Friday, April 6, 2012

One City, One Book--Dubliners--Childhood Stories

Each April for the past six years, the Dublin City Public Libraries has sponsored “One City, One Book,” which encourages everyone to spend Eliot’s “cruelest month” celebrating “dear dirty Dublin” by reading one book that focuses on the city. This year, (and one might indeed think perhaps it’s about time) the chosen book is James Joyce’s Dubliners.

I love Dublin—spent a year there once teaching the American short story at University College, Dublin and Trinity on a Fulbright Senior Fellowship. Went back several times, most recently two summers for three-week classes, teaching a group of American students Dubliners and Ulysses by “walking the walk” throughout the city where the stories and the novel “virtually” took place, and “talking the talk” about the world’s most close-mouthed short stories and the world’s most voluble novel.

I am going to participate in the “One City, One Book” Dublin celebration about the city’s most famous book by rereading the fifteen stories in the collection and commenting on them in several blog posts. I encourage my readers to join me and to give me whatever ragging’ I deserve for my misguided remarks. The James Joyce Center and the Dublin City Libraries are sponsoring a number of activities. If you are in the city this month, check the website at

Joyce organized the stories in Dubliners into several groups: the first three, which I will discuss in this post, focuses on childhood; the next two emphasizes adolescence; the next six concentrates on maturity; the next three are on public life, and the final one, “The Dead” takes its departure from what Joyce once said he thought he might have unfairly neglected—Ireland’s “ingenuous insularity and its hospitality.”

The first three stories—“The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby”—are told by an educated man recalling events from his preadolescent upbringing in Dublin. Although we are not given any indication of the narrator’s present age or situation in life, we know he is educated because of his language—e.g. “inefficacious,” “elucidating,” “copious,” “stratagem,” “imperturbable”—not to mention the sophistication of his observations about his actions, motives, and thoughts as a child.

However, in spite of his obvious intelligence and education, the narrator does not try to analyze or explain his actions or his motives. In fact, in many ways, they seem as mysterious to him in his adult recollection as they did in his preadolescent experience. Indeed, one of the techniques that makes these stories so innovative and influential is their refusal to engage in explanation, their parsimonious use of language, their frustrating stinginess with words.

The most famous remark Joyce made about the stories can be found in one of the many letters he wrote to Grant Richards when he was trying to get them published in 1906, telling Richards that he had written the stories “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.”

By using the word “meanness” Joyce was not calling either the city or his characters “cruel,” “ill-tempered,” or “shabby.” As always, Joyce was not talking about the content of his work but its style, and by a “mean” style, he was referring to the definition of that word as “stingy.” The style of Dubliners is a conscientious, exacting, stingy use of language. And to indicate that he was not interested merely in a realistic presentation or “presentment” of his experience, Joyce says he was interested in artistically “altering”—even more “deforming” that experience for the sake of revealing its mysterious significance. Joyce is alluding to what the Russian formalists of the time called “defamiliarization.” In his essay, "Art as Technique,” Victor Shklovsky says that the technique of the artist, the work of the imagination, is to make objects "unfamiliar." The Formalists see this distortion as the very stuff of art itself. As Shklovsky emphatically asserts, "Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important."

What makes Ulysses, and even more, Finnegan’s Wake, so difficult for readers is that in them, Joyce is, as he says in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, first and foremost, an “artificer.” He is no less an artificer in Dubliners; it is just that in these stories he practices a kind of “scrupulous meanness” that is not so obvious in his long fictions. (Although, I must say as a side note here, Ulysses is no less “scrupulous” and conscientious, no less carefully wrought, than the stories in Dubliners; it is just longer. In fact, the story of Leopold Bloom started as a short story and just got out of hand. One of the problems I had in teaching Ulysses to my American students in Ireland was to get them to read it as carefully and attentively as they might read a short story. What about Finnegan’s Wake, you ask? I still am not experienced enough to read it as carefully as I should; besides life is short; it is long; I am lazy).

Given the fact that Joyce is an artist before he is anything else, it is difficult to read “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby” as if they were about ordinary preadolescent boys in the real social world of Dublin. These three stories might well be subtitled, “Portraits of the Artist as a Young Boy.” They are all about the fearful attraction that the world of the mind, the spirit, and the imagination hold for a boy who is essentially a romantic; that is, these boys are not interested in the practical world of everyday reality, but rather obsessed with the intangible world of desire, the spiritual, the transcendent—not “stuff” but the stuff dreams are made on.

In the first story, “The Sisters” (which we might expect to be a threshold of some kind), the boy is caught between the two worlds of the “sacred and the profane.” According to those who embody the profane world of the everyday, the old priest who has been paralyzed by a stroke is “queer,” not a homosexual, but rather “uncanny,” he was too “scrupulous,” a “disappointed man” whose life was “crossed;” something has “gone wrong with him.” And the boy--for whom the old priest who taught the boy a great deal and for whom he has had a great wish—is cautioned that too much education is not good, that he should run about and play with other lads, get exercise, be active, not think so much.

As appropriate for his style of “scrupulous meanness,” Joyce does not examine or explain the significance of this schism between action and thought, and his characters are unable to explain exactly what they mean by it. The man who tells the story has some idea of the meaning of his childhood fascination with the old priest, but the boy does not. As he listens to old Cotter’s remarks about the priest, he says, “I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences.” At night he tries to think about something pleasant, like Christmas, but always sees the priest’s face and knows that it wants to confess something: “I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region and there again I found it waiting for me.”

The opening paragraph of the story suggests the future artist’s fascination with words, as he says over and over to himself the word paralysis, for it “sounds” “strangely” in his ears like the word gnomon and the word simony. Although it is the sound of the words that attracts the boy, Joyce chooses the words carefully to suggest his fascination with the spiritual. Gnomon is the root of the word gnostic, which suggests knower or interpreter. Simony comes from the sorcerer Simon Magus and refers to the practice of “selling the spiritual.” The artist is an interpreter of the spiritual and tries to embody the spiritual in the material world of mere content. Even paralysis suggests the paradox of the art work—what Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” refers to as a “still unravish’d bride,” “foster-child of silence of slow time,” an “attic shape.” Joyce embodies in the “idle chalice” that which is “still” in Keats’ poem—what the critic Murray Krieger once argued suggests both “not moving” and at the same time “still going on.” The chalice is the Holy Grail that contains the wine of transubstantiation—the incarnation of the word becoming flesh.

All this is for the young boy a “deadly work” that he longs to be near--a region both “pleasant” and “vicious” into which the boy feels his soul receding. The priest has taught the boy how “complex and mysterious” the rituals of the church are—how simple acts are complex and inexplicable. The problem of the old priest is that he was “too scrupulous always,” that he has sought out the mysteries of the spiritual and found them too elusive. When he broke the chalice, he found that it “contained nothing” and that has “affected his mind.” When he is found in the confessional in the dark laughing softly to himself, they know “something has gone wrong with him.” This impossibility of finding the spiritual in the physical is what the boy feels the old priest is trying to confess to him; it is now what the boy feels freed from.

The man who tells the story knows that there are only two choices for one who cannot be content with the everyday world of the physical—art and religion. In this story, although he is drawn to the mystery of the spiritual, he must deal with the disappointment of trying to embody that spiritual in the complex rituals of the church. As Joyce’s devotion to language and art have shown, he chooses the equally difficult task of embodying the spiritual in words.

I have already spent too much time on “The Sisters” and will only make a few suggestions about “An Encounter” and “Araby” from the perspective of these stories as “Portraits of the Artist as a Young Boy.” As in “The Sisters,” “An Encounter” is about a boy who is afraid to seem “studious or lacking in robustness.” He is drawn to the romantic adventures of the stories he reads—hungers for the escape that those chronicles of disorder offer him. But he wearies of them and wants “real adventures.” However, the “real adventure” of meeting the old man is “an encounter” with what he fears will be his future self. When the old man asks if he has read the words of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Lytton, and Thomas Moore—all romantic writers--he says he has. The old man says, “I can see you are a bookworm like myself.” When the old man talks about sweethearts and boys, the boy thinks the words are reasonable, but does not like them in the old man’s mouth. When the old man walks away and the narrator’s companion exclaims, “Look what he’s doing,” the narrator does not look up, but we suspect that the old man is masturbating. When he tells the boy that he would like to whip a boy for talking to girls, it is as if he were “unfolding an elaborate mystery.” The narrator says the old man seems to “plead with me that I should understand him.” Like “The Sisters,” the story is about the schism between the life of action and the life of thought—the life of everyday reality and the life of books--and the danger of a narcissistic withdrawal into the self.

“Araby,” which is Joyce’s most famous story, in fact one of the most famous stories in world literature, is a sweeter treatment of the schism between the real and the romantic, but it is no less ultimately dangerous in its appeal and inevitable disappointment. In this story, the boy is not fascinated by some frightening image of himself, but rather an alluring image of his desire. Mangan’s sister, who is not named, for her name is sacred, is not so much a real person in the world as she is a romantic embodiment of ultimate spiritual beauty. Her image accompanies him even in places most hostile to romance. He bears his “chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.” He does not know how to tell her of his “confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wire.” He is impatient with “the serious work of life” that stands between him and his desire.

However, when he arrives at the great hall of the Araby bazaar, recognizing the silence of it like that which pervades a “church after a service,” he hears men counting money on a platter, as did Jesus when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, and a seemingly inconsequential dialogue between a young woman and two young men. The dialogue obviously suggests a kind of flirtation. It is an example of the kind of seemingly inconsequential that Joyce calls an “epiphany,” a showing forth of significance in the seemingly ordinary.

Joyce describes this notion of epiphany in Stephen Hero (the early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), when a casual encounter in Eccles St., Dublin impresses Stephen:

A young lady was standing on the steps of one of those brown brick houses that seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis. A young gentleman was leaning on the rusty railings of the area. Stephen as he passed on his quest heard the following fragment of colloquy out of which he received an impression keen enough to afflict his sensitiveness very severely.

The Young Lady - (drawling discreetly) ... 0, yes... I ....... at the ...cha...pel... The Young Gentleman - (inaudibly) ... I ... (again inaudibly) ... I The Young Lady - (softly) .0... but you're ... ve....ry... wick...ed...

This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. (Chapter XXV).

The epiphany in “Araby,” which makes the boy see himself as a “creature driven and derided by vanity,” is his recognition of the impossibility of attaining the spiritual in the merely physical. It is what Gatsby tragically recognizes when he knows that Daisy can never embody the ultimately ideal that he desires.

My next post will be about “Eveline” and “After the Race,” the stories about adolescence; and “Two Gallants” and “The Boarding House,” two of the six stories that deal with “maturity.”

My third post will be about the other four stories that deal with maturity: “A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” and “A Painful Case.”

My fourth post will deal with the three stories that focus on “public life”: “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace.”

My fifth and final post will be on “The Dead.”

I hope you are reading these stories along with me. I appreciate your comments.


Séamus Duggan said...

I was intending to reread Dubliners this year and will certainly be reading along with your posts - very interesting. I posted a 25 year old essay of mine on Dubliners last year and intend to post on a couple of the stories this month.

Charles E. May said...

Seamus, glad you will be reading Dubliners with me and the rest of Dublin (we hope) this month. I will check your posts.

ciaranl said...

I read the three stories with great interest and far greater insight this time, trying to get into the mind of the 25 year old Joyce. The brown-ness of Dublin remains though we are no longer as attached to catholicism and grim politics as that era, now over a hundred years ago. My old grandmother, 15 years dead herself, was a relic of those times and an insight to the grip of paralysis applied by church, state and fruitless economics. Life before candles, be thankful and bear your cross.

I wonder how conscious Joyce was of becoming a victim of narcisism, becoming that queer old man met on his day mitching school? Was everything interpreted as it is today, clear to him then? Was he so deliberate we know no more of him through what he wrote in Dubliners at that young age than what he knew himself?

Charles E. May said...

Good to hear from you, Ciaran. I guess there is no way of knowing how conscious Joyce was of the image of himself he created in the stories. Regardless of how much control a writer may have over his or her material, stories can "mean" more than a writer consciously "intends" for a variety of reasons: the unconscious of the writer, the connections the reader makes, the tradition of stories that have been written before.