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Joyce's Dubliners

Claudine Raynaud

"A Very Fine Piece of Writing": Endings in Dubliners

David G. Wright

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1A reader embarking on "The Sisters", the opening story in Joyce's collection Dubliners, may find the text difficult to evaluate. Depicted events seem clear enough, but their implications often remain strangely obscure. We might plausibly choose to attribute this quality mainly to the narrator, a young boy caught up in events which he himself cannot fully understand.

2We might perhaps hope that the story's ending would provide us with some of the clarity which the text has so far withheld. Eliza, one of the sisters denoted in the story's title, now has the chance to provide her own narrative of the life of the priest, her brother, whose death furnishes the text's central incident. Surely this will illuminate the situation for us? We take up the story:

She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast.
Eliza resumed:
–Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself…. So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him…. (Joyce, 1989,18)

3This conclusion, we need to acknowledge, persists in withholding clarity. The boy offers no comment on Eliza's remarks, but ends his story midway through her statement—a statement whose implications in any case are obscure to us. We remain unaware of the nature of the priest's reported psychological problem, the timing of its discovery, its repercussions in his professional life, and any correlation with the succession of strokes which seemingly leads to his death.

4By placing this story at the beginning of the collection and giving it such a cryptic conclusion, Joyce prevents readers from glibly expecting explicitness and closure in the stories to follow. The ending of "The Sisters" not only accentuates the uncertainties of its own story, but anticipates uncertainties which still lie ahead.

5From the earliest days of his career, in fact, Joyce evidently recognised the importance of textual endings. "The Sisters", and the next few Dubliners stories he wrote, already show him paying close attention to the various ways in which a conclusion might help to shape his reader's response to a text. Throughout Dubliners he continued to explore a range of options, including the ironic ending which works by slyly undermining the apparent tone or implications of the rest of the story. He also reflected on the relationship between a text's conclusion and its beginning: in some of the stories, the final lines reinforce the opening ones, but more typically the effect is to refocus or problematise the story's initial mood or implication. And he exploited the sequential structure of his planned collection by ensuring that the endings of the individual stories would interact with each other, thus enriching the implications of each one and of the collection as a whole. Several of the endings seem more congruent with each other than with the tone of the individual stories to which they are attached, a pattern which helps to link the stories together and to suggest a larger continuum of which they each represent particular facets. In all of these ways, Joyce exploited patterns in the endings of his stories to convey implications which the stories nowhere need explicitly to declare.

6However, he also provided clear signals advising his readers to consider the story endings in juxtaposition with each other. Even a cursory reading of Dubliners would disclose several of these signals. More than half of the stories end with explicit references to eyes, gazing, seeing or watching ("An Encounter", "Araby", "Eveline", "After the Race", "Two Gallants", "A Little Cloud", "Clay" and "The Dead"). In several cases there are associated allusions to tears and remorse, which also echo from story to story. Even more of the stories conclude with explicit references to ears, hearing or listening ("The Sisters", "An Encounter", "Araby", "The Boarding House", "A Little Cloud", "A Painful Case", "Ivy Day in the Committee Room", "Grace" and "The Dead"). Thus all but two of the fifteen stories end by directly evoking the visual and auditory senses. Even those two exceptions, "Counterparts" and "A Mother", end with significant speech acts and with listeners present, so it can of course be assumed that hearing is an important part of their final scenes even if it is not mentioned specifically.

7In every case, these references to seeing and hearing seem appropriate to the content of the story in question. Teasingly, they may also mean to remind readers to remain alert for visual and auditory signals in the texts of the stories themselves. But the most obvious effect of these striking repetitions is simply to focus our attention on the story conclusions as such, and especially to make us notice how they resemble and differ from each other.

8While "The Sisters" ends in a muted and cryptic manner which oddly foreshadows the conclusions of much later stories, most of the other early stories in the collection end sharply and negatively, at least in terms of the declared emotional realities on which their conclusions focus. Many of these early stories specify in their final lines a catalogue of modes of upset. Textually explicit examples of such emotions include shame, paltriness, penitence and unjustified pride ("An Encounter"); vanity, anguish and anger ("Araby"); frenzy and anguish ("Eveline"); stupor, folly and the expectation of regret ("After the Race").

9Few of the later stories end so explicitly, though such earlier endings are echoed quite precisely by those of "A Little Cloud" (featuring shame and remorse) and "Counterparts" (depicting pain, fear and cruelty). The stories from "An Encounter" to "After the Race" feature youthful protagonists, and it may be relevant here that the closing portions of "A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts" also depict scenes involving children. Emotional realities, especially upsetting ones, may thus seem to register with particular clarity and explicitness where young people become involved, at least in the conclusions to these stories. Or, it may be, children and young adults more readily resort to or believe in overt and straightforward interpretations of emotional states, where older people sense more confusion, complexity or ambivalence. "The Sisters" seems a striking exception here, a pattern which may be strategic. Although this story has a youthful narrator, resembling the boys who narrate "An Encounter" and "Araby", he seems more confined than they are to adult contexts. No other children appear anywhere in "The Sisters", whereas the boy narrator of "Araby" plays with neighbourhood children and becomes infatuated with a girl living in his street, while the boy in "An Encounter" spends the whole story in the company of other schoolboys "The Sisters" ends with an adult, not the boy, speaking. It seems that Joyce thus means to problematise at the outset the child/adult distinctions which form an important pattern throughout Dubliners.

10In the conclusions to most of the stories found later in the collection, we will often sense a negative, troubled or discordant mood without gaining explicit textual directions specifying what it is or how we should respond to it. Such conclusions at once continue the sense of emotional difficulty adumbrated earlier, and diverge into a more cryptic or ambiguous realm. Obvious examples include the closing sequences in "Clay", "A Painful Case", "A Mother" and "The Dead".

11Joyce also began early the practice of qualifying a story's apparent implications with a wry or ironic conclusion. "Eveline", the second Dubliners story he wrote, is a case in point. The text has prepared us for the possibility that Eveline will leave Dublin with Frank; the conclusion shows her instead paralysed by apparent panic and unable to depart. Yet like "The Sisters", this story ends in the middle of the action (or the inaction), and we cannot be certain of its final meaning. Apparently, Frank chooses to board the ship alone without attempting to console Eveline or reason with her, surely bizarre behaviour for a fiancé. The alternative possibility, that he turns back and stays with her, has no textual support whatever. It cannot be simply that he is physically unable to return: at the moment when Eveline suffers her crisis and clutches at the railing, he has not yet passed "beyond the barrier" (Joyce, 1989, 41). While Eveline's extreme emotional state is quite precisely delineated at the close of the story (distress, frenzy and anguish are all specified), the final sentence forms one of the strangest conclusions in the collection: "Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition" (Joyce, 1989, 41). In her distress her eyes might well appear to be expressionless, but who tells us that she fails to register these particular things? Frank is the only apparent witness. He might be perturbed by her failure to show love; he can hardly wish her to give him signs of farewell; and if she is in such crisis that she fails even to recognise him, it seems incomprehensible that he would simply turn away and abandon her.

12The wry twist in the conclusion to Eveline's story, where in her panic she refuses to board the ship and seemingly leaves Frank to sail away without her, has parallels in several other stories which Joyce placed early in the collection Such unexpected endings, in fact, seem most emphatically present in a group of five stories of which "Eveline" is the centrepiece. At the end of "An Encounter", the josser met by the two truant boys represents an encounter and an experience strikingly different from their adventurous expectations. The romantic aspirations of the boy in "Araby" come to grief amid the grubby commercial realities of a tawdry bazaar. After reading "Eveline" we reach another story of reversed expectation, "After the Race", where the story's initial atmosphere of hilarity, speed and affluence culminates ironically in gloom, stasis and the erosion of Jimmy's substance through gambling. The next story "Two Gallants", as if to counterbalance this conclusion or to reinforce it through irony, shows Corley acquiring money as suddenly as Jimmy had lost it—but in equivocal circumstances, and in defiance of our expectations as well as Corley's apparent merits. Thus all the stories in this early group end with considerable irony. While few of the later conclusions will use irony so insistently, after reading this early group we can never quite relax and expect comfortable conclusions again. The effect of concentrating these five stories near the opening of the collection is clearly to problematise the issue of finding suitable outcomes.

13Joyce further stresses this pattern by ensuring that the titles of the first two stories in the group of five, "An Encounter" and "Araby", designate realities which only appear at the very end of the story in each case. So we inevitably learn to become especially alert for a revelation at a story's close. This kind of vigilance is likely to stay with us as we read the subsequent texts in Dubliners,, even though the later story titles are less loaded in this way.

14Some of the stories also end in a mood emphatically different from the one which was present in their opening lines, a pattern which seems designed to make such irony quite inescapable. Obvious examples include "An Encounter" and "After the Race", both of whiçh begin vigorously and end in stagnation; and "The Dead", which begins amid pedestrian bustle and ends in poignant stillness.

15Having concluded "The Sisters" cryptically with a confused and interrupted narrative segment supplied by a minor character, Joyce exploited much the same mode of generating ambiguity as he concluded several of the later stories. Notably, all the conclusions which highlight direct or indirect speech also leave us in a state of moral poise or doubt. The implications of the speech act in question remain unclear and so, therefore, do the final implications of the story. "After the Race", for example, ends with Villona's indeterminate declaration "Daybreak, gentlemen!" (D 48); "Counterparts" with the unanswered plea of Farrington's son, "I'll say a Hail Mary…" (Joyce, 1989, 98); and "Grace" with bland phrases from Father Purdon's sermon: "With God's grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts" (D 174). These conclusions all leave their stories suspended, with no evidence about how the speech act might be continued, completed or interpreted.

16Even indirect speech acts, which inevitably remind us of the presence of a narrator who might interpret them for us if he chose, seem similarly cryptic when they appear at the close of a story. "Clay", for example, ends with an account of Joe, who finds himself "moved" after Maria's recital of the song "I Dreamt that I Dwelt" (Joyce, 1989, 106). Yet it remains unclear whether he has been moved by a recognition of Maria's plight or by simple nostalgia and sentimentality, surely a crucial distinction: "his 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" (Joyce, 1989, 106). "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" culminates in Croflon's reported and non-committal comment on Joe Hynes's poem, "Mr Crofton said that it was a very fine piece of writing" (Joyce, 1989, 135). Crofton appears to be damning with faint praise, but the tone and implications of his remark cannot be fully resolved, since the story ends at this point.

17Joyce's careful construction of the definitive sequence of stories may help us to interpret the collection as a whole, even if individual instances often remain puzzling. For some time during the collection's gestation, he planned that "The Sisters" and "Grace" would provide its opening and closing stories. Both texts end with their focus on a priest. Both, in their final paragraphs, deploy the word "wrong" in a loaded manner: "When they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him" (Joyce, 1989, 18); "I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong" (Joyce, 1989, 174). Between these two instances of wrong-headed priests appear several stories which end with a recognition of "wrong" behaviour by the protagonist and with an apparent expression of remorse, notably "An Encounter", "Araby" and "A Little Cloud". But the citation of Father Purdon's equivocal and even cynical sermon at the end of "Grace" seems to cast retrospective doubt on the value of these earlier remorseful moments. His endorsement of bland and hypocritical modes of rationalising sins suggests that such earlier recognitions of fault have achieved very little. His congregation includes a considerable number of adult Dubliners who, we must assume, assimilate his message of moral equivocation without demur. To the reader of Dubliners, it will seem that the moments of self-doubt and attempted self-correction, which we have read about in several stories, have been in vain as far as the community is concerned. This dispiriting effect would have been even more emphatic had "Grace" retained its position as the collection's final story.

18A particular crux in Dubliners remains the conclusion of "The Dead". Reading it in parallel with earlier endings supports the view that it remains mostly congruent with them in its implications, not a positive refutation of earlier mis-steps. The newspaper reports of snow "general all over Ireland" (Joyce, 1989, 223) oddly echo Eliza's maladroit invocation of the Freeman's Journal as the "Freeman's General" (Joyce, 1989, 16) in "The Sisters". The conclusion that "the newspapers were right" (Joyce, 1989, 223) seems partly Gabriel's own, and might appear to show him accepting a more broadly civic perspective than he has expressed previously. Yet it also faintly echoes the troubling conclusion of "Grace", the previous story: "I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts" (Joyce, 1989, 174). Attempting to set right one's accounts, in fact, denotes quite precisely a recurrent activity of Gabriel's, which appears in his giving a coin to Lily, adjusting the text of his after-dinner speech, and qualifying his self-esteem in the light of Gretta's narrative about Michael Furey. It becomes more difficult to read any of these developments in Gabriel's life positively when we set them beside the ending of "Grace", which Joyce placed strategically immediately before the opening of "The Dead". Although the final paragraph of "The Dead" is movingly eloquent, a similar pattern on a smaller scale marks the end of "Araby", where the final lines appear in an elevated style. Noticing such parallels and echoes should make us cautious about reading the end of "The Dead" with too much optimism about the possibility of transcendental change, especially in the central character of the story.

19A pattern which becomes manifest in Joyce's later works involves the interplay among their conclusions. Exiles, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, for all their differences, echo each other strikingly in the way they end. Each closes by depicting a married or at least cohabiting couple, one partner awake and reflecting while the other sleeps Dubliners itself, in the conclusion to its final story, establishes this pattern through the depiction of Gretta and Gabriel: Gretta falls asleep while Gabriel continues thinking about mortality, perhaps joining her in sleep at the very end of the story. Even the Portrait, the conspicuous apparent exception among Joyce's major works, may take this generic Joyce ending and deliberately invert it: instead of a couple, solitary Stephen; instead of a mature, subdued and often melancholy reflection on the past, a youthfully arrogant proclamation about the future. It seems clear that Joyce envisaged these endings in their approximate similarity (and, in the case of the Portrait, by way of a strong contrast) as jostling with and illuminating each other. Resemblances and differences among the conclusions of individual Dubliners stories are discreet, less immediately striking than those which would later associate the other major works. That may be partly because Joyce was still developing the technique, and partly because the stories were expected always to appear in close proximity to each other: such associations could not, therefore, become too emphatic. Nonetheless, it seems likely that his experimentation with conclusions to the individual stories in Dubliners underpins the entire sequence of conclusions deployed in all his later works.


Work cited

Joyce, James. 1989. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Viking Press.


University of Auckland, New Zealand

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2000

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