Thursday, April 19, 2012

One City, One Book, 2012—Dubliners--Public Life Stories

The three stories that Joyce categorized as being about “public life” in Dubliners—“Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace”—have never been favorites of mine. However, Joyce once said that “Ivy Day” was one of his favorites in the book, second only to “The Dead.” After reading “Ivy Day” many times, and after reading Ulysses half a dozen times, I think I understand why Joyce liked the story more than I do.

Although most of the short stories in Dubliners have been a powerful influence on the twentieth-century short story--especially because of their “scrupulous meanness” or economy and their narrative movement toward what Joyce defined as an “epiphany”—the short story was probably not Joyce’s favorite narrative medium. Although its brevity encouraged a careful use of language similar to poetry (and careful use of language was indeed what Joyce loved most of all), the short story did not allow Joyce the flexibility to play with language the way a “long work” (Because it was so innovative I hesitate to call it a novel) like Ulysses did.

I have always felt that one of the hindrances to reading Ulysses is that you cannot skim it the way you can an ordinary novel, but must read it very carefully, letting your lips move, savoring every word and sentence. Usually, the traditional novel is built on an architectural structure—a group of characters in a plot that plays out temporally. However, Joyce did not have to worry so much about overall structure in Ulysses; he solved that novelistic problem from the beginning by patterning it after one of the most influential plot structures in world literature—The Odyssey. That allowed him to focus primarily on language, not plot. If you try to read Ulysses the way you read an ordinary novel, skimming the language and yearning for plot and character development to carry you along, you will soon fag out.

One of my favorite critical comments about Ulysses was made by the scholar Joseph Frank in his 1945 essay, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” Frank argued, seemingly paradoxically, that Ulysses could not be read, but only reread, that one had to have the entire work in mind before being able to read it as it must be read. Although this is always true of the short story, it is, for reasons of length alone, not usually true of a long work.

When I taught Ulysses to American students I took to Dublin a few years ago, I provided them with reading suggestions for every chapter in the book several weeks before we made the trip, hoping that they would read the work through at least once before we read it a second time together while in Dublin. I also assigned a page or two of Ulysses to each student to read carefully and to read it aloud to the entire class; I wanted them to get in the habit of making their lips move when they read—not skimming, but reading every word. I think all of the stories in Dubliners should be read at least twice, for only when readers know the whole story can they begin again and perceive how the story is tightly organized around a thematic pattern.

If you really want to relish Joyce’s language, I recommend that you listen to good readers read the stories. Caedmon has a set of Dubliners CDs on which the stories are read by Frank McCourt, Colm Meaney, Stephen Rea, Sorcha Cusak, Ciran Hinds, T. P. McKenna, and others. I have listened to them several times and still enjoy them. For an even great challenge to reading Joyce’s language word by word, get the unabridged set of Ulysses, read flawlessly by Donal Donnelly, with Miriam Healy-Louie’s reading the Molly Bloom section. It is on 40 cds and runs 42.5 hours. I have listened to the entire book three times time and look forward to hearing it again and again, if I live that long. (Donal Donnelly, by the way, is the actor who played Freddy Malins in John Houston’s film of “The Dead.”)

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

I think Joyce liked “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” because--like “Grace” and “A Mother”—it shows his movement away from the short story so admirably represented in “Araby,” “Clay, “Eveline,” and others, and toward the novelistic form he mastered in Ulysses-- at least the way Joyce innovated the novelistic. In these three public life stories, the focus is, indeed, on a social situation, featuring an ensemble cast—not a personal/private, even spiritual, situation, as in many of the other, more famous and more familiar, stories.

The short story has never defined the self by society, or finding self in society, as does the novelistic, but rather the self escaping from, or being thrown out of, temporality and individuality to participate in the infinite and the universal.

The movement toward the novelistic is a movement toward realism, i.e. the assumption that what is perceived and experienced day-to-day, is real. The movement toward the novelistic is a movement away from the short story—a movement toward social organization and the conceptualization of ideas—a movement away from the momentary intuition of reality. There is a different "rhythm of reality" and a different "realm of reality" embodied in the short story and the novelistic. If all narrative sets out to give us the illusion of "reality," the question is not simply whether the technique of the novel and the short story are different in achieving this illusion, but rather whether the two forms present different interpretations of what reality is.

I have always argued that whereas the novel assumes a social and conceptual reality, the short story assumes intuitive reality. My argument is that the novel presents a reality that can be validated by social experience, whereas the short story presents reality that can only be validated by personal experience. The novel is a public art; the short story is a personal one. The novelist says, "I shall create the illusion of experience." The short story writer says, " I shall create the illusion of an experience. The basic difference between the short story and the novel can be summarized thus: the short narrative presents an experience, directly and emotionally encountered. The novel presents experience abstractly and conceptually considered.

These distinctions seem to me to define the “public life stories” as novelistic, rather than as short stories. “Ivy Day” is the most historically based of the three, since it takes place on October 6, Ivy Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the death of Charles Parnell. It is also a day of Dublin municipal elections, which gives Joyce the opportunity to satirically juxtapose current politicians against Parnell. Several different characters play roles in this little drama in the Nationalist Party committee room on a cold October day, beginning with Old Jack, who tends the Parnell flame in the fireplace—which is the central image in the room. I think Joyce liked writing this story because he wanted to create at least one story in Dubliners that would showcase the importance of the struggle for Irish Independence and how the current politicians were never able to measure up to the heroic stature of Parnell; it also gave him the opportunity to create memorable dialogue.

Nothing really happens in “Ivy Day”—certainly nothing in the minds of any of the characters. Moreover, the romanticism of such stories as “Araby” and “Clay” is reduced here to the banal poem Joe recites at the end of the story. Parnell’s memory is further reduced by the trivialization of a gun salute to the three “poks” of the beer bottles popping open from being placed on the fireplace.

"A Mother"

What aligns “Ivy Day” with the novelistic tactics that Joyce develops to such brilliant extremes in Ulysses is that it is a satire of Irish politics. Similarly, what aligns “A Mother” with the novelistic is that it is a satire on the Irish cultural revival—an attempt of groups to revive Irish language, literature, art, and folklore just before the turn of the century, after many years of being suppressed by British colonial rule. Just as a political context energizes “Ivy Day,” a cultural context provides the dynamics of Joyce’s satire in “A Mother.” The story gives Joyce the opportunity to have a bit of fun with sentences like this: “She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure, and fixed.” Whereas every detail in such stories as “The Sisters,” “Araby,” “An Encounter,” “Eveline,” and “Clay” are important to developing the movement of the stories toward a thematic pattern and/or a realization either by the character or the reader, much detail in “The Mother” is relevant to nothing except the creation of a social satire.


The third “public life” story, “Grace,” deals with the third important social reality of Ireland at the end of the century—religion, and it seems only satirically fitting that the story also focuses on that bane of Ireland morality and social progress—the drink. As Ed McMahon is credited with saying once, “God created whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world.” Critics have suggested that Joyce uses a device in “Grace” that he later develops more impressively in Ulysses—a classical narrative plot to provide the structure of the story itself—in this case from Dante’s Inferno. Joyce’s narrative plot charts, of course, the plot the men create to rescue Mr. Kernan from drink and bring him back to the church. Several characters in the story later appear in Ulysses. Molly Bloom tells about a little man who fell down some steps into the WC and bit off the tip of his tongue. And in the Hades section of Ulysses, Mr. Kernan has still not settled his debt for groceries. Joyce’s title joke is that “grace” does not refer to the glory of God’s grace, but rather to the grace period that a creditor may allow a debtor before the debt is repaid. At the end of the story, the satire on the profanation of the church concludes with Father Purdon’s metaphor of being the men’s spiritual accountant, asking them to look into the books of their own spiritual life and see if they “tallied accurately with conscience.”

The three “public life” stories in Dubliners are not my favorites because they are like novels, depend on a realistic/satiric focus on public life, rather than like short stories, which traditionally and generically, more often deal with what might be called “”secret life.” The fact that the short story is more apt to deal with characters’ “secret life” than with their “public life” can be seen in one of the most famous short stories in world literature, Anton Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog.” I wrote a blog post on “Lady with the Pet Dog” back in November 2010. For some reason it has been the most visited post on my blog, logging over 3,000 pageviews since it was posted. Here is the key quote from the story about “public life” and “private life”:

"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night."

Of course, there is another story that centers on the difference between “public life” and “secret life,” equally as famous as “Lady with the Pet Dog”—Joyce’s “The Dead.” More about that next week in my final post to celebrate Dublin Library’s One City, One Book for 2012.


Kathleen Hynes said...

Hi Dr. May,

I'm currently preparing for a field exam on the Irish short story, and one of the issues I've been focusing on is the divide between "epical" and "lyrical" short stories (terms from Eileen Baldeshwiler's essay "The Lyrical Short Story," in your book, The New Short Story Theories). I found this post very helpful in clarifying my understanding of the distinction, especially the idea that the novel and the short story present different views of reality.

While some of the stories I read aligned quite clearly with the lyrical (e.g., those in Anne Enright's The Portable Virgin), others gravitated more toward the epical (as you note, several of the stories in Dubliners). Most fell somewhere in the middle.

Based on my reading, I think it's this very tension between epical and lyrical that helps define the form. The way a writer negotiates this balance of poetic and novelistic impulses determines whether the piece ultimately represents a short story or something else (like a chapter). The lyrical elements keep a short story from becoming a tale or a novel, but the epical elements keep it from becoming a poem.

I love this blog--thanks!

Kathleen Hynes
Villanova University M.A. English '12

Anonymous said...

This is a stunning post. Thank you so much. I am going to return to it many times. It is so helpful and interesting and beautifully written. How generous you are in sharing it. Thank you.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Kathleen. I am very glad that my remarks have been helpful to you. I am always pleased to hear from those who are studying the short story. If you have not already done so, you might check the first chapter in Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis about the distinction between the Hebraic and the Homeric. I also talk about the tension between metaphoric and realistic fiction in my essay on the modern short story in New Short Story Theories.

Charles E. May said...

Welcome to Josephine. Thank you for reading. I much appreciate your kind remarks about my work.