Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, which James Joyce made forever famous as the day Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedelus were out and about in "Dirty old Dublin" in the great novel Ulysses.
A few years ago, I took a group of students to Dublin for three weeks to study Ulysses and Dubliners in the city itself. It was a grand time we had, for we were there for Bloomsday, and many of us had Gorgonzola cheese and red wine at Davy Byrnes pub just off Grafton Street. And we had Guinness—lots and lots of Guinness.
Today, I will have to content myself with having a Guinness in California alone—which is not as much fun as having a Guinness with friends in Dublin, but certainly better than not having a Guinness at all.
I have read Ulysses six times and would not mind talking a bit about it here. But that novel, although it started as a short story, does not quite qualify for discussion on this blog. Still I could not let Bloomsday pass without making a few comments about Joyce's contribution to the short story form.
Joyce's most famous contribution to the theory and technique of modern short narrative is his notion of the "epiphany," which he defined in his early novel Steven Hero: "By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase 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."
In a Joyce story, an epiphany is a formulation through metaphor or symbol of some revelatory aspect of human experience, some highly significant aspect of personal reality, usually communicated by a pattern of what otherwise would be seen as trivial details and events. Joyce's technique is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern. Two of Joyce's best-known stories, "Eveline" and "Araby," end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.
In "Eveline," the reader must determine how Eveline's thoughts of leaving in Part I inevitably to her decision to stay in Part II. Most of the story takes place while Eveline is sitting at the window watching the evening "invade" the avenue. Nothing really "happens" in the present in the first part of the story, for her mind is on the past and the future, occupied with contrasting images of familiar/strange, duty/pleasure, earth/sea, entrapment/escape, death/life. It is the counterpoint pattern of these images that prepares the reader for the last section of the story when Eveline stands among the crowds and decides not to leave her father and Ireland.
The problem is how to understand how the first part of the story, which focuses primarily on the bleakness of Eveline's past life at home and thus seems to suggest that she will decide to go with Frank, manages at the same time to suggest that she will decide to stay? The basic tension is between the known and the unknown. Although Eveline does not have many happy memories of her childhood and family life, at least they are familiar and comfortable. Because these events have already happened, what "used to be" is still present and a part of her. However, life with Frank, because it has not yet happened, is tinged with fear of the unknown, in spite of the fact that it holds the promise of romance and respect. Thus, at the end, when she sets her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal, with no sign of love or farewell or recognition, we realize that her decision to stay is ultimately inexpressible.
What Joyce achieves in one of his most anthologized stories, "Araby," derives from Chekhov's experiments with creating symbols out of objects by their role or context, not by their preexisting symbolic meaning. The primary counterpoint throughout the story consists of those images that suggest ordinary reality and those that suggest unknown romance. The result is a kind of realism that is symbolic at the same time for the boy's spiritual romanticism is embodied in the realistic objects of his world.
This is a story about the ultimate romantic projection, for the boy sees the girl as a religious object, a romantic embodiment of desire. Her name is like a "summons" to all his "foolish blood," yet it is such a sacred name that he cannot utter it. Her image accompanies him "even in places the most hostile to romance." Thus, when he visits Araby, a place he fancies the most sympathetic to romance, what he seeks is a sacred object capable of objectifying all his unutterable desires.
The conversation he overhears causes his realization precisely because of its trivial flirtatious nature, for what the boy discovers is that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be made profane. To see his holy desire for Mangan's sister diminished to mere physical desire is to see a parody of himself. The result is the realization not only that he is driven and derided by vanity, but that all is vanity; there is no way for the sacred desires human beings store up in their ghostly hearts to be actualized and still retain their spiritual magic.
"The Dead" is the most subtle example of Joyce's innovative technique. The first two-thirds of the story reads as if it were a section from a novel, as numerous characters are introduced and the details of the party are reproduced in great detail. It is only in the last third, when Gabriel's life is transformed, first by his romantic and sexual fantasy about his wife and then by his confrontation with her secret life, that the reader reflects back on the first two-thirds of the story and perceives that the earlier concrete details and the trivial remarks are symbolically significant. Thematically, the conflict that reflects the realistic/lyrical split in the story is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in actual experience and life perceived as desire.
The party portion of "The Dead" reflects Gabriel's public life; his chief interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. During their short carriage ride to the hotel, he indulges in his own self-delusion about his relationship with his wife: "moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory."
When Gabriel discovers that Gretta has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has been willing to sacrifice his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's 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.
At the end, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, he loses his egoistic self and imaginatively merges into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness. "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.
Happy Bloomsday to one and all!