Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One City, One Book—Dubliners—Adolescence and Early Maturity

One of the most basic problems reading short stories is that often readers are not interested in the same things that writers are interested in. Readers are most often interested in people and events; writers are most often interested in words and sentences.

Indeed, writers don’t usually think in terms of people and events, but rather in terms of characters and plots—which, being created rather than merely observed, are quite different things; a character is not a real person; a plot is not merely an event.

Because of the short story’s close relationship to poetry, short story writers are even more interested in words and sentences than novelists are. In a story that is short, readers, eager to get to know people—what they do, what happens to them, why they act the way they do--get frustrated when they are not allowed to spend much time with characters and given little or no explanation of what motivates them to behave the way they do.

In Dubliners, Joyce, the consummate writer, is always experimenting with using words and sentences to communicate the many mysteries of what it means to be human.


There is only one character in “Eveline,” the young woman who gives the story its title. Frank is merely a point in her hypothetical future; her family is merely a point in a recalled past. Indeed, the answer to the question “What is the story about” is simply that it is “about” being caught between these two points.

The real question the story poses is not why Eveline decides to stay. It is rather how Joyce manipulates the reader into thinking that Eveline will leave, only to reveal at the conclusion that she will not. This is not a simple surprise ending of the kind O. Henry is so famous for. Rather, it is a meaningful stylistic exploration of a character who is caught between the past and the future. Joyce is not, in this story, it seems to me, interested in the so-called feminist or woman question. Frank is not, as some critics have suggested, a bounder who wants to pimp Eveline in Buenos Aires.

In the first long paragraph, the theme of the past is introduced by the phrase “One time there used to be.” This is followed by the rhythmic repetition of the key phrase: “they used to play,” “the children of the avenue used to play,” “Her father used often to hunt them,” “Little Keogh used to keep nix”—a pattern that concludes with the sentence “That was a long time ago.” The next theme is introduced with, “Everything changes. Now she was going to leave her home.” But the word “home” introduces the theme of how the past clings to one, leading her to review the familiar objects in the room that she knows so well because she has dusted them so many times. The dust is a patina of that past.

The central tension in the story is emphasized with these sentences: “She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question.” The next verb tense is the conditional “would.” She thinks she “would not cry at leaving the stores,” she thinks in her new home in a distant country, “it would not be like that. Then she would be married…People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been.”

Although she thinks, “Now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life,” she seems to make her decision abruptly when she a “pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid a spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices.” With a sudden “impulse of terror,” she thinks, “Escape, she must escape.”

In the last scene of the story, Eveline standing in the station at the North Wall, once again lapses into the conditional: “If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank.” But in spite of the power of the future of “Escape,” she clings to the past, or rather the past clings to her. “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”

Joyce is not interested in making a judgment on a particular character in this story, but is rather trying stylistically to explore that “paralysis” most famously explored by T.S. Eliot’s in “Hollow Men”:

Between the conception
and the creation
between the emotion
and the response
falls the Shadow

After the Race”

“After the Race” is probably the least read story in Dubliners--the least taught, the least discussed, and the least analyzed. It does not seem to be about much of anything except the poor judgment of a young Irish man. I suggest it is Joyce’s attempt to use language not to tell a story but to embody an emotion. The most famous discussion of the artist’s attempt to embody rather than merely illustrate an emotion is T. S. Eliot’s discussion of the “objective correlative” in the essay “Hamlet and His Problems” in The Sacred Wood.

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

The emotion Joyce wants to communicate here by the “rapid motion through space” of a race and its infectious aftermath is, of course, excitement and elation. Thus, the most common language device in the story is exclamation felt by the young man: “How smoothly it ran! In what style they had come careering along the country roads!” “What merriment! What jovial fellows! What good company they were!” However, it is this very excitement and elation that creates a sense of confusion in the character Jimmy. In the card game that ends the story, “Jimmy did not know exactly who was winning but he knew that he was losing. But it was his own fault for he frequently mistook his cards and the other men had to calculate his I.O. U’s for him.” Jimmy knows he would regret it in the morning and thus at the end of the game is glad of “the dark stupor that would cover up his folly.” Elation--the sense of being carried away, the rapid motion through space, the confusion that results from being out of control—that’s what, it seems to me, this story is “about.”

"Two Gallants"

When I was teaching Dubliners to a group of American students in Dublin a few years ago, “Two Gallants” was the story we saw as most grounded in the geography of the city, for if one reads it carefully, one can literally walk the streets that the central character Lenehan figuratively walked. The ability to do this increases one’s understanding of Lenehan’s state of mind. Joyce was supposed to have said about Ulysses to Frank Budgen in Zurich in 1918: “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Well, maybe not, especially as Dublin is today, but one could certainly could recreate the area around Stephens’s Green, Grafton Street, Earl Street, Nassau Street, Kildare Street, and Merrion Street by reading “Two Gallants.”

Lenehan is considered to be a leech, the kind of guy who just “stands around” rather than offering to “stand a round.” He relishes vicariously the adventures of his friend Corley. He is not a young man, but tries to act like one. He is little or nothing on his own; when Corley leaves and he is alone, he looks older, his gaiety forsakes him, and he wanders listlessly round Stephen’s Green and down Grafton Street, a man without a destination or a purpose, his only “life” that of his imaginative participation in Corley’s adventure. “In his imagination he beheld the pair of lovers walking along some dark road, he heard Corley’s voice in deep energetic gallantries and saw again the leer of the young woman’s mouth.” Soon to be 31, with no job, Lenehan is tired of “knocking about,” but can think of no way to escape this aimlessness. He goes into Capel Street towards the City Hall, and then turns into Dame Street, meeting two friends at the corner of George’s street, and on leaving them, turns left at the City Markets onto Grafton Street. He goes as far as the College of Surgeons on Stephen’s’ Green and then hurries along to the Corner of Merrion Street to meet up with Corley—his only destination and goal that of an imaginative participant in Corley’s adventure--ultimately becoming only a corrupt disciple to a corrupt leader.

“The Boarding House”

"The Boarding House"

“The Boarding House” may be a comic parody of courting. It begins with Mrs. Mooney, a woman who—as opposed to the decision-making of Eveline—deals with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat, and who has ended her own marriage by being chased by her butcher husband with a meat cleaver—a Joycean joke on Matthew 19: 5: “a man shall cleave to his wife.” The fact that all the men in Mrs. Mooney’s boarding house refer to her as The Madam is an obvious allusion to the fact that she wishes to sell her daughter Polly—a perverse madonna--much like a piece of meat to whomever she can entrap. Thus, when Polly begins an affair with one of the boarders, all Mrs. Mooney has to do is allow things to run their course, knowing that as an outraged mother, she has social opinion on her side.

This is, of course, a story of tacit agreement to entrap. “There had been no open complicity between mother and daughter, no open understanding, though people in the house began to talk of the affair, still Mrs. Mooney did not intervene.” Polly, in her “wise innocence,” has “divined the intention behind her mother’s tolerance.”

Although Mr. Doran suspects that he is being had by the mother and daughter, and although his instincts are to remain free and not to marry, he seems helpless. When Polly comes to his room and says she had “made a clean breast of it” to her mother, it is the very “agitation of her bosom” against his shirt that confuses him, making him think, “perhaps they could be happy together.” As he goes downstairs to meet with the Madam, he wishes he could “ascend through the room and fly away to another country.” The Joycean joke here is the literary allusion to Marlow’s Jew of Malta: “Thou has committed fornication. But that was in another country. And besides, the wench is dead.”

The story ends comically with Polly gazing at herself in the looking glass, resting her neck against the iron bedrail and falling into a reverie; unlike Eveline, her memories gradually give way to hopes and visions of the future—until her mother calls her downstairs. A footnote: In the “Cyclops” section of Ulysses, there is a reference to the “little sleepwalking bitch” that Bob, the lowest blackguard in Dublin, married.

In some ways, these stories of adolescence and early maturity are images of Joyce’s sometimes comic, sometimes hideous, apprehensions about what his life might have been like had he and Nora stayed in Dublin. Eveline and Polly are images of Nora; Lenehan, and Bob are images of Joyce. However, these stories are not mere mini-autobiographies; it is their play with language, their stylistic control, their “scrupulous meanness,” that makes them so influential in the history of the short story.


ciaranl said...

I thought Eveline carried multiple references to the mother/son relationship he had. It seemed as much about being in-between as a reflection on his mothers personakl paralysis at the hands of his father..

I'm right there with your interpretation of Lenehan. Again, a paralysed figure, stuck.

Camila said...

I have been reading Joyce for many years now, and I think I understand the meaning underlying the stories. I loved Eveline... It is a typical rite of passage tale. Her loving husband wants to take her to a lovely apartment in buenos aires  for them to start their lives as adults and she cannot leave her house in Ireland, where nothing there is good for her, but she just can´t, because she is still a young girl!

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your comment, Camilla, and thanks for reading my blog. I have always loved "Eveline" as well. But I am not really sure about why she seems so determined to go yet cannot.

Anonymous said...

I think the answer is in your recognition that Eveline is really a drama about time. Perhaps what Eveline was so determined to do was to find her freedom in the most sacred sense; her interest in the man was solely an interest in the matter of an alternative life, the possibility of any life other than this; and what she realizes and keeps her from going by the end is the realization that what this road leads to, while on the surface shines like a different life, is ultimately the same because it presses on to the point which she cannot escape or turn back from. Her dislike of her past is futile, because the future is just the past that has not happened yet. So this man she thought she liked must suddenly seem like the old familiar cage.

Also, I just discovered your blog, Charles, and I love it. In my country, we weren't taught any form of literature, so I wish I had a teacher like you. I'm just beginning to read short stories (quite badly, sadly), and your blog is a help and a pleasure; none of those headaches people produce by trying to speak too much and too plainly of holy things. (Like those existentialist readings that are often too reductive and impatient in dealing with the story's emotional mystery, or the many political readings which put them aside altogether.)

Charles E. May said...

Thank you, Mikhail, for your response to my discussion of "Eveline." I like it very much, for it reflects the subtlety of Joyce's exploration of the relationship between the past and the future and the illusive nature of the "present," whatever that is. And thank you for your kind remarks about my modest efforts to understand the short story and encourage the understanding of others. As your reading of "Eveline" suggests, I suspect you read short stories very well. Please keep in touch with me.