Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dubliners discussion: The Sisters, An Encounter, Araby, Eveline, After the Race, Two Gallants

The online text for Dubliners can be found at Project Gutenberg.

More detail than almost anyone needs, but here is an online concordance for Dubliners.

I just discovered The Modern Word site. Their review of Dubliners can be found here. In addition to some useful links for the book, they include this explanation of the work by Joyce to his would-be publisher:
“My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to be the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under its four aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order. I have written in for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness....”

While I find most of what he says true, it doesn’t fully capture the collection of stories and overstates the ‘paralysis’ angle. In no certain order, I find the following things permeate the stories so far: disappointment, religion, ambiguity, irony, sex, politics, money, and death. Instead of using paralysis as a descriptor, I’d say the feeling is more of stagnation. And despite his claim of “scrupulous meanness,” there is a warm humanity at times that breaks through all the negativity.

The disappointments are numerous in the book. A partial list of the stories so far would include Father Flynn’s failed career in the church, the two boys in “An Encounter” failing to make it to the Pigeon House, the boy in “Araby” let down by his uncle and ultimately himself, Eveline staying with her family instead of a chance for happiness abroad, and Lenahan’s dissatisfaction with his life. The disappointment accumulates so that each one adds to the overall feeling of dread and depression. The characters’ disenchantment with Dublin itself (or their life there) is palpable at times.

Religion permeates the stories as well, through religious characters (Father Flynn, Joe Dillon joining the priesthood, the priest who died in the “Araby” house, etc.), in the language Joyce uses (Lenahan is described as Corley’s “disciple”), and in some of the action (the odd communion feel to the snack served by Father Flynn’s sisters). Even though religion courses through life in the stories, it rarely seems to be of any comfort or use to the characters.

The narration of the stories definitely has an impact on meaning. Usually Joyce simply shows what is happening—description without explanation. While straightforward, the language is dense at times. The first three stories are told by each main character looking back on his youth. Their language and insights reflect the ability to explain what they couldn’t when young. Using this approach allows Joyce to work back and forth, between current thought and what he felt then. This is a lead-in to the next stories where the narration seamlessly modulates back and forth between first and third person. Most of the time you can only decipher Joyce’s feeling toward his characters because of the language he uses.

This approach to narration yields much ambiguity and irony. For the former, you’re left to ponder what really caused Father Flynn breakdown. What does the pervert in “An Encounter” really do when he goes off by himself? Doyle, the Irish character in “After the Race” is easily led and directed, a shell of a person. He (and I’m sure meant to represent all of Ireland) is dependent on others for everything. Irony is pervasive as well, both for comic and tragic effect. Seeing Father Flynn hold a chalice in his coffin when he was famous for dropping one was extremely humorous and poignant. After meeting Corley and Lenahan, it is easy to see Joyce’s irony in titling the story “Two Gallants”—they are anything but gallant. Yet the supposed meanness that Joyce declares falls short as he also lets us hear Lenahan’s limited view of happiness.

Not much needs to be said about sex since it is present in many of the stories, except that most of it is not a healthy display. And in addition to the mystery of Father Flynn’s breakdown is the implication that he may have had syphilis (as well as the older Cotter’s hints that the relationship between the priest and the boy is unhealthy). Likewise, money is a frequent major topic as well. The one exception where money was plentiful was in “After the Race,” but even then the need to invest it somewhere other than Dublin illuminates the stagnation of the city.

That little changes in Dublin, a place with limited opportunities, is constantly highlighted. The numerous characters that die or have already passed away are usually presented as better off than when they were alive in Dublin. One easy criticism of Dubliners is that nothing much happens, but that ignores the activity that leads up to the current slice-of-life on display. The stagnation of the characters' actions and lives highlights the same for the city. Despite Joyce's "paralysis," there is a warmth of character occasionally present.

My main criticism is that the “epiphanies” the book is famous for, revelations that are supposed to resonate within the reader and not necessarily the characters, seem like limited advances in self-awareness. They just don't have that "a-ha" feeling for me, much less cause any frissons. For example, Eveline’s refusal to leave is already prefigured in her realization that things aren’t so bad (when faced with the prospect of leaving). The main character in "Araby" realizes he’s not as grown-up as he would like to think, hardly inspiring as an epiphany.

Offsetting that complaint, however, is the richness of the language. Read the following sentence from “Araby” out loud and feel the poetry, both of language and of ordinary life:
The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.”

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