Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dubliners discussion: The Boarding House, A Little Cloud, Counterparts, Clay, A Painful Case

Continuing the summary at a clip that makes it difficult to write about everything (Joyce is especially rich on imagery and symbolism), I’ll carry on with major items from these stories.

The average age of the main character(s) in each story increases as the novel unfolds. Many of the same themes that I mentioned in the previous post are present here, with some additional themes surfacing. Religion is still apparent both in activity (the priest in “The Boarding House” wanting to know every detail of Mr. Mooney’s affair with Polly) and in language (Polly described as a “perverse little madonna” and at the end she falls into a “revery”). The pervasiveness of sex is matched only by its damaging or furtive display. (A side note—I wonder if I’m reading “Higgins never had anything for himself. A man, with two establishments to keep up, of course he couldn’t….” correctly.) Money is a constant focus for most characters, usually in conjunction with their pitiful state. Politics plays a slightly more active role in these stories than the first group, but it has yet to be front and center like it will in upcoming stories. And death is a fairly frequent occurrence or reference again.

Escape in one form or another resonates throughout these stories, tied in with the disappointment or frustration that most characters feel. Sometimes it is actual escape from Dublin, as in “A Little Cloud” where Little Chandler states “If you wanted to succeed you had to go away” to somewhere else. But the escape can also be from marriage (the same story, “A Painful Case” and “The Boarding House”) or from reality. The latter occurs a lot through drink, but can also be seen in Mr. Duffy’s slavish routines in “A Painful Case”. Alcohol consumption is prodigious in many of these stories, sometimes as a social institution but often alone. Despite the occasional humanity that warms through Joyce’s self-professed meanness, the cruelty surfaces more through the characters’ hopelessness, as well as the violence lurking just under the surface. Most characters have an isolated or “alone” component, even the most gregarious.

Relationship dynamics comes more into focus in this section as well. There was some in earlier stories (between the two boys as well as with children from other social classes in “An Encounter”), but it is much more central here. It occurs between worker and boss (most of “Counterparts” and even asides like Joe in “Clay” bragging about his smart retort to his boss), friends (“A Little Cloud” and especially “Two Gallants”), social classes, and generations. In the dominant/subservient relationships stressed in the stories, it isn’t always clear that the dominant person is deserving of their superior status.

Joyce makes several comments on artistic merit in these stories. “A Little Cloud” becomes one extended statement on the Celtic revival writing, especially highlighting that melancholy and allusions are all it takes to be a successful practitioner (at least as judged by the public). Critics and the public get abused again in “A Painful Case” by Mr. Duffy, who feels above “an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios.” His self-centeredness fails to inspire much sympathy to his plight, however.

The narration continues in a similar manner—description punctuated with occasional action. Many times where there is action, it all happens “offscreen” so to speak (especially in “The Boarding House”). Minor things are seen in multiple stories such as Balfe’s opera “The Bohemian Girl” or locations in the city. The exactness of Dublin as portrayed by Joyce feels dry and overdone, but it obviously meant a lot to him. Maybe the precision was simply meant to add legitimacy to his stories. Dublin itself feels like a character in the book, yielding much to the melancholy of the tales. I began to wonder how much influence the city had on the characters, though. Are they losers or underachievers because they are in Dublin or would they fail to do much regardless of where they were located? More on this thoughtin the next post. Either way, Joyce seems to imply that Dublin and the disappointed greatness it could have achieved did not contribute a hospitable or nourishing environment for the characters.

Next stories: “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace.”

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