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"In the Gloom of the Hall": Chronotopic Motifs in Dubliners

p. 117-123

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1Right in the middle of Julio Cortàzar's short story "Casa tomada" ("Occupied house"), it suddenly comes to the narrator's mind that he has not yet said anything about the location of the rooms in the house. He then gives an account of the many rooms, halls, corridors, doors and passages leading from one part to another in the house (Cortázar, 1982, 15ff).

2In that one paragraph description, Cortâzar creates an interior which is not very far from that of the Gothic novel while using a set of motifs which is very common in modern literature at the beginning of the twentieth century. Readers of Franz Kafka, for instance, certainly remember his story about the elderly bachelor Blumfeld, which begins with the description of Blumfeld's return home. He has to climb up the staircase to the sixth floor where he lives and where he one day encounters the jumping white celluloid balls (Kafka, 1994, 183). In the short piece "The Cares of a Family Man" we meet the extraordinary creature called Odradek, which - as Kafka writes - "lurks by turn in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall" (Kafka, 1994, 428). Odradek is treated and addressed like a child, but he may survive the narrator who in the end of the story says:

Am I to suppose that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him. right before the feet of my children, and my children's children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful. (Kafka. 1994, 429)

3Locales and places like doors, halls, staircases and thresholds make up a multifaceted set of motifs which, in Kafka's works, culminates in his three novels. This was noticed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who refer in the beginning of their book on Kafka to Kafka's America and The Castle. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986, 3). Other examples abound in the literature of Kafka's contemporaries. To give one example, in Italo Svevo's (pseudonym of Ettore Schmitz) novel Confessions of Zeno(La coscienza di Zeno, 1924) the first-person narrator, Zeno Cosini, is standing in a staircase in front of a door listening to the melody La mia bandiera, which his mistress Carla is singing in the room. Carla's singing awakens both tenderness and lust in the narrator, who surreptitiously enters the room. Inside, however, he gets a quite different impression of Carla's singing, and the terrified narrator withdraws from the room (Svevo, 1958, 166). Zeno's dream about himself is also very important. Here the narrator encounters his wife Augusta and Augusta's sister Ada, Zeno's first love, who had turned down his marriage proposal. In his dream Zeno is on the steep staircase embracing his wife's feet, when they see Dr. Basedow's threatening figure (Ada was suffering from Basedow's disease) (Svevo, 1958, 290ff).

4All the modern writers who were using this particular set of motifs had an influential predecessor in Dostoevsky. Mikhail Bakhtin noticed it and his studies of Dostoevsky's poetics showed how staircases, thresholds and corridors are places "where crisis events occur, the falls, resurrections, renewals, epiphanies, decisions that determine the whole life of a man" (Bakhtin, 1981, 248). In discussing Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Bakhtin enumerates the places and locales of the novel:

The threshold, the foyer, the corridor, the landing, the stairway, its steps, doors opening onto the stairway, gates to front and back yards, and beyond these, the city: squares, streets, façades, taverns, dens, bridges, gutters. This is the space of the novel. And in fact absolutely nothing here ever loses touch with the threshold, there is no interior of drawing rooms, dining rooms, halls, studios, bedrooms where biographical life unfolds and where events take place in the novels of writers such as Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gontcharov. (Bakthin, 1984, 170)

5Bakhtin describes in detail the milieu where Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is living. His narrow room, which opens directly onto the landing of the staircase, resembles a coffin (Bakthin, 1984, 170). Bakhtin also pays attention to Raskolnikov's dreams where the dreamer sees himself at the top of the stairs (Baktin, 1984, 168ff), a motif that figures prominently in Zeno Cosini's dream in Italo Svevo's novel, as just mentioned. It is also worth noting here that in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky gave such a detailed and reliable picture of St. Petersburg that it is easy for the modern visitor to identify the buildings and gateways described in the novel (See Othman, 1984).

6Such places and situations where "crisis events occur" can be called chronotopes. At the beginning of his essay "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope of the Novel", written in the 1930s, Bakhtin characterized the concept of the chronotope as follows:

In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.(Bakkthin, 1981, 84)

7In the history of the novel, beginning from the Greek romance, we can distinguish several different kinds of chronotope. Later on, in the 1970s, Bakhtin modified his notion of the chronotope by introducing some specific chronotopic forms. They can also be called chronotopic motifs in distinction from major chronotopes that can be found in the subgenres of the novel or from the chronotopes of great historical places like Rome (Bakthin, 1986, 40ff).

8While a chronotope is closely connected with the nature of a particular literary genre, a chronotopic motif is a sort of "congealed event", and a chronotopic place is a condensed reminder of the kind of time and place that typically functions there (Morson and Emerson, 1990, 374). According to Bakhtin, typical chronotopic motifs are for instance the road, the castle, the threshold and the salon, which in turn have appeared throughout the history of the novel. The road is a typical chronotopic motif in adventure novels; the castle serves as such in the Gothic novel, while the salon is the most obvious spatio-temporal category in the works of Stendhal, Balzac, and, we may add, Proust. It is also to be remembered that the number of minor chronotopes is unlimited, or as Bakhtin explained in another connection:

Within the limits of a single work and within the total literary output of a single author we may notice a number of different chronotopes and complex interactions among them, specific to the given work or author; it is common moreover for one of these chronotopes to envelop or dominate the others […]. Chronotopes are mutually inclusive, they co-exist, they may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships. (Bakthin, 1986, 252)

9Bakhtin also emphasizes that these interrelationships and interactions are dialogical.

10Bakhtin may be critized for seeing the chronotope of the threshold as a late phenomenon in literature (See Cook, 1985). On the other hand, Bakhtin himself emphasized that chronotopes and chronotopic motifs can have a long aftermath and old chronotopes can appear in modified forms in great modern works. This is exactly what happened in James Joyce's works. Except for a brief reference to Joyce in a short article on Flaubert, Bakhtin did not discuss Joyce (Brandist, 1998, 112). However, it is obvious that Joyce in his Ulysses has adopted all the chronotopic motifs mentioned by Bakhtin to such an extent that the result is the abolition of time and eternal repetition. As Frank Kermode noted: "[Ulysses] unites the irreducible chronos of Dublin with the irreducible kairoi of Homer" (Kermode, 1967, 46ff; cf. de Almeida, 1981, 184)).1

11Such sets of chronotopic motifs consisting of doors, thresholds, halls and staircases as well as of windows were typical of Joyce's earlier works. As in the case of Dostoevsky, it is easy to see that Joyce generally described places which he knew from his own experience. In Joyce's prose poem Giacomo Joyce, for instance, the beloved woman is seen in staircases which still exist (Joyce, 1968, 1, 11, 13, 15).2 In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the young Stephen Dedalus goes through a corridor to the rector's office to lodge a complaint against Father Dolan, The corridor may still be visited today in Joyce's own school Clongowes Wood College (Bradley, 1982, 72-73). The chrpnotopic nature of this scene, the condensation of historical feeling, is underlined by the portraits hanging on the wall. It is not a mere coincidence that Kafka, too, has portraits in similar connections (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986, 3ff).

12In Joyce's Portrait the corridors and staircases can be regarded as variations of the theme of the maze; as such they are part of the Daedalean imagery of the novel (23) (Hayman, 1964, 37ff; Mottola, 1991). At each stage of his spiritual development Stephen finds himself in a maze from which there is no easy escape. According to mythology two heroes had escaped from a maze, Daedalus and Theseus, who were helped by Ariadne's thread. Where Kafka's Odradek has a real thread, Stephen also has his Ariadne's thread, whether it be a woman, philosophy or aesthetics.

13This chronotope is rather common in Dubliners. Most of the protagonists in Joyce's stories who live an unhappy life have to seek their way through a corridor or up a staircase where their deplorable situation becomes visible. In the first story, "The Sisters", the young narrator goes to the house where an old priest has died:

In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of mourning. It was after sunset: but the window panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds. Nannie received us in the hall; and, as it would have been unseemly to have shouted at her, my aunt shook hands with her for all. The old woman pointed upwards interrogatively and, on my aunt's nodding, proceeded to toil up the narrow staircase before us, her bowed head being scarcely above the level of the banister-rail. At the first landing she stopped and beckoned us forward encouragingly towards the open door of the dead-room. My aunt went in and the old woman, seeing that I hesitated to enter, began to beckon me again repeatedly with her hand. (Joyce 1992, 6)

14In "The Boarding House" Mr. Doran's relationship with Polly begins in the staircase: "They used to go upstairs on tiptoe, each with a candle, and on the third landing exchange reluctant good-nights." When he has to face Polly's mother, Mrs. Mooney, he has again to go through the staircase, where he feels the difficulty of the situation:

Going down the stairs his glasses became so dimmed with moisture that he had to take them off and polish them. He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step. The implacable faces of his employer and of the Madam stared upon his discomfiture. On the last flight of stairs he passed Jack Mooney who was coming up from the pantry nursing two bottles of Bass. They saluted coldly; and the lover's eyes rested for a second or two on a thick bulldog face and a pair of thick short arms. When he reached the foot of the staircase he glanced up and saw Jack regarding him from the door of the return-room. (Joyce. 1992, 63)

15In "A Painful Case" the threshold is mentioned in connection with Mr. Duffy's way of reacting to the newspaper article telling about the death of Mrs. Sinico: "The shock which had first attacked his stomach was now attacking his nerves. He put on his overcoat and hat quickly and went out. The cold air met him on the threshold; it crept into sleeves of his coat" (Joyce, 1986, 112). In "Counterparts" and "A Mother" people go constantly from one room to another or go through staircases or corridors. In the first part of "Grace" Mr. Kernan has fallen down the stairs in the lavatory of the pub, which is a symbolic event to be then developed further in Joyce's major works.

16The most important story in this respect is of course "The Dead", where three scenes use this chronotope. First, Gabriel meets the caretaker's daughter Lily in the pantry, a place which is usually between the kitchen and the drawing room. The meeting is the first of the bitter experiences which Gabriel has in the story. When the party is over, Gabriel sees a woman in the hall: "He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white" (Joyce, 1992, 21 0ff). It is "in the gloom of the hall" where Gabriel feels the grace and mystery which is in the woman's attitude. Later on, when Gabriel and his wife come to the hotel, the porter leads them through the stairs and the corridor (Hart, 1988, 17).3

17In addition to these passages, Joyce's stories also include some examples of how chronotopic motifs may take extended forms. In "Clay", for instance, Maria's tram ride from the laundry to her brother's home may be regarded as such an extension of a chronotope. In "Eveline" the station hall is a place between Dublin and the passage to Buenos Aires. When the time of departure came, Eveline, instead of leaving with Frank for South America, "gripped with both hands at the iron railing." Both of these examples include a reference to the colour brown, in "Clay" Maria has her "old brown raincloak", while in "Eveline" there are soldiers with brown baggage.

18There are some common features in Joyce's use of these particular chronotopes. In Joyce the chronotopic activity often involves observing others or being observed. A person who goes in a corridor or climbs up a staircase usually sees other people, or other people are observing him or her, either real people or figures in portraits, as in the corridor scene in A Portrait. The spectators make the person walking in the corridor feel either the hard reality, for instance Jack Mooney who looks at Mr. Doran in "A Boarding House", or the burden of history, as for example the portraits of Saints and Jesuit fathers in A Portrait.

19For the person in the staircase seeing is often difficult. In "A Boarding House" Mr. Doran's spectacles become dimmed with moisture and he has to polish them. In "The Dead" the porter who leads Gabriel and Gretta to their room has a candle and he apologizes that they do not have a light in the room. At the end of the story Gabriel's eyes are filled with "generous tears". Some critics have connected the word 'generous' etymologically with the word 'general', which also occurs in the end of the story: "snow was general all over Ireland" (Vesala-Varttala, 1999, 71)4. Although this is a farfetched interpretation, it is quite appropriate to the chronotopic nature of Joyce's story It brings to a particular hotel room an apocalyptic presence: "His [Gabriel's] soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead" (Joyce, 1992, 224).

20For Joycean protagonists in Dubliners staircases and doors do not lead to a better situation, on the contrary. After the minor catastrophe with Lily, Gabriel must face other humiliations which culminate in the scene with his wife Gretta in the hotel room. Similarly, in "Clay", it is not at all certain, that Maria, after her tram ride, is a welcome guest in her brother's house. Joyce's characters in Dubliners do not have any Ariadne's thread to lead them out of the maze of their paralytic position.

21All in all, the notions of chronotope and chronotopic motif are useful theoretical tools for analyzing Dubliners. Some of Joyce's stories are reminiscent of the great chronotopes pf the novel. "An Encounter", for instance, has connections with the chronotopes of the adventure novel (Vesala-Varttala, 1999, 13 1ff),5 although there are certainly differences between the chronotope as used in the short story and novelistic chronotopes, which cannot be discussed here. On the other hand, in a short and compact story the chronotopic motifs, in Joyce's case, halls, corridors and staircases, are used very efficiently. One basic question, however, remains. Why have this particular chronotope and its combinations with other chronotopes proved so prolific? One single answer cannot be given, as there are certainly several reasons. Stepping over the threshold and going through a corridor means overcoming one's own limits and leads one to a new situation or a new level of consciousness. As such this chronotope is, among other things, a symbol of entering a new modern world and its new and unknown enterprises. This chronotope is also closely connected with the mythic theme of the maze and Daedalean imagery; as such, it may be a place where one is condemned to eternal wandering or a place where one encounters new enterprises.


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Notes de bas de page

1 To some extent Kermode's combination of 'chronos' and 'kairos' and Bakhtin's 'chronotope' resemble each other. It is also interesting that the term 'kairos' is derived from theology while Bakhtin got the concept of 'chronotope' from a biologist, who - in a speculative manner typical of Russian thought - was influenced by theology and religious ideas.

2 On labyrinths in novelistic fiction, see also Doody, 1998, 346ff.

3 The importance of stairs in "The Dead" was also noticed by John Huston in his film.

4 This is a reference to John Paul Riquelme.

5 We should also keep in mind the differences between the chronotopes of modern and postmodern short stories ( Falconer, 1998, 699 ff).

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