Monday, January 28, 2008

Dubliners discussion: Ivy Day in the Committee Room, A Mother, Grace

A paper at “The Modern Word” on Charles Stewart Parnell will give background helpful for “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” and his inclusion in Joyce’s work. The Wikipedia entry on Parnell gives more details on his life, accomplishments and failures.

I did not really connect with “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” the first time I read it. Who cares about political banter a century later? Yet the second time through some things began to resonate for me. The yearning for Parnell, the potential never realized, symbolizes almost the entire book so far. Most of the characters in Dubliners feel that fate has dealt them, the city and the country a bad hand but they do little to shape their own future.

Politics is a religion for the characters in this story, raising mundane things and actions to exalted heights. While the men obsess about politics and power, I can’t see any character that you would want anywhere near control. Most are described as incompetent, solely canvassing in order to earn a little extra money (or booze). These men are followers, content to whine and complain about current times while mourning the old days and what might have been. They can’t even trust each other, suspecting informers and traitors in their midst.

There is a nice moment where much respect is shown Father Keon, “a black sheep” priest who echoes Father Flynn in “The Sisters.” On top of beginning to see characters from stories weave in and out of other stories, counterparts for comparison and contrast have been showing up as well. The poor domestic at the end of “Two Gallants,” used simply for sex and money, has her equivalent with Mr. Doran in “The Boarding House.” In “Counterparts” and “Little Cloud” you see the powerlessness of fatherhood for two very different men. There are many others that seem to have similar themes or critical moments, such as a failure to act in “Eveline” and “A Painful Case.”

Even though the men are probably working only for the money, the reader gets the feeling they will never see their wages since they drink up their pay from the candidate’s pub. There are clearly three ‘legs’ of support to the Dublin stool: religion, politics and booze. The characters claim “we have our ideals”, but they don’t have the ways or the desire to live up to them. Symbolic gestures replace substantive action. One interesting thing highlighted is the lack of industry in Dublin, the mention of idle factories contrasts with the paucity of other employment mentioned in the book. The rare good job mentioned is usually with the government.

At the end of the tale, the poem laments what might have been but by this point in the book I don’t think it unfair to question whether Parnell would have lived up to expectations. After being sold out by his own countrymen, it probably isn’t unrealistic to wonder if he made his best career move by dying young. Given the reverie Joe Hynes felt in reciting his poem, the answer may be yes.

“A Mother”, on the other hand, didn’t really connect with me even the second time through. Joyce’s commentary on the arts in Dublin, or lack thereof, feels like a museum specimen. As sympathetic as Mrs. Holohan can be, and as correct as she can be as at times (the baritone mentions he had been paid), her sabotaging of her daughter’s career and reputation is unforgivable. After the investment of time, effort and money, to toss it all aside so easily feels forced.

“Grace,” on the other hand, was a joy to read. Irony drips from every description and conversation. The depth of friendship is tested, where the intentions are usually good-intentioned but the results are found lacking. Also, societal and relational hierarchies are again shown. Mrs. Keenan is one of the few wholly sympathetic characters in the book, her realistic and modest expectations are refreshing in contrast to the false idealism of the male characters.

The level of ignorance about religious doctrine would be amusing if it weren’t for the religious divide in the country. As for much of what is shown for Dublin, the divisions may result from deep differences but in practice are only superficially understood. Societal institutions fail to fully address the problems shown in Dubliners, whether the government, religion or marriage.

So where is the grace mentioned in the tale’s title? Certainly not in Father Purdon’s limp sermon, aimed at businessmen and adopting commercial language. Rather, it seems, the grace comes from the bedside community aimed at reforming Mr. Kernan and especially the drink consumed. Joyce’s attitude toward his characters can only be discerned through the ironical use of language, whether in descriptions or in the titles (“Two Gallants” is another great example). Despite Joyce’s claim of “scrupulous meanness,” once again some rays of hope peek through in the friends’ well-intentioned actions. Even though the actions are ironic (drinking around a drunkard’s bed in order to help reform him) or ineffectual (Father Purdon’s sermon is going to have a superficial impact at best), the humanity shown in everyday occurrences still reveals hope.

Next: “The Dead”


samiinour said...

I studied this book at the university and my teacher gave us a very original point of veiw. He said that the image of fire represente Parnell and all the character interact with this element in the novella. consequentely, it shows up the point of view of each character toward Parnell. Do you share this analysis though I didn't find any one who points out this issue?

Dwight said...

Completely possible. I mean, it is Joyce after all so it could be laden with additional symbolism too.

I re-read Hynes poem and he mentions Parnell's pyre as well as
"But Erin, list, his spirit may
Rise, like the Phoenix from the flames". So the imagery is would just have to go back and look at each character's interaction with the fire vs. their outlook. Which I'll save for a later project or for someone else, but I think noting it here is useful--thanks.

The most useful aspect of the fire for these men, even more than heat and light, may be that it was used to open their bottles of stout since they didn't have a corkscrew. Not much of a stretch to say Parnell provides the same benefit to the men as the alcohol...