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Joyce's Dubliners

Claudine Raynaud

Family Resemblances in Dubliners

R. Brandon Kershner

Texte intégral

1Dubliners is a dark box full of infinite echoes. Voices, characters, actions, and situations echo one another from start to finish; indeed, we might say that in Joyce's Dublin nothing happens only once, so that even the most surprising and shocking events are not really unique but merely apparently new outbreaks of what is eventually revealed as an old virus. Even when, for instance, Corley opens his hand to reveal the gold sovereign, we are not really surprised, even if we had been led to believe that he was on a mission to obtain sexual favors; Lenehan's constant brooding over money should have prepared us for this mock-epiphany. In this respect, the central story of the collection is "Counterparts," the most schematic and self-consistent tale of the collection, in which the protagonist, having been verbally abused by his employer, Mr Alleyne, and then physically humiliated by the British man named Weathers, returns home to beat his son, much like the cartoon skit in which we see a row of monkey of descending sizes in which the larger monkey strikes the smaller one beside him, who strikes his smaller neighbor, and so on until the smallest monkey is left without recourse

2I have argued elsewhere that this is a story of repetitions on the textual and thematic level as well:

Farrington is a copyist, whose official function is repetition, but who also "fails'" through repetition and is "punished" through repetition: when he inadvertently writes "Bernard Bernard" in place of "Bernard Bodley" he must recopy the entire page (Joyce, 1968, 90). He copes with failure by repeatedly slipping out for a drink and is detected in this transgression because of repetition: "I know that game, [the chief clerk] said. Five times in one day is a little bit." (Joyce, 1968, 89). This is despite the fact that Farrington has disguised his trip to the bar by leaving one hat on the rack and secreting another (actually a cap) in his pocket. He is tw ice thrcatened with dismissal. Farrington's oppressor, Mr. Alleyne, has a ghostly double, Mr. Crosbie, who doubles the threat to Farrington. Farrington's problems are multiplied by his failure to produce copies of two letters from the Delacour file. The w itness to Mr. Alleyne's discomfiture, Miss Delacour of the "Jewish appearance" (Joyce, 1968, 90), is doubled by the woman in the bar with the "large dark brown eves" (Joyce. 1968, 95). Of course the British Weathers who twice defeats Farrington at armwrestling doubles Alleyne w ith his Protestant, northern accent, while at the story's end Farrington browbeats his son precisely as Alleyne browbeats him. Meanwhile, his wife has gone to the chapel for solace just as Farrington had earlier visited his 'curate' (Joyce, 1968, 89).(Kershner, 1989, 101).

3We are caught here in a universe of compulsive repetition that bears some resemblance to the world. Theodor Adorno (rather unfairly, in my view) ascribes this phenomenon to twentieth-century popular culture, in which the same thing is perpetually being offered up and a strictly limited number of reactions are possible. Farrington originally incurred his supervisor's wrath, unsurprisingly, when he was overheard mimicking Alleyne's northern accent to amuse his work mates (Joyce, 1968, 92), and when Alleyne browbeats Farrington he does so by parodically repeating Farrington's own words:

– But Mr Shelley said, sir –
– Mr Shelley said, sir… Kindly attend to what I say and not to what Mr Shelley says, sir (Joyce, 1968, 87)

– I know nothing about and other two letters, he said stupidly.

– You – know – nothing. (Joyce, 1968, 91)

4In fact, it is when Farrington uncharacteristically steps off this narrow round of repetition that he gets into trouble. When Alleyne asks him, "Do you take me for a fool?", Farrington is, of course, expected to be confined to a yes or no answer: a "yes" would merit his immediate dismissal, a "no" would certify his submission When he replies,"I don't think, sir, that that's a fair question to put to me," he has for a moment apparently broken out of the cycle.

5We might consider for a moment some of the wider implications and analogues of Farrington's plight. We can easily understand his frustration: professionally speaking, he is little more than a xerox machine, and when he drinks he becomes a malfunctioning xerox machine. His pain is always doubled because his humiliations are always witnessed by another, just as Mr Alleyne would have been nowhere near as angry had not Miss Delacour been present to witness Farrington's comeback. And Miss Delacour is important to him because she is already familiar to him as a type, just as the woman in the bar with her "large dark brown eyes" and her "London accent" (Joyce, 1968, 95) is familiar to him. Both signify a higher class, and thus are women whose approval he strives to win, while the accents of Alleyne and Weathers, conversely, signify the conquering male. Interestingly enough, the two women figures are ambiguous in their power status because despite their elegance they are after all women who have some of the trappings of "Jewishness," and thus are "orientalized" – associated with the exotic and erotic East – and thus Farrington may see them as potential sexual prey.

6But all four figures are dangerous, because all share a family resemblance. And such situations are echoed by analogues throughout the book. Farrington's abuse of his child is echoed in Little Chandler's yelling at his own baby in "A Little Cloud" after his own discomfiture at the hands of Gallagher, the Irishman who has "gone Brit," while his drunken defeat by Weathers is echoed by Jimmy's drunken defeat by the international group in "After the Race." The theme of alcohol crops up most notably, of course, in "Grace," but also surfaces at the end of "Clay," as well as in "Ivy Day" "After the Race," "Eveline," "A Painful Case," and (with Freddy Malins) in "The Dead." Throughout Dubliners, those in positions of authority are eager to abuse that authority in minor ways, while those in positions of subservience search for paths of resistance, escape, or evasion. Such tiny battles take on a particular pathos because of our growing realization that everyone involved in these power transactions has, in the larger scheme, very little power indeed; punching-bags and bullies alike, they are all in the small, echoing box.

7What then might we say of those moments when the characters seem to strike out on their own, to break the repetitive round, or give the unexpected answer – Farrington surprising Alleyne, the boys of "An Encounter" deciding to skip school in search of adventure, Eveline thinking about running away with her sailor, and many others? The point of these moments of rebellion, I think, is that they are themselves repetitions, modeled upon half-understood paradigms of rebellion generally reiterated in popular literature and in the popular press. Farrington has chanced upon a witticism, what he himself is astounded to discover is a verbally "felicitous moment" (Joyce, 1968, 91) in which this dirty-eyed brute is momentarily transformed into a sort of cut-rate Oscar Wilde. But of course the moment cannot last, and he is thrown back on his own resources, for all his efforts to prolong it through repeating his witticism throughout the evening. I have argued that the boys of "An Encounter" who search for adventure imagine themselves avatars of the three boys who starred in the boys' magazine Stories of Pluck – "Jack, a brave British boy with the adventurous spirit; Sam, a skilled hunted; and Pete, a Negro ventriloquist, who was the real life of the party" (Kershner, 1989, 33). It is understandable that as restless citizens of the waning British Empire the boys would want to escape the parallel universe of Roman history, but the happy-go-lucky struggles of Pluck and the Halfpenny Marvel offer them alternatives that, under the pressure of Dublin realities, are revealed as equally formulaic. When they are confronted with the old "josser" who is unredeemably "other" – who, in Garry Leonard's words, is "polymorphously perverse," and who, nightmarishly, has "the directionless sexual instinct of a child," (Leonard, 1993, 61) an abyss opens under them. Though the old man's case is sad, his is a rebellion they can scarcely conceive of, and they are doubtless happy to return to school the next day and render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

8Oddly, something of the same sort happens to Eveline, who means to escape one sort of repetition – essentially, becoming her own mother, with the abuse and drudgery to which she saw her condemned – by running away with Frank to Buenos Aires. Yet despite the fact that Frank has wooed her with popular romances like The Bohemian Girl – whose burden is that running away from home to marry a mysterious stranger leads to riches and reconciliation with the father – Eveline is necessarily suspicious. And as Katherine Mullin has recently demonstrated, her suspicions may be justified by the fact that at the turn of the century Buenos Aires was popularly thought to be the main destination to which British and Irish girls were brought unwittingly to take part in the White Slavery trade (Mullin, 1997). Like the boys of "An Encounter," Eveline, has begun to suspect that escape from the repetitions of Dublin is not so simple a matter as she has imagined – indeed, that many times the idea of freedom itself may contain snares and fetters stronger than those she has escaped in her previous bondage. Something of this sort is realized by Bertha in the play Exiles as Richard offers Bertha her "freedom" and she explodes in perfectly justified rage.

9If we return to our initial figure of the small, dark, echoing box, let us imagine a tiny hole in the box through which light penetrates, leaving a permanent trace on Joyce's highly sensitized paper Dubliners is not only a book of echoes and repetitions but a book of photographic stills, frozen moments, even of somewhat theatrical tableaux vivants. Perhaps the most melodramatic of these is the final scene of "After the Race," where the Hungarian throws open the cabin door after the night of carousing and card-playing to announce, "Daybreak, gentlemen," allowing the cruel morning light to reveal the penniless and hungover Jimmy, leaning his head on his hands at the table that has been his downfall. Most of the still scenes are more compelling than this, though, like the picture of Eveline gripping "with both hands at the iron railing," unable to move, with her strangely blank eyes that "gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition" (Joyce, 1968, 41). A curious counterpart to this scene is the end of The Boarding House," where Polly Mooney lies on her bed in a rather different trance, awaiting the end of her mother's interview with Bob Doran, equally unconscious of her surroundings, turned wholly inward until she forgets even what she is waiting for. In both scenes, we are given details of the physical setting and also some access to the women's feelings – but not enough to understand their final attitudes, which remain mysterious.

10In fact, in such scenes we are put in the position of Gabriel watching Gretta at the head of the stairs in "The Dead," who makes the mistake of consciously savoring his spectatorship of what he takes to be a tableau vivant:

There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter (Joyce, 1968. 110)

11Joyce s rhetoric here makes it clear, through the awkwardness of phrasing, including the naive repetitions – "a symbol of," "if he were a painter" – that Gabriel's perceptions and reactions are not to be trusted He has come across his wife in a privileged moment, when she is listening to a piece of music that has special meaning for her, and is attempting to transform it into a privileged moment for him in which she herself will be transformed into an icon He is the bourgeois husband, attempting to own his wife's moment of experience and transform her particular esthetic experience into a generic one.

12I have been asking myself, what is a man standing in the hall looking at a woman standing on the stairs listening to distant music a symbol of? One answer here is self-congratulation, and another is fatuousness. We can learn this because unlike Polly and Eveline, who have no one but us to interrogate them, we see that Gretta has Gabriel, and can answer back. Later in the hotel room, he sees her in a number of postures which he tries to assimilate to his erotic fanlasy – gazing out the window or sprawled across the bed, abstracted or weeping - and offers dialogue such as ""Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?" (Joyce, 1968, 218). I can only hazard a guess here that Gabriel wants Gretta to admit blushingly that she has felt lonely and is in need of marital comfort. He is, of course, appalled that she has another scenario entirely in mind. When she delivers her revelation about the young lover who she feels died for her, he realizes that the rather cheap nineteenth-century romanticism of his imagined picture "Distant Music" has turned around and bitten him. The convention of doomed young love, with its saving realistic touches of tuberculosis and the gasworks, is more powerful than the idealized convention of spiritual woman and the music of the spirit which he had in mind in the hallway. And more to the point, he has no claim of ownership of the former: he has been married to it for years and had no idea it existed. What else, he may wonder, has lain beside him in bed every night?

13In her acute re-readings of the Dubliners stories Margot Norris has argued that we as readers are deeply implicated in them through the inferences we make and the conclusions we draw (Norris, 1992). Nowhere is this process so clear as in our contemplation of the frozen moments in which the characters stand before us, helplessly displayed before our avid gazes, unable to speak for themselves. Here we are, of course, in the position of Gabriel, eager to name these moments "epiphanies," and to universalize their meanings under the rubrics of anomie, exaltation, self-knowledge, despair, or transcendence. But before we rush to do so, perhaps the lesson we should learn is the one Gabriel must learn: that his wife, like his country, has a history, one of which he was largely unaware until the moment it forced itself upon him. Articulating the past, Walter Benjamin says, means "to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger" (Benjamin, 1969, 255), a comment which seems to apply here at an unexpectedly personal level. In the background of Joyce's still photographs is always the mise-en-scène of a particular time and place: the ship in Dublin harbor with Frank in front of the barricades, about to set sail for the unknown, or the dingy lower-middle-class boarding-house room that spells out Polly's alternatives. Even the boy in "Araby" who stands motionless in the great darkening hall, his eyes filled with tears of "anguish and anger," will not speak to us until we understand what the orient meant to a colonial child who is himself somewhat "orientalized" by the empire whose backwater he inhabits. For that boy, the mysterious East, without his realizing the fact, has passed from a vital myth of British romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to a staple of commodity culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth – as testified to by the "great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall" (Joyce, 2000, 35) inhabited by a bantering shop-girl and two boys with English accents (Kershner, 1998, 273-96).

14In other words, we must not be fooled by the repetitions, echoes, and moments of stillness that seem to govern Dubliners. As Marx recognized, there is really no such thing as repetition, only repetition with a difference, and if history repeats itself sometimes as farce, eventually it will issue in cyclical change. We are accustomed to seeing these frozen moments as testaments to Joyce's artistry, but the majority of them belong to the characters as well; it is they who cease to move, because they cannot or will not or do not care to continue. Perhaps, unlikely as it may seem, the accumulation of enough of these moments of terrified stasis and frozen immobility will eventually issue in moments like Easter Day of 1916; soon enough Eveline's grip on the rail will be echoed by the suffragettes chaining themselves It is important to retain an understanding that passive resistance may sometimes be the only form of protest available - especially against us as readers.


Works cited

Benjamin, Walter, 1969. "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books.

Joyce, James, 1968 Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz eds. New York: Viking Press.

Kershner, R.B., 1998. "Ulysses and the Orient," James Joyce Quarterly, 35, 2/3 (winter/spring).

——, 1989. Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature: Chronicles of Disorder, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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

Mullin, Katherine, 1997. Unpublished conference presentation, Miami Joyce Conference, February.

Norris, Margot. 1992. Joyce's Web: The Social Unraveling of Modernism. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press


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