Friday, April 27, 2012

Cusack is Detective Poe in "The Raven": Poe's Ratiocinative Stories

I read a couple of conflicting reviews of the new film "The Raven" this morning in which John Cusack plays Edgar Allen Poe.  The film's excuse to depict gruesome murder and high tension detective suspense is to combine such Poe horror tales as "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Premature Burial," etc. with Poe's detective technique of ratiocination.  According to the reviews and the trailer on YouTube, Poe is asked to help solve crimes (ala his amateur detective Dupin) in which a killer is imitating murders from his own stories.  Not a bad concept, but I will probably wait until it comes out on DVD to watch it.  But always alert for a tie-in to my own modest imaginative/ratiocinative efforts, I thought I would post an entry on Poe's detective stories for your reading pleasure, in hopes that you will return to the source and reread Poe.

Although Edgar Allan Poe's career was relatively short, he was the most important writer in the mid-19th century to transform the legendary tale form into a sophisticated psychological fiction now known as the short story. Experimenting with many different fictional forms such as the gothic tale, science fiction, occult fantasies, and satire, Poe gained great recognition in the early 1840's for his creation of a genre that has grown in popularity ever since--the so-called tale of ratiocination, or detective story, which features an amateur sleuth who by his superior deductive abilities outsmarts criminals and outclasses the police.
Such stories as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" created a small sensation in America when they were first published. Following fast upon these works was the "The Gold-Bug" (1843) which, although it did not feature Dupin, focused on analytical detection and also was so popular that it was immediately reprinted three times. "The Purloined Letter," the third and final story in the Dupin series, has been the subject of a great deal of critical analysis since its publication as a model of ironic and tightly-structured plot. 

Poe is credited as the creator of the detective story and the character type known as the amateur sleuth. However, Auguste Dupin and his ratiocinative ability did not spring from nowhere.  Probably the two most obvious sources are Voltaire's ”Zadig” (1748) and Eugene Francois Vidocq's ”Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police” (1828-29).  Poe mentions Zadig in "Hop-Frog" (1849) and thus probably knew the story of Zadig's being able to deduce the description of the King's horse and the Queen's dog by examining tracks left on the ground and hair left on bushes.  He also mentions Vidocq, the first real-life detective, in "The Murders of the Rue Morgue" as a "good guesser," but one who could not see clearly because he held the object of investigation too close.

However, Poe's creation of the ratiocinative story also derives from broader and more basic interests and sources.  First there was his interest in the aesthetic theory of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as derived from 19th-century German Romanticism. In several of Poe's most famous critical essays, such as his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ”Twice-Told Tales• and his theoretical articles, "Philosophy of Composition" (1846) and "The Poetic Principle" (1848), Poe develops his own version of the theory of the art work as a form in which every single detail contributes to the overall effect. This organic aesthetic theory obviously contributes much to Poe's creation of the detective genre in which every detail, even the most seemingly minor, may be a clue to the solution of the story's central mystery.

Secondly, there was Poe's knowledge of the gothic genre, which, based on the concept of hidden sin and filled with mysterious and unexplained events, had, like the detective story, to move inexorably toward a denouement that would explain or lay bare all the previous puzzles.  The first Gothic story, Horace Walpole's ”The Castle of Otranto” (1764), with its secret guilt and cryptic clues, was thus an early source of the detective story.
Thirdly, there was Poe's fascination with cryptograms, riddles, codes, and other conundrums and puzzles. In an article in a weekly magazine in 1839, he offered to solve any and all cryptograms submitted; in a follow-up article in 1841 he said that he had indeed solved most of them.  Although Poe demonstrated his skill as a solver of puzzles in many magazine articles, the most famous fictional depiction of his skill as a cryptographer is his story "The Gold Bug" (1843).

William Legrand, the central character in "The Gold Bug," shares some characteristics with Poe's famous amateur sleuth, Auguste Dupin: he is of an illustrious family, but because of financial misfortunes he has been reduced to near poverty; although he is of French ancestry from New Orleans, he lives alone on an island near Charleston, South Carolina; moreover, like Dupin, he alternates between gloomy melancholy and excited enthusiasm, which leads the narrator (also like the narrator in the Dupin stories) to suspect that he is the victim of a species of madness.

The basic premise of the story is that Legrand is figuratively bitten by the gold bug after discovering a piece of parchment on which he finds a cryptogram with directions to the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Kidd.  As with the more influential Dupin stories, "The Gold Bug" focuses less on action than on the explanation of the steps toward the solution of its mystery. In order to solve the puzzle of the cryptogram, Legrand demonstrates the essential qualities of the amateur detective:  close attention to minute detail, extensive information about language and mathematics, far©reaching knowledge about his opponent (in this case the pirate Captain Kidd), and most importantly a perceptive intuition as well as a methodical reasoning ability.

However, it is in the Auguste Dupin stories that Poe develops most of the conventions of the detective story which have been used by other writers ever since. The first of the three, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," is the most popular because it combines horrifying inexplicable events with astonishing feats of deductive reasoning.   The narrator, the forerunner of Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories, meets Dupin in this story and very early recognizes that he has a double personality, a Bi-Part Soul, for he is both wildly imaginative and coldly analytical.        

The reader's first encounter with Dupin's deductive ability takes place even before the murders occur when he seems to read his companion's mind by responding to something that the narrator had only been thinking.  When Dupin explains the elaborate method whereby he followed the narrator's thought processes by noticing small details and associating them, we have the  beginning of a long history of fictional detectives taking great pleasure in recounting the means by which they solved a hidden mystery.  
 Dupin's knowledge of the brutal murder of a mother and daughter on the Rue Morgue is by the same means that any ordinary citizen might know of a murder--the newspapers. As is to become usual in the amateur sleuth genre, Dupin scorns the methods of the professional investigators as being no method at all. He argues that the police find the mystery insoluble for the very reason that it should be regarded as easy to solve, that is, its bizarre nature; thus the facility with which he solves the case is in direct proportion to its apparent insolubility by the police. 
The heart of the story, as it is to become the heart of practically every detective story since, centers not on the action of the crime but rather on Dupin's extended explanation of how he solved it. The points about the murder which stump the police are precisely those which enable Dupin to master the case: the contradiction of several neighbors who describe hearing a voice in several different foreign languages and the fact that there seems no possible means of entering or exiting the room where the murders took place.  The first he accounts for by deducing that the criminal must have been an animal; the second he explains by following a mode of reasoning based on a process of elimination to determine that apparent impossibilities are in reality possible after all. When Dupin reveals that an escaped Ourang-Outang did the killing, the Paris Prefect of Police complains that Dupin should mind his own business.  However, Dupin is content to have beaten the Prefect in his own realm; descendants of Dupin have been beating police inspectors ever since.

"The Mystery of Marie Roget," although it also focuses on Dupin's solving of a crime primarily from newspaper reports, is actually based on the murder of a young girl, Mary Cecilia Rogers, near New York city.  Because the crime had not been solved when Poe wrote the story, he made use of the actual facts of the case of Mary Rogers to tell a story of the murder of a young Parisian girl, Marie Roget, as a means of demonstrating his superior deductive ability.
 The story ostensibly begins two years after the events of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" when the Prefect of Police, having failed to solve the Marie Roget case himself, worries about his reputation and comes to Dupin to ask for his help.  Dupin's method is the classic means of the armchair detective; he gathers all the copies of the newspapers which have accounts of the crime and sets about methodically examining each one.  He declares the case more intricate than that of the Rue Morgue because, ironically, it seems so simple.
 One of the characteristics of the story that makes it less popular than the other two Dupin tales is the extensive analysis of the newspaper articles Dupin engages in--an analysis which makes the story read more like an article critical of newspaper techniques than a narrative story.  In fact, that which makes Poe able to propose a solution to the crime is not so much his knowledge of crime as it is his knowledge of the conventions of newspaper writing.  In a similar manner, it was his knowledge of the conventions of novel-writing that made it possible for him to deduce the correct conclusion of Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge the previous year when he had read only one or two of the first installments.
Another aspect of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" which reflects Dupin's deductive genius and which has been used by detective writers since is his conviction that the usual error of the police is to pay so much attention to the immediate events that they ignore the peripheral, that is, the circumstantial, evidence.  Both experience and true philosophy, says Dupin, show that truth arises more often from the seemingly irrelevant than from the so-called strictly relevant.  By this means, Dupin eliminates the various hypotheses for the crime proposed by the newspapers and proposes his own hypothesis which is confirmed by the confession of the murderer.
Although "The Mystery of Marie Roget" contains some of the primary conventions that find their way into subsequent detective stories, it is the least popular of the Dupin narratives not only because it contains so much reasoning and exposition that very little narrative emerges, but because it is so long and convoluted that the reader tires of following the many details of  Dupin's analyses of the newspaper articles. Of the many experts of detective fiction who have commented on Poe's contribution to the genre, only Dorothy Sayers has praised the "Marie Roget" work, calling it a story especially for connoisseurs, a serious intellectual exercise rather than a sensational thriller like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

However, professional literary critics, if not professional detective writers, have singled out "The Purloined Letter"—the most ironic, economical, and classically pure of the Dupin stories--as the most brilliant of Poe's ratiocinative works. This time the crime is much more subtle than murder, for it focuses on political intrigue and manipulation.  Although the crime is quite simple--the theft of a letter from an exalted and noble personage--its effects are quite complex.  The story depends on several ironies:  first of all, the identity of the criminal is known, for he stole the letter in plain sight of the noble lady; second, the letter is a threat to the lady from whom he stole it only as long as he does nothing with it; finally, the Paris Police cannot find the letter, even though they use the most sophisticated an exhaustive methods of searching for it, precisely because, as Dupin deduces, it is in plain sight.

Also distinguishing the story from the other two Dupin stories is Dupin's extended discussion of the important relationship between the seemingly disparate talents of the mathematician and the poet.  The Minister who has stolen the letter is successful, says Dupin, because he indeed is both poet and mathematician.  In turn, Dupin's method of discovering the location of the letter, a method which has been used by detectives ever since, is also to be poet and mathematician and thus to identify with the mind of the criminal.  The method follows the same principle as that of a young boy Dupin knows of who is an expert of the game of "even and od,--a variation of the old game of holding something in your hand behind your back and asking someone to guess which hand holds the prize.  The boy always wins, not because he is a good guesser, but because, as he says, he fashions the expression on his face to match the face of the one with his hands behind his back and then tries to see what thoughts come into his mind to correspond with that expression. 
The various techniques of deduction developed by Poe in the Dupin stories are so familiar to readers of detective fiction that to read the Poe stories is to be reminded that very few essential conventions of the genre have been invented since Poe. Indeed, with the publication of the Dupin stories, Poe truly can be said to have singlehandedly brought the literary genre of the detective story into being.

Monday, April 23, 2012

One City, One Book, 2012—Dubliners--“The Dead”

Let’s say that you are unfamiliar with the work and reputation of James Joyce (unlikely). What if you discovered Joyce’s “The Dead” in an anthology one day and read it cold? What would you think about it? Would you be impressed by the complexity and subtlety of this story? Would you be surprised to discover that this is one of the most respected and admired pieces of fiction in world literature? Or would you wonder what all the fuss is about? After all, it seems to be a relatively simple piece, primarily describing a group of people attending an annual after-Christmas party in Dublin in the early part of the twentieth century. If there is a focus, it seems to be on the apparently insignificant anxieties of a man named Gabriel who makes the dinner toast at the party.

Nothing dramatically happens in the long first section of the story: Gabriel is worried about his speech; he encounters a colleague who makes him uncomfortable; he tries to control Freddy Malins, who has drunk too much; he succeeds in his speech and feels good about it; he and his wife go to their hotel The last section of the story shifts to Gabriel and his wife Gretta, alone in their hotel room. Gabriel, desiring intimacy with his wife, is frustrated that she is distracted and is distressed when she tells him that a young man named Michael Furey was once in love with her and died from exposure after standing outside her window in the rain.

The key question readers may have about “The Dead” is how the story moves from the opening sentence about the practical problems of Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, being “literally run off her feet” ushering people in, to the final sentence about Gabriel’s reaction to his discovery about his wife: “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.” One might very well ask: If this discovery at the conclusion is the central point toward which the story has been moving, then what is the purpose of all the details about the party. How did the story lead the reader from what seems like a realistic or naturalistic tone describing ordinary, everyday, details in the first long section of the story to the lyrical tone describing a sort of spiritual recognition in the final section?

Perhaps there is a clue to the answer to this question in a letter Joyce once wrote to his brother Stanislaus: “There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do…to give people a kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral and spiritual uplift.” The question is: How does a writer convert the “bread of everyday life,” i.e., ordinary details, into something that has a permanent artistic life and provides spiritual sustenance?

The basic problem Joyce faced in "The Dead"--how to write a realistic narrative that conveys a spiritual theme--is the same problem that Anton Chekhov had to deal with--how to arrange concrete details in such a way that they develop into a pattern that is equivalent to theme. Realistic details and events arranged in such a way that they are not merely an account of “what happened,” but rather a pattern that communicates “meaning” necessitates the reader’s knowing the “end” of the story before he or she can understand the pattern created by all that went before. This is the function of Joyce's notion of epiphany; for epiphany suggests that the story achieves closure either in retrospect by the realization of a character or by the reader processing the story in a circular way—i.e. beginning again once one has read to the end.

Most critics agree with David Daiches' opinion that "The Dead" is the "working-out, in terms of realistic narrative, of a preconceived theme" of a man's "withdrawal into the circle of his own egotism" until the walls around him are broken down by the "culminating assault on his egotism, coming simultaneously from without, as an incident affecting him, and from within, as an increase in understanding." However, Joyce's achievement in this story, its contribution to the development of the short story as a genre, may be better understood if we see the story's most basic theme as the difference between the kind of reality that realistic (or novelistic) prose imitates and the kind of reality that symbolic (or short story) prose reveals. Thematically, the conflict in "The Dead" that reflects its realistic/lyrical split is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and secret life. This is announced in the first sentence—that Lilly “was literally run off her feet.” Although this mistake could be attributed realistically to Joyce’s technique of having the narrator assume the perspective of the character described, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the difference between the “literal” and the “figurative”—that is Joyce’s transformation of the literal to the figurative by the story’s end.

The party portion of "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel's public life. His primary interest is his sense of superiority over the others at the party and how much he can impress them with his intelligence and style. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marriage--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. Thematically, the basic issue the story poses is: In which one of these realms does true reality reside?

Throughout the story, Joyce uses ordinary references that mean little during an initial reading, but have symbolic significance for the reader by the end of the story, e.g. that Gretta must be “perished alive,” that Gabriel wears galoshes (in contract to Michael Furey who stood out in the rain unprotected from the chill), that attention is drawn to a picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, that Aunt Julia sings “Arrayed for the Bridal,” that Gabriel says “kindly forget my existence” (which Gretta does in the final scene), that Gabriel asks the partygoers to “take the will for the deed,” that he talks about a “thought tormented age,” that the snow is falling outside throughout the party, that the characters talk about the past. These seemingly ordinary details take on significance by their thematic similarity, by their patterned repetition, and by their relationship to Gabriel’s discovery about Gretta and himself at the end of the story.

Gabriel's discovery at the end of the story is not only that his wife has an inner life inaccessible to him, but that his own life has been an outer life only. This is all the more devastating to him because on the journey to the hotel, he has indulged in his own self-delusion about their relationship: "moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.... Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy."

Filled with desire and the memory of intimacy, wishing Gretta to at one with him, Gabriel is annoyed that she seems so distracted. When he discovers that she has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he tries to use his typical public devices of irony to trivialize her memory, but the very simplicity of her story undercuts the effort. He sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has been willing to give his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's own smug safety.

In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is. "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. The ending--in which Gabriel, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him loses self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness--makes it possible for the reader to begin the story over again with this end in mind. "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.

As a footnote, if you have not yet seen it, I recommend John Huston’s film of The Dead. As you may know, it was Huston’s last film—an act of love and admiration for the story, for he was very ill during the filming. Donal McCann plays Gabriel and Anjelica Huston plays Gretta. The film is mostly very true to the story, the only significant script addition being the invention of a character named Mr. Grace who gives a recitation entitled “Broken Vows,” by Lady Gregory. The final lines are:

You have taken the east from me;
you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon,
you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great
that you have taken God from me!

One of the characters remarks at the end of the recitation: “Imagine being in love like that”—which more explicitly sets up the romantic power of Michael Furey’s enactment of the “deed,” not just the “will.” Although the final shots of Aunt Julia in her coffin, the sky full of snow, and snow general all over Ireland may seem a bit too obvious, Huston quite rightly allows Joyce’s lyrical language to be what brings the film to its “final end.”

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. 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 on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, 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.

I have enjoyed rereading the stories in Dubliners this month and hope that a large number of folks in Dublin and around the world read them also. I miss Dublin and hope to return some day.

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.

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.

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.

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.