“Snow Was General All Over Ireland”: The Identities of Joyce’s Dubliners

As part of the Literature Profile Integrating Activity course, students write a 10-page paper. These two excellent papers, by Genevieve Daigle and Eric Neilson, are the presentation versions delivered at the Literature Profile Conference. This year’s conference programme appears in the final pages of this journal.

Written by: Eric Neilson

James Joyce’s 1914 short story collection, Dubliners, handles the topics of family, religion, and marriage, among others, in its depiction of urban Irish life. Joyce wrote of- and during- a period of historic tension in Ireland (Corcoran 57). In examining this text, I aim to uncover Joyce’s conception of Irish identity. Earlier interpretations of the work focus on motifs of paralysis and epiphany in the stories. Other interpretations consider how Joyce’s ordinary characters react in response to both the political environment, and Irish religious tensions. The text, I will argue, synthesizes all these components into a complete picture of a paralytic Irish national identity, both at the social and personal level, in the early twentieth century.

The most pressing aspect of Dublin at this time was the divide between Protestants and Catholics. Historian James S. Donnelly outlines the history of this opposition. During the seventeenth century, an anglophone landed elite established political, economic and social dominance of Ireland. They were conferred “possession of three-quarters of [Ireland’s] land” (Donnelly 240) by England’s Charles II, who also acknowledged the Protestant Church of Ireland as the established church, despite the native Catholic majority. Catholics launched many campaigns against the Anglo-Irish, including petitioning admission to the Irish Parliament, which they achieved in 1829. A new Irish-Catholic nationalism began to brew, becoming a veritable movement by the late nineteenth century. The tension between the burgeoning nationalist movement, largely Catholic-driven, versus the unionist movement, who favored English influence and was largely Protestant-driven, defined late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Irish politics, and thus informs Joyce’s Dubliners.

Dubliners’ depiction of Irish identity is, according to Canadian author Paul Delany, steeped in Joyce’s personal indictments against “the Catholic Church, the colonial ruling class, and the indigenous collaborators with that class” (257). Delany offers an example in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” where nationalist candidate Mr. Tierney’s supporters “recognize that he will betray the Nationalist cause once he is elected” (262), and so the issue of Irish independence is, for the politicians, a lesser priority, despite their celebration of former nationalist hero Parnell. The story paints the nationalists as corrupt and obsessed with the mythos of their own brief history (263).

Early readings of Dublinersdescribe two key motifs: paralysis and epiphany; both are essential to Joyce’s conception of Irish identity. Joycean scholar Florence Walzl argues that the theme of paralysis is supported by the fact that “thirteen of the… fifteen stories take place at the end of the day, at twilight, or actually at night” (223), when most people are stilled by sleep. Walzl goes on to highlight the age progression of the collection’s protagonists, ascribing different paralyses to each age bracket. The protagonists of the first three stories are children, and their paralysis manifests as the stifling of “emotional and psychological development of self as preparation for [adult] life” (222). In “The Sisters,” the boy narrator partially rejects religious society after the abrupt death of Father Flynn, his priest, who once embodied “knowledge and religious authority” (223) but is now maligned by the adults. As the sister Eliza remarks, “the duties of the priesthood were too much for him. And then his life was… crossed” (Joyce 9). Father Flynn’s connection with ominous paralysis is also explicitly highlighted in the first paragraph when the narrator gazes into the priest’s window and utters the word “paralysis” (1).

“Eveline” is the fourth story in Dubliners, and the first with a young adult narrator. Prior to Eveline’s journey to Buenos Aires from Dublin with her partner Frank (Joyce 29), she stops short at the dock, unwilling to board the ship. Walzl describes her behavior as becoming trapped by a “mistaken sense of obligation” (224-25) toward her violent, overbearing father. “Counterparts,” part of the next bracket of adult protagonists, features a man who takes revenge upon his son after he returns from his tedious office job where the “petty tyranny” (226), as Walzl describes it, of his boss stills his desire to rebel. Ultimately, a kind of paralysis afflicts each of Joyce’s protagonists, no matter their age, underscoring the sweeping nature of the Irish paralysis Dublinersinvestigates.

However, the characters often realize their ensnarement, and scholars such as Gerhard Friedrich term these moments epiphanies. For example, the disillusionment of the boy in “Araby,” upon his realization he is late to the market to purchase a gift for his neighbor Mangan’s older sister, is an epiphany, as he visualizes himself in the third person “as a creature driven and derided by vanity” (Joyce 26). The climactic epiphany of “The Dead,” in which Gabriel Conroy describes himself as “a ludicrous figure” (209) in his jealousy for his wife’s teenage love-interest who has long since died, echoes, according to Friedrich, the epiphany in “Araby” within a mature context (425). Gabriel and the boy respectively undergo disillusionment regarding their romantic impulses. However, despite their awareness, their predicaments do not resolve themselves.

The factors which most reliably produce paralysis in Dubliners are the Anglo-Irish economic and political hegemony, and the self-defeating, sterilizing habits of the Irish nationalist movement. The latter is explored in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” through the character Henchy’s bleak declaration that “Parnell… is dead” (Joyce 121). This statement is both factually true, as nationalist hero Charles Parnell died in 1891, and, as Delany writes, symbolically true, because Parnell’s mission had been forgotten by the self-serving nationalists. Crofton, the committee room’s sole Protestant, declares Hynes’ celebratory poem on Parnell “a very fine piece of writing’” (Joyce 125), a final judgement which scholar Emily C. Bloom argues subtly asserts Crofton’s superior political power (7).

Dubliners also condemns the habits of Irish Catholics, assigning them partial responsibility for their sense of paralysis (Haughey 355-56). In “Two Gallants,” the protagonist Lenehan’s modest ambitions, which signify those of his Catholic peers, are embodied in his “listless” walk, “morose” gaze, and desire to “settle down in some snug corner,” all of which emphasize his pessimistic attitude borne of “his own poverty of purse and spirit” (Joyce 48). Essayist Jim Haughey lists the numerous allusions in “Two Gallants” to the inescapable architecture of Protestant Dublin which “surrounds” (358) Lenehan and his companion Corley during their excursion.

Finally, Joyce’s narrative style prompts the reader to experience something akin to the paralytic crises of identity that beset his characters (Corcoran 63). Literary scholar Mark Corcoran analyzes Joyce’s use of ellipses to amplify ambiguity (63). The earliest example of this technique is in “The Sisters” when Old Cotter describes Father Flynn’s ailment: “I think it was one of those … peculiar cases …. But it’s hard to say ….” (Joyce 2). The boy narrator cannot understand their uniquely adult discourse, and so, Corcoran argues, this disconnection from the adults’ conversation precipitates a crisis of identity in the narrator, just as it precipitates confusion in the reader (65). “After the Race” exemplifies a similar notion. Joyce moves from unbiased narration (Corcoran 69), such as when the protagonist Jimmy is simply “seen by many of his friends” (Joyce 35), to a more limited narration, with Jimmy’s meditation on the pleasure of “return[ing] to the profane world of spectators” (35). Jimmy’s constricted viewpoint becomes clear when he outlines his goals: “notoriety” and “the possession of money” (Joyce 35). However, the narrative voice often fluctuates upward from such ruminations to declare facts such as, “Farley was an American” (37). This fluctuation results in his lacking narrative independence (Corcoran 69). Ultimately, Jimmy has little control and is effectively paralyzed in both his ability to tell his story, and in his capacity to affect its outcome. Corcoran concludes that Joyce exposes the “limits of human knowledge” (70) to underscore the impact those limits have on a society in crisis.

Dubliners enacts Joyce’s model of Irish identity, synthesizing the root factors which lead to social and personal paralysis.The text explores such factors as the divide between the Anglo-Irish Protestants and the Catholic nationalists, the petty, unambitious intentions of some Irishmen, and the fallout of English economic imperialism over Dublin. The resulting animosity and fear of these components of paralysis form Dubliners’ principal conflicts. Paralysis is embedded in both character and setting- in both Dubliner and Dublin. Despite moments of clarity, in the epiphanies, characters are not afforded escape from this quagmire, and Joyce’s vision becomes grim. Thus, Irish identity at the time, just as Gabriel Conroy’s personal identity, metaphorically “fad[es] out into a grey impalpable world” of snow, which serves to freeze and smother “all the living and the dead” of Ireland (Joyce 212-3).

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