Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Moments of Epiphany

(Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity)

James Joyce has been credited with coining the literary usage of the term “epiphany”. In Writing Short Stories Ailsa Cox sums it up thus:

Joyce coined the term ‘epiphany’ to describe a moment of intense insight, which briefly illuminates the whole of existence. In image-based fiction, it serves as an emotional turning point, replacing the moment of outward revelation or decisive action which performs this function in a story dependent on plot. In a plot-driven story, a revelation leads towards a final resolution grounded in external action. An epiphany in image-based fiction hints at subjective, personal meanings hidden beneath the surface, which may or may not lead to action.


Epiphanies are usually invisible and private. On the outside, things seem pretty much as usual. It’s very important that they take place inside the everyday, subtly altering the character’s perceptions and making time seem to stand still.

“The Dead” is regarded by many as an exemplar of the centrality of the epiphany to the short story form. Typically, the epiphany in the story is pinpointed as occurring in the final pages after Gabriel’s wife Gretta tells him of her youthful romance with Michael Furey. I read the story with all this in mind and I don’t dispute this characterization. But I see “The Dead” as a story not of a single epiphany but of many such moments that build to that final one.

It seems to me that the most significant of those moments occur in Gabriel’s interactions with women: first in his brief exchange with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, upon arrival at the party, then in his “row” with Miss Ivors the “enthusiast” and “propagandist,” and finally in his response to Gretta’s revelation of a romantic past into which he has apparently never before thought to inquire.

First Lily:

‘O, then,’ said Gabriel gaily, ‘I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: ‘The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.’

Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his galoshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes.

This exchange “cast[s] a gloom over him” and causes him to doubt the speech he has prepared to deliver later:

He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

Later he is similarly discomfited by an encounter on the dance floor with Miss Ivors:

‘O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?’

‘Why should I be ashamed of myself?’ asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile.

‘Well, I'm ashamed of you,’ said Miss Ivors frankly. ‘To say you'd write for a paper like that. I didn't think you were a West Briton.’

A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel's face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey's on Bachelor's Walk, to Web's or Massey's on Aston's Quay, or to O'Clohissey's in the bystreet. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years' standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.

Miss Ivors repeats the charge once more and the incident rankles: “[S]he had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit's eyes.” And later: “It unnerved him to think that she would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes. Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech.”

Each of these incidents undercuts his public persona and forces Gabriel to, at least briefly, confront the contradictions within him. As such, they presage this crucial moment near the end of the story in the hotel room with Gretta:

A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.

Of course this alone is not the epiphany. Still to come is his consciousness of how little he really knows Gretta, and of his own mortality:

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few questions to contemplate:

1. The story is told almost entirely from Gabriel’s point of view. Why then does it begin before he arrives at the party?

2. I’m sure that I would get something more out of this story if I had a more solid sense of the political and religious context. This is not so much a question as a general plea to anyone who can offer up a bit of knowledge about Irish society at the time in which the story is set. For example, this is the first place I’ve encountered the term “West Briton.” I’m aware of a point in time when Scotland was known as “North Britain” and of the resentment that generated. Is a reference to the Irish as “West Britons” a parallel thing or perhaps something still more fraught? I was also intrigued by the bit about women being kicked out of the church choirs. What was going on in the Catholic church at that time? And what of Mr. Browne described by Mary Jane as being “of the other persuasion”? Does that mean he was Protestant? What would social relationships between Catholics and Protestants have been like in that part of Ireland at that time? Does that explain anything about the role Browne plays in the company?

3. Gabriel dismisses his aunts at one point as “two ignorant old women.” I realize that they’re not as well educated as Gabriel nor are they as well travelled. But why doesn’t their musical expertise, their knowledge of opera and so on, give them some cultural cachet in Gabriel’s eyes? Is he looking down on them as provincial in the very way that he so resented his mother looking down on his wife as “country cute”?

4. Who exactly are “the dead” of the title?

My favourite thing about the story: that gorgeous final paragraph. That’s a perfect ending if ever I’ve read one.

Click over to A Curious Singularity for other perspectives on James Joyce's "The Dead," and then join in the discussion of the story at MetaxuCafe.


Saltwater Farmer said...

I just read Dubliners again last week. Spurred on by your rhetorical (?) questions, I'll offer some rambling thoughts:

I'm by no means a Joyce expert, but I can tell you that Browne is a protestant. And I know that being labeled a West Briton was a harsh characterization, as it implied sympathy for the occupying force (the story precedes the formation of the Republic of Ireland by more than a decade).

Along those lines, its interesting that when Gabriel first imagines snow throughout Dublin, he pictures the Wellington Monument, a large obelisk commemorating an English military hero. And, more importantly, Gabriel fails to see the irony in his speech's theme of Irish hospitality after being labeled a West Briton. Ireland has been occupied by a foreign force as long as ships have sailed the sea. Their "hospitality" is a long Irish nightmare.

Women being kicked out of choirs was a petty issue to be upset about, considering the Catholic Church's well-documented criminal treatment of Irish women (see Magdalen Sisters, et al). I think he uses this as a way to portray Catholics as blind to larger issues with the church, while targeting the Church for its endless and inconsistent rules and declarations. Joyce was not a fan of the Church, except for its rich use of symbolism and ritual and he nimbly chose small ways to attack the Church throughout Dubliners. The Catholic Church was/is the primary ruling force in Ireland and they are keen on censorship and banning books as sacrilegious for petty and defensive reasons. Fear of the Church's power over printed material made it difficult for Joyce to find a publisher willing to take Dubliners.

Joyce was also opposed to Irish sentimentalism, which the spinster aunts represent. They are concerned with appearances and speak nastily behind the backs of others. The aunts believe they occupy an elevated place in Dublin society (though it's a rental). He's looking down on them for looking down on others, his wife included. Again, he misses the irony.

The fact that The Dead the final story in Dubliners is important (and it's even better when it's read after the others). It encompasses all of the themes that appear earlier in the collection. Joyce said he set the stories in Dublin because it "seemed to be the centre of paralysis."

I think the dead in "The Dead" refers to everyone in paralyzed Dublin and beyond. Whereas earlier in the story Gabriel imagines others dying, at the end he realizes we will all become shades. As Bob Dylan put it, "he not busy being born is busy dying."

RW said...

Very interesting comments to which I can only add that I think the dead are, well, everyone -- all the characters in the book and you too, living reader, not because you are dead but because you will be, because your time will run out and with it your opportunities for love or for anything. Part of the great rushing feeling of the final two pages of the story is how temporal life is, that we fade to nothing just like the snowflakes on the mutinous Shannon waves. We're all going, as Mr. saltwater farmer notes by way of Bob Dylan -- not only Aunt Julia but Gabriel too. Time is short. Act now. Snow is general all over Ireland. Head west.