Version classiqueVersion mobile

Joyce's Dubliners

Claudine Raynaud

The Momentary as Momentous in Dubliners

Garry Leonard

Texte intégral

1Joyce's interest in showing how a monumental change can occur in a moment so trivial as to escape all notice is a defining feature of Dubliners, and may constitute Joyce's most overwhelming contribution to modern fiction. But before I discuss specific "moments" in Dubliners, let me offer a context of why the apparently trivial becomes crucial in modernity.

2By modernity, I mean new modes of consumption, new styles of self-presentation, new attitudes toward crowds and urban spaces, new definitions of public and private spaces, and new forms of mass entertainment. Modernity, in other words, needs to be understood as a convergence of technology and psychology. Modernism, on the other hand, records the struggle of converting from a sense of transcendent certitude – generally represented as a belief in God – to a more secular, but no less sacred, faith in the world of the "everyday," where we reconstitute our faith, on a day by day basis, in relation to mass-media and mass-produced objects. For the poet Baudelaire and the sociologist Georg Simmel, the defining experience of modernity was that of living in a modern metropolis, and the most remarked upon feature of this life was the nearly unmanageable assault of noise, illogical juxtaposition, relentless unpredictability, and enigmatic epiphanies, all made publicly available to anyone of all classes, in a manner which was as fascinating as it was frustrating (Simmel, 1950, 409-424).

3What is so different about this experience - why it gives rise to modernism – is that it demands delimitation. To pick one of the most famous examples of modernist aesthetics, Joyce's theory of the epiphany might be seen as an attempt to aestheticize the kaleidoscopic urban environment. If it is true, as Oscar Wilde claims, that there was no fog in London until poets and painters aestheticized it ("People see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them"), it might also be argued that there were no intense moments of miraculous yet bewildering clarity as a hallmark of modern experience until Joyce's idea of the epiphany became commonplace (Wilde, 1990, 914). In modernity, and in the Joycean idea of the epiphany, subjectivity is understood to be an effect of interruption and intrusion of the objective world, rather than the more traditional enlightenment notion of an individual as possessing the internal continuity of a thinking subject (embodied in the Cartesian cogito "I think therefore I am").

4The epiphany is the dramatic awakening from self-hypnosis. The experience of modernity seems to be one of suspension, people in a trance, where we concentrate on the apparently real – the everyday – to the exclusion of something we feel safe in regarding as fantastic, or at least irrelevant. Works of modernism set up this hypnotic quotidian world in order to rupture it and give us a glimpse of our actual relationship to our imagined existence. More specifically, in Dubliners, such moments of possible rupture center around everyday objects. The individual characters often seem like unrung bells, until an object "strikes" them, and they resonate in some way. What becomes emotionally resonant about everyday objects is not anything they represent, but what they seem to represent to the person interacting with it.

5To offer an example from "Clay": "She [Maria] took out her purse with the silver clasps and read again the words A Present from Belfast. She was very fond of that purse because Joe had brought it to her five years before when he and Alphy had gone to Belfast on a Whit-Monday trip" (Joyce, 1969, 100). Maria, who is rather desperately clinging to a version of reality that is at least five years old, highly values this "trivial" object as one of her most important props. It is, like many of the commodity objects with which we surround ourselves, more "real" than she is because it offers her a vantage point from which she is able to imagine the coherency and importance of her existence. With an increasing lack of subtlety, her family seems to wish we would stay always in the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, practically dead if not literally, instead of, every Halloween, escaping from the grave to which they have consigned her and haunting them all anew. The purse, therefore, is a worthless item with a priceless function: it helps her to feel she is loved in the face of life circumstances that suggest she is – far from being gone but not forgotten – in fact, forgotten, but not gone.

6Maria, who constantly hears remembered compliments playing through her head with the soothing consistency of elevator music, also values this "trivial" object as an important prop in her masquerade of contentment. What matters to Maria is not what the object is – a purse – but how it is advertised. This curious dislocation reminds me of Magritte's famous painting in which he drew a hyperreal representation of a pipe and wrote beneath it, in an imitation of advertising copy, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," entitling the painting "The Treachery of Images." For Maria, this is not a purse. Given the time-honoured association of the purse with female sexuality, we can see that Maria, unlike her purse, suffers from the fate of being imprecisely labelled She is neither a nun, nor a mother, nor a prostitute, so she is incongruously placed in a laundry for reformed prostitutes and allowed a little spending money. She is seen as beyond the margins of what can be labelled; she is insignificant, yet dislocated and therefore dangerous – a witch, or, as Magritte might put it, "Ceci n'est pas une femme."

7Let me again draw back from Dubliners in order to contextualize it within the lived experience pf modernity, and the aestheticization of that experience, generally understood as "modernism". Early cinema, which emerged and perfected itself almost in parallel to Joyce's career as a writer, was also a primary site where modernity aestheticized itself. In other words, it was a visual format where the threatening confusion of modern living was recast, most memorably, perhaps, in the work of silent comics such as Chaplin, Linder and Keaton, whose films showed a world where the bewilderment of everyday living was translated into "slapstick" comedy, and the chaos became amusing rather than threatening. Audiences went to movies to help them make sense of the city, the increasing velocity of their age, the more and the more volatile economy which required constant adjustments.

8And cinema responded with reassuring stories, but also, in cinema more concerned with art than commercial success, with jarring, deliberately subversive works such as Un Chien andalou. The more subversive cinema used “the image” to underline how dependent we were upon continuity and "happy endings" for a stable sense of identity. Seen within this context, Joyce's story "Araby" presents a "modern" Bazaar as functioning somewhat like the modern popular cinema, or a modern department store. All three sites offer a promise of coherence and fulfillment. Except that Joyce, predating the subversive technique of such surreal cinema as Un Chien andalou, sets up the promise of reassurance and fulfilment, and then lets it dissipate right before the narrator's eyes until his own identity appears to him as something flickering and insubstantial: "I saw myself as a creature…".

9Previously, the narrator has promised a girl he admires to "bring her something" and it is the notion of this object (any object, since he does not even think to specify) that makes him wish to "annihilate the tedious intervening days" before he can go to the Araby Bazaar. Maria, too, visits two cake shops and elaborately discriminates between them, like the contemporary shopper stunned by the nearly psychotic variety presented by the modern mall. For a few days, buying something is everything to the boy in "Araby", and his day revolves around anticipated purchases. In a similar manner, just as Maria nearly cries when she discovers the loss of her plum cake, the boy is devastated at being unable to find an object he never even knew to name.

10At the Araby Bazaar, everything is a label first and an object second. "A Present from the Araby Bazaar," unlike "A Present from Belfast," is no longer connected to a recognizable object. The narrator's inability to make the connection leaves him unable to continue imagining his own coherency as a subject. He feels arbitrary – a signifier among signifiers – rather than a signified attracting (purchasing) signifiers. This dislocation of self is recorded by the "Araby" narrator as "seeing himself' – from a previously unsuspected and unimaginable vantage point - as someone falling apart. Something similar might occur to Maria were she to lose her purse. Although she feels it is she who gives the purse meaning, the relationship, in fact, is reversed, and it is Maria who imagines her coherence in relationship to the purse.

11This view of the subject as fragile, self-deceived, disjointed, de-centered, self-alienated and no longer capable of generating any absolute truth, can also, as I have already suggested, be observed, in embryonic form, in the slapstick work of Mack Sennet's Keystone Cops or Chaplin's irrepressible tramp. But "Araby" can also be compared to Un Chien andalou, a movie where nothing turns out to he what we want, because the movie is devoted to imitating how it is we come to want, and how the object of our desire makes an object of us. This is also observable in the world of slapstick, where objects define the contours of the experience of modernity. In a famous scene in Un Chien andalou, a man is shown trying to approach a woman who rebuffs him. Undeterred, he looks about him excitedly, and picks up a rope, enthusiastically trying to drag something towards the woman. The camera pans back and we see he is dragging two pianos, with a dead donkey on top of each, as well as two priests tangled in the rope. Like the excited boy of “Araby”, the man's initial exhilaration slowly turns to exhaustion and confusion as he pulls against this impossible burden.

12What is valued about objects – be they imaginary presents never bought, or a purse, or dead donkeys on a piano – is no longer their perceived value, but the way they interrupt subjectivity with an "objectness" which, at first, appears to guarantee the coherency of one's identity, then, in an unanticipated reversal, reveal a complete and enduring indifference to self-perception. By contrast, what makes the "slapstick" comedy of early cinema funny is that the character is always interrupted, but he seems to find his coherency in enduring this interrupting, stumbling along with it, not expecting it be anything but oppositional This is the essence of slapstick – the object hits you, trips you, makes you fall down, think, get up, get knocked down again, and think some more. The idea that thinking will see you through – an apparent reality in everyday life – is a fantasy in slapstick (as it is in the world of Samuel Beckett, whose tragicomedy lends a philosophical dimension to the slapstick which so influenced him). Tradition holds that subjectivity is innate, but in modernity – as in slapstick – it is experienced as an effect of relationship – with objects, with people, with images.

13In Lacanian terms, the ephemeral and the trivial, because they are ignored by hegemonic discourse, more accurately bear the impression of the distortion of the Real, undomesticated or accounted for by hegemonic narrative. The trivial is also the absurd, the surreal, the unauthored, the unsubstantiated reality, and thus more “real” than a more “official” version (Leonard, 1993). In Dubliners, the trivial is the unblessed bread and wine of the everyday, outside of ritual, unaccounted for by narrative, not forgotten by history, but never noticed and therefore, for Joyce, notable “No one tried to show her her mistake,” the narrator tells us at the conclusion of “Clay,” when Maria, unwittingly, sings the first verse of the song twice, rather than moving on to the second verse. And here the narrator “records” an event that never happened, but this event, unrecorded though it may be, contains the only accurate record of Maria s sad life. Only by hearing of a moment that was not allowed to take place can we see the extent to which the group gathered there understands Maria's benighted existence, but prefers to leave her lost within it rather than face their own complicity in helping both to bring it about and sustain it.

14Charlie Chaplin, in the genre of comedy, perfects a form of slapstick where, again, trivia becomes important, poignant, useful, indispensable, the mark of a contemplative life, in opposition to the experience of modernity, inclined, as it so often is, to separate an individual from their own feelings, even - in the case of trauma – from their own memories. The Tramp always knows where he is because he is always lost. Hp finds his surroundings full of valuables – a cigar, a handkerchief, a child – because he has nothing. And when, after mach trial and tribulation, his world makes sense, his objects are all accounted for, he walks away from it, because the accounted for makes no sense to him. The Tramp with a home full of fixed objects is inconceivable, even though this is often, in fantasy, what he seems to crave. And yet, once objects are oriented in relation to him, he seems disoriented, confused and unhappy because it is the process of interacting with a constellation of objects about him which creates a style of being, beneath or beyond the everyday stasis which seems to be grinding a character like Eveline to dust, and driving a character like Little Chandler to despair: “Home!; There was the furniture still to be paid for”.

15If Chaplin's Tramp, like Joyce's hapless Little Chandler, or lonely Maria, is a later variation on Baudelaire's flâneur, we need to notice there is no assumed base anymore from which the flâneur can observe cooly and dispassionately. In Dubliners, subjectivity is an effect of relationship. Process, not position, is the hallmark of existence in modernity. Poetry, in an urban modernization of Wordsworth, is emotion recollected in rush hour; the stalled traffic, the paradoxical result of too much velocity, gives us, perhaps for the first time that day, nothing to do but think. To be is to be in relationship to something in the modern metropolis. Dubliners shows the transition from a sense of “life” as bestowed by God and contained within the individual, to “lifestyle”, where a life is invisible and inconceivable until it is “styled” in a manner that is then reflecting “life” when, in fact, it is imposing order and coherency upon it. Knowing how to convert unexpected objects into self-expressive props to illustrate the tragicomedy of one's being becomes the new genius of modern subjectivity.


16Ephemeral objects both appear and disappear beneath the notice of history because the duration of their existence is too brief ever to be notable. The fact that the ephemeral is quickly forgotten, so we reason, is appropriate to its presumed status as the eminently forgettable. Presumably, the ephemeral can never be timeless or timely because it leaves no trace in time beyond the momentary. But Joyce seems fascinated with the temporary, the momentary, the trivial, the inconsequential, and nowhere more so than in Dubliners.

17The characters in Dubliners move before us with the hesitant flicker of characters in early silent movies. Indeed, as in the early films of such silent comics as Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder, we are unceremoniously ushered into private rooms where we witness the minutiae of everyday living in both thought and deed In "Araby", "Clay", "The Dead", "Eveline", "A Painful Case", and "The Sisters", the present action covers less than a day. Because of the short duration of time within which his characters move, their every thought, act, and gesture – while clearly ahistorical and ephemeral – nonetheless seem imbued with "nonhistoricized significance". Apparently trivial, ephemeral, and arbitrary moments are often presented in Dubliners as fundamentally more authentic than "historical events" precisely because they are "insignificant" (i.e., impossible to distort into an historical narrative). "And in the end," gravely pronounces the narrator of "Clay", thus introducing the final recorded moment of Joe and Maria's long day, "[Joe] had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was" (Joyce, 1969, 106). Here, we encounter the description of a moment manifestly devoid of historical significance presented in a tone ("and in the end") implying the appropriate close of an historical narrative. Joyce's stories in Dubliners consistently present what is beneath notice as that which is most notable.

18In "Eveline," it is the dust Eveline has contended with as long as she can remember that orders and pervades her world – and even makes its insignificant yet indomitable presence felt in the lining of her nose: "in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne" (Joyce, 1969, 36). Joyce's oddly clinical word choice ("nostrils") shows an obsession with precisely those details of reality that cannot possibly be historicized, but which, still, undeniably, exist. He presents details about the characters in Dubliners the way an anthropologist presents a two-thousand-year-old human. In the case of the anthropologist, what this person had for breakfast – certainly an ephemeral event at the time – now holds clues for determining the person's historic, economic, and social circumstance. If they ate corn, how was the corn prepared, with tools that bespeak the Iron Age or the Age of Bronze? In "Clay," as noticed earlier, Joyce introduces another "throwaway" object that is quintessentially ephemeral, and yet it is the organizational center of Maria's everyday thoughts: "She took out her purse with the silver clasps and read again the words A Present from Belfast" (Joyce, 1969, 100, my emphasis). This "reading" presents the reader with the historical text of the unhistoricized everyday. By "reading" her purse, again and again, Maria is able to compress, distort, and mythologize both her experience of time and recollection of the past. This object – which has no future – becomes the magic talisman that opens up an endurable visit of her past To summarize, what is of historical interest to Joyce is the not yet historicized; in the history of the everyday; it is only the momentary that is momentous.

19In "An Encounter," moments we might recognize as historical do not even produce a complete sentence: "This page or this page? this page? Now, Dillon, up! Hardly had the day. Have you studied it9 What have you there in your pocket?" (Joyce, 1969, 20). What Dillon has, clearly of more interest to him than "official" history, is a cheaply printed text – The Apache Chief – detailing events that Father Butler denounces as ahistorical, a text he characterizes as that most ephemeral thing of all. garbage. "What is this rubbish?... Is this what you read instead of studying your roman History?" (Joyce, 1969, 20). The servile connotations of Father Butler's name ought to sensitize us further to Joyce's complex irony. His dismissal of The Apache Chief as "rubbish" is equally a dismissal of any possible authority the victims of imperialism might have to tell their own story. The narrator, on the other hand, once free of the environment of school, finds himself drawn, with an inarticulate and visceral urge, to the ephemeral story of an Indian warrior, so far beneath the notice of history as to be deemed "rubbish". And yet it is this bit of ephemera] that has a lasting impact on the young narrator: "When the restraining influence of the school was at a distance I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me" (Joyce, 1969, 20-21). A "chronicle" is a chronological record of events, a specific sort of history, so a chronicle of disorder" is, on the face of it, an oxymoron; that is to say, a chronicle that is disordered ceases to be a chronicle. But I would suggest that a "chronicle of disorder" is the non-chronological experience of impossible-to-historicize moments, experience that nonetheless allows for the re-emergence of a forgotten "possibility" – an alternative sense of continuity in one's identity over time. "History," as Father Butler might allow it, makes no sense to the everyday reality of a boy growing up in an Ireland colonized by the British Empire.

20In other words, the "escape" afforded by chronicles of disorder is not an escape from history but rather an escape from the historicized to the non-yet-historicized where the colonial subject may have access to possibilities systematically disallowed by the sham "actualities" imposed by the dominant historical narrative of a conquering culture. "From its own niche," Senn suggests, "Ulysses may have helped to change our views of what history also is; we have now learned to read an age not solely in terms of its great masterpieces and dominant philosophies, but particularly in its newspapers, its advertisements, or its fashions" (Senn, 1994). But what we see as early as Dubliners, in story after story, is the importance, as well, of unrecorded gesture and feeling. Recorded history will give a particular sense of "the time" in which one lived, but no sense of the lived, felt experience of the everyday. Without an agreed upon "meta-narrative" such as religion or history, individuals in modernity register time through creating "moments" in the everyday, or having such moments converge on them unexpectedly. Such moments are the secular equivalent of what might, formerly, have been experienced as religious revelation, and it is for this reason Joyce borrowed a "sacred" term – the epiphany (the moment when God is manifested) – to describe very ordinary, "secular" moments: "This is the moment which I call epiphany… when the parts are adjusted to the special point" (Joyce, 1969, 213, my emphasis). The epiphany is precisely what Joyce valued and presented as the not-yet- historicized, thus hiding his obsession with history in plain sight, but only a "history" that perseveres beneath the dominant discourse of "official" history. Such sources as newspapers, advertisements, and fashions are not an overlooked source of history; they are "chronicles of disorder" or records of a different kind of history. We should not use them to "correct" the record of dominant historical narrative, but to become aware of a different record: the history of everyday experience operating beneath, beyond, and in between the stern and spurious mono-causality of historical narrative.


Works cited

Joyce, James, 1969. Dubliners Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, New York: The Viking Press.

——————, 1969. Stephen Hero. Theodore Spenser ed. Revised by J. Slocum and Herbert Cahoon, London: Cape

Leonard, Garry. 1993. Reading Dubliners Again A Lacanian Perspective, New York Syracuse University Press.

Senn, Fritz, 1994. Joyce and the Subjet of History. Eds. Robert Spoo, Victor Luftig and Marc Wollaeger, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Simmel, Georg, 1950. "The Metropolis and Mental Life," The Sociology of Georg Simmel New York: Free Press.

Wilde, Oscar, 1990. "The Decay of Lying" The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, England : Blitz Editions.


University of Toronto

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2001

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search