Saturday, April 14, 2012

One City, One Book, 2012--Dubliners-Maturity Stories

"A Little Cloud"

Whenever I read Joyce’s “A Little Cloud,” I always think of a character named Joe Btfspik, created many years ago by Al Capp for the comic strip Li’l Abner. Capp once said you pronounce Joe’s name by closing your lips, sticking out your tongue, and blowing what we used to call a “raspberry.” My new granddaughter, age 10 months, does it most impressively. Joe Btfspik always appeared with a little cloud over his head and caused bad luck to anyone around him.

Little Chandler, Joyce’s central character in “A Little Cloud,” does not cause bad luck, but always seems to be in a state of funk or depression: “When he thought of life he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.” Little Chandler is another Dubliner who holds back from life, living in his imagination, and who envies/admires someone else who lives a life of action. In this case, the admired one is Gallaher, a reporter, mentioned in Ulysses as the man who scooped the country by reporting the Phoenix Park murders of 1882.

Little Chandler fancies himself a poet. When he feels that a “poetic” moment has touched him, he wonders whether he could write a poem to express his ideas. Joyce, of course, knows that a poet is someone who actually writes poems, not someone who has poetic moments or fancies himself as a “poetic soul.” Little Chandler does not create poems, but rather invents sentences and phrases from the notices that he thinks his book would get, for example, “A wistful sadness pervades these poems.”

When Chandler meets Gallaher in a pub, the reporter is full of bluster and condescension for Dublin. As happens to many other characters in Dubliners, Little Chandler, befuddled by three whiskies and Gallaher’s cigar becomes “confused…for he was a delicate and abstinent person.”

When Chandler goes home he is struck by the contrast between his ladylike wife and the voluptuous passion of the women Gallaher has described to him. Looking at his wife’s picture, he sees no passion in her eyes, but rather something “mean” in them; he also sees something “mean” in the furniture of his little house. When he picks up a volume of Byron’s poems, he reads from the first poem in the book and feels its melancholy rhythm, wondering if he could also write like that—not realizing that the poem is a sentimental bit of juvenilia Byron wrote when he was only 14. When he tries to get in the “mood” he feels he needs to write a poem, his child begins to cry and he becomes so angry to have his mood spoiled that he bends down and shouts into the child’s face, “Stop!” The story ends with a sense of shame similar to that of the boy at the end of “Araby”--Chandler’s eyes stinging with tears of remorse.

Like several other stories in Dubliners, “A Little Cloud” is about the tension between the life of longing and the life of action. It is not so much that Joyce yearns to be like the bigmouth Gallaher, but he certainly does not want to be like the “little light” that is Little Chandler.


“Counterparts” depicts a character quite the opposite of Little Chandler, but no less empty and frustrated—Farrington—driven by drink and rage. Indeed, if “After the Race” is a story about elation, then “Counterparts” is a story about rage. Once again, as in other stories in Dubliners, after Farrington sneaks out for a quick drink, he returns to his work “confused” and longing to spend the night drinking in the bars with his friends. His head is unclear and his body aches to do something—“to rush out and revel in violence.” If thoughts about life make Little Chandler depressed, all the indignities of life enrage Farrington. After insulting his boss and having to apologize, “he felt savage and thirsty and revengeful, annoyed with himself and everyone else.”

If Little Chandler is almost bodiless, Farrington is almost all body; throughout the story, he feels his “great body” aching for the public house. When he finally does get out and starts his pub crawl, showing off by buying multiple rounds for his friends, he becomes all the more angry when he is fascinated by a young woman and curses that he has no money left to be able to impress her.

Joyce quite purposely does not have the narrator refer to Farrington by name, only calling him “the man” or “a man,” until Farrington gets to the pubs with his friends—as if he has no personality except the blustering man he is while drinking. When he runs out of money, loses a hand-wrestling match, and must go home, he once again becomes merely “a very sullen faced man” standing on the corner of O’Connell Bridge waiting for a tram. “He felt humiliated and discontented: he did not even feel drunk and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything.” Impotent with rage, “His heart swelled with fury…his fury nearly choked him.” At the end of the story, Farrington is finally able to vent his pent-up rage against his little boy who has let the fire go out in the stove. As he strikes the boy with a stick, the child cries out in pain, begging his father not to beat him, promising that if he will not, he will say a Hail Mary for him.

“Counterparts” is something of a counterpart to “A Little Cloud.” If Little Chandler is bodiless, then Farrington is spiritless; both are equally pathetic in their final humiliation by striking out at those who cannot defend themselves.


“Clay” is one of the most often anthologized stories from Dubliners, probably third after “Araby” and “The Dead.” “Clay” is a counterpart story to “A Painful Case”; both Maria and Duffy are “cases” of a conscious withdrawal from the life of the body.

Much has been made of the fact that “Clay” takes place on Hallows Eve and that when Maria laughs, the tip of her nose nearly meets the tip of her chin—a stereotype image of the Halloween witch. The story has often also been cited as a clear example of Joyce’s use of the so-called “free indirect style,” in which we hear the voice of a narrator replicating the tone of the character at the center of the story. For example, “But wasn’t Maria glad when the women had finished their tea and the cook and the dummy had begun to clear away the tea things?” Maria is a classic spinster figure, thus making the many superstitions suggested in the story about brides all the more comic/poignant. When Maria is getting dressed, she lays out her best skirt on the bed and looks at herself in the mirror. It is a folk superstition that if a girl lays out her clothes on the bed, she will dream of her husband turning them over; moreover, at the rise of the moon on Halloween, the mirror is supposed to reflect one’s future husband.

Once again, Joyce makes use of the motif of confusion of the central character. Maria leaves behind the plum cake she has bought because the gentleman on the tram has “confused her,” a fact which makes her colour with shame, vexation, and disappointment. Maria is childlike, much as Little Chandler is in “A Little Cloud.” She is the only adult asked to play the guessing game that supposedly tells one’s future based on the object chosen blindfolded. As they put the blindfold over her eyes, Maria once again, for the third time in the story laughs “until the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin.” The classic Joycean epiphany occurs for the reader when, as a joke, a neighbor child puts clay in the saucer, signifying death. Maria chooses again, this time getting the prayer book—which supposedly signifies that she may enter a convent. The story ends poignantly when Maria sings “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls” and Joe says there is no time like long ago and no music like the 19th century music of the composer Michael Balfe—evoking a theme that Joyce uses again in “The Dead.”

"A Painful Case"

When I taught Dubliners a few years ago to American students in Dublin, I used the Norton Critical Edition. Published in 2006, it was the newest edition at the time, the text edited by Hans Walter Gabler, who also edited the text of Ulysses that I was using. The Norton included a number of notes and supplementary material that I found useful. I did not, however, like the critical essays that editor Margot Norris included because they were typical of the kind of peripheral criticism of the time that I found to be of questionable value in helping students learn how to read Joyce’s short stories.

For example, the essay on “Araby” was less about the story itself and all about the “context” of the great bazaar that actually took place in Dublin in 1894. The author of the article goes on for 22 pages supplying historical background for the bazaar, noting at one point: “The knowledgeable Dublin reader who knew the minutiae of the historical 1894 Dublin bazaar might well wonder why so few significant details survive in Joyce’s text.” Well, to answer that, I would refer this “new historicist” academic back to Joyce’s pride in writing the story in a style of “scrupulous meanness.” The essay in the Norton edition on “After the Race” deals with “colonial economics”; the essay on “The Dead” focuses on “empire and patriarchy”; and the essay on “A Painful Case” makes a case for the story being about homosexuality. My objection to these essays is that they primarily to serve the purpose of promoting the particular theoretical bias of the critic—e.g. feminism, postcolonialism, new historicism, and so-called “queer studies”-- rather than the purpose of increasing the reader’s understanding of the story.

In “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy, who lives alone out in Chapelizod near Phoenix Park is a bookworm—the ambiguously dreaded fate of the young boys in “Araby,” “An Encounter,” and “The Sisters.” Abhorring anything “which betokened physical or mental disorder,” valuing order and control, “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful sideglances.” He fancies himself a writer who transforms his life into literature: “He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.” He has no friends or companions and lives his “spiritual life without any communion with others.”

When he meets Mrs. Sinico, he begins visiting her regularly, with the encouragement of her husband, who has “dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect anyone else would take an interest in her.” Duffy, being who he is, however, has only a mental interest in Mrs. Sinico, not a physical one, loaning her books, entangling has thoughts with hers. He feels that his involvement with her “exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life.” Like the boy in “Araby,” he thinks that in her eyes he “would ascend to an angelical stature.” However, one night when Mrs. Sinico clasps his hand passionately and presses it to her cheek, he is appalled and repulsed, and abruptly breaks off the relationship.

Four years pass and Duffy returns to his orderly ways. One of the sentences he writes reflects the ambiguity of his relationship with Mrs. Sinico: “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.” Although this is a central passage in the story, I do not think it means that Duffy is a repressed homosexual. It means rather that although he would like to have a friendship with Mrs. Sinico, he does not want it to involve anything physical. He wants it to be spiritual, the kind of relationship that a priest might have with her. Indeed, when he reads the newspaper story about her death, his lips move “as a priest does when he reads the prayer.” Like the boy at the end of “Araby,“ he is appalled to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred.”

However, almost immediately, Duffy begins to identify with Mrs. Sinico, to see how lonely her life might have been. Through this identification, he can also see how lonely his life will be, and he tortures himself his responsibility for her death: “Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death? He felt his moral nature falling to pieces.” When he sees two lovers near the Park, he is filled with despair, feeling he “had been outcast from life’s feast.” The last paragraph of the story is a carefully constructed rhythm of despair, equaled only in Dubliners by the final paragraph of “The Dead.”

“He turned back the way he had come, the rhythm of the engine pounding in his ears. He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him. He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes, listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.”

If the first three stories in Dubliners are about a child’s being torn between a future life of action in the everyday world and a spiritual/aesthetic life of study, thought, and writing, then these four stories of “maturity” are about adults who fail to find fulfillment in life. The most sympathetic of the four characters is Duffy, who at least at the end of “A Painful Case” has come to some meaningful realization about his failure to integrate body and spirit. The same cannot be said about Little Chandler, Farrington, and Maria.


Ciaran Lynch said...

Excellent, thank you. Each of these first eight stories is short and very easy to read. I thought quite entertaining too, especially After The Race and Counterparts. Very inner of course, all pre-occupied with the way the characters are inside, so I found them very quiet stories. Neatly paced and very carefully considered. That 'scrupulous meanness' at work, I guess.

At twenty five years of age Joyce shows great familiarity with domesticity, the way older people appear to him. His writing is so convincing you can easily imagine these characters living as he portrays them. The scenes of anger and abuse toward children are particularly sad and I wonder how much of his own experience he drew from to write them in.

Dublin comes across as a dull (brown) city, void of visual beauty, yet he invokes a bustling sense of activity, a busy-ness of the streets and shops and work places. Alcohol plays a prominant role, nearly every story features its use and often instances of excess or abuse. Joe, Maria's brother, makes her take a drink.

Sex, or the the thought of it, is ever present too and it seems to me he is hugely conscious of it. His pursuit of the spiritual is stalked (perhaps even complimented)by physical needs; drink and sex and, oddly enough, exercise. His characters walk a great deal. I know he wanted to put Dublin forward in terms of description and there is a significant conscious effort to establish this through his characters strolls about the city, but it also seems to me he spent much time walking about, absorbing the place he was in and writing about it with an almost searing sense of place. That 'sense' of place seems to me very much part of his spiritual relationship with himself and I think he is loathe to colour it (descriptvely). Keeping it brown, letting it be 'invaded by evening light' etc, are ways of allowing vision but colouring it with a deeper sense of awareness than mere joy or excitement at the presence of a blue sky, golden sun, glittering sea or other similar, more superficial affectations.

I also get a kind of feeling of sacrifice too. This is because the stories seem to be about either witholding or letting go too readily. They're permeated by fear of making one mistake or another, and there's a sadness associated with that. It's almost as if he's advocating a life of silence, that the way of things for him is not to participate and engage, but to observe and record, to point out dangers to himself. In fact, in the last story, A Painful Case, Duffy is left enclosed in total aloneness and silence, something which Joyce already seems to know quite a lot about.

Anyhow, we continue, I'm a little behind but enjoying this immensely. Thank you again.

Charles E. May said...

I very much appreciate your comments, Ciaran. There's a lot of the young Joyce in these stories, sure enough. Thus, I think you are right to sense a "life of silence"--not to participate but to observe and record. Yes, that pretty much sums up the portrait of the artist as a young man. Nobody thinks as much about writing as writers do, don't you think? It is as if everything Joyce experiences gets transformed into writing. Thanks much for your remarks.