Notes on James Joyce
Introduction: Joyce’s career is bound up with political troubles in Ireland. Of course those troubles go back beyond even Cromwell. In C19, the Irish had national leaders such as Daniel O’Connell and Parnell. The Republic came in 1920, but that didn’t end the problems. Joyce wanted to avoid being pinned down by the nationalist cause, so he exiled himself from 1902 onwards and lived abroad in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich. I believe he gave English lessons sometimes to make a living—Joyce was no aristocrat or wealthy man.
It’s tempting to romanticize Joyce as a high priest of independent Modernist art, but the problem with this view is that his texts consistently put such possibilities of aesthetic escapism on the rack, and his art-priestly characters such as Stephen Dedalus aren’t convincing in their assertions of autonomy for an art that can either incorporate or exclude the world outside. If you want to be a wiseguy, I suppose you could say that this questioning doesn’t free him of the Modernist “high art” label: it could be argued that in Joyce we find Anglo-American High Modernism arguing with itself—with its own stylistic tendencies and claims to artistic autonomy that paradoxically set themselves forth as vitally important to entire cultures. And what could be more Modernist than that kind of balancing act?
In any case, it’s true enough that Joyce never really trusted other Modernists’ propensity to wield Classical and Irish myths as bedrock for the regeneration of the human spirit, and neither did he think that it was sufficient to return, as Yeats’ speaker in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” to “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” It seems that even the passionate and expressive moments that lead to artistic creation are always subject to some critical force beyond them and yet somehow connected with them. Everything, at all times, seems subject to mediation and change, in the texts of Joyce. There seems to be no “there there,” no starting point, no ending point, either for the characters in their attempt to set their life-lands in order, or for the artist reflecting upon the productions of his own mind. So the sometime “cool impersonality” of the Joycean narrator is not something we should take simply, in spite of his admiration for Gustave Flaubert’s fingernail paring. It implies a kind of disengaged, above-it-all artistic consciousness that exempts itself from the tribulations of the characters it creates. I think that Joyce sees this disinterestedness as a necessary pose, but is not following it out blindly. In “The Dead,” for instance, as Margot Norris says the bourgeois, Gabriel-happy narrative faces all sorts of “backtalk” and “palaver.”
In 1909, Joyce wrote an essay on Wilde. He was interested in Wilde because he was an Irishman who had to make his literary fame amongst the English, overcoming the barriers between them by his wit and genius. But Joyce’s fascination with Wilde stemmed in part from anxiety—Stephen describes Wilde as a court jester for the British. Joyce himself refused to make what he considered the humiliating pilgrimage to literary London. If one is an Irish artist, it may be possible to achieve something, but the English will never really accept you due to their racial and class-based pretensions. So Joyce saw being Irish as a trap, and turned internationalist, at least in a characteristically complex and ambivalent way.
Dubliners’ final story is “The Dead,” which stands out from the book and seems, at least if we accept the judgment of Gabriel at the conclusion, to swallow up all the other characters mentioned in the collection. As for Joyce’s style, I’ll take my cue from UCI’s Margot Norris. She says that most of Joyce’s work is based upon the language of desire—desire for recognition, for the overcoming of insecurities, etc. The characters speak not so much from conscious purpose as from such unconscious desires. And how does one construct a narrative that faithfully follows the movements of human desire? It is a very difficult task, no doubt, involving as it does all sorts of disjunctions and contradictions since our thoughts don’t always seem to come from anywhere specific or available to us, and they aren’t generally connected by any convincing sort of logic.. One could say with some justice that Joyce is a psychological realist, but that misses something vital if we don’t add that the narrative voice, even when it supports the characters’ streams of consciousness, doesn’t necessarily reduce to them. We have more than one track playing at the same time, and they aren’t necessarily in sync. Often the narrative voice or voices repeat or stage the main character’s blindness and inability to reflect upon their actions or motives. But this kind of repetition isn’t simple “copying”: it adds something, supplements the words and deeds of the character. And you should read your Derrida on a word like “supplementarity.”
What do Joyce’s characters desire? To be recognized by others, to overcome deep insecurities, to realize their erotic desires. The words they speak or even their internal monologues are produced by these desires, and so the overt narrative isn’t necessarily a trustworthy guide to “what’s really going on.” [We cannot count on a one-to-one correspondence between the words of the text and the internal discourse of the characters, which the narrative forces us to consider.] Often, too, the language in the text is borrowed from outside the text—from obscure historical references, persons, other literary texts, and even the language of commercial advertising. In sum, there is no unified narrative voice, so in Joyce, the narrator is not a principle of unity for the words others speak.
In addition, the language of desire is similar to parole vide, empty speech, speech that is not full. Parole pleine is speech plus gesture and context, environment, attitude. In Joyce, the meaning of what characters say is likely to be partly dependent on things that are going on as the words are spoken. What is done, and what is not said, may well account for much of the significance of a particular utterance. Gestures, positioning, and so forth, as on a stage, must be folded into whatever we draw from the utterances. Rather like a pantomime. The language of desire is a language that conceals aloud what the characters are like, what their real story or situation is—and of course such language produced by desire may well conceal these things from the characters themselves because they have a powerful need to conceal unpleasant insights or facts. Speech is concealment and self-concealment even as it reveals things overtly. Certainly Gabriel Conroy speaks this way in “The Dead.” What does Gabriel really think of his wife Gretta? Of Ireland? Etc. Is any of this ever captured raw, without mediation, even by the most brutally honest-seeming of his remarks as at the end of the story?
Moreover, sometimes a character will be talking, and all of a sudden another character’s gaze interrupts the flow of dialogue, stopping the speaker in his or her tracks. Often in Joyce, characters are forced to see themselves as they don’t want to be seen—as others see them. Refer to Ulysses, for instance: early in the work, Stephen Dedalus the would-be great artist is standing on the Martello Tower, along with Buck Mulligan his cynical Irish friend. He shows Stephen his face in a shaving mirror he has filched from the maid, saying “The rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass,” and Stephen, catching the reference to Wilde’s witticism about literary realism’s failure, says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.” Stephen is afraid of becoming a servant of the English, as he thinks Wilde did. He holds out the mirror, looks at himself, and says, “as he and others see me.” That’s a primal fear in Joyce: that you will be seen in an unflattering light by others, and that their disapproval will prove damaging to you in your quest to achieve whatever you have set out to—gain artistic freedom, get free of nationalist struggling, etc. Worse yet, your high hopes may turn out to be pretentious illusions. One’s illusions may be stripped away by the gaze and speech of others.
On to “The Dead.” The setting is the annual Christmas party at the home of the sisters Kate and Julia Morkan. Like Joyce and many Irish people, everyone here loves opera. Julia especially was once, perhaps, a talented singer. Gabriel is expected to carve the Christmas goose and make a little speech.
2241. Notice the interchange between Gabriel and Lily the caretaker’s daughter, a working stiff. Gabriel is middle class and well educated. Perhaps he looks down on others without wanting to admit it to himself. He supposes “we’ll be going to your wedding.” But he hears that men nowadays are “only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” This surprises him, cutting through his class and gender-based presuppositions or misunderstandings that structure Gabriel’s entire existence. She has interrupted him with a genuine working-class, unromantic view of men. Then Gabriel forces money on her, and she finds that insulting. By his standards, the act is well-meant, but Lily appears to see through it and get to the bourgeois condescension in the gesture. This is a typical kind of encounter in Joyce.
2242. Here the speech betrays Gabriel’s anxiety about how to relate to the others at the gathering. He must make a speech. Discomposed by Lily’s words and attitude, he fiddles with his clothing, and wonders if he should leave the line by Browning in. They might not understand the quotation. Perhaps Shakespeare or an Irish melody would be more to the purpose? He will surely seem pompous and self-promoting. Apparently, Gabriel lumps Kate and Julia with their servant—all are ignorant Irish folk.
2243. The exchange about galoshes. How does Gabriel relate to his wife Greta? This exchange illustrates what Norris says about how Joyce’s texts are structured by the language of desire. They are talking past one another. Gabriel’s solicitude isn’t quite what it seems, though nobody says that. Joyce’s narrator never takes the side of anyone but Gabriel—it doesn’t overly undercut him or think other thoughts. The narrator never exposes him or says “Gabriel was wrong.” Rather, the narrative voice is blind, perhaps in the same way that Gabriel is to his own flaws and to his inability to comprehend his situation. But how does Gabriel actually relate to his wife, insofar as we can tell by interpreting the scene as a whole, and not basing our view just on what the characters say? He makes her wear the galoshes; it’s a matter of control, not health—he never inquires what Greta thinks or feels. That failure will show most of all when we find out about Greta’s passion for Michael Furey, and even before then at the moment when we see her gazing up the stairs at the great tenor. Greta, too, conceals out loud the true relationship between herself and her husband. “The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Now there’s overdetermined language—the two of them are in an alien environment, estranged, insulated in their respective bubbles. For Gabriel, Greta is a Victorian “Angel of the Hearth.” What is done around him in this scene undercuts Gabriel: Aunt Julia cuts him down with “and what are galoshes, Gabriel?” She does not laugh along with Kate. Does Julia understand something about Gabriel and Greta that Kate doesn’t? A student says that Gabriel must feel like he’s the butt of everybody’s jokes. He’s on stage, and always anxious about how his performance is being taken—as during the after-dinner speech, where he hopes to shine and hopes to put Miss Ivors in her place because she has accused him of not being a good nationalist.
2247-48. The scene with Miss Ivors. Around this point Gabriel betrays ambivalence towards his mother, who had opposed his marriage to Greta, calling her “country cute.” We keep seeing the Irish/British rifts coming up, but the class divisions appear even within the same family. Then Miss Ivors accuses him of being a “West Briton,” someone who sees Ireland as a British colony. Gabriel suffers the hostile gaze of this new and sophisticated breed of nationalists. He defends his journalism as apolitical. But in this context, being apolitical is political. Silence speaks volumes, and Gabriel looks to Miss Ivors like a fence-sitter. He sees literature as above politics, but he can’t defend this view in her presence, and is doomed to be seen as he doesn’t want to be seen. On 2248, Gabriel is drawn into saying that he is “sick of his country.” She has heated him, making him look ridiculous in front of others, and all Gabriel can do is play the gender card: she’s just a woman anyway.
2251. Julia used to sing in the choir, and had a budding career. She may not have been a great soprano. Mr. Brown the protestant intruder plays a role here, introducing Julia as a “discovery.” She’s treated as a wayward child who need defending; her thoughts never get much attention. Kate is more of a radical, criticizing her own religion. She says the Pope was wrong to keep women out of Church choirs, but Julia is embarrassed to hear such talk in front of the outsider Mr. Brown.
2256ff. Gabriel makes his speech, and his theme is the tradition of Irish hospitality, as evidenced in his hosts’ kind offer of an annual gathering. But of course Gabriel himself is no fan of Irishism, and doesn’t seem to think much of the ignorant old women who are his hosts. So there’s some hypocrisy in his speech, which he turns into an occasion to get back at Miss Ivors. (Wasn’t it written beforehand? Did he change it to suit the occasion?) The anecdote on the late Mr. Patrick Morkan, his grandfather, “the old gentleman,” makes fun of the family’s ancestors. There’s something uncannily realistic about this dinner: no wonder holidays are so depressing for so many of us. We wind up our dysfunctional relationships and watch them go.
2260. Gabriel and Greta’s relationship. How does he perceive her at the bottom of this page? He has an idea of Greta, she is an aesthetic object to him. He recognizes her clothes first, and builds up an image of her. If we didn’t know Gabriel somewhat, we might consider this a romantic moment. But since we are aware of his anxieties, we can’t read the moment that way. He’s turning his wife into a statue to be viewed with Kantian disinterestedness.
2262-63. Gabriel’s disinterestedness turns into erotic desire when Greta walks alongside him after the party. But this romantic pursuit turns frankly sexual, though Greta seems unaware of Gabriel’s emotions. It seems he has been hoping that the trip to the Morkan gathering would rejuvenate his marriage, the “secret” part of it.
2266-Conclusion: But the snow has been falling all along. Mary Jane brought it up at 2261; the “snow being general all over Ireland.” Social and marital conventions may be one thing that the snow symbolizes, dampening the fire of the soul and the passion in Gabriel and Greta’s marriage. Michael Furey was a hopeless consumptive romantic youth, and he makes an obvious contrast with Gabriel throughout the marriage. Gabriel is confronted with Michael as Greta’s hidden past; this is because he never bothered to ask her any questions. Gabriel sees himself as others see him, at least to a great extent, and his wife has unwittingly been instrumental in this epiphany. Does he fully accept the harsh picture of himself that now appears to him? Whether he does or doesn’t, does his current perspective change anything? Addition 9/29/2003: I should say more about the snow: sometimes symbols of this sort have a transformative power upon the narrative or the characters: it unites disparate threads and realizations. But is that true here? Has Gabriel been granted an epiphany about the meaning of his life? It seems to me that this literary symbol retains the wetness and blanketing, voiding qualities of real snow: it erases and blurs all sense of distinction and difference, the whole attempt on Gabriel’s part to sort things out concerning his marriage and his status with regard to Irish politics. The characters fade into the dreary landscape and unite with the dead, whose story is now over. To me, it seems that the whole narrative has led inexorably to this fading away into insignificance, as if there never was any way up or out. But why not? Is it Gabriel’s fault? Is it something else or something in addition to his past thoughts and conduct as an individual?