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James Joyce Mother Analysis Essay

R. B. Kershner (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Kershner, R. B. “Mr. Duffy's Apple.” James Joyce Quarterly 29, no. 2 (winter 1992): 406-07.

[In the following essay, Kershner discusses the symbolism of a single apple in Joyce's story “A Painful Case.”]

The opening paragraph of “A Painful Case” has been an interpreter's delight because of Joyce's bravura performance in delineating character through furniture, much as Flaubert does in introducing Charles Bovary. The orderly, ascetic furnishings of his room, the manuscript translation of Hauptmann's Michael Kramer, the white wooden shelves with the hand-bound copy of the Maynooth Catechism all conspire to prepare us for the man whose aesthetic and intellectual aspirations are neatly circumscribed by his compulsive habits and unvarying routine. When, four years later, he has added Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science, we may realize that his nature includes a perversely romantic element kept under tight and ironic control.1

But one sensory detail seems unlikely in Duffy's room: “On lifting the lid of the desk a faint fragrance escaped—the fragrance of new cedarwood pencils or of a bottle of gum or of an over-ripe apple which might have been left there and forgotten” (D [Dubliners] 108). The new pencils and gum seem innocuous enough, but the idea of the meticulous Duffy forgetting an apple in his own desk drawer long enough for its scent to become intrusive is difficult to square with our picture of the man. Indeed, that apple, like the apple tree and rusty bicycle-pump in “Araby,” virtually cries out for symbolic interpretation, especially as the story's narrator scrupulously refuses to explain its presence: it “might have been left there and forgotten” (emphasis mine), or perhaps not.

I would suggest that Joyce is making a sly allusion not to original sin, as we might suppose, but to a well known literary anecdote about the German romantic dramatist Friedrich Schiller,

that story Goethe recounted to Eckermann on October 7, 1827, about how he once waited in Schiller's study. The air was foul and Goethe began to be nauseated. Searching about, he opened a desk drawer and found it full of rotten apples. Mrs. Schiller explained that her husband could not live or write unless he had that odor around him.2

Schiller's bizarre attempt to keep the creative juices flowing through auto-intoxication looks even more bizarre when the author of Bile Beans tries it; but after all, Duffy, ever the model of restraint, is using only one apple.

Duffy's problem is not that he is devoid of romantic impulses—his forming a relationship with Mrs. Sinico in the first place is testimony to that. Indeed, as West and Hendricks have argued, Duffy's final “epiphany” in which he takes responsibility for her death is also a case of romantic self-indulgence.3 Duffy's problem is that his romantic leaps are too little, too late: self-banished from life's feast, he tries to achieve divine intoxication on the scent of a single apple.


  1. For literary elements in Duffy's makeup see Marvin Magalaner, “Joyce, Nietzsche, and Hauptmann in James Joyce's ‘A Painful Case,’” PMLA, 47 (March 1953), 95-102.

  2. Charles E. Passage, Friedrich Schiller (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975), p. 29.

  3. Michael West and William Hendricks, “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce's Irony in ‘A Painful Case,’” ELH, 44 (1977), 701-27.

Frank Pilipp (essay date January 1993)

SOURCE: Pilipp, Frank. “Narrative Devices and Aesthetic Perception in Joyce's and Huston's ‘The Dead.’” Literature/Film Quarterly 21, no. 1 (January 1993): 61-8.

[In the following essay, Pilipp compares narrative techniques in Joyce's short story “The Dead” and John Huston's 1987 film adaptation of the work.]

This study analyzes the capacity of narrative devices to depict and elicit processes of aesthetic perception in both the text and the film1 of James Joyce's novella “The Dead.” The objective is to determine the artistic means through which each medium projects the conflict. The realization of the aesthetic qualities of an object of art is accomplished through acts of perception. Only when we understand the artistic devices of a work of art can it be experienced as an aesthetic entity. Each work of art projects a purely intentional state of affairs, and it is up to the reader, viewer, or listener to concretize it. Yet the essence of understanding the work lies not exclusively in discovering its meaning, but also in recognizing the means or devices by which the work achieves meaning. These introductory observations shall serve as the basis for this comparison of a literary narrative and its cinematic adaptation that aims for the highest degree of authenticity. The focus lies on the concluding passages of “The Dead” which account for the incidents that initiate the protagonist's self-awareness, leading up to an epiphanic vision. It is precisely the literary/cinematic realization of this vision that constitutes the climax of the narrative, and special attention must be given to its transformation onto the screen.

As early as 1968 a critic pointed out cinematic devices in Joyce's narrative by demonstrating its division into sequences, scenes, and shots.2 While these observations are meticulous and accurate in their own right, a fundamental qualitative distinction is necessary for juxtaposing novels and films. While the literary text projects its intentional state of affairs through verbal assertion, the dominant mode in film is presentational. Films are expected to elucidate a state of affairs through sight and sound; an outside narrator is considered inartistic for then the film would be using its soundtrack much in the same way as literature uses assertive syntax.3 Thus, the specific difficulties in making a novel into film lie in the transformation of the richness of language into the expressiveness of pictures, especially the narrative perspective and the flexibility of the narrator into proper cinematography, as well as the realization of the specific tone verbal narratives can imply through intelligent camera work.

No doubt Joyce presents his narrative in a “dramatized” and “active” fashion through a perspective which is—with the exception of a few descriptive passages—never completely that of an omniscient narrator, but rather fluctuates unobtrusively between various points of view, thus subtly manipulating the reader's engagement.4 Of central significance in “The Dead” is the protagonist's experience of epiphany. The reader/viewer's participation in the character's insight is facilitated precisely by a perspective that oscillates between the narrator and the character, and thus, is of utmost importance for the aesthetic realization of the narrative. The concept of “epiphany” is defined in Stephen Hero as a cognitive process that reveals a tripartite structure:

First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a thing in fact; finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.5

Proceeding from taking superficial notice of the object as a whole to the perception of its composite character, the perceptory process culminates in the full cognition of the object's essential properties. When the object finally reveals these to the viewer's eye, it is—in Stephen's words—“epiphanised.”6

The process of zeroing in on the object until penetrating to its essence—its “whatness” as Stephen calls it—is reminiscent of Roman Ingarden's distinction between “real object” and “aesthetic object.”7 Only in the viewer's perception can the artistic qualities of the object be realized as its aesthetic actuality. As for the literary work of art, the third stage of this phenomenological process reflects the central argument of the Russian Formalist critic Victor Shklovsky for art as technique. Literary language, according to Shklovsky, “is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known … because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”8 Literary language, then, points to the essence of an object by elevating it beyond the habitual perceptory horizon of the reader; it defamiliarizes it in order to allow us to perceive the object aesthetically.

Toward the end of “The Dead” Gabriel undergoes a sudden change of perception that can be analyzed in terms of the three stages of epiphany. About to leave his aunts' annual dance Gabriel is waiting downstairs in the dark “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. It was his wife” (209). Initially Gabriel can only make out general female characteristics; next he perceives a more detailed impression (particular garments) from which he infers the person's identity. At this point, Gabriel's perception has not yet transcended its habitual degree of intensity. Moments elapse before his senses sharpen and he shows a preliminary aesthetic response: “There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something” (210). Clearly, Gabriel begins to view Gretta with more “artistic” eyes, yet only those of a would-be-artist, for he is not able to penetrate to the essence of Gretta (as an object of art) and therefore does not intuit her “whatness.” In his cluelessness about her symbolic significance he avows his incomplete understanding of her.

The reader of Joyce's text will inadvertently be drawn into the sombre mood of this scene and will picture the gloomy lighting and muffled sound. Furthermore, the reader's perception proceeds slowly, following Gabriel's own, step by step. Because the acoustics and vision in this particular scene are perfectly clear in Huston's film, Gabriel (played by Donal McCann) and the viewer can discern Gretta (Anjelica Huston) distinctly as she stands at the top of the brightly illuminated staircase. For this reason, the film does not permit us to trace the gradual process of perception presented in the novella. The viewer can only speculate as to Gabriel's impressions. What is more, the reader of “The Dead” will likely imagine Gabriel and Gretta at a relatively far distance from each other, whereas the two are standing only a few steps apart in the film. Hence, the gloomy, subdued atmosphere dominant in the novella is completely lacking in the film. On the other hand, the mood is mediated acoustically through the melody of the song, and the tension between the couple (as experienced by Gabriel) is well realized through the camera movement cutting back and forth between them. And while Gretta, with her eyes closed and oblivious to the world, is reveling in the song “The Lass of Aughrim,” we watch Gabriel intently watching her. Clearly the camera maintains a more objective perspective and concentrates on external processes. It may leave the viewer in the dark and mark an inconsistency to the film's final images where a “clarifying” internal monologue is superimposed. While the final monologue in the film is made necessary by the inability of the camera to go within the character, it would have been useful to the viewer if it had occurred earlier.

The view of Gretta's graceful pose elicits an aesthetic response from Joyce's Gabriel, a response that the film hardly implies. Instead a parallel scene foreshadowing Gretta's impact on Gabriel's emotions, a scene not found in Joyce's text, appears earlier in the screenplay of Huston's film. A recitation by Mr. Grace of selected stanzas of an Irish poem (under the title “Broken Vows” in the film)9 shows the same effect on Gretta as Mr. D'Arcy's singing later. Quite obviously identifying herself with the poem's persona, a broken-hearted girl who voices her sorrow, Gretta is caught in a trance-like state of mind until called back to reality by her neighbor's emphatic remark “Imagine being in love like that!” Gabriel, for his part, after acknowledging comments from the audience, starts to applaud demonstratively. His reaction to the poem is distinctly artificial and contrived and merely conforms to the customs of social gatherings. It casually reveals the drastic contrast between the true emotional rapture of his wife and his own self-centered and self-conscious affectation.

In Joyce's text, Gabriel, on their departure from his aunts' house, is suddenly overcome by a blazing passion for his wife. He seems to be soaring on an emotional high, which overshadows the events to come. After a “sudden tide of joy” (212) he is swamped by a “wave of yet more tender joy” (213). Little wonder that Gabriel is “trembling with desire” under the “wild impulse of his body” (215). Finding himself in a highly sensitive and perceptive state of mind and emotion, memories of his marital relationship well up while “the thoughts went rioting through his brain” (213). The next physical contact with Gretta appears to catapult Gabriel to a new sense of perception: “But now, after the kindling again of so many memories, the first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust” (215). Evidently, Gabriel here experiences the “artfulness” of Gretta's physique as he perceives a defamiliarized image of her (“musical and strange”). It may help our understanding of Gabriel's reaction to review it in light of Ingarden's aesthetic theory. Seeing his wife as if for the first time, Gabriel has undergone a “change of attitude from a practical one … to an aesthetic attitude” which confers upon the perceived object (Gretta) a “new sense.” Gabriel is suddenly:

struck with a peculiar quality or with a multiplicity of qualities or, at last, with a Gestalt quality (e.g., a color or a harmony of colors, the quality of a melody, a rhythm, a shape, etc.) which not only focuses [his] attention on itself, but, in addition, is not indifferent to [him].

This “preliminary emotion”—as Ingarden calls it—“opens the proper process of aesthetic experience.”10 Furthermore, Gabriel's emotion—as asserted in the text—can be considered a state of excitement with the quality which:

has imposed itself on [him] in the object perceived. … In this excitement there is also included a moment of usually pleasant astonishment11 on account of the appearance of the preliminary exciting quality. … This excitement transforms itself into a form of falling in love (of eros) with the quality.12

Although Gabriel acknowledges the perceived aesthetic qualities, he fails to realize that the “value of an aesthetic object is not the value of a means leading to an end.”13 Gabriel experiences the “preliminary emotion,” but he is incapable of completing the aesthetic experience and penetrating to “an intuitive intercourse with qualitative essences.”14 Instead, he gears his emotions toward a physical outlet, namely sexual gratification.

Little indication of this internal motion is found in Huston's film, where Gabriel's conduct—except for his passionately kissing Gretta's hand—does not allow inferences as to his emotional commotion described above. During the cab ride to the hotel Gabriel is at pains to exhilarate Gretta with the anecdote about Johnny; the horse (in the novella he tells it at the party), but he fails pitifully. Gretta, whose thoughts dwell elsewhere, sits cold, distant, superior, and Madonna-like. Twice she produces a brief, polite, yet almost pitying smile, which—judging from Gabriel's facial expressions—inject into him the feeling of insecurity and ludicrousness. It is not so much Gabriel's swelling sexual desire as his increasing emotional tension, which gradually elevates him to his ultimate “tragic height” (Fallhöhe) in the film.

After the couple has checked into their hotel room, the reader is again reminded of the self-centered nature of Gabriel's emotions. Eager to give vent to his emotions, he promises himself a sexual encounter with Gretta hoping that she will be responsive. Since she, however, seems rather indifferent, even absent-minded, and responds to her husband's longing call “Gretta!” merely with a “serious and weary” air (216), Gabriel's passion momentarily threatens to convert into aggression. Immediately he finds himself “trembling … with annoyance” and even considers “crush[ing] her body against his, … overmaster[ing] her” (217). However, an unexpected kiss from Gretta turns his “fever of rage and desire” once again into “delight” and “happiness” (217). Under the false assumption that she is now sharing his “impetuous desire” (218) and is willing to yield to his seductive intentions, Gabriel reaches that point where Gretta's imminent revelations about his “archrival” Michael Furey could not be more defeating. After this fall, Gabriel feels “humiliated,” “ludicrous,” “clownish” and admits to himself the vanity and self-complacency of his previous intent (219-20). While these central realizations extend over three paragraphs of Joyce's narrative they are simply excluded from the film.

Staring out the window, with Gretta asleep, Gabriel's self-reflections constitute the last vignette of “The Dead.” In this passage the narrator's point of view focuses entirely on Gabriel's sensations; the narrative perspective oscillates between that of an omniscient narrator and the character's. Predominantly, however, the narrative is now carried by narrated monologue,15 a form of subjective discourse that stands between direct and indirect speech and expresses the thoughts of the character—contrary to the interior monologue—in the third person and the simple past. Imitating the character's language in the grammar indicated it suspends the fictional mind in an instant present. Thus the reality of fiction is mediated to the reader via the consciousness of the perceiving character and entails a process of identification between reader and character. Nevertheless, a distinction is necessary between narrative voice (narrator) and narrative perspective (character), two superimposed voices which are engaged in an intricate interplay.16

Given the limited number of technical means to realize this crucial segment of internalized plot in film, Huston, perhaps appropriately, resorts to interior monologue. Although infrequently used in film because, in general, offscreen voices have come to be considered obtrusive and inartistic, this narrative technique is easily feasible as it merely requires simply that the voice-over be identifiable as the character's, whose lips do not move.17 In interior monologue the narrative voice is identical with that of the character who verbalizes his own thoughts.18 One notices not only certain changes (for example, Gabriel addresses Gretta directly), abridgements, and rearrangements of Joyce's text (as made by Tony Huston for the screenplay), but also an important omission. Contrary to the first three sentences of the last paragraph in the novella, the subsequent one, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (223), asserts internal plot and is missing in Gabriel's interior monologue in the film. This exclusion is crucial as it concerns the key sentence of the novella, indicating Gabriel's intentions of drawing consequences from his self-awareness, which may entail significant changes in his relationship with Gretta. As he recognizes his own emotional paralysis and questions his egotism, and with it his own identity in the light of the dead (in particular Michael Furey), the truth hits Gabriel in an epiphanic vision. His dialogic self-scrutiny allows him to realize that only through the search for his lost (Irish) origins and a confrontation with Gretta's past (“his journey westward”) can he learn to “know” Gretta (in the sense of Ingarden's aesthetic recognition). At the same time this assertion, presented in narrated monologue, marks the moment of revelation for the reader.

Narrated monologue employs a narrative voice that speaks through the character's consciousness; a narrator is implied simply by the use of the third person and the simple past and exists merely on linguistic grounds without interfering with the process of identification between reader and character. Thus, in Gabriel's climactic vision, the reader is invited, almost forced, to participate.19 On the other hand, narrated monologue cannot be realized in film because by virtue of its use of third-person discourse it would require a narrator different from the character, which would prevent a blending of perspectives (the viewer's with the character's). For this reason, the ending of the film version which mediates the vision as direct discourse cannot be as convincing as its Joycean counterpart. Especially those sentences of Gabriel's interior monologue containing explicit first- or second-person references are bound to sound artificial or exaggerated to the viewer as they suggest the immediacy of linguistic concretization of Gabriel's thought processes. When Gabriel ponders: “Why am I feeling this riot of emotions,” this is not a successful representation of the corresponding sentence in the novella: “He wondered at his riot of emotions …” (222). Slightly different from narrated monologue this sentence constitutes a form of narrative discourse which has been called psycho-narration. Determined by the use of verbs of consciousness it mediates unarticulated sensations without formulating them and thus renders the workings of the figural mind less directly than narrated monologue.20 Similarly, the second half of the following sentence in the film has Gabriel express his emotions too pompously: “I've never felt that way myself toward any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love.” Again, the corresponding words in Joyce's narrative represent psycho-narration and merely allude to Gabriel's recognition of his feelings for Gretta as love.21 The film takes such statements at face value and attributes them to the character. In this manner, Huston reduces Joyce's subtle and sophisticated play with narrative perspectives to a straightforward narration that occasionally resounds with false pathos.

Gabriel's interior monologue is underscored by subdued funeral music and by the visualization of his thoughts—Julia Morkan's death bed and, subsequently, to the end, impressive, atmosphere-laden shots of the vast, bleak and gaunt, snow-covered Irish countryside (churchyard, plains, etc.). The nostalgic and depressingly melancholic mood of these images is preceded by the depiction of Gabriel's thoughts of his own passing away (cf. 223) when he is shown dancing with his Aunt Julia. It is significant, however, that the film cannot dispense with the voice-over. On the one hand, Joyce's language is simply too rich and loaded with allegory and symbolism to be adequately mediated through images only. While Huston's pictures are quite successful in invoking Joyce's nostalgic tone, they still need to be underscored by a soundtrack. On the other hand, Huston's film, which clearly strives for Joycean authenticity (not only in its representation of Gabriel's inner conflict but also in the depiction of external events), shows us that to rephrase narrated monologue, especially psycho-narration, as interior monologue can be problematic and counterproductive in regard to authenticity of tone. The oscillating point of view in Joyce's narrative proves to be impossible to achieve in film. Likewise, the film does not manage to bring Gabriel's innermost feelings to full life. At the end it is the voice-over that is supposed to add the appropriate tone to the expressive final scenic images. To some extent this is accomplished, and the film can certainly stand on its own. Nevertheless, the familiarity with Joyce's narrative will make it difficult to appreciate many a scene in the film—particularly the ones discussed here.

What has been discussed so far must be viewed in light of the fundamental implications of the properties of verbal and cinematic narrative. As the final passage in “The Dead” consists of Gabriel's vision, it involves the character's intellectual and imaginative-intuitive powers and thus simultaneously appeals to the same faculties in the reader.22 While verbal narrative allows the reader to activate the entire reservoir of creative imagination—as evidenced by the huge quantity of interpretive literature on “The Dead” alone—film narrative has the property of “visual ‘over-specification.’”23 By the same token the “visual aids” pass by our eyes too speedily to be digested intellectually at once (unless, of course, the use of video equipment enables us to re-view them freely). It is precisely the property of over-specification by means of which films counteract the viewer's productive imagination. Conversely, as Wolfgang Iser states, it is “only by activating the reader's imagination that the author can hope to involve him and so realize the intentions of his text.”24 To be sure Joyce's text resists a clear-cut, straightforward interpretation that leaves no room for ambiguities. Hence the reader will visualize what language can only intimate, for “it is the unwritten part [of the text] that gives us the opportunity to picture things: indeed without the elements of indeterminacy, the gaps of the text, we should not be able to use our imagination.”25 In film, on the contrary, the picture is not created by the viewer's imagination, but it is presented to him as an immutable image. Out of “the vast number of possibilities” which are projected by the literary text and sensed by the reader's imagination the film leaves only one, and thus our imagination is “put out of action.”26

Even in view of these general drawbacks of cinematic adaptations, Huston's film must not be discarded. Iser's argumentation, though plausible, cannot serve as the final verdict on the film version of “The Dead.” Although Huston reduces numerous indeterminacies of Joyce's text to visual determinacies, he allows room for the viewer's imagination, not leaving him/her without questions. Notwithstanding the questionable passages of interior monologue and the aforementioned crucial omission, the harmonious combination of atmospheric imagery, music, and melancholy voice-over that end the film forms a powerful backdrop for Gabriel's vision. Furthermore, the portrayal of the preceding festivities and its characters is a stunning and artistically convincing accomplishment. It seems inevitable that Huston ultimately resorts to Joyce's text, albeit a distorted version of it. Visually the film is a work of art that will no doubt be aesthetically pleasing to many a moviegoer. Gabriel's interior monologue, too, weighs down this last part with much the same symbol-freighted language, while the images depict mostly external reality.27 Reader and viewer are merely confronted with Gabriel's vision through a different mode and each may attempt to concretize the full implications of Joyce's mythic imagery in his or her own way.28


  1. John Huston, dir., The Dead (Vestron, 1987).

  2. Paul Deane, “Motion Picture Techniques in James Joyce's ‘The Dead.’” James Joyce Quarterly 6 (1968/69): 231-36.

  3. Seymour Chatman, “What Novels Can Do That Films Can't (and Vice Versa),” On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980) 124.

  4. Allen Tate, “The Dead,” James Joyce Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes, eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Linz (New York: Viking P, 1969) 405. See furthermore Hugh Kenner, Joyce's Voices (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978) 16.

  5. Stephen Hero, ed. Theodore Spencer (London: Jonathan Cape, 1944) 213. Quotations from “The Dead” will be followed by page numbers from Dubliners (New York: The Modern Library, 1969) 175-224.

  6. See Joyce, Stephen Hero 211.

  7. Roman Ingarden, “Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object,” Readings in Existential Phenomenology, eds. Nathaniel Lawrence and Daniel O'Connor (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967) 304.

  8. “Art as Technique,” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Paul A. Olson, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965) 12.

  9. The original translation by Lady Gregory of the entire poem titled “Donall Oge: Grief of a Girl's Heart” can be found in the anthology 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, ed. Kathleen Hagland (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1947) 238-40. Stanzas 2-5, 12, and 14 are recited in the film.

  10. Ingarden 309.

  11. Cf. in Joyce: “Gabriel was surprised at her stillness” (209).

  12. Ingarden 309.

  13. Ingarden 320.

  14. Ingarden 312.

  15. I prefer Dorrit Cohn's term: cf. her chapter on “Narrated Monologue” in Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton, Princeton UP, 1978) 99-140.

  16. Jean-Maurice Martin. Untersuchungen zum Problem der erlebten Rede. Der ursächliche Kontext der Erlebten Rede, dargestellt an Romanen Robert Walsers, Europäische Hochschulschriften, Series I, Deutsche Sprache und Literatur 1009 (Bern: Lang, 1987) 54, 60.

  17. Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978) 194-95.

  18. For practical purposes Gabriel's interior monologue in the film shall be cited in its entirely:

    “How poor a part I played in your life, almost as though I'm not your husband and we never lived together as man and wife. What were you like then? To me your face is still beautiful but it's no longer the one for which Michael Furey braved death. Why am I feeling that riot of emotions, what stirred it up? The ride in the cab? Her not responding when I kissed her hand. My aunts' party, my own foolish speech, wine, dancing, music. Poor Aunt Julia. That haggard look on her face when she was singing ‘Arrayed for the Bridal.’ Soon she will be a shade, too, with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. Soon, perhaps, I'll be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black. The blinds will be drawn down and I'll be casting about in my mind for words of consolation and will find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes, that will happen very soon.

    Yes, the newspapers are right: snow is general all over Ireland. Falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.

    One by one we're all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover's eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I've never felt that way myself towards any woman but I know that such a feeling must be love. Think of all those who ever were back to the start of time, and me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world. But everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in is dwindling and dissolving.

    Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

  19. Werner suggests that by “merging his narrative voice with Gabriel's, Joyce acknowledges his own participation in the process of revelation and collapse.” This statement is dubious because it seems to equate Joyce with the narrator of “The Dead” and/or claim that the narrator's voice has now become Gabriel's own. Both assertions are inaccurate. Craig Hansen Werner, “‘The Dead’: Process and Sympathy.” Dubliners: A Pluralistic World, Twayne's Masterwork Studies 20 (Boston: Twayne, 1988) 64.

  20. Cohn 105, 32. One might describe psycho-narration as indirect interior monologue.

  21. As this example shows, psycho-narration can be attributed to the voice of an omniscient narrator. In this case this assumption is plausible as the sentence in question (the second one in the following sequence) is embedded between two omniscient statements: “Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that … but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes …” (223).

  22. I agree here with C. C. Loomis, who argues that the vision cannot be totally apprehended intellectually, since the “logic of ‘The Dead’ … is the logic which exists on a plane where intellectual perceptions and emotional intuition, form and content, blend”: see “Structure and Sympathy in Joyce's ‘The Dead,’” PMLA 75.1 (1960) 151.

  23. Chatman, “Novels/Films” 122.

  24. The Implied Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974) 282.

  25. Iser 283.

  26. Iser 283.

  27. At the very end the images blend subtly into Gabriel's vision. Accompanied by the last lines “Snow is falling …” (see full quote in note 18), the camera pans from the “barren thorns” (223), which are not mentioned in Gabriel's monologue, up to the horizon and into the grey skies, the “universe” (224).

  28. Kenneth Burke talks about the “mythic image” of the snow “standing for the transcendence above the conditioned”: see “‘Stages’ in ‘The Dead,’” James Joyce's Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes 415, 416.

Steven Doloff (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Doloff, Steven. “Ibsen's A Doll's House and ‘The Dead.’” James Joyce Quarterly 31, no. 2 (winter 1994): 111-14.

[In the following essay, Doloff finds similarities in setting, plot, symbol, and character between Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and Joyce's story, “The Dead.”]

Richard Ellmann notes in passing in James Joyce, that while Joyce seemed to think little of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House,1 he may have transposed into “The Dead” the play's plot device of a husband discovering that his doll-like wife has a consciousness of her own (JJII [James Joyce, 1982] 135n). Ellmann later offers biographical data from the lives of Joyce and Nora as the primary source material for the couple and the setting in Joyce's story (JJII 243-53). He also cites as a source for the final scene in “The Dead” a specific episode in the George Moore novel Vain Fortune (JJII 250). Ellmann, however, may have overlooked the full extent of Joyce's indebtedness to Ibsen's play in the construction of “The Dead,”2 for numerous parallels link the two works besides the common denominator of the wife who displays a certain amount of emotional autonomy.

For example, while Ellmann attributes the Christmas dinner setting in “The Dead” to Joyce's sentimental wish to demonstrate the virtues of Irish hospitality (JJII 245), he neglects the more structurally meaningful link to the Christmas setting in Ibsen's play. In both works, the humiliating personal revelations experienced by the principal male characters follow upon the heels of lavish Christmas parties during which both men find themselves reinfatuated with their own wives. Both of these revelations are ironically underscored by their pointed denial of the sentimental miracles and emotional reaffirmations traditionally expected of Christmas tales.

Similarly, Ellmann notes in “The Dead” how the dashing of Gabriel Conroy's amorous expectations in learning of his wife Gretta's long dead lover resembles a scene in the Moore novel where a honeymoon night is ruined by the suicide of a woman recently jilted by the groom. In Ibsen's play, however, the amorous feelings of the husband, Torvald Helmer (DH [A Doll's House] 158-59), also change to humiliation, but after (as in “The Dead”) he discovers facts about his wife Nora's past. Although those facts do not involve a previous lover, they do reveal, to his chagrin, Nora's independent mental life. And Torvald, unlike the character in the Moore novel, shares Gabriel's jealousy of his wife's past. Nora reports, “Torvald loves me so indescribably, he wants to have me all to himself. … When we were first married he was almost jealous if I even mentioned any of my old friends at home” (DH 95).

The idea of death, in both literal and metaphorical forms, is alluded to throughout “The Dead.” To cite only one obvious example, there is the discussion at the party of the monks who sleep in their coffins “to remind them of their last end” (D [Dubliners] 201). In A Doll's House, we find a corresponding memento mori in the figure of Dr. Rank who gloomily stalks the play alluding to his own impending demise from a congenital condition inherited from his father. Moreover, just as Gabriel Conroy's depressed reflection upon the prospect of his aged Aunt Julia's death and funeral (D 222) precipitates his final empathetic musing upon the living and the dead, so too do Torvald Helmer's thoughts about his friend Rank's anticipated death draw him closer, albeit superficially, to his wife (DH 167).

Going beyond these corresponding elements of setting, plot, and symbol in the two works, we note a number of additional parallels in the thoughts of Gabriel and Torvald. As a part of their affectionate regard for their wives, for example, Gabriel admires Gretta physically as she dances (D 215), and Torvald becomes excited by Nora as she dances (DH 159). Gabriel wishes at one point in the story that he could valorously “defend her [Gretta] against something” (D 213). Torvald similarly tells Nora that he wishes “some danger might threaten” her so that he might “risk body and soul” to save her (DH 167). Gabriel tenderly thinks of his and Gretta's secret “life together … that no one knew of” (D 213), and then, shortly afterwards, imagines himself and Gretta off again on their honeymoon (D 214). An admiring Torvald tells Nora, “I am fancying that we love each other in secret, … and that no one dreams that there is anything between us” (DH 158), and then, shortly afterwards, confides in her how he imagines she is once again his new bride (DH 159).

The two men also share comparable negative thoughts about their wives. Gabriel humorously implies in talking to his Aunt Kate that he finds Gretta unthinkingly heedless, and Gretta adds how Gabriel imposes the same didactic paternalism upon both herself and their children (D 180). Torvald twice calls Nora a “featherbrain” (DH 27, 162), tells her that he views her as his child as well as his wife (DH 175), and tells her that he will educate her (DH 179). Gabriel appears somewhat condescending towards Gretta's provincial origins and resents her being identified with them (D 187, 189). Torvald speaks condescendingly of Nora's father's morals and values and accuses Nora of inheriting them (DH 32, 170).

The two men even share a dietary idiosyncrasy. Gabriel is described as never eating sweets (D 200), and Torvald is said to be against eating sweets (DH 60).

While Ellmann contends that the character of Gabriel is a composite made “mostly out of Curran [a friend of Joyce's], Joyce's father, and Joyce himself” (JJII 247), I think in some small measure we may add to this company the literary figure of Torvald Helmer. Less self-conscious, less developed as a character, and less sympathetic than Gabriel, Torvald nevertheless anticipates facets of Gabriel's status-driven mentality, egotistical self-deception, pettiness, jealousy, and romantic objectification of his wife. Joyce may well have found in A Doll's House a domestic predicament that reflected his own insecurities and around which he could construct a narrative of personal associations. He may also have found in Ibsen's work some useful details of setting, plot, symbol, and character with which to artfully fashion that narrative.


  1. Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House, trans. William Archer (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911). This is the edition read by Joyce. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text as DH.

  2. Ibsen's general influence on Joyce's work has, of course, received considerable attention. For discussion of the broader aspects of this influence, see Bjorn J. Tysdahl's Joyce and Ibsen: A Study in Literary Influence (Oslo: Norwegian Univ. Press; New York: Humanities Press, 1968) and Vivienne Koch Macleod's “The Influence of Ibsen on Joyce” in PMLA, 60 (1945), 879-98. For Ibsen's more specific impact on Joyce's Exiles, see Hugh Kenner's “Joyce and Ibsen's Naturalism” in the Sewanee Review, 59 (1951), 75-96; James T. Farrell's “Exiles and Ibsen” in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, ed. Seon Givens (1948; New York: Vanguard Press, 1963), pp. 95-131; and Bernard Benstock's “Exiles, Ibsen and the Play's Function in the Joyce Canon” in Forum, 11 (1970), 26-37. With only a few exceptions, however, like James R. Baker's “Ibsen, Joyce, and the Living-Dead: A Study of Dubliners” in A James Joyce Miscellany, ed. Marvin Magalaner (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 19-32, relatively little has been written on Ibsen and individual Dubliners stories. And nothing I have seen links A Doll's House to “The Dead” in any specific way beyond a superficial comparison of Nora Helmer and Gretta Conroy. I have found only one article that argues a multifaceted debt to a particular Ibsen work in Joyce's writing of “The Dead,” but that work is Hedda Gabler. See Theoharis C. Theoharis's “Hedda Gabler and ‘The Dead’” in ELH, 50 (1983), 791-809.

Gerald Doherty (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Doherty, Gerald. “The Art of Confessing: Silence and Secrecy in James Joyce's ‘The Sisters.’” James Joyce Quarterly 35, no. 4 (summer 1998): 657-64.

[In the following essay, Doherty analyzes the place of secrecy in the text and meaning of Joyce's story, “The Sisters.”]

In Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault situates the act of confessing within a long European perspective.1 He traces its slow evolution from those “naked” questions, formulated by the confession manuals of the Middle Ages, through the Catholic pastorals of the Counter-Reformation, down to its modern reincarnation in the secular disciplines of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In this evolution, as Foucault remarks, western man becomes a confessing animal, who compulsively narrates to himself (or another) his moral or social transgressions and who transforms the least of his desires into discourse (20-21). Confession turns both on what can be openly spoken about and what it is forbidden to name. At the core of the confessional act, Foucault locates sexuality: it is the disquieting enigma that conceals itself so that its secret presence may reverberate all the more loudly (23-27).

In its late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century manifestations, confession drastically altered its role. From being a theological ritual, focused on sin and salvation (the sacrament of penance), it became a psychological one, focused on the morbidities of the sexual psyche (the psychoanalytical session). In its new secular materialization, it is a staple prop of “sexology”—the newly-established discipline, which takes sexuality, as a discursive (and narrative) entity, as its object of fascination.2 In this crossing of domains, confession penetrates the sphere of pathology, which defines the norms against which to locate the transgressive, the perverse, and the deviant.3

Especially in its reinvention as psychological therapy, confession is intimately bound up with narrative. Both turn on the same sets of procedures: introspection and self-revelation, investigation and disclosure, interrogation and truth-telling. Confession is just as much at home in the novel (and short story) as in the consulting room, though its manifestations in each domain may be different. For example, confession feeds into narrative in (at least) two significant ways. First, it connects narrative plots to a guilty secret, an abrasive stigma or stain that incites further narrative to justify and explain it. The secret of the confession resembles most of all the Barthesian enigma: it is the initial mystery that triggers the impulse to narrate, that sets up blocks to disclosure, and that is revealed in the final revelation which exposes the truth and rounds off the story.4 Initially, it conceals itself so that it may be later spoken about. Second, confession generates a fascination with hermeneutics. In so doing, it transforms narrators into professional diagnosticians, who incessantly decode and interpret signs of transgressive behavior, and turns the characters in the story into amateur “sleuths,” who observe one another for indicators of hidden conflicts or guilts. The confessional impulse feeds off what the characters wish to hide as well as what is hidden from them. In both of these manifestations, confession reinforces the revelatory function of narrative, which links diagnosis and painful disclosure together. In exacerbating the gap between the latent and the manifest, it draws them closer together. It trades in the clandestine, the furtive, and the forbidden so as to subject them to hermeneutic probing and sifting.5

Within the context of confession, as I have just defined it, Joyce's “The Sisters” emerges as a paradigmatic and exemplary fable. First of all, “The Sisters” juxtaposes the two major types of discourse that mirror the historical evolution of the confessional act: it plays off a theological (or devotional) discourse, centered on sin and salvation, against a pathological discourse that centers on disquieting symptom-formations, whose etiology it refuses to name. The story insistently pathologizes the confessional act, enticing it away from its roots in a moral and pious imperative into the sphere of the morbid and the perverse. In this process, it confronts a settled theological discourse with an unsettling psychopathological one.

In addition, “The Sisters” identifies the confessional secret with the narrative enigma—the embedded image of those accumulating uncertainties surrounding the drama of disclosure itself. The narrative feeds off those blockings produced by its endeavor to expose a truth, whose origin and cause is obscure and whose referents in the real world of the text evaporate in the process of attempting to name them. In so doing, it transforms both the narrator and the characters into diagnosticians of the pathological, intent on scrutinizing one another's behavior and on uncovering networks of symptoms and signs, which they subject to hermeneutic inquiry. In a correlative manner, it maneuvers the reader into the role of the fussy hermeneut, intent on revealing those elements about which the text refuses to speak and which the characters themselves muffle or repress.6


“The Sisters” opens with a discourse that already foregrounds the decoding of signs as a prelude to interpreting their meaning. The hermeneutic drama of deciphering begins, as the boy “studie[s] the lighted square of window” of the house where the priest lies for evidence (two lighted candles) that he has at last passed away (D [Dubliners] 9). Into this context of anxious survey and inspection, the word “paralysis” immediately intrudes (D 9). Embedded first in a theological discourse that identifies it with a demonic spiritual essence—“some maleficent and sinful being”—it soon takes on a pathological taint (D 9). It signifies an unspecified but lethal disease that provokes the boy's desire to scrutinize and investigate its effects: “I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (D 9).

From this point onwards, a kind of diegetic law operates that splits the narrative into two. It produces a theological discourse, which is coherent and lucid and which trades in the devotional bromides and platitudes in polite social use, as well as a pathological discourse, which is equivocal, elliptical, and hiatus-ridden. Marked by evasions and elisions, the latter discourse defines the boundary of what can be properly named and spoken about. Its limit is the silence that seals off those elements that cannot be owned up to or confessed.

Old Cotter's response to the news of the priest's death already plays at this limit. His “theory” about the cause of the death places him in possession of a pathological secret that he cannot (or does not want to) reveal: “—No, I wouldn't say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him” (D 10, 9-10). Indeed, the word “theory” itself evokes new-fangled psychological systems, based on empirical evidence rather than the old-fashioned theological ones based on faith. Since Cotter refuses to explain his theory, the text leaves open the possibility that his grasp of the theory is weak or that the theory itself is incoherent or vague or that he does not want to uncover its implications in the boy's presence.

The dialogic exchanges that follow between Cotter and the boy's uncle and aunt intensify this obsessive probing for symptoms and signs. Not only does the boy feel himself “under observation” while these exchanges proceed, but he also becomes the object of Cotter's cold, clinical gaze—“his little beady black eyes were examining me”—which seems silently to convict him of something in order to make him confess (D 10). Indeed, the exchanges themselves have a vague psychoanalytical resonance that produces an aura of guilt by association. Thus, they evoke slyly by disavowal scenes of childhood masturbation (as a “nipper,” in winter and summer, the boy's uncle took cold baths—the traditional antidote to onanism) and of childhood sexual trauma, crystallized in Cotter's observation—“—It's bad for children. … When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect. …”—which specifies neither the activity to which the “it” refers nor the kind of effect it produces (D 11).7 In effect, such exchanges pathologize the reader herself and place her in an ingenious double bind: either she fills in the cause of the symptoms about which the text remains silent and thus confirms her role as a sophisticated diagnostician, or she ignores the text's challenge, refuses to fill in the blanks, and is stigmatized by the text as a naive or obtuse narratee.8

The boy's extended recollections of his relationship with the priest, which immediately follow, intensify the atmosphere of inquisition and inquest. They sharpen the opposition we have already noted between a theological discourse that already knows all the questions and explanations and a pathological discourse that raises disturbing questions but represses the answers. For example, the priest's indoctrination, as the boy recalls it, turns on the catechistical mode of interrogation and possesses an exemplary clarity. It involves answers to questions that have been worked out in advance. As an authoritative hermeneut, the priest interprets the rituals of the Mass, the Eucharist and the confession, “elucidating all these intricate questions” (D 13). If the priest sometimes “amused himself” by putting “difficult questions” to the boy, it is only because his answers are already imbued with an aura of certainty (D 13). By contrast, the narrator's keen, clinical eye for pathological symptoms—the priest's “stupified doze,” “trembling hand,” the tongue that lolls on the “lower lip”—becomes unaccountably blind when the cause of these symptoms is in question (D 12, 13). The narrative refuses to answer the questions that the presence of these symptoms provokes. It trades on uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystification. While the rites of the church, though “complex and mysterious” (D 13), offer themselves up to hermeneutic appropriation, pathological symptoms, by contrast, remain steadily opaque to interpretation.

At this point, we can isolate a second diegetic law, which governs the production of this pathological discourse. Traditionally, pathological investigation involves two distinct procedures that mutually implicate each other: first, the noting of symptoms that are the external (or visible) signs of disease and, second, the forging of an etiology that assigns the symptoms to a clinical cause.9 In the context of “The Sisters,” we can formulate the diegetic law as follows: the text insistently highlights the symptoms, while it suppresses their cause. This narrative “blindness” is the effect of cultivating the one at the expense of the other. While the text puts on show the visible signs of disease, it feigns ignorance of an etiology that would elucidate and explain them.

The boy's dream about the priest theatricalizes this blocking of the interpretation of pathological signs. Initially the dream seems to offer the exemplary context in which signs will yield up their secret significance. Indeed, the boy's puzzled need to interpret signs—“to extract meaning from [Cotter's] unfinished sentences” (D 11)—triggers the dream, which dramatizes the shift away from a theological context, where meanings are clear, to a pathological context, where they are increasingly opaque and obscure. Two distinct diegetic maneuvers determine the shift, including, first, an unexpected reversal of roles, which strips the priest of his ecclesiastical powers—it is the boy who hears his confession and who absolves him of this mysterious sin—and, second, the foregrounding of symptoms—“the heavy grey face” and the lips “moist with spittle” (D 11)—which possess a rich, if unspecified, pathological resonance.

In effect, the dream enacts the quest for a “primal scene” that holds out the promise of a final interpretation but that becomes increasingly vague and amorphous as it unfolds. A phantasmal sexual scenario offers a clue but provides no answer, as the frame of reference itself becomes progressively veiled. It evokes an Oriental site of erotic fulfillment, located in Persia. Its brothel-like atmosphere—“long velvet curtains” and antique “swinging lamp” (D 13)—conjures up transgressive pleasures, which, however, the text refuses to name.10 At precisely the point where the dream comes close to disclosing its truth and exposing the sexual cause of the symptoms, it encounters a block. Elliptical marks once more disrupt the discursive flow and subject the truth of the dream to a final repression: “I felt that I had been very far away … in Persia, I thought. … But I could not remember the end of the dream” (D 13-14). Deprived of a primal scene that would integrate all the scenes that precede it, interpretation falters and reaches a dead end.


The same basic juxtaposition between a lucid devotional discourse and an obfuscating pathological one dominates the concluding scenes of the story. In the course of the boy's visit with his aunt to the “house of mourning” (D 14), the text moves from the pathological through the devotional and back again to the pathological. The same relationship between them persists, as the pathological discourse undercuts the truths and assurances expressed in the devotional one.

The boy's entry into the “dead-room” (D 14) already signals the sharpening of the cold, clinical gaze (the morgue is the locus classicus of precisely this type of gaze). The boy's eye immediately latches on to the visible signs of deterioration—Nannie's “clumsily” hooked skirt and her cloth boots, “trodden down all to one side” (D 14). Once again, the clinical eye picks out the symptoms, while it suppresses their cause. It zooms in on the corpse and explores its repulsive facial features in close-up. While, however, the narrator presents certain pathological details without comment—the “truculent” face, the “black cavernous nostrils,” the “scanty white fur” of the beard—he intervenes (symptomatically) to decontaminate one final detail: the “heavy odour” in the room, the narrator insists, emanates, not from the corpse (as the already pathologized reader might have anticipated) but from the flowers (D 14). The exception, as it were, proves the rule: the text identifies the source of the symptom only if its cause is not pathological.

The dialogic exchanges between the boy's aunt and Eliza, which round off the story, trade in devotional clichés and platitudes. As such, they function at two distinct levels. At the structural one, they take the form of complete, fully-formed sentences, which draw on a repertoire of predictable responses, designed to compose, console, and reassure: “he's gone to a better world”; “[h]e had a beautiful death, God be praised”; “there's no friends like the old friends”; “[a]nd I'm sure now that he's gone to his eternal reward” (D 15, 16). At the strategic level, the same well-formed sentences are designed to ward off the unsettling, disquieting gaps that the pathological discourse opens up. In effect, the text theatricalizes this kind of maneuver: it first highlights the repulsive traits of the corpse (as in the description quoted above) before it presents a more sanitized and sedated image of the cadaver—“No one would think he'd make such a beautiful corpse” (D 15).

In the end, this pious exchange is invaded by the very discourse of pathological symptoms that it is designed to ward off. From the moment that Eliza recalls “something queer coming over” her brother, the text once again is distorted by elisions, omissions, suspended phrases: “I heard something. …”; “there was something gone wrong with him. …”; “[i]t was that chalice he broke. …” (D 16, 17, 18, 17). This image of the chalice, in particular, has been the object of much subtle elucidation. Sonja Bašic, for example, notes the “outrageousness” of Joyce's choice of a chalice (instead of a conventional cross or a rosary) as the object that the corpse “loosely retain(s)” in its hands.11 Perhaps the choice is best explained by the persistent contamination of the theological by the pathological, which has been a theme of the present essay. In the process, the chalice changes its symbolic function: from being an untarnished religious icon, it becomes a tarnished pathological symptom. While Eliza's sharp, clinical eye shrewdly latches on to the symptoms of accelerating disease—the priest's breviary “fallen to the floor”; the open mouth, the body “lying back in the chair” (D 16)—it remains studiously blind to their cause.

The text reserves its most potent image of the contamination of the theological by the pathological for the end of the story. Eliza recalls the scene in which Father O'Rourke discovers the priest “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself” (D 18). The site of theological shriving becomes the nexus of the climatic revelation of pathological symptoms.

In this cameo-like scene, we (as pathological readers), may perceive an embedded figure both of the production and the reception of this particular narrative.12 In terms of the former, the priest's laugh is an act of acknowledgement of the text's elaborate reproduction of symptoms whose cause it refuses to name. The priest, as it were, laughs at the drama of secrecy in which he himself is the main actor. In terms of the latter, the text laughs (in anticipation) at those earnest, hermeneutic solicitings that pry into those secrets which the narrative keeps to itself, despite the reader's pathologized need to expose them.


  1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Sexology is the study of the conceptions and theorizations of sex as a discursive entity. As Stephen Heath notes, in The Sexual Fix (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1982), p. 11, it “goes back little more than a hundred years.” The most significant branch of sexology is perhaps psychoanalysis.

  3. The establishing of norms against which to demarcate aberrations was an obsessive preoccupation among earlier sexologists. It produced—to take one example—Richard von Krafft-Ebing's fourfold categorization of the perversions (sadism, masochism, fetishism, inversion)—see Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, with Especial Reference to the Antipathetic Sexual Instinct, trans. Franklin Klaf (New York: Bell Press, 1985), pp. 34-36. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 7, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), pp. 145-245, Freud also doggedly insists on distinguishing normal from perverse sexual behavior, despite his development of a componential theory (the sexual drive is merely “soldered” onto the sexual object) that radically blurs the distinction. Also especially pertinent is Arnold I. Davidson's illuminating essay, “How To Do the History of Psychoanalysis: A Reading of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,Critical Inquiry, 13 (Winter 1987), 252-77.

  4. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), pp. 187-88, 209-10.

  5. I have isolated these particular areas because of their special relevance to the present discussion. Other connections, of course, exist: for example, the sadomasochistic aspect of confession (its extraction of secrets by violence or blackmail) is the force behind much contemporary narrative in the western tradition.

  6. Critics have harnessed some of the major psychological, political, and ethical systems in their efforts to fill in the textual blanks in “The Sisters” and in other Dubliners stories. Indeed, their readings often tacitly seem to assume that such secrets have no right to be there; examples include the following interpretations: Freudian—Hélène Cixous, “Joyce: The (r)use of writing,” Post-structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, ed. Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 15-30; Lacanian—Suzette Henke, James Joyce and the Politics of Desire (London: Routledge Publishers, 1990), pp. 14-18; Marxist—Trevor Williams, “No Cheer for the ‘Gratefully Oppressed’ in Joyce's Dubliners,Style, 25 (Fall 1991), 416-38; and Dantean—Lucia Boldrini, “‘The Sisters’ and the Inferno: An Intertextual Network,” Style, 25 (Fall 1991), 453-65.

  7. Here the question of a Freudian influence is not an issue. Masturbation and infantile sexuality were controversial themes and were the subjects of much anxiety-ridden psychological, medical, and pedagogic interrogation. Richard Brown gives a detailed account of the part that masturbation plays in the Joycean texts—see Brown, James Joyce and Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 54-78. These issues were also a major preoccupation of Freud at the turn of the century. As is well known, he replaced his theory of infantile sexual trauma (the celebrated “primal scene” of seduction) with his theory of infantile masturbation and the Oedipus complex.

  8. Speculations about the etiology of Father Flynn's paralysis are legion: they range from general paralysis of the insane, a consequence of tertiary syphilis—see Burton Waisbren and Florence Walzl, “Paresis and the Priest: James Joyce's Symbolic Use of Syphilis in ‘The Sisters,’” Annals of Internal Medicine, 80 (1974), 758-62—through the effects of his pederastic desire for the boy—see John Kuehl, “a la joyce: The Sisters Fitzgerald's Absolution,” JJQ [James Joyce Quarterly], 2 (Fall 1964), 2-6; Leonard Albert, “Gnomonology: Joyce's ‘The Sisters,’” JJQ, 27 (Winter 1990), 353-64; and Henke (p. 17)—on to “hardening of the arteries”—see J. B. Lyons, “Disease in Dubliners: Tokens of Disaffection,” Irish Renaissance Annual, 11, ed. Zack Bowen (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1981), p. 188.

  9. His medical training in Paris would have acquainted Joyce with these basic procedures.

  10. The sexualization of the Orient has been a persistent motif in western narratives. As Edward Said notes, in Orientalism (London: Routledge Publishers, 1978), p. 188, “[T]he Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sexuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies.”

  11. Sonja Bašic, “A Book of Many Uncertainties: Joyce's Dubliners,Style, 25 (Fall 1991), 367.

  12. As Ross Chambers explains it, in Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1984), p. 33, figural embedding “consists of the incorporation into a narrative of a ‘figure’ (in the sense in a personage but also in the sense of an image) that is representative in some sense of ‘art,’ or of the production and reception of narrative.”

John Malenich (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Malenich, John. “Creating the Stereotype: The Colonial Origins of Savagery and Intemperance in Joyce's ‘Counterparts.’” Notes on Modern Irish Literature 12 (2000): 57-61.

[In the following essay, Malenich speculates on the influences of British colonialism on the Irish societal temperament as exemplified by the brutality of the character Farrington in Joyce's “Counterparts.”]

Although its geographic location and its seemingly European or Western culture often can conceal what should be obvious, Ireland must undoubtedly be viewed as a post-colonial nation due to the “subaltern” position its culture occupied throughout the centuries of British hegemony; hence, a post-colonial approach quite often needs to be called upon to illuminate this nation's literature. Frantz Fanon notes that typically within such colonial power structures, “the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil … the native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values” (33-34). This type of stereotypical view has traditionally been prominent in Britain where, says Edward Said, an “amazingly persistent cultural attitude existed toward Ireland as a place whose inhabitants were a barbarian and degenerate race” (Culture and Imperialism 220). British poet Edmund Spenser's 1596 call for the complete extermination of the “Irish barbarians” is one of the most vivid examples of this predominant view. In Orientalism (1978), Said maintains that Imperial endeavors, like Britain's, were often justified through the belief in what he calls “Orientalist” stereotypes that negatively portrayed the colonial subjects—labeling them as a primitive, lazy, disreputable, or savage race conveniently put a humanitarian face on the motives of colonization (6). However, when examined with a post-colonial eye, James Joyce's “Counterparts” reveals the fallacy of Imperialism's “missionary” aims and the manner in which this experience actually helped to stimulate the very traits it supposedly planned to remedy in the conquered people. While on first glance it may seem that Joyce's Farrington is the perfect embodiment of the “barbarian” that Spenser and his countrymen described, careful consideration of the underlying colonial forces affecting Farrington and in fact all Irishmen reveals a quite different take on this man and Joyce's narrative.

Farrington is unquestionably one of the most maligned characters who inhabit the short stories that comprise Joyce's Dubliners (1914). The infamous conclusion of “Counterparts” in which Farrington viciously beats his helpless son with a walking stick after returning from a frustrating day at work and the pubs seems for some to be more than adequate reasoning for his condemnation. If not, the description of his son begging him to stop and offering to say a Hail Mary for his sinful father, seems to clinch this response; however, Farrington's defenders like R. Bruce Kibodeaux argue that “it is extremely important to remember that Farrington is sinned against as well as sinning: that he is a product as well as a perpetrator of the paralysis of Dublin” (89). Such supporters point out that, like other Dubliners, Farrington is trapped by the Irish nets of religion, language, and nationality and note that “Ireland's misgovernance by English Law is illustrated by the story of Farrington's mistreatment … so that Farrington's inarticulate rage against innocent bystanders is comprehensible, if not exonerated, on political grounds” (Owens 130). In a 1906 letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce himself remarks, “I am no friend of tyranny, as you know, but if many husbands are brutal the atmosphere in which they live (vide ‘Counterparts’) is brutal” (Selected Letters

They thought they had only a girl to deal with and that, therefore, they could ride roughshod over her. But she would show them their mistake. They wouldn’t have dared to have treated her like that if she had been a man. But she would see that her daughter got her rights: she wouldn’t be fooled.

(See Important Quotations Explained)


As the assistant secretary to the Eire Abu, or “Ireland to Victory,” Society, Mr. Holohan tries to organize a series of concerts showcasing local musicians. He finally visits Mrs. Kearney, whose eldest daughter Kathleen has a reputation in Dublin as a talented pianist and exemplary speaker of Irish. Kathleen studies the piano and French in a convent school like Mrs. Kearney did, and she receives tutoring in Irish at the insistence of her mother as well. Mrs. Kearney is not surprised when Mr. Holohan proposes that Kathleen perform as an accompanist in the series, and she advises Mr. Holohan in drawing up a contract to secure a payment of eight guineas for Kathleen’s performance in the four concerts. Given Mr. Holohan’s inexperience in organizing such an event, she also helps him to lay out the program and complete other duties.

After her efforts, Mrs. Kearney is disturbed when the concerts turn out to be sub-par for her high standards. The first two concerts are poorly attended, the audience members behave “indecorously,” and many of the artists are mediocre. Mrs. Kearney complains to Mr. Holohan, but neither he nor the head secretary, Mr. Fitzpatrick, appear bothered by the turnout. Nevertheless, the Society’s committee cancels the third concert in hopes that doing so will boost attendance for the final one. This change in plans infuriates Mrs. Kearney, who already has become aggravated by the men’s lax attitudes and what she sees as loose manners. She approaches Mr. Holohan and insists that such a change should not alter the contracted payment, but Mr. Holohan only refers her to Mr. Fitzpatrick, who also dodges her inquiries.

On the night of the final concert, Mrs. Kearney, accompanied by her husband and Kathleen, arrives early at the performance hall to meet the men, but neither Mr. Holohan nor Mr. Fitzpatrick has arrived. As the musicians gather and await curtain call, Mrs. Kearney paces in the dressing room until finally she finds Mr. Holohan and, following him to a quiet hallway, pursues the issue of the contract. Again he insists that such matters are not his “business” and that she must consult Mr. Fitzpatrick. Enraged, she returns to the dressing room, where the musicians wait for Kathleen to join them so they can start the performance, for which the audience loudly clamors. Mrs. Kearney detains her daughter, and when Mr. Holohan arrives to query the delay in performance, she announces that Kathleen will not perform unless paid in full. Mr. Holohan departs in haste and returns with Mr. Fitzpatrick, who gives Mrs. Kearney half of the amount, explaining that the remainder will come at the intermission, after Kathleen’s performance. Kathleen plays, during which time the artists and committee members criticize Mrs. Kearney’s aggressive conduct. At the intermission, Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Holohan inform Mrs. Kearney that they will pay her daughter the balance after the committee meeting next week. But Mrs. Kearney angrily bickers with Mr. Holohan and finally whisks away her daughter, leaving the concert hall.


In “A Mother,” Mrs. Kearney’s practical but inflexible approach to life, while it gets her what she wants most of the time, ultimately does nothing but increase her own anger. Mrs. Kearney drives herself to accomplish whatever task, challenge, or need is at hand, often without much show of emotion. She marries her husband just to be married, not because of love. In her unyielding insistence that her daughter, Kathleen, receive full payment for her performance, Mrs. Kearney pursues her interests to such a degree that she undoes her own efforts to perfect the concert, and herself. When the organizers provide only half of the fee, Mrs. Kearney embarrasses her daughter and ruins her career by sweeping her out of the concert hall and irritating everyone. Mrs. Kearney is not concerned with a trifling amount of money, she insists, but her rights and her respect. The story leaves the reader guessing why Mrs. Kearney abandons her cause and leaves the concert hall. Is she humiliated? Does she realize that no one shares or sympathizes with her frustrations? Like “an angry stone,” Mrs. Kearney will not soften to the circumstances and reconsider. Like other characters in Dubliners,she will continue to live according to her own routine.

Through the fastidious character of Mrs. Kearney, “A Mother” subtly critiques shallow concerns about social profile. Mrs. Kearney’s immense efforts to organize and perfect are not motivated by an ambition to succeed, the story suggests, but by a concern with status and appearance. She crafts an education for Kathleen of piano, French, and Irish, which makes obvious the family’s interest in culture and nationalist efforts. The concert provides Mrs. Kearney with an ideal opportunity to let Kathleen shine as a darling of Irish culture, but her frustrations with the lax society members and her complaints about the venue and selection of artists indicate that Mrs. Kearney obsesses over details to ensure neither Kathleen’s happy career nor a successful concert, but her own respected appearance. As more things sully her ideal vision, Mrs. Kearney makes snide observations to herself and struggles to maintain her composure. When she approaches Mr. Fitzpatrick about the contract, she inwardly ridicules his accent, which she perceives to be lower class, but she resists making nasty comments about it, which would “not be ladylike.” In the end, Mrs. Kearney’s attempt to boost her social appearance results only in her tarnishing it dramatically.

Mrs. Kearney perceives herself as part of a struggle between men and women, noting to herself when she begins to face difficulty with the contract that she would be treated differently if she were a man. This concern briefly places Mrs. Kearney in a sympathetic light and leads the reader to question Mrs. Kearney’s circumstances. Yet while Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Holohan appear lazy and uninterested in the concert proceedings, nothing in their actions suggests that they take advantage of Mrs. Kearney. In fact, they struggle to provide the demanded payment for Kathleen. Like Mrs. Mooney in “The Boarding House,” a female protagonist challenges the reader to consider her plight in a larger social context. Mrs. Kearney wants to ensure her adequate rights, but she also must appear ladylike—for her, the combination is incompatible.