their appeal, Mrs. Kernan produces a tray of stout for the guests (though none for her convalescent husband), and when Mr. Fogarty shows up later, he has brought Kernan a bottle of whiskey as a get-well gift.
After a long bedside conversation in which the idea of a religious retreat is "inadvertently" mentioned to Kernan, the men make their retreat, during which the conversation is remarkable primarily for its misinformation about Catholic Church history and doctrine--misinformation that helps underscore Joyce's understated, somewhat arcane humor here. Kernan's friends have emphasized that the retreat will not be hard-hitting but tailor-made for men of the world--businessmen. In an ironic twist to William Wordsworth's description of the role of the poet, the priest leading this retreat, Father Purdon, fancies himself "a man of the world speaking to his fellow-men." The short paraphrase of the father's message should be read in its entirety in order to appreciate Joyce's understated irony, but the extended metaphor that Purdon uses, that of squaring one's accounts with God, seems an especially inappropriate one to use--given the Gospel's message that Christians are unable to square their own accounts. The priest advises the retreaters to "be straight and manly with God," and if, "as might happen, there were some discrepancies" in their spiritual accounts, "to be frank and say like a man: `Well, I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God's grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts.'" Joyce's narrative ironically is saying that religion must differ in some respects from "spiritual accounting."
The closing story of Dubliners , "The Dead," is justly considered the most accomplished piece in the volume. In it Joyce revisits many themes explored throughout the collection, but with the benefit of hindsight, for the story was written after the rest of the volume had been completed, indeed submitted as a finished collection to a publisher. In a 26 September 1906 letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce explained his motive for writing a final story for Dubliners:"I have not reproduced its [Dublin's] ingenious insularity and its hospitality, the latter `virtue' so far as I can see does not exist elsewhere in Europe." Critics have often adduced this letter as evidence of Joyce's desire to close the volume with a sympathetic, "generous" portrait of his home city. To read it so, however, is to ignore the irony beneath the letter's polite surface--irony manifest, for instance, in Joyce's enclosing the word virtue within quotation marks. "The Dead" has provoked passionately opposing opinions in different critics, most of whom focus their disagreements on the final paragraphs of the story's closing tableau. But in any event this narrative may be read as a story that closes the volume with a perspective as bleakly ironic and hopeless as any in the collection.
"The Dead" falls conveniently into three sections, all of which present events occurring on the night of 6 January, the Feast of Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. Epiphany is the occasion for the annual dance held for all of the friends and family of the Misses Morkan. "[N]ever once," the narrative informs us in the voice of Lily, the caretaker's daughter who serves in the Morkan's home, "had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style as long as anyone could remember." Gabriel Conroy is the middle-aged nephew of Kate and Julia Morkan, and, since the Misses Morkan have never married, he is the unofficial guest of honor at their annual dance. The success or failure of the dance seems to depend largely on how well Gabriel performs his duties as host--and on whether or not Freddy Malins will turn up "screwed" (drunk) at the party.
The arrival of Gabriel and his wife Gretta is eagerly anticipated by Lily and the Morkan sisters. Within an hour of his arrival, however, Gabriel suffers three "insults--to which he responds in ways that reveal the magnitude of his ego and of his insecurity. The first occurs in the cloakroom as Gabriel attempts to make small talk with Lily, the servant with whom he is on friendly, if not intimate terms. His banter is well-meaning, but it is also somewhat insensitive, depending as it does upon his superior education and social position to inquire into matters such as Lily's plans for marriage, matters that he has really no right to know. Lily's angry response upsets Gabriel, who forces a small coin, a Christmas present, on Lily, in order to buy off her anger or assuage his own sense of wrongdoing. Gabriel is not a man who deals gracefully with evidence of his own imperfections, and this is apparent in the second incident at which he takes some offense: when his aunts and Gretta amiably tease him about his solicitude for his wife. Among such an inoffensive group Gabriel should have nothing to fear, but the magnitude of his egotism is such that he cannot stand to have his character questioned, even lightheartedly, by his intimates.
A third strike against Gabriel is the one that most wounds him. After what would appear to have been a friendly discussion on the dance floor with Miss Molly Ivors, an Irish nationalist and former university classmate who questions his patriotism in writing for a newspaper opposed to independence for Ireland, Miss Ivors whispers in Gabriel's ear the taunt "West Briton." Although her remark is whispered into his ear, he feels that she has publicly humiliated him.
The second section of the story includes the holiday meal and Gabriel's long-anticipated speech, ostensibly a celebration of the Irish virtues of hospitality and generosity. In fact the speech is a mean-spirited production, for Gabriel--vainly seeking self-justification and some self-gratifying revenge on Miss Ivors, who has already left the party--intentionally talks over the heads of his auditors who comprise its intended subjects. The speech offers further evidence of Gabriel's overarching egotism.
The third section of the story follows Gabriel and Gretta as they prepare to leave the dance and return to the hotel, where they have taken a room for the night in order to avoid a long, cold trip back to Monkstown. Gretta hears a tenor singing "The Lass of Aughrim," and from her memory the song recalls a former suitor, Michael Furey, from her home in Galway. She is distracted with these memories in the hotel room, and when Gabriel (expecting to enjoy an ego-restoring romantic evening with his wife) inquires into the reason for her melancholy, he comes by degrees to understand her grieving anew for Furey, the boy about whom she says, "I think he died for me." The fact that his wife recalls this boy with such tenderness suggests, to the melodramatic imagination with which Gabriel supports his fragile ego, that "he and she had never lived together as man and wife." Instead of questioning whether Furey had died for love of Gretta rather than from tuberculosis (which the narrative seems to suggest), Gabriel simply accepts what he is told because it confirms for him what he would like to believe about himself: that he is more sinned against than sinning, undeserving of the outrageous fortune that fate has dealt him.
This, however, is only the book's ultimate example of egotistical self-deception. Gabriel transforms Gretta's words into a comforting vision of his final end:
The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.... It was falling ... upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
These are perhaps the most famous, and among the most beautiful, words that Joyce ever penned. Gabriel now seems to be egotistical about his humiliation, his martyrdom. Though many critics have read in these final paragraphs a triumphant, affirmative response to the rather pessimistic view of human growth and change that the other stories of the collection present, both the logic of the collection and the intricate voice of the story's closing pages suggest otherwise. Joyce did not suddenly improve his view of the human race when he came to write "The Dead."
From: Dettmar, Kevin J. H. "James (Augustine Aloysius) Joyce." British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915-1945, edited by John Headley Rogers, Gale, 1996. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 162.