The International Writers Magazine: Review
by James Joyce
Dan Schneider takes the
great Irish writer to task
years ago I got into an argument with a drunken professor over
James Joyce. My contention was that no scholars had ever looked
into the role that Joyces syphilis had in the breakdown
of his narrative abilities. Most have taken for granted that all
of the dashing of Joyces style from Dubliners, his first
published fiction, through Finnegans Wake, his last, was by choice.
I disagreed and argued that there were too many rough spots
in the musical prosetry to have been left on purpose.
I argued that
while it could be stated Joyce was a great writer, for his moments of
brilliance in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, and Ulysses,
are undeniable, it was untenable to claim him a great novelist, as,
by Finnegans Wake, his work is utterly unreadable. And for those
who claim they enjoy the book and understand it, I merely point to the
fact that no two scholars have ever remotely come close to agreeing
on the works aim, intent, and meaning in more than vague assertions
and oblique themes. It is, simply put, a mess.
Yet, the professor argued that no one ever proved Joyce had syphilis,
although he went blind in one eye, and died because of it, and two of
Joyces wives admitted it. Still, the professor hung to his tale,
as if he had inspected Joyces genitalia personally. Not to mention
continuing the delusion that Finnegans Wake was written to be
read drunk, and other such nonsense.
However, despite the later failings, Ive long proclaimed
that Dubliners is Joyces greatest literary achievement.
Id read the book first in the mid-80s, then the early 90s, and
just a while back. While I stand by my initial assessment that its
Joyces best work, with age, and my own forays into fiction, I
see that it is not as good as I once thought, although it still has
moments of greatness.
The book is fifteen short stories that were mostly written in
the years 1904-1905, and were dubbed by Joyce as being epiphanies-
moments of sudden insight. The key to that term, however, is that the
epiphanies are meant to occur within the reader, not to Joyces
I will now summarize each of the fifteen tales, and then comment:
The Sisters is the tale of an anonymous child narrator, who opens
the tale by telling of the death of an old man, a friend of his, from
a stroke. The boy, who lives with his aunt and uncle, is eating supper,
one evening, when a boorish family friend named Cotter stops by and
starts talking of dead Father Flynn, the boys friend, who was
taken under the priests wing. That night the boy, in bed, mocks
and scorns Cotter, and dreams of the priest. The next day the boy goes
to the priests deathbed home and reminisces of their friendship.
But, he is scared to go in and see the body. He wants to mourn, but
feels stifled by something- perhaps a part of him hates his friend?
That night, his aunt accompanies him to the wake, and he meets the priests
sisters, and has a snack They speak of his growing insanity, due to,
they believe, his breaking of a holy chalice, but which sounds all too
like syphilis, which Joyce suffered from. The tale ends in the middle
of one of the sisters speaking of the father being found babbling
on in a confessional booth, perhaps of a sexual sin?
This first tale is a good one, but its abruptions and rather
odd structure are too much for it to be a beloved tale. It is more or
less a writing exercise that succeeds in painting a mood. It is a prose
tone poem, of sorts. Its narrators full grasp of things, or not,
is an element that makes the tale worth a reread. The depth of his understanding
of what really went on with the priest is an X Factor that sticks in
the mind, for the childish reactions he has to things, especially Cotter,
suggest he is telling his tale as a child, not an adult narrator in
reflection. Or not? Would a child be capable of thinking this?: 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.
The age of the narrator sticks in the readers mind as a query,
especially as he also withdraws from interpretation at the end of the
tale, an interesting move, because Cotter none too slyly suggests that
Father Flynns problems with young boys were all too familiar to
the modern reader, thus the narrators anger toward Cotter takes
on an added, possibly sexual, dimension.
This theme is explored further in An Encounter, the story that
stuck with me the longest over the years. Another nameless young boy
opens by telling of his pals Joe and Leo Dillon, and their love of boys
magazines. He describes his play times with his peers. Then, one day,
he, Leo, and a kid named Mahony, play hooky, and go looking for all
the trouble their combined eighteen pence can buy them. They decide
to meet at a bridge, but Leo no-shows, and Mahony declares that the
two of them can split the money. Mahony turns out to be a hell-raiser-
chasing girls, and picking fights with smaller boys- until the two bys
decide to eat lunch by the river, where they watch ships go by. After
boyish bullshitting, the two tramp through rougher parts of town, and
Mahony terrorizes a cat. To avoid being caught playing hooky they decide
to head home, and want to hop a local train. There, they meet a strange
old man, who asks them of their literary reading, then if the two boys
have girlfriends. Mahony says he has a trio, while the narrator admits
he has none. Then, the old man goes off and masturbates in public. The
two boys decide to go by pseudonyms. When the man returns Mahony takes
off after the cat he harassed earlier, and the narrator is puzzled by
the sick sadosexual ideas he hears the man has about Mahony. The narrator
then leaves the man, and calls Mahony by his pseudonym, and is relieved
when the other boys returns to his side, although a bit penitent for
in my heart I had always despised him a little.
The dominant theme is escapism, for the poor boys. Be it from
their poverty, the strictures of school, and later from a possibly abusive
situation. Yet, the two boys are very unaware of much of what they encounter-
be it the class and religious differences inherent in their encounter
with the poorer girls and the two smaller boys who defend them, or the
pedophilic sinistry of the man at the train tracks. Yet, the narrator
is aware enough to pity the bullied, the cat, and appreciate the old
mans initial seeming respect for the boys minds, as well
as feel guilty that he secretly loathed Mahony, even as the larger bullys
presence provides escape from whatever fate may have befallen him alone
with the man.
The third tale is Araby. Another nameless boy has a crush on
his pal Mangans sister. He stalks her until, one day, she asks
him if hes going to the Araby festival. She cant, so the
boy resolves to get her a gift. He thinks of nothing but the festival
and relies on his uncle to give him money to go. But, his uncle comes
home late, yet the boy goes, anyway, but is disappointed that all the
possible gifts he could get are too expensive, and the fair is closing.
He chides himself as a creature driven and derided by vanity.
This is, of the first three tales, by far the weakest. It has
some nice moments, but little occurs. As for being epiphanic? One might
more accurately term this tale a small insight- that frustration is
one of lifes gnawing realities. It is also the last of the early
childhood tales, and last told from a first person perspective, as well
as an anonymous one.
The next tale is Eveline. The title is the lead character- a
nineteen year old woman looking out an apartment window, lost in since-gone
reveries. She will soon be leaving Ireland, and has mixed emotions of
leaving her job and family. She wants to marry a sailor named Frank,
who has a home in Buenos Ayres, yet her father does not approve of him.
Then, at the train station, as she is to leave with Frank, she freezes
up, and demurs. Impassively, she glares blankly as Frank, and her own
future happiness, are subsumed in guilt and duty to family.
This is a weak, and rather transparent tale, awash in melancholy.
There are some nice moments, but little sympathy is held for Eveline,
as she is not the brightest bulb on the tree, and easily manipulated.
Her mother wasted her own life, then urged Eveline to do the same. The
girl is haunted by her mothers pseudo-Gaelic gibberish, Derevaun
Seraun!, nonsense which symbolizes her and her daughters
lives. Eveline is, ultimately, a coward, and rightfully damned.
Another weak story is After The Race. An auto race is over, and
the Irish have been cheering the French. Four young men of different
European nationalities, go party-hopping, then meet an American, who
they gamble with, and lose. While the tale is rife with political symbolism
none of the characters are compelling, and little more than stereotypes.
The Irish character, Doyle, is a buffoon and loser, and utterly powerless
to the whims of others.
The next tale is Two Gallants. Corley is telling Lenehan sexual
tales. Corley is a boaster, and Lenahan a rube. Corley is to meet with
a prostitute, then have her engage Lenehan later. Corley goes off to
get laid, and later meets up with Lenehan. Whether or not he got laid
is at issue, for when asked, by Lenehan, Corley shows he still has a
gold coin in his palm. That Corley smiles suggests he paid the girl,
screwed her, then stole the coin back.
This tale is unrelentingly dull, and neither character has a redeeming
quality. Its a pretty one-note and cardboard story that could
have packed a greater emotional punch had there been some depth and
The next story is The Boarding House. Mrs. Mooney owns the house,
and has had a hard life. Now, though, it consists of vicarity- mostly
off her boarders lives. Her daughter, Polly, at nineteen, is sleeping
with a boarder- Mr. Doran, in his mid thirties. Mrs. Mooney aims to
confront him over marrying her daughter. He is conflicted over his affair
with Polly. Polly wails to him that her mother knows all, and wants
to see him. As he heads downstairs he leaves Polly and encounters her
hotheaded brother. A bit later, Mrs. Mooney calls her daughter downstairs,
for Mr. Doran wants to speak to her.
Clearly, Joyce has little positive to say of sexual relations-
they are either base, as in the early anonymous boys tales, and
Two Gallants, or are a rigid trap- one to be avoided, as in Eveline,
or narcotized into, as in this tale. Mrs. Mooney is a practical woman,
though, and is only feigning her shock at her daughters sexuality
in order to trap Mr. Doran into marrying her, for fear of having his
fornication exposed. While the tale works as a social essay, it does
little to give insight into the characters, who are, in a sense, mere
pawns for Joyce to pontificate against.
A Little Cloud is the eighth, and exactly middle, story in the
book. A small man named Little Chandler reminisces of an old pal named
Gallaher, as he waits to reacquaint with him, years after Gallaher left
for fame as a London journalist. He also dreams of being a poet. Their
reunion is not what he expects, and he feels belittled in light of Gallahers
success. At home, Chandler rues his existence, even when his wife comes
home. His impotence, in the face of his infant son, is total.
The major point of the tale is that Ireland is a damned isle-
success only came to Gallaher after he left it. Chandler is, in a way,
a male Eveline, with a decade or two on her. He is what she is doomed
to become, trapped in a social role that kills slowly, but effectively.
The next tale is Counterparts. A scrivener named Farrington is
abused by his boss, and goes out for a drink. He is then called back
to do work on a case involving a woman his boss is hot for. Complications
arise and the boss abuses Farrington in front of the woman. Farrington
then goes out to drink and spins a tale of his standing up to his boss,
when he really folded his tent. He then is humiliated in the bar. He
takes out his frustrations, at home, on one of his sons, as the child
begs for mercy.
Farrington is another prisoner of Ireland- this time of its work
situation. He constantly loses- on the job, in social scenes, and even
to his son, whose mere boyhood seems a threat to the father. Like Chandler,
he is doomed, but even further down the road to hell. The story is a
solid one, but by now the whole weight of the books depressing
tone has started to work against the appreciation of the whole. In a
sense, the book starts taking on a negative synergy, in that the individual
tales are better, when averaged out, then the whole as a work.
Clay is the next tale. Maria works at a laundry, and going over
to her friends house for Halloween, yet sad that two of them,
the brothers Joe and Alphy, are estranged. At Joes house she broaches
reconciliation, but Joe will have none of it. They share a moment of
tears when Maria sings an old song.
While Maria is certainly one of the most effectively drawn characters
in the book, and the rare good person, her tale is rather banal, and
rotely told. While there are suggestions that death is looming for Maria,
this tale really goes nowhere. It is another of Joyces tales told
seemingly to just evoke mood- be a tone poem.
The next story in the collection is A Painful Case. Middleaged
Dublin suburbanite James Duffy leads a small but ordered life, including
work at a bank. One night, at an opera, he is smitten with a married
woman- Emily Sinico, and they begin an amorous relationship. Her husband
unwittingly encourages it by thinking Duffy is interested in their daughter,
not his wife. She makes a more intimate move, and Duffy withdraws, and
they end their friendship. Some time later he reads of her death in
a train accident. He then withdraws from the world and into himself.
This is love sans sex, and its rejection. Duffy is a weak, little
man who elicits little sympathy- but thats the strength of the
story, for it is about how is own lack of empathy for others is turned
inward. Thus, epiphany.
Ivy Day in the Committee Room is the next tale. Old Jack and
Mr. OConnor are plotting the election of Richard J. Tierney, but
mostly bullshitting. Then a Mr. Hynes comes in and the three men argue
politics. They do all agree on one thing, that Irish nationalist hero
Charles Stewart Parnell was, indeed, a hero. Other intrigues occur,
but of little relevance a century on. Hynes ends by reading a poem on
Parnell, and all the men agree its good.
This is the worst tale in the book, because its characters are
undeveloped and any meaning is lost without a knowledge of that eras
politics. Basically, the story is a long lament of the present and a
yearn for days of yore, when giants like Parnell lived. Failing that
outcome, beer is all thats left.
The tale A Mother is next. Mrs. Kearney has set about planning
for a series of concerts, including some for her daughter Kathleen,
but they are poorly attended, and one is cancelled. Mrs. Kearney argues
her daughter should be paid for all the concerts she was contracted
for. Haggling and intrigue ensue, and the concert is ruined.
This is, like its predecessor story, very dependent upon the
times, and the Irish Revivalist movement of a century ago, which it
lampoons. Mrs. Kearneys shortsightedness ends up costing her daughter
Grace follows next in the collection. Tom Kernan has been in
an accident at a bar, and part of his tongue bitten off. Taken home
by a friend he spends a few days in recovery. Later, he is at a retreat
and argues over religion.
Not much occurs in this tale, save for Joyces need to now
hit religion, after tackling politics and the arts in the prior two
tales. Here Joyce parallels religion with alcohol, as panaceas to Irish
ills that never seem to work.
The last story in the book is the most famous, and at forty-eight
pages is considered by some a novella, although it clearly has truck
with the rest of the stories in the collection. The Dead is arguably
Joyces finest extended piece of prose writing. There is a holiday
party, and two sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, and their niece Mary
Jane live on an old house on Ushers Island. Gabriel Conroy, the
spinsters nephew, and newspaper columnist, and his wife, Gretta,
arrive, and Gabriel is taken with Lily, a servant girl. Freddy Malins,
a drunk, is cut off from liquor. Gabriel is tasked over his conservative
political opinions by a Miss Ivors. This haunts him. She then leaves.
Gabriel is asked to carve the goose theyre serving. Later, he
is to give a speech. It is a banal sentimental speech, but many at the
dinner party are moved.
Later, Gabriel and his wife go to their hotel, where she admits
a past love, a memory brought on by a song sung at the party, Gabriel
feels slighted that he is in some way comparable to a slight teenaged
boy, who died. She tells the dead boys tale and weeps herself
to sleep. Gabriel is angered, then thinks of deeper things- like death,
then sees the snow covers all, even death. The end of the tale is one
of the most famed passages in English literature: 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. The dead the title refers to most cogently, incidentally,
are the living dead- those who have not achieved what Gabriel does by
books and storys end.
In a sense The Dead is a recapitulation of all the other stories
themes and a summation of what Dubliners is about. It touches on poverty,
politics, religion, sex, family, joy, drinking, art, and alcohol. It
is worth noting that sisters and death figure prominently into the twobookend
tales- The Sisters and The Dead. But of more not is the failure to communicate-
Gabriels lust-filled condescension to Lily, his misinterpretation
of her genial chiding for a personal belittlement, and then his memories
of his wife opposed to hers of a former lover, the dead Michael Furey,
whom he envies, despises, and respects. The snow at storys, and
books, end aptly symbolizes and augurs the isolation of the characters
and the reader as he/she will be at books end.
It is legend that Dubliners originally consisted of twelve tales,
and that Joyce later added Two Gallants, A Little Cloud, and The Dead,
after the original dozen were done by 1905. I dont think that
sort of knowledge really matters since the three tales are rather uneven
in relationship to each other, so give no idea of Joyces growth
nor stagnation, and certainly not a hint of his later fracturing of
narrative, which was already being hailed as Portrait Of The Artist
As A Young Man was already being serialized in The Egoist magazine
when the book finally hint print, almost a decade later in 1914. Thus,
his greatest work was unfairly overlooked by the critics of the day.
They were generally dismissed as trifles, save for The Dead,
although, when the critical tide turned, it turned far too much in the
other direction, with virtually every one of the stories being hailed
as a masterpiece. Theyre not, although by contemporary standards
the tales are indeed innovative and excellent. The stories vary greatly
in approach, but their tone is too similar, that is- consistently dour,
which augured the summation of Joyce as the favorite writer that nobody
Also, there is a tendency, in the lesser stories, for Joyce to
get stuck in minutiae of the day that means little now, as well as superfluousdialogue
designed to add color, yet only adds fat. Another problem is that in
order to show the inertia and decline of Irish culture into paralysis,
around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Joyces stories are essentially
without much real conflict- thus their lean into epiphany.
It also makes tales like Ivy Day in the Committee Room, laden with political
references as arcane as a John Dryden poem, and little real character
development, simply not good. In attempting a slice of Dublin life of
the day Joyce sometimes falls prey to the fallacy that to be real
he has to show characters doing dull things, or simply describe things
too matter-of-factly, rather than letting the epiphanies speak for themselves,
by brushing away the ordinary excess. Dramatically, the
stories are rather predictable- what separates them from lesser writers
tales is how the expected is unleashed and described.
In short, while the argument that Joyce was a great writer, but
not great novelist, sticks, the idea that he was without anything to
say is demonstrably false. Its just that he did not have a whole
lot to say, nor did he have anything particularly new to say. But, he
said it, at his best, better than most. It is the fact that Joyce attempts
more than contemporary short fictionists, and that this collection is
not a mere collection, but a narrative movement, or symphony, with a
purpose, that makes the book glow all the more brightly in contrast
to the dreck that populates todays fiction. What most astonishes
me, though, as I grow and age, is how little it takes for a persons
reputation as an artist, to be founded on. James Joyce was a great writer,
but tales like After The Race, Clay, Ivy Day in the Committee Room,
A Mother, and Grace- fully a third of the book, are simply not good
stories, for reasons mentioned earlier. Not acknowledging that does
no good, and only casts the reader and critic in the role of the sciolist
professor I encountered.
It is only by acknowledging failures that the structures that
go under a great work of art- its scaffolding- can be considered and
applied by others. To not do so is to keep up the curtain that denies
that greatness is achievable now, the same sort of lie that Gabriel
Conroys world finally lost in the snow.
© Dan Schnieder March 2005
all rights reserved