My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I recently came across a Goodreads review of a novel in which, the critic complained, a character’s dubious behavior is not unequivocally condemned by the book even though it is “made clear” that the actions depicted are “toxic.” Even aside from the eliminationist pop-psychological trope of toxicity, the statement is confounding: if the book makes clear the damage done by the character’s choices, then isn’t overt condemnation by the author unnecessary—even insulting to the alert reader? But we have regressed to mid-Victorian times in our literary expectations. When fiction addresses matters of ethical or political urgency, it’s too risky, we now think, to allow readers to make up their own minds. Authors must intervene, as Charles Dickens or Harriet Beecher Stowe used to do, and instruct us on what we are to feel and believe.
For over a century, though, a different ethos of fiction was adopted by the form’s most sophisticated practitioners. It never sat well with the powers that be and was always—in obscenity trials from Flaubert to Burroughs—subject to censorship and repression. Labeled modernism and flourishing from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, it tended, in both fiction and poetry, to favor “direct treatment of the ‘the thing,’ whether subjective or objective,” to quote Ezra Pound. What the reader thought of the thing was up to the reader.
James Joyce’s fiction is the paragon of this ethos in Anglophone writing. In his later work, Joyce eventually goes so far as to directly present language itself as an autonomous force, but his more accessible early books accept the traditional mandate of realistic fiction to capture the life of his time, and nowhere more than in his short story collection Dubliners, published in 1914 after years of struggle with recalcitrant publishers troubled by everything from his characters’ profane language to a slighting reference to King Edward VII to the documentary use of real Dublin business names.
Joyce’s oft-quoted purpose in writing Dubliners was to give “the Irish people…one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.” This mimesis—of a stunted colonial city languishing in an alcoholic stupor under British misrule, Catholic theocracy, and an ineffectual nationalist resistance—was hardly flattering. Diagnosing Dublin as the center of “paralysis,” the erstwhile medical student Joyce proposed the treatment of honesty. Instead of preaching to his audience like a Victorian novelist, he would simply display the truth of things via a language marked by what he called “scrupulous meanness.” In the autobiographical novel he was composing concurrently with Dubliners, which later became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and whose early manuscript was posthumously published as Stephen Hero, he theorized the oft-misunderstood art of the “epiphany”:
By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or 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.
A fictional epiphany is not necessarily, then, some climactic realization on the part of the story’s protagonist, but is rather the story’s culminating image, an image that gathers into one revelation all the implications of the narrative. Almost every epiphany in Dubliners, except perhaps for the last, is negative: a showing-forth of disgust, anguish, violence, meanness, decay, or death.
Yet Joyce’s mingling of a naturalist language of disease (paralysis) with a religiously-derived idiom of revelation (epiphany) accounts for the odd effect of so many of these stories, in which the unrelieved and inescapable sordidness of everyday life is given with such radiant clarity that it paradoxically comes to seem mysterious, ineffable, inexplicable. An aesthetic joy, the joy of art’s refulgent complexity despite its mean subject matter, radiates from these pages.
Joyce carefully organized the 15 stories in Dubliners to track the eponymous citizens into widening circles of experience. The first three stories are about childhood, the next four about adolescence or early adulthood, the next four about maturity and middle age, and the final four about the public life of the city. Despite not having a single protagonist, Dubliners might be regarded as a novel in stories, especially if you consider the first-person narrator of the three childhood tales—all of them clearly about a budding artist’s youthful attraction to everything exotic, strange, or perverse—to be the third-person artificer of the subsequent narratives, matured out of (though fortified by) his jejune xenophilia into a steady command of his country’s faults and of the artistry needed to comprehend them.
What are his country’s faults? The collection is a veritable encyclopedia of the problems besetting Dubliners, sometimes inflicted by themselves: we observe the city’s bathetic exoticism (“Araby,” “Eveline”) and its status as cultural and economic backwater envying greater powers (“After the Race,” “A Little Cloud”); we see the sexual and mercenary corruptions of the Catholic clergy and laity (“The Sisters,” “Grace”); we see the crushing banality of everyday labor and leisure among the middle and lower classes (“The Boarding House,” “Counterparts,” “Clay”) as well as ambient sexual depravity (“An Encounter,” “Two Gallants”); we see the failure of nationalist efforts, whether political (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”) or cultural (“A Mother”); and finally we see the inability of the country’s literati to ameliorate these troubles or even to amend their own errant lives (“A Painful Case,” “The Dead”). Joyce’s skill at dramatizing these problems, especially in his epiphanic finales, set a standard most short fiction still aspires to, even if the method of climactic image and concluding understatement has decayed into mannerism.
To keep this piece brief, one example will have to stand for the rest. Consider one of the collection’s most unassuming stories, “Clay.” Its heroine, Maria, is a Catholic former domestic servant, now working in a Protestant laundry that charitably employs ex-prostitutes. In the narrative’s only real event, she goes on a Halloween visit to the family she used to serve, the only real family she has. The story, narrated in the collection’s characteristic free indirect style, hews closely to her perspective and her own inner language as she prepares for her trip, buys gifts for the family, and enjoys the party. But small disturbances in the narration suggest her underlying disquiet: she forgets one of her gifts on the train, for instance, because she gets distracted talking to “a colonel-looking gentleman.” In another example, the one that gives the story its title, the family’s children invite her to play a divination game in which the blindfolded participants select items meant to foretell their future. But the children have played a trick on Maria by putting a bit of garden clay into the saucer she draws from: in other words, even the children know that her future holds little but death. Since Joyce keeps to Maria’s point of view, and since Maria keeps disturbing thoughts at bay, this is all handled by implication:
She moved her hand about here and there in the air and descended on one of the saucers. She felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that nobody spoke or took off her bandage. There was a pause for a few seconds; and then a great deal of scuffling and whispering. Somebody said something about the garden, and at last Mrs. Donnelly said something very cross to one of the next-door girls and told her to throw it out at once: that was no play. Maria understood that it was wrong that time and so she had to do it over again: and this time she got the prayer-book
At the story’s conclusion, Maria sings a romantic song and in her senescence repeats the first verse when it comes time to sing the second: “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls…” Despite this error, her former young charge, Joe, now grown into a sentimental alcoholic paterfamilias, is moved:
[H]is eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.
This brief, simply narrated, and seemingly delicate story’s ironies are many and bitter: Joyce is akin to the children who put dirt in Maria’s cup, cruelly telling the truth about her life—death is all this old woman can expect—as he anatomizes her illusions. He carefully shows us, even as Maria denies it to herself, the truth of her hidden desires, her impoverished circumstances, her unhappy “family,” her encroaching senility, her delusive dreams, and her coming end.
The motifs of drunkenness, mawkish idealism, and senseless repetition (Maria repeats the song’s verse, even as many of the collection’s other characters aimlessly circle the city, trapped in the miserable loop of their lives, going nowhere), recur throughout all the stories and showcase Dublin’s moral, cultural, political, and spiritual immobility. As we read story after story of stunted lives with no hope of escape, we can be forgiven if we long for a bit of Dickensian warmth or moralism, for some sign that the author-god of these veridical fabrications is not merely aloof and cold in the face of such desperation. Much as we might admire the remorseless truth-telling, we want to ask: is this bitterness the whole of the truth?
The sign comes, but by indirection. Joyce wrote the final story, almost a freestanding novella, “The Dead,” to amend the collection’s utter bleakness by treating what he saw as Ireland’s best trait, its hospitality. “The Dead” is set at a Christmas party thrown by two elderly women eminent in Dublin’s musical community; their beloved intellectual nephew, Gabriel Conroy, comes with his wife Gretta to preside over the festivities. And “The Dead” does continue some of the collection’s insalubrious themes, as the partygoers display the familiar Dublin traits of alcoholism, coarseness, escapism, and bad politics.
The latter is showcased particularly in the character of Miss Ivors, a puritanical nationalist who chides Gabriel on his Joyce-like cosmopolitanism and political irresponsibility. He writes about English literature for a unionist paper and vacations on the Continent, but why doesn’t he visit the West of Ireland, she wants to know, and speak the Irish language? Where Joyce had earlier shown nationalist politics and culture to be debilitated by treacly nostalgia (in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”) and mercenary cynicism (in “A Mother”), he here shows it, in its putatively resistant but really proto-fascist cultural purism, to be a direct and censorious threat to art. “He wanted to say that literature was above politics,” the narrator notes of Gabriel’s inner response to Miss Ivors’s accusations, but Joyce knows that nobody believes you when you say that. Like any truth, it must not be asserted but shown.
The unfestive Miss Ivors leaves the party before the feast, but Gabriel’s genuine intellectual arrogance receives a more effective comeuppance later in the evening: his wife, back in their hotel room, spurns his lust by recalling a passionate love affair of her youth, spent in the very West of Ireland Miss Ivors had extolled. Gretta’s appropriately-named adolescent admirer Michael Furey worsened his fatal consumption by standing one night in the rain to see her a final time before her departure to Dublin. After she tearfully recalls this youthful passion (“I think he died for me”), Gabriel reflects,
So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.
Yet this grim understanding leads to something new in Dubliners: not to the futile self-castigation of the boy in “Araby” or of James Duffy in “A Painful Case,” and certainly not to Miss Ivors’s preferred expedient of romanticizing the Western patria as natural wellspring of authentic Irish “fury.” Instead, it gives Gabriel Conroy a consciously experienced epiphany, in a passage often considered one of the most beautiful endings in fiction, and not only for its lovely alliteration and carefully balanced cadences:
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.
Critics have pointed out that Joyce tips his hat to anti-colonial resistance in the reference to “mutinous” waves, but the “journey westward” is not here the nationalist quest for primordial Ireland à la Yeats or Synge—and Joyce, anyway, went east, to the Continent. “West” being the traditional direction of sunset and death, it is rather the voyage in a “phase of the mind” toward universal sympathy with all suffering and dying humanity.
And while it is possible to see Joyce’s restless irony at work here—can’t we read this as yet another visionary evasion of reality, no less evasive for being here the lyrical work of an intellectual rather than one of the city’s more boorish or naive denizens?—I think this is to misread the role of irony in literature. Gabriel’s epiphany returns us to the youthful longings of the collection’s first three stories, in which a boy yearns for an escape from his boring or brutal surroundings into some other life. In the mysterious opening story, “The Sisters,” the boy finds his passage out of “dear, dirty Dublin” in the tutelage of the perhaps dissolute priest whose final illness (syphilis?) introduces the motif of paralysis. The boy narrates:
Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.
The priest may be corrupt and the boy uncomprehending, but the sensibility is the right and necessary one for the artist: a drive to gaze on horrifying truths, on blight and evil and death, no matter how they may fill us with fear. (Gnomon, by the way, names Joyce’s subtle and subtractive narrative method, while simony alludes to the terrible necessity of artists’ having to subject their spiritual goods to the market.) Only a boy who longs “to look upon…deadly work” could have grown up to write the stories of Dubliners, and only a man who has attained Gabriel’s final epiphany of universal communion could have infused their “odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal,” as Joyce characterized it to his publisher, with the fire of holy sympathy.
The collection’s irony at first seems cruel, as noted above: can’t a young boy’s misplaced desires or an old woman’s comforting illusions be treated with less cutting intellection and more overt emotional warmth? But it is possible to travel all the way through irony and come out on the other side: we are all paralyzed with delusive desires for the unattainable, all snared in the coils of a life we can’t escape, all bound finally for the grave. Irony thus applies to us all, and—contra Miss Ivors and her descendant, the Goodreads reviewer quoted above—it can never be abolished by any moral, religious, or political solution you could name. This is the secret of Joyce’s influence on so many later minoritarian writers—Ellison, Roth, Walcott, Rushdie—accused by their own communities’ activists of political fecklessness: the serious apolitical artist knows by the iron law of irony that politics is indeed revolutionary—it goes around and around. Every reform is absorbed by the power structure to create and legitimize further power, the ineluctable violence of every alteration fundamentally debases the radical’s moral purpose, and the oppressed inevitably turn oppressor. Dublin is not a special case, but a synecdoche for all human experience.
The serious apolitical artist preaches a different revolution, a spiritual one, which leaves the world untouched but wholly transfigured. By the end of Dubliners, Joyce has converted the vicious circle in which his characters are caught into the magic circle of his artistry: Dublin, paralyzed to death in real life, comes truly alive only in the imagination. And in the imagination, long after the calamities of the early 20th century have been forgotten and upstaged by further disasters, it still stands.