Bloomsday is tomorrow, June 16, a day of literary legend, which may also commemorate James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. But today is very special as well. It’s the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, which appeared on June 15, 1914. It took ten years for Joyce to get the book published. Sending an early version to his eventual publisher Grant Richards in London, Joyce wrote perhaps not the best cover letter ever composed but one of the truest. According to Nora’s biographer Brenda Maddox, Joyce told Richards he thought “there might be a market for ‘the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.’”
As Bruce Stone explains in his luminous essay here published, Dubliners was “a revolution without fanfare.” Joyce’s grim naturalism, his disposition to document the underside (not to mention the underclass) of Edwardian Dublin, has inspired much of what we call realistic and even minimalist fiction today. When I attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1980s, I had classmates who swore that “Araby” was the best short story ever written. Conversely, since it somewhat cants against the naturalistic grain of the stories, that word “epiphany,” used so often in the discourse of contemporary American letters, also derives from Joyce’s technique in Dubliners. But for Joyce, who couldn’t get out of Dublin fast enough when he was 22, who felt betrayed by city, family and literary culture, the book was a squaring of accounts. Bruce Stone writes, “Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind.”
Bruce Stone has published essays, book reviews, and fiction in Numéro Cinq, including “Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita” and “Viktor Shklovsk’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar,” two bedrock texts in terms of the aesthetic behind the magazine. “Dear Dirty Dubliners, Revisited: James Joyce’s Classic at the Century” is the third in this string of exemplary texts, erudite, insightful, surprising, and straight — not the sentimental celebration of the great Irish writer but a re-Joycing of Joyce, the writer returned to us.
“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Stephen Dedalus,
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
In June of 1914, after an agonizing labor fraught with complications—marriage, emigration, the births of two children, some unusually vexed negotiations with publishers, to say nothing of a rapidly crowning first novel—James Joyce saw his Dubliners delivered into print. The collected stories were written primarily between 1904 and 1906, and though several had appeared promptly in The Irish Homestead, the book would have to wait almost a decade for publication. The breakthrough came only after Joyce engineered a publicity coup, with the help of Ezra Pound. In an essay called “A Curious History,” Joyce aired his publication woes, naming names of fickle publishers and citing a disputed passage from the text. When Pound ran the article in The Egoist, the public shaming apparently did the trick, because Grant Richards, whose imprint had reneged on a contract in 1906, agreed to give the manuscript a second chance.
Early readers balked at the book’s then-scandalous content, which was enough to cause printers, fearing lewdness and libel charges, to break up the type. But even if we no longer share those period qualms, the collection’s arduous journey into print still seems inevitable. Perhaps no other great book can match in drabness, meanness, or deliberate ungainliness the fifteen stories of Dubliners. Turn-of-the-century Dublin, in Joyce’s lens, is a hard-scrabble place, shabby and penny-pinching, gas-lit and chill. There, alcoholics arm-wrestle for the national honor and lose, children suffer abuses both physical and spiritual (pedophiles prowl the public greens), marriages are joined out of necessity and spite, sex is mercenary, work routinized and alienating, life nasty and bleak, if rarely brutish or short (passivity and inertia are the rule). Dubliners is a boarding house for failed men and fallen women, with bad teeth, worse hair and cataracts of both eye and mind. And a few months after the book’s publication, all hell broke loose: the Archduke was shot, the European countries charged variously to war, and the course of civilization warped in proportion to the scale of the carnage. Against this backdrop, the tenor of Joyce’s book, its systemic anhedonia, its grim determination to record the blemishes and mange of the human populace, might have seemed oddly prescient, the only fit appraisal of our domestic condition. Maybe it’s less surprising then that this quiet, unprepossessing little volume, this revolution without fanfare, should continue to haunt us today, its blighted populace still animate, immune to the passage of time.
For most readers, if the collection’s title is familiar at all, it remains so largely because of its most toothsome parts: “Araby” and “The Dead” have been obsessively anthologized over the years, to the perennial chagrin of high school students and undergraduates. The rest of the book, like the inedible parts of the fish, is reserved for the inoffendable palates of scholars. This ghettoization of the stories has given rise to some serious misconceptions about Joyce’s achievement in the genre—which is no small matter since “Araby” and “The Dead” have conspired to establish perhaps the dominant paradigm for modern short fiction. On the strength of those two stories, generations of readers have been conditioned to think of Joyce as the progenitor of a photographic realism in literature, and of the epiphany—the sudden flash of insight, a burst of self-knowledge—which still ranks among the favored plot devices in contemporary short fiction.
In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Bennett captures indirectly the popular view of the book: that Dubliners represents Joyce’s flirtation with naturalism, an artistically conservative prelude to those later mad-scientist experiments of Portrait, Ulysses and the illegible Finnegan’s Wake (which Nabokov called a “petrified pun”). Bennett describes how this style took root at the Iowa Writers Workshop and rose to prominence in North American letters in the latter decades of the 20th century. He also conveys, in the same breath, his personal distaste for this programmatic realism and its blanching imperatives: to “carve, polish, compress and simplify: banish [oneself from the text] as T. S. Eliot advised and strive to enter the gray, crystalline tradition of modernist fiction as it runs from Flaubert through early Joyce and Hemingway to Raymond Carver (alumnus) and Alice Munro.” In Bennett’s view, Joyce’s aesthetic, subsequently institutionalized, equates to the triumph of showing over telling—and showing of a particular cast, call it literary asceticism. Bennett continues:
Frank Conroy [director of the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1987-2005] had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the iciness of early Joyce. Such lapidary simplicity becomes psychedelic if you polish it enough. Justin Tussing (class ahead of me) mastered it in his prismatic novel, The Best People in the World. I myself, feeling the influence, revised sentences into pea gravel.
For a long time I shared Bennett’s aversion to this artistic parsimony, its vows of linguistic chastity and metaphysical silence, that parched clarity and bitter taste, but I’ve since come to appreciate its limited charms. In “The Sisters,” for example, Joyce depicts the boy-narrator’s distraction as the kid prays in the mourning house of his dead mentor (a bent priest); unable to concentrate on the profundities of death and godliness, instead the boy observes the homely details of the priest’s sister kneeling beside him: “how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back, and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down to one side.” The details, for all their meanness, constitute an artistic revolution that still seems radical: the moment reads like a rebuke to the notion that literature should concern itself with melodrama or metaphysics, that the human comedy can be portrayed or conceived in such high-flown terms. Yet, the passage is played with monstrous restraint, as if nothing much is going on.
This low-mimetic drift of the art in Dubliners often approaches the sublime. In “An Encounter,” for example, another boy-narrator, this one playing hooky from school, offers in passing this line of description: “The day had grown sultry and in the windows of the grocers’ shops musty biscuits lay bleaching.” A throwaway moment, but the drabness of the image and the economy of the phrasing yield a magnesium flash in the consciousness (maybe this is the psychedelia that Bennett mentions). Such passages abound in Dubliners, but what most recommends Joyce’s naturalistic mode is the fact that his characters, as a consequence of this scrupulous accounting, are perfectly incarnated, fully realized if not always exactly alive.
Consider this description of the drunk Freddy Mallins, a bit player in “The Dead”: “His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavylidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy.” Freddy shows up at the Morkans’ party already soused, with his fly open, eager to share a bawdy story with anyone who’ll listen. When a Mr. Browne interrupts Freddy’s story to alert him to the “disarray in his dress” and give him some lemonade to sober him up, the vignette concludes with this little tableaux, forever inscribed in my memory:
Freddy Mallins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Mallins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of highpitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of the last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him.
There are characters in Shakespeare who have the same effect on me—like the flea-bitten ostlers in Henry IV, Part One who spend the night in a room without a chamber pot and resort to pissing in the fireplace. I think I went to high school with those guys—that is, such characters feel as alive to me as those in my own lived memories. And Freddy: that bronchitic laughter, that gesture of rubbing a fist into an eye itchy with tears of mirth. The feeling the passage evokes for me can only be described as love. Admittedly, Freddy is a gregarious anomaly among the cast of Dubliners. A more typical city denizen would be James Duffy, who lives in Chapelizod, on the outskirts of town, under self-imposed quarantine, his blood as congealed as the white grease on a plate of corned beef and cabbage. (He’s like one of those monks, mentioned in “The Dead,” who sleeps in his own coffin.) And Freddy Mallins himself isn’t exactly admirable. I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him, or spend time with him, or be responsible for him. I suspect that sometime soon he will do something stupid, maybe unforgivable (though not tonight—see how dutifully he tends to his aging mom and gets her settled in a horse-drawn cab at the party’s end). But that he exists at that moment, as he is, scanty hair and open fly and all, makes him lovable.
Even from a vantage point as jaundiced as Bennett’s, Joyce’s dreary collection retains a hard-earned luster. But this view of the book, as a forerunner of minimalist realism, is limited, as boxed-in as the blind end of North Richmond Street. Scholars have suspected as much (albeit contentiously) for decades, yet the memo seems not to have reached creative writing circles, or the heavily trafficked annexes of contemporary anthologies. What better way to observe, then, the collection’s centennial birthday than with a close examination of one of its forgotten stories, one which might begin to rectify those well-meaning misconceptions. For best results, I would submit for your perusal “A Little Cloud,” Joyce’s parody of the artist as a no-longer-young man. This little story, muted, discontinuous, captures the essence of the collection. It both revises our doctrinal assumptions about epiphanies and reveals how Dubliners anticipates Joyce’s later innovations, the book of a piece with, not other than, Portrait and Ulysses—in its own way just as momentous.
“A Little Cloud” Atlas
Like many of the stories in the book, “A Little Cloud” is an oddly warped, broken-backed affair. From start to finish, the plot spans only a few decisive hours in the life of Little Chandler, a milksop law clerk who dreams of becoming a celebrated Irish poet. We first meet him daydreaming at his desk, idling away the last of the workday in anticipation of his evening plans: his longtime friend, Ignatius Gallaher, now a journalist in London, has returned for a visit to “dear dirty Dublin,” and the men have arranged to grab a drink at a posh bar with a Continental vibe. Chandler envies Gallaher and tries to talk himself into believing that Gallaher deserves his good fortune, but after a few whiskeys at the bar, when the conversation turns to manners and sexual mores in Paris (a sore spot for the untraveled Chandler), Chandler’s resentment for his friend starts to manifest. The men jokingly disparage each other’s marital status—Chandler a husband, Gallaher a confirmed bachelor who vows to settle down only with a rich Jewish woman—and they part on uneasy terms, a pantomime of friendship and fellow-feeling.
At this point, the story cuts to Chandler’s house, and the conflict centers not on his stymied artistic career, but on his stultifying marriage (which is never mentioned until Gallaher raises the subject, and then himself disappears: the story fluidly shifts thematic focus—thus, the broken-backed feel of the narrative). Chandler has forgotten to bring home his wife’s tea, and though she claims not to mind the oversight, at the last minute, before the shop closes, she rushes out to get the tea, leaving Chandler, probably still buzzed from the alcohol, alone with his infant son.
Cue the epiphany. Chandler stares at a picture of his wife and discovers in her still-life eyes the truth about his marriage: “They repelled and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture.” The recognition sparks a wave of “resentment” for the whole of his life, and he longs to escape. For solace he opens a book of Byron’s poetry and tries to comfort himself with illusions of his own poetical nature, but just then, the baby starts crying, disrupting Chandler’s reading, and he snaps: “It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life. His arms trembled with anger and suddenly bending to the child’s face he shouted:–Stop!” Of course, this only makes matters worse. The baby begins to cry so hard that it struggles to breathe, and just in the nick of time, Chandler’s wife comes home and brutally relieves Chandler of his childcare duties. The story ends with Annie, the wife, soothing the child and a broken Chandler feeling “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes.”
Because the third-person point of view closely simulates Chandler’s perceptions, and because Chandler pretends to have a poetic cast of mind, “A Little Cloud” lacks some of the emphasis on naturalistic observation that makes “Araby” and “The Dead” famous. Instead, we get trace amounts of the musky humanity from those stories. See Gallaher, as he doffs his hat when he greets Chandler and acknowledges the toll of time on the body: “He bent his head and felt with two sympathetic fingers the thin hair at the crown.” In a similar spirit, Chandler’s house feels lived-in precisely because it’s so sterile in its staging, carefully curated—equipped with the nice, but not too nice, furniture that his wife picked out and which Chandler has bought “on the hire system” (a sort of rent-to-own arrangement). But given its comparative lack of physical details, “A Little Cloud” relies on dialogue to bring the characters to life, and it does. That dialogue is, to my ear, dullish, maybe too lifelike in its fidelity to the conversational conventions of the time, but when the talk turns acrimonious, Joyce captures indelibly Gallaher’s contempt for Chandler and his marriage:
I don’t fancy tying myself up to one woman, you know.
He imitated with his mouth the act of tasting and made a wry face.
Must get a bit stale, I should think, he said.
The words limn the gesture in only the barest terms, yet I can’t help but fill in the gaps, imagining Gallaher with scrunched lips, fussily mincing the rank idea. I can smell the smoke from the cigars that the men have been puffing.
Nevertheless, if this is all there is to Dubliners, if such moments are both part and parcel of Joyce’s achievement, I think the collection would survive for us largely as a footnote to the monumental novels, and it might be justifiably parted out for the assembly of a crash course in narrative design. But the lifelikeness in Dubliners is mere prelude to a more complicated and more compelling agenda, as even the enigmatic title of “A Little Cloud” attests. To what does this title refer? The Little clearly evokes Little Chandler’s name, but the Cloud is curiously opaque. Does it refer to the cigar smoke wafting around the men’s conversation? Is it a Biblical reference, as the Norton Critical Edition scholars suggest? Is there a typo perhaps: should the title have read “A Little Clod”? Is the plot crisis here tantamount to a cloud passing over Chandler’s existence (or burning off in the sunlight of epiphany)? Might the Cloud denote the ungrounded quality of the narrative, its relative lack of physical description? The text never explicitly confirms any of the reader’s suppositions. What the title does make clear is that the story’s vision doesn’t promise or aspire to perfect clarity—however harsh, grainy and overexposed a “realistic” clarity might be. No, this story, like the book to which it belongs, trades in equal measure, perhaps primarily, in obfuscation.
Narcissus and Echo
The fluent banality of the dialogue, for example, its plodding mimesis, doesn’t define the story’s tone; rather, it sharply contrasts with the lyrical timbre of Chandler’s poeticizing mind. As Chandler sits at his desk, staring out the window, he narrates, indirectly, the scene, a little landscape sketch:
The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures—on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens.
The irony in the sentence is hilarious: Chandler believes himself to be experiencing a beautiful moment of melancholic communion, as natural beauty gilds the urban scene. Yet, his mean-spiritedness, his contempt for his fellow Dubliners, punctures the graceful illusion at every turn: those untidy nurses, decrepit old men and screaming children belong to a different genre than the sunset’s kindly golden dust. (Even the phrase golden dust can be pressed to yield an oxymoron). Chandler is oblivious to the tone-deafness of his narrating consciousness, but the word choices reveal his true colors to the reader.
Later too, as he walks to meet Gallaher, he experiences another even more self-consciously poetical moment (later in the story he will try to recall the poem taking shape here):
For the first time [not quite true] his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street. … As he crossed Grattan Bridge he looked down the river toward the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses. They seemed to him a band of tramps [Chandler discovers metaphor] huddled together along the river banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of the sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and begone. He wondered whether he could write a poem to express his idea.
Lest you have any doubt that the intention here is parody, a caricature of the poet, consider that, as Chandler continues walking, the poem still unwritten, he fantasizes about the reviewers’ praise that might follow his performance, a passage too rich to truncate:
He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems, perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics perhaps would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of the poems; besides that, he would put in allusions [here, I laugh out loud]. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get. Mr. Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse. … A wistful sadness pervades these poems. … The Celtic note. [Guffaw!] It was a pity that his name was not more Irish looking.
The tone is so deadpan, unobtrusive, that we might miss the withering irony. That is, the parody doesn’t make a lot of noise; Chandler remains, throughout, pathetically human, not a cartoon. But the verdict is clear: Chandler’s trademark timidity (he carries a shyly scented handkerchief) gives the lie to these delusions of grandeur, and it seems especially damning that he abandons the poem to craft the praise, which is itself airily patronizing (or sentimental rot, to use a period term).
In a similar fashion, the fact that Chandler turns, later, to Byron’s poetry to escape the reality of his chintzy apartment, cold marriage and demanding child also exposes him as a poser, not a poet. Byron, as the exemplar of the Romantic era, is English, and in the nationalistic milieu of Dubliners, Chandler’s taste in poetry marks him with a self-destructive servility to British rule. Further, the poem Chandler reads (unnamed in the story, but printed in full in the wonderful Norton Critical Edition), is called “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin of the Author, and Very Dear to Him.” The first stanza sets a scene in which the writer visits the “tomb” to “scatter flowers on the dust [he loves],” and he notes how “Not e’en a Zephyr wanders through the grove.” Compare the tone of the poem, with its tombal sonority and absent zephyrs, with that of the conversation between Gallaher and Chandler, or even that of the immediate context of the room in which Chandler is reading, with a bawling infant and layaway furniture. The incongruity here, the dissonance, amounts to an indictment of both Chandler’s tastes and the Romantic project: this sort of art is cast as precious and dated, out of tune with contemporary reality. If a story like “The Sisters” exposes the bankruptcy of metaphysics, “A Little Cloud” turns its eye overtly on aesthetics and likewise splashes cold water in the face of the hallowed tradition.
The problem with the naturalistic view of Dubliners is that it’s blind to the irony that pervades the text. As I understand it, photographic realism is, by definition, unequivocally tone neutral and impersonal: the language captures and records, reliably, the real (sounds like an impossible project to me). In Dubliners, everywhere characters are, like Chandler, victims of their own delusions, and this discovery emerges obliquely in the text, in the ironic distance between the characters’ and the readers’ perceptions.
What makes us see a work like “A Little Cloud” or, more famously, “Araby” as naturalistic is precisely the way in which mundane description comes to eclipse the protagonists’ lyrical fantasies, couched in poetic language. Early in “Araby,” for example, the boy-narrator carries his love for Mangan’s sister like a “chalice” through the storm of hectoring reality: his love is existentially girded in metaphor. By the story’s end, he boards a sluggish tram, self-consciously pays his admission fee, peruses the underwhelming staging of the workaday “bazaar,” gets slighted when trying to pick out his gift for the girl and pauses, in the story’s last line, to survey the ruins of his romantic imagination. But it’s an oversimplification to call this naturalism (as Edmund Wilson did in 1958). Instead, Joyce’s stories, as a rule, record a conflict between literary styles; if a pitiless realism tends to come out on top, this doesn’t mean that the war is over. The next story will reconfigure the conflict in another manner, play it in a different key. Even the most resolutely pragmatic stories, those most immune to the spirit of “poetry,” feature characters who could hardly be called visionaries (see Mrs. Mooney in “A Boarding House,” or Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” both hell-bent on balancing ledgers). Rather, these apparently objective views of reality are at odds with other presumably objective views, and we never reach an artistic or existential high ground. Absent this conflict, this endless tilting of voices and visions, the art would be drab, indeed. Moreover, and perhaps more alarmingly, that bedrock of reality, when it does obtrude in the stories, often proves to be hollow and porous—particularly on the matter of Joyce’s vaunted epiphanies.
To see how, and to catch the full measure of “A Little Cloud”’s contribution to Dubliners, and of Dubliners’ contribution to world literature, we need to acknowledge the inadequacy of reading the stories in isolation. If we fillet the collection, extract its most succulent parts and toss the rest, we miss the deliberate artifice that binds the stories together: they’re all interwoven, with almost subliminal recurrences of images and motifs, each part an essential contributor to the collection’s larger design (Dubliners is a story cycle inclining to a novel). “A Little Cloud” reveals this intertextual patterning from its first lines, when Chandler recalls seeing Gallaher off at the “North Wall,” the Dublin dock favored by emigrants of the period. It’s at the North Wall that Eveline, the title character of the book’s third story, refuses to budge one inch further, recedes into an animal stubbornness, and watches her lover depart for points distant while she remains behind in paraplegic Dublin. And like the self-stranded Eveline, Chandler is prone to sitting idly and gazing out the window while his mind travels, not freely, but inside its self-made cage.
The prominent male duo in “A Little Cloud” also evokes comparison with the two gallants of “Two Gallants” who manipulate and use callously a wealthy family’s servant girl. At that story’s midpoint, Lenehan, the unsightly wing-man of the gallants, dreams epiphanically of middle-class comforts with a reliable wife; in Chandler’s predicament, we see the puncturing of that illusion: Lenehan’s sentimental dream is a dead-end vision. Chandler’s rough treatment of his child also prefigures the conclusion to “Counterparts,” the collection’s next story, in which Farrington, an alcoholic scrivener, blows his money on drink, embarrasses himself in an arm-wrestling match and heads home to take a strap to his son. (The story’s last line belongs to the boy, his disembodied voice pleading for mercy, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me … I’ll say a Hail Mary.”) Even the Byron poem in “A Little Cloud” serves to decode the cryptic title of “Clay,” which concerns an aging cleaning-lady named Maria, a woman prone to self-delusion who becomes the butt of a morbid joke during a Hallow’s Eve game (involving blindfolds and divination). As Byron writes of “the clay” that he loves, we grasp clay’s associations with death, a connection essential to a reading of “Clay,” but never made explicit in that story. For one last example, consider that Chandler’s fantasies of generous reviews point to Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of “The Dead,” and his part-time job as a literary columnist for the Daily Express.
The whole of Dubliners works like this: the details of the stories call out to each other at a distance, yielding an echo chamber of motifs, a plexed matrix of correspondences. Perceiving this patterning in Dubliners is a bit like creating a cat’s cradle of the mind; one can only marvel at the artistic intelligence that fashioned it, and maybe share in some of the wonder by seeing it for oneself (sort of like visiting the Grand Canyon). When I first discovered the intricate design in Dubliners, the effect was dizzying; though I continued breathing normally, in a spiritual sense it left me gasping. The only metaphor I could supply was that it felt like staring directly into the sun. That is to say, in isolation, the stories in Dubliners are often less than scintillating; in many ways, the book shows Joyce’s determination to drive a cleaver between the notions of art and entertainment, aesthetics and enjoyment. But maybe as a whole the collection does supply, in its interlocking craftsmanship, an experience of joy; against the pervasive chill of the collection, for those of us who need it, we might find a contravening warmth in the artistry.
Maybe. The discovery of the patterned surface (or depths) in Dubliners sounds itself like the experience of the epiphany visited upon so many of the collection’s characters. And in fact, this intertextual patterning yields some startling revelations about the nature of those epiphanies, both in isolation and in the aggregate.
Has No One Learned Anything?
Charles Baxter represents the orthodox view of the Joycean epiphany, in his otherwise heretical essay “Against Epiphanies.” Baxter begins by acknowledging the cultural baggage that attends this artistic device: the epiphany doesn’t originate with Joyce but dates back to the rhetoric of religious revelation (see, for example, the conversion experience of Saul of Tarsus). When I consider the roots of epiphany, I think less of saints and more of heroes, as in the anagnorisis, or recognition event, from classical drama and epic poetry. In that tradition, the revelation was directed outward, more public than personal, a recognition of a truth about somebody else (like the incognito Odysseus being spotted by his servant, or Oedipus Rex solving the riddle of his life). The epiphany, by contrast, is anagnorisis turned inward—you recognize at last the face in the mirror—and this attainment of knowledge often supersedes the importance of any action that might follow. Thought trumps plot.
Baxter also shows how Joyce’s epiphanies, contra Bennett, have a metaphysical thrust; he cites the lines from Stephen Hero (the prototype for Portrait) in which Stephen Dedalus describes the epiphany of the object, a perception of its genuine essence. You might call it a transfiguration of the commonplace, a moment that lights up trivialities with transcendental significance. As Baxter summarizes the upshot of the device in Dubliners,
The stories […] are astonishingly detailed, but they continually aim for a climactic moment of brilliant transforming clarification. The clarification happens on the page, even if it doesn’t become visibly apparent to the characters. The stories aim for this effect because the lives Joyce is putting on display might be insufferable to contemplate otherwise, or rather, they would exist in a condition of unimproved Naturalism.
Despite (or because of) this grand inheritance and aim, Baxter complains that epiphanies have become too pat to be convincing anymore; they’re tropes, not genuine transformations of character. And he ultimately argues that writers need to shake up their notions of epiphanies, perhaps showing us how an epiphany can be treacherous: “the insight, if it does come, [need not] be valid or true.” He’s right, of course, but he holds up Joyce’s “Araby” as a shining example of the classic epiphany, the epiphany played straight. When that story’s narrator peers up into the darkness and sees that he’s a “creature driven and derided by vanity,” his eyes burning with “anguish and anger,” he seems to have discovered the essential truth about himself, his folly in romanticizing his budding relationship with Mangan’s sister. This puncturing of a literary illusion is in fact the signature gesture of Dubliners, and maybe this explains why “Araby” has survived while the other stories have faded: the part stands for the whole here. But the local observation needs stressing: for Baxter, the boy-narrator’s conclusive judgment, while somewhat self-destructive, is reliable and truthful. “He has become visible to himself,” Baxter writes.
David Jauss, in “Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies,” holds a view similar to Baxter’s in that he too urges writers to experiment with the device. Relocate it in the narrative, he suggests (among other things), rather than reserving it for the dubious and tired fireworks-of-insight finish. However, unlike Baxter, Jauss is critical of the epiphany at the close of “Araby.” He finds a disproportion between the “showing” of the narrative up to that point, and the glib “telling” of the epiphanic moment: “the final sentence,” Jauss argues, “knocks the story off balance.” He also notes how the boy’s epiphany is couched in the language of religious revelation (vanity, anguish) instead of clear-eyed self-awareness. For Jauss, this fault in the epiphany is the crucial weakness in the story; he isn’t, as a result, “convinced the epiphany is incontrovertibly true, much less permanently life-altering.”
Jauss is right to suggest that the story’s last sentence invites and requires a double take, but what if the doubtful nature of the epiphany is precisely the point? That is, the pseudo-religious tenor of the epiphany might mark it as another form of self-delusion; the boy doesn’t progress, then, from blindness to insight, but rather exchanges one astigmatism for another: exalted romanticism for hair-shirt contrition. In fact, the interconnections among the stories help to confirm this “suspicious” reading (as Margot Norris, author of the superb Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners, might call it).
Consider that in “An Encounter,” when the boy-narrator gets drawn into conversation with a pedophile on the public green, the guy’s speech is incantatory, mired in the repetitions of a one-track mind:
He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. … He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.
Repetition, a verbatim recycling of words and phrases, is here the stylistic marker of a sinister self-delusion. In some ways, incantatory repetition is similar to Romantic poetry: both offer a linguistic experience that calls attention to artifice, a sense of words being “magnetized” (repetition is the slovenly cousin of rhyme and alliteration). In the world of Dubliners, any act of dressing up language in artificial clothes scans as a symptom of error, an epistemological failure: see again, for example, Chandler’s description of that kindly golden dust and the lyrical parallelism (repetition) in his syntax. So when the narrator of “Araby” adopts that poeticized and quasi-religious rhetoric, the alliteration is the giveaway that he is girding himself in a defective system: his newfound self-knowledge is driven by the same delusive impulse as his love. Objective reality doesn’t carry the day, after all.
Read in this light, Joyce’s text was already practicing what Jauss and Baxter recommend for contemporary writers. And in every instance, I think, the epiphanies experienced by the characters in Dubliners prove to be forked, flawed, existential false positives.
The epiphany in “A Little Cloud” is, on this point, typical. Chandler’s discovery of the “hatred in his wife’s eyes” appears to represent an arrival of authentic knowledge. Yet, the initial trigger for this devastating insight is Chandler’s glimpse of the lack of “passion” in those same eyes (in the photograph). In other words, what Chandler laments in the scene is Annie’s failure to measure up to his Romantic ideals, which we’ve already seen are ridiculously inflated and artistically bankrupt. So how much truth can be said to inhere in Chandler’s judgment? The very foundation of the epiphanic scene is dubious.
The conclusion to the sequence further aggravates the ambiguity. As those “tears of remorse [start] to his eyes,” the text doesn’t specify the thing that Chandler regrets. He might regret his treatment of his son; however, this would make for a pretty hollow ending to the tale, as the minor failure eclipses the major crisis and a mood of conventional sentimentality prevails. At best, it would signal, implicitly, Chandler’s recognition of the hurtful selfishness of his artistic dreams. But because the scene appears to confirm the irreconciliability of Chandler and his wife (of Chandler to his life), it seems more likely that Chandler regrets his decision to marry the woman with the passionless eyes. In this reading, the story concludes with an access of self-pity: Chandler has learned the truth (maybe) about his marriage, but nothing about the error of his ambitions. His abusive behavior pales, for him, in comparison to his own suffering. In either case, the epiphany is ruinous, not exalting. And because the epiphany conceals within it this crucial misdirection, this potential for a forked reading, the gambit, while promising a neat resolution to the story’s conflict, cagily withholds the very closure that authentic self-awareness would supply.
With its ironic ending and parodic disposition, “A Little Cloud” also proves crucial to our understanding of the collection’s crowning epiphany, at the close of “The Dead,” possibly the most famous paragraph in all of world literature. Recall the scene: Gabriel Conroy, in the aftermath of his discovery of his wife’s private emotional world, stares out the window and observes the snow, falling softly and softly falling, faintly falling and falling faintly, “like the descent of their last end on all the living and the dead.” The prose is magnificent: lyrical but not overwrought (though the verb “swooned” hasn’t aged well), simple but not anemic (those “dark mutinous Shannon waves”), the whole charged with an existential urgency. Mundane experience is here transmuted into credible transcendence. Yet, having observed the function of stylistic artifice (repetition) elsewhere in the collection, it’s hard not to think, “Uh-oh,” when Gabriel’s meditations wax poetic, as if he’s hearkening to the false counsel of literary language.
The consensus reading (see SparkNotes, for example) catches the essential ambiguity in the passage. On one hand, Gabriel seems invested with a fresh understanding of his shortcomings, and newly resolved to embark on a journey with his wife to make amends. On the other hand, he doesn’t move a muscle in the scene, but remains spellbound, even paralyzed, by the experience of observing the snow, and as he burrows into his imagination, his thoughts tend toward the ultimate inertia of death. This paradox is almost identical to the predicament of the poetic speaker in the last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the rimy sleigh driver with promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. As Terry Eagleton expertly parses Frost’s stanza, he might be speaking equally of the conclusion to “The Dead”:
There is much recurrence and repetition in [the poem’s] rhyming pattern, which brings with it a curious sense of stasis. By the time the last verse arrives, we have the mesmeric, incantatory repetition of a single rhyme (‘deep’ … ‘keep’ … ‘sleep’). There is no longer any progress or modulation in the rhyme scheme, even though the speaker is reminding himself to move on. The effect is rather like someone trying to shake himself out of the paralysis of sleep with the thought that he should get up.
Style and content are likewise at odds in Gabriel’s epiphany, the stasis in the language nullifying the promise of profluential transformation. In Gabriel’s case, the content is further at odds with itself, as he appears simultaneously to embrace his Irish identity (his journey westward) and to obviate the difference between life and death (the last words unite “all the living and the dead”). His destination with Gretta is either Galway or Hades. Here, redemption is indistinguishable from doom. This paradox is in its own way brilliant, even perfect, but we understand the passage incompletely if we ignore the signposts elsewhere in the collection, and these further unsettle the passage’s already unsettling equipoise. In particular, the precise echoes between Chandler’s window-side view of the golden dust and Gabriel’s view of the falling snow—both scenes featuring atmospheric cascades—make me doubtful of the authenticity of Gabriel’s vision, as if it too, while seeming more humane and genuine, is just another kind of self-delusion, Chandler’s foolishness played in a more sympathetic key.
Or is Chandler’s vision a parody of Gabriel’s view, serving to contrast with, not sabotage, the epiphany in “The Dead,” the one bathed in the sunlight of stupidity, the other cloaked in the darkness and frost of a paradoxical truth? In either case, some readers would bridle, understandably, at the notion of deriving the meaning in one story from motifs in the others, as if each story requires and deserves an interpretive isolation. But even within the confines of “The Dead,” I do worry about the quantity of snow. At the hotel window, Gabriel imagines how the snow lies “thickly drifted” over everything, over all of Ireland, down to the crosses on the tombstones, the thorns of the trees, even the spear points on a cemetery gate (a neat trick that would be). Yet, a few pages earlier, as the Conroys are leaving the Morkans’ party en route to the hotel, we find this description of the snow event: “It was slushy underfoot and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings.” This sounds like something more than a dusting, but hardly a blanketing. The contrast between these perceptions of snowfall is startling, and suggests that Gabriel’s meditative epiphany carries perhaps a greater portion of error and overstatement than of genuine insight. The moment might be not only ambiguous, but, like the epiphanies in “Araby” and “A Little Cloud,” in some measure bogus.
And what of Michael Furey, Gretta’s teenage sweetheart, with the bad lungs and the job at the gasworks? Remember, he courts his own death when he stands out in the rain under Gretta’s window, a desperate (and pointless) show of devotion. In the act, he seems more like a stock character from a sentimental Irish ballad (like “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the Morkans’ party) than like an infatuated teenager. More pointedly, isn’t Furey basically the boy-narrator of “Araby,” minus the bubble-bursting epiphany? Yet Furey’s example is what exposes, by contrast, the flabbiness in Gabriel’s character. So when Gabriel reflects, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” isn’t he invoking the same ideal as Little Chandler and the love-blinded narrator of “Araby”? That is, here, on the epiphanic precipice, Gabriel is buying into the very illusionment that the stories repeatedly dispel; he hasn’t reached a summit of wisdom, but stumbled into a cul-de-sac. Rather than attaining a glimpse of objective reality, Gabriel instead fades out “into a grey impalpable world” “where [dwell] the vast hosts of the dead,” a recession into the mythic, the mystical and the supernatural. Maybe the surest evidence that the collection’s epiphanies are inherently and endemically problematic is that the two most famous examples, in “Araby” and in “The Dead,” are incompatible, even perfectly contradictory.
It isn’t quite accurate to think of Dubliners as the epitome of conventional realism, or an incubator of genuine epiphanic insight. The stories are crooked and warped, rife with voices and modes, often brutally evasive, the whole wracked by confounding involutions. If this is naturalism, we should probably revise our definition of the term because, in order to capture life as it is, Joyce repeatedly depicts characters who have, at best, a loose acquaintance with reality. And if the book has a grand epiphany, it might be that all epiphanies are suspect, self-knowledge inevitably compromised by literary wishful thinking, human folly endlessly renewable. These thoughts have led me to reconsider my estimation of the collection’s meta-patterns. Isn’t this just another dimension of artificial repetition? And as such, isn’t it, by the collection’s aesthetic logic, suggestive of an epistemological error, something to be corrected rather than cultivated? Or is this the only kind of artifice that can transcend the immediate and purblind human context, and thus prove durable (stand us now and ever in good stead) precisely because it defers meaning and avers nothing? Or is this artificer’s impulse anyway ineradicable, an inescapable part of the human condition? You tell me.
Maybe there is an element of masochism in revering an art that would disabuse readers of all notions of reverence, but this is the legacy of Dubliners. With its blinkered populace, its warped and harshly truncated narratives, all shot on the fraying black-and-white film stock of Joyce’s most miserly style, the book can seem off-putting in its relentless mundanity, Joyce’s art merely commensurate with his subject (this composite portrait of curdled human potential). But Dubliners does indeed model a radical consciousness of craft; it previews many of the most powerful strains of the Modernist revolution. For writers of the next century, it remains required reading.
— Bruce Stone
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.