Sunday, May 1, 2016
Epiphanies in Dubliners
I concur with the conventional literary historians who credit Chekhov and Joyce for developing the modern short story that does not rely on highly dramatic events but finds greater meaning in the depiction of something that looks like a typical tranche de vie. The stories in Joyce’s Dubliners not only lack remarkable characters and highly dramatic incidents, they are written in a finely crafted but generally ordinary, slightly elevated style mixed with colloquial dialogue with none of the idiosyncrasies of Ulysses (not to mention Finnegan’s Wake).
One might justify the presentation of open-ended narratives of what could pass for “ordinary” people by simply noting that a life is defined more by its mundane, oft-repeated routines than by the few dramatic intrusions of drama such as combat or crime. Yet this approach is not what Joyce had in mind. His own rationale was based on his ill-defined notion of “epiphanies,” or revelatory moments which may occur either during life crises or during days that seem outwardly unremarkable.
Joyce’s concept of epiphanies recurs in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, as well as in a list he kept of such moments, but the fullest exposition occurs in Stephen Hero. There Stephen tells his friend Cranly that the artist must be ever watchful for “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” To him the “spiritual eye’s is always “groping” “to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised.” With his Thomistic training, Stephen identifies “claritas” which is “quidditas” with the moment of epiphany.  The “thing which it is,” the 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.”
In this form the epiphany could be suggested by anything at all, just as Zen masters identify the Buddha indifferently with a staff, a flower, a hedge, or a shit-stick. Yet often readers discount the incidental details and seek an epiphany in a story’s climax (though the conflict may be primarily a psychomachia). Thus, to some a Joycean epiphany is a moment of unusual insight or realization, the turning point, perhaps, of a life. Even this second definition has two forms depending on whether the insight occurs for the character or for the reader.
Yet the notes in fact labeled “Epiphanies” and eventually published with Joyce’s Poems and Shorter Writings, while they are clearly raw material for his fiction , fit none of these three definitions well. Most of the moments he recorded in his list labeled are to some extent vague and confused, fragmentary and obscure, seemingly a far remove from claritas. Though Joyce made use of many of these brief notes to enhance his fiction’s verisimilitude, none indicate any revelation to the people observed.
This range of possible definitions might, however, all be suggested by stories in Dubliners. For a majority of the narratives, the characters experience no clear self-realization. Little occurs in “The Sisters.” The story is centered not in Father Flynn’s death itself but in the tone of unease, paralysis, and corruption. Surely the boys’ experience in “An Encounter,” while it doubtless struck them as odd, made little impact. “Araby” likewise might be a day little differing from the average in the protagonist’s life. Frustration over the bazaar seems only too routine to the protagonist. This daily repeated disappointment is in fact the theme. Nothing will change. “After the Race” is fundamentally a sketch of the absurdity of Jimmy’s social climbing. The dawning of the day is accompanied by no new realization on Jimmy’s part. For him even his remorse is already discounted, part of the price he will pay for what seems to him classy company. The two very unchivalric young men of "Two Gallants" are surely acting as they habitually do. The evening is representative rather than exceptional. In “Clay” the loveless Maria who sings “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” is unchanged in her pitiful isolation, the church being her only solace against death. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” describes habitually time-serving political operatives for whom this election is little different from those past and yet to come. The struggle of “A Mother” describes what is surely habitual behavior for Mrs. Kearny. In all of these, as in Becket, the lack of movement is the point. It is the very absence of an epiphany from the point of view of the characters that is significant. The reader may see their paralysis plainly, but for the participants the narrated episodes bring nothing new either in circumstances or in self-consciousness.
In others the story does retain something of a traditional narrative arc, including a dramatic crisis though still often without suggesting much potential of insight for the main characters. “The Boarding House,” for instance, represents a competition of venality, in which Mrs. Mooney ‘s self-interest wins out over Mr. Doran’s irresponsibility as Polly sits by passively. There is a decisive moment, albeit just after the story ends, implying a lifelong marriage marred from the start, but there is no indication that the view of any of the characters is broader or more accurate as a result. “A Little Cloud” depicts Chandler’s fecklessness, too shy to read poetry to his wife, and his envy of his more successful literary friend Gallaher. He does seem to have some measure of self-realization at the end when, Byron even having failed him in his attempt to kindle warmth from his wife and he bursts into tears at the end. Farrington in “Counterparts” seems as though he may have “hit bottom,” though the reader cannot tell whether this descent may have been repeated often in the past. At any rate the wretched clerk seems as gripped by his self-destructive patterns at the end as at the start. In “A Painful Case” Duffy nurses “unacted desire,” holding back from an affair only to regret it when his would-be lover dies, perhaps a suicide. Here one might guess that his reflections lead to some sort of reevaluation, though whether it is to be productive remains uncertain. The intervention of Kernan’s friends to bring him to a retreat in “Grace” carries no guarantee of change and the glimpse the reader has of it provides little basis for hope. The likeliest case for an epiphany in the sense of an awakening to self-knowledge is perhaps the poignant tale of "Eveline." When the title character falls back in fear and fails to follow her suitor abroad, she may perhaps know herself better, though only in defeat.
"The Dead" I believe to be in a class by itself, since it is longer, more complex, and concludes with a substantial interior monologue and a bravura rhetorical flourish. Gabriel, unlike most of the characters in Dubliners is clearly processing his thoughts, seeking equilibrium in the face of his wife’s lost love for another, while retaining generosity toward her, unlike most of the petty or weak characters of the other stories. In this story the main character and the reader find weighty meaning in events that, to a casual observer or outside of a work of literature), might seem unexceptional.
Yet surely for most readers to overwhelming impact of Dubliners has little to do with individual psychology or anyone’s insights. The strongest effect of the book is its tone. Virtually all of the characters are weak, selfish, incompetent, blinkered, depressed, caught in a meaningless repetition of activities that fails to exercise their abilities or humanity. The oppressive weight of the church and the British government merely add new layers to the purgatorial existence they have built for themselves. Joyce’s tone would be nihilistic in its lack of values were it not so deeply sympathetic to the city of the damned the reader encounters in Dubliners. The Magi were greeted with a glorious epiphany, but for Joyce that Christian confidence is lost, and the twentieth century epiphanies he offers are ragged epigones and hardly epiphanies at all.
1. Though there was no direct influence, this notion is strikingly similar to the ”haeccittas” Gerard Manley Hopkins derived from Duns Scotus. Another parallel is Aldous Huxley’s report of his experience on mescaline of what, following Meister Eckhart’s usage, he calls “Istigkeit” or “Is-ness.”
2. See Ilaria Natali, “A Portrait of James Joyce’s Epiphanies as a Source Text,” Humanicus #6, 2011.