Monday, December 11, 2006

James Joyce’s Modernism:
Bringing Out “The Dead”

James Joyce’s public statements about women provide plenty of fodder for anyone who wants to claim that the author was a chauvinist. “I hate a woman who knows anything,” Joyce famously said to Mary Colum (Scott 120). There’s also, “You’ve never heard of a woman who was the author of a complete philosophical system. No, and I don’t think you ever will” (Scott 121). But his own work betrays his disdain for sexism at the heart of mission to challenge the institutions of his time.

In “The Dead,” James Joyce gives the reader his nascent version of “Modernism” without the stylistic advances and fireworks of his later work. What is new and modern about the work is that he crafts a direct attack on the gender roles and male-dominated space of the time. By infusing the personal with the political, Joyce documents a painful personal realization that indicts the both the protagonist of the story along with the men Dublin as victimizers of women and victims of their own denial of feminine power.

Joyce began writing his greatest short story in Rome, surrounded by the ruins and of ancient Western civilization, after the collection Dubliners was accepted for publication as a book (Gray). The story depicts Gabriel Conroy, a man at odds with women, his role in public and himself and provides some Joyce critics the finite line that divides his earlier work from the breakthroughs of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (Gray). Joyce said that throughout Dubliners he intended to write a, “moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the center of paralysis.”(Joyce, 1975) The structure of the collection was to be presented, “to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.” In this last story of his first book, Joyce completes his project against the traditions of the past by taking on the largest canvas, public life. If it is true that Joyce himself was a one-man demolition crew of earlier thought and a harbinger of a new world that artists sought to rebuild from the wreck of the old, the story “The Dead” contains Joyce’s first exhaustive attempt to hack away at what he saw as the maladies of his time. By exposing the living as zombies haunted by the persistent faults ingrained by both church and state, Joyce begins his Modernist mission by crafting an extended eulogy and obituary for a mentality of male domination along with paralysis of spirit that lasted too long.

James Joyce was very familiar with women who were fighting for a modern Ireland. One of closest friends while he was writing Dubliners was Francis Skeffington, “an ardent supporter of equality for women at a time when such a stance was unpopular and even dangerous” (Gray) Skeffington was so ahead of his time that he even merged his last name with his wife Hanna Sheefy when they married. Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, was a Catholic nationalist who grew up a household filled with Catholic Nationalist women (Scott 26). Joyce must have noted her “power as a political orator—an ability that was acknowledged and respected in Dublin.” Richard Ellman believes that the actual inspiration for Molly Ivors was Hannah’s sister Kathleen Sheehy who famously “helped prevent evictions in the west of Ireland” (Scott 26). These were courageous women who risked real death to fight for a world where neither the British nor the men around them could control their future in the tired and stifling ways of the past.

Many men in Dublin shared a fear of a new woman. “Educated, professional women in turn-of-the-century Dublin risked a fate then considered by many only slightly better than death—spinsterhood” (Scott 137). Like Gabriel’s aunts in the story, who run their own business, Molly Ivors is not married. These women sought seek their own achievements, their own passions and identities. The spirit of women like these hits Gabriel Conroy over the head in “The Dead.”

Through Gabriel’s encounters and weakness when it comes to dealing with the strong opinions of women, a larger political issue is revealed. According to Eve Sedwick, Homosocial Space exists in colonized locations like Ireland that must deal with a constant subjugation that makes life almost unbearable. Sedgwick sees male/male transactions “of honor between men over the dead, discredited or dishonored body of a woman.” In Between Men, she dissects literature from Shakespeare’s sonnets to the nineteenth century novel to undress the social transactions of men dealing with men. Rather than letting the frustration of repression fuel a revolt, Sedgwick believes spaces allow men to dominate women and men of lesser status in order to foster a fictional self-perception as being strong and in control. If these men cannot be part of the class that rules over the vast empire, they can be the ones who rule over lesser territories like women. To Sedgwick, this makes capitalism possible in colonized nations, allowing men to work together to provide goods and service for the true dominating classes. This is as true for Ireland as it is for any colonized nation or minority group that threatens the real powers for whom make money and prop up in almost every material way. And it works because it is not supposed to change. Women need to be obeyed or they will be punished. Their slights are not to be tolerated.

… for a man to undergo even a humiliating change in the course of relationship with a man still feels like preserving or participating in the sum of male power, while for a man to undergo any change in the course of a relationship with a woman feels like a radical degeneration of substance. (Sedgwick 45)

A man who lives in a world of constant degradation at the hands of colonial powers and oppressive bosses is fine until a woman questions his masculinity. This kind of questioning disrupts the entire façade of the system. The stability of the inequality of women must be consistent.

As Jean Baker points our in Toward a New Psychology of Women, an attribution of gender differences marks a structure of permanent inequality, while the relationship between adult and child is the prototype of the temporary inequality that in principle—or in ideology—exists only in to be overcome: children are supposed to grow up into parents, but wives are not supposed to grow into husbands. (Sedgwick178)

The threat of the next male generation is always present for men in power, but the threat of women, like Molly Ivors and even Gretta in her own way, who are growing up to become husbands is too much for a man to take.

We see through Gabriel’s eyes how this subtle consistent domination of men is fading. Poor women are no longer willing to be sexual objects; widows are starting businesses and living richer lives than their dead husbands. Women are leading a true charge against the real oppressors, the British. And even the wives, the dear wives who have pledged through God and the state to serve their husbands till death do them part, are no longer playing their roles. Dissatisfied by the weakness of a husband who’s petty need to be in control infects every interaction and desire, Gretta is not really in love with Gabriel. Gabriel is aware of this even before he finds out about Michael Furey.

“He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers.” (Joyce 180)

But he feels that the dearth of affection can still be fixed until he learns about Michael Furey. He can’t compare to the lost spirit of a boy that was willing to risk everything to express his love just one last time. Sedwick says the goal of Homosocial society is to cuckold another man. But there is perhaps no man alive that can satisfy Gretta. The dead for the are the ones who live without restraint. The dead have cuckolded Gabriel thus the dead are in charge, and in Gabriel’s own words, he is “nothing”.

Who is really dead in James Joyce’s “The Dead”? Well, in the climactic story of Dubliners, each of the deceased characters mentioned have died before the story begins.

Pat Morkan, the brother of the two women who raised Gabriel Conroy, died long ago. After his death, the two aunts moved, started their own music school, and began putting on their annual dance that serves as the setting for the story.

Michael Furey died long ago, as well. He only enters the story in the mind of Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s wife, aroused by the words of an old song he used to sing. And how did he die? Stricken with serious illness, he sneaks out in the middle of the night to see Gretta one last time before she leaves for Dublin. Gabriel only finds out about this romantic entanglement because he misinterprets his wife’s graceful repose as she listens to an old song. The way she stands arouses a great lust in her husband’s heart. After building up a sexual encounter in his mind that will restore the ecstasy in their marriage, Gabriel seeks answers when his wife does not respond to his advances. He perversely forces the tortured history of Gretta’s Michael Furey out (Leonard 289).

The truth destroys Gabriel, makes him feel ashamed, as if intruding on her grief. The shame of the realization and his insight that indeed his wife had always been in love with another man causes him to feel that, “some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world” (Joyce 187). The dead are no longer dead to Gabriel, they are living and conspiring against him in his mind. Michael Furey’s challenge his love relationship cannot be contested or reversed. The idealized love that Gabriel believed he had with Gretta is now as dead as the goose that is being served for dinner.

This climatic challenge to Gabriel’s pride is delivered only after Joyce illustrates the character’s sensitivity to female power through a series of encounters with women. These encounters frustrate and stifle Gabriel as he prepares to give a speech to crowd gathered for the celebration. First, Gabriel meets Lily, his aunts’ servant, and he casually asks her if she is looking forward to getting married. Her reaction shocks him. She says no. She is tired of men, calls them “palavers,” liars who use words to get what they want. Even this lowly woman, a woman in a social class below even lower than his wife’s original status (both aunts thought Gretta was below him when he married her), sees through the façade of traditional male power. She is not willing to be a toy, a discredited body willing to validate powerless men who have no other way to seek status. Gabriel is so thrown by her response that he hands her some money as a Christmas present. He is forced to use his limited financial wealth to flaunt his paternal superiority.

After being mocked by his wife and aunts for his peculiar desire to use continental words and then employed to watch Freddy Mallins, the resident drunk, so he doesn’t spoil the festivities, Gabriel is forced to dance with Molly Ivors. A vigorous Nationalist, Molly has the same education and job as Gabriel. And she immediately calls Gabriel out for writing for a newspaper that she opposes politically. She then compliments his writing and demands that Gabriel come on a trip with her, playing the male role of judge and wooer. Here Joyce both connects himself to Gabriel (Joyce, too, was the author of occasional literary reviews) and contrasts these two characters, Gabriel and Molly, and the roles the play in society. Both have the same education and the same job, but Molly is using her energy to fight against the colonial presence that has haunted and stifled Ireland. Rather than admiring her spirit, Gabriel feels competitive and slighted. He is unable to contribute and even publishes his work in a pro-British paper.

Gabriel is offended by Molly’s attitude toward him:

…she 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 ( Joyce 176)

Rather than seeing, Molly’s entreaties as attempts to enlist him in the spirit of independence, Gabriel decides to use his role of the night’s speaker to strike back at her.

Perhaps [Molly Ivors] would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech. An idea came into his mind and gave him courage. He would say, alluding to Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack." Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors. (Joyce 177)

Take that, he decides. He will contrast Molly unfavorably with the dear, uneducated women of the past right in front of her face. Of course, Molly wins again by leaving before it’s time for Gabriel’s speech. She has things to do and goals to accomplish. She’ll leave Gabriel to his old world of complacent celebration. But still Gabriel doesn’t retreat from his attack on Molly. He still delivers his criticism of her along with the litany of praises for the “humanity, hospitality and kindly humor” of “an older day.”

Gabriel’s final traumatic encounter with a woman comes when his wife discloses her concealed passion for Michael Furey. At that point, Gabriel, is crushed. He is flattened by a new world that is growing up around him. A world of women who are unsatisfied and filled with desire to change or at least challenge the society they grew up in.

So, who is really dead in “The Dead?” Or rather, what? It’s a decrepit sense of manhood that relied on subjection, inequality and a romanticized order of the past. This story is not a tragedy, this is a story that turns the notion of tragedy on its head, for the death in this story, the death of Gabriel’s pride, is well-deserved and provides the only promise of a rebirth, a new life. James Joyce charges the educated of Dublin as men constrained by delicate sense of worth may not survive the women Ireland needs to overcome stagnating specter of colonialism.

Perhaps Gabriel’s wife had not told him the whole story before. When she sees how it devastates him, she may never do it again. But perhaps it was time that she did. Gabriel appears smart and sensitive to understand it. But in a world of dead men around him, can he awaken to a new understanding without it destroying him?

When James Joyce was just a teenager he wrote a review of Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken. In it he laid out what some consider the credo behind all of his work:

“Even the most commonplace, the deadest among the living, may play a part in great drama. It is sinful foolishness to sigh back for the good old times, to feed the hunger of us with the cold stones they afford. Life we must accept as we see it before our eyes, men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery” (Gray).

And that is Gabriel’s true challenge, to face men and women as he meets them in the real world.

Perhaps the dead have awoken to tell him that his life is not a fairy tale. Can he embrace these new facts, this sheets that have been torn off the ghosts of time, and move on, or must he suffer the damnation of a world of fictions that serve the powerful and tame the potentially powerful.

Joyce’s Modernism portrays a world that is dying for its past, where becoming new is not a victory of style or choice, but the only way to survive.

Works Cited

Gray, Wallace. Dubliners: An Introduction by Wallace Gray World
Wide Dubliners. Ed. Roger B. Blumberg and Wallace Gray, editors. Draft 97.1

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Edited by Gabler, Hans Walter & Hettche, Walter. New York, New York, Garland Publishing, 1993.

Leonard, Gary M. Reading Dubliners Again: A Lacanian
Perspective. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male
Homosocial Space. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Scott, Bonnie Kime. Joyce and Feminism. Bloomington, Indiana:
Indiana University Press, 1984.


Post a Comment

<< Home