The end of any college semester — let alone one in which multiple graduations are taking place as well as a move — is always something chaotic. It is in this chaos that I have forgotten to blog about a recent anthology I finished. I had the pleasure of extra time on my hands in April and this led to reading Dubliners by James Joyce. The anthology is a grouping of 15 short stories by Joyce that begin with stories of children protagonists before gradually introducing stories with older characters.
Having had very little experience with James Joyce, I entered this book with an open mind for the most part. (If anything, Irish literature would be a genre that would influence me positively having no prior knowledge of the work.) In any case, I found that I had already read both “Araby” and “The Dead” these past two semesters and so that too made me hopeful for what I would find.
And hope will be that which I will eventually discuss because though I had hope in a good read, I was dismayed to find that none of my characters found any of that same sentiment. My relating to the characters would be something like Herbert Pocket sitting down with Dr. Faustus for tea — and I do not necessarily consider myself a Herbert Pocket by any means (though I am getting there hopefully). What I found during my reading however was an incredible pessimism that I knew not the depths of — and this pessimism culminates in “The Dead.”
A quick aside before I depress you too greatly: I thoroughly enjoyed the prose and the way Joyce writes. So unlike my favorite style, I almost found it refreshing. Joyce clearly has a very modern approach to his writing in that not a single one of his stories are drawn into a complete close. Much like the ambiguous ending of Grapes of Wrath, Joyce leaves his readers with a scene to linger on and no scene is more scarring than “Counterparts” in which the reader is left watching a young boy being beaten by his drunk father. None are perhaps more depressing than “Araby” and “A Painful Case.” In “Araby” the narrator concludes himself to be “a creature driven and derided by vanity.” In “A Painful Case” the main character is terribly alone and meets a woman — albeit a married woman — who eventually dies. The conclusion on this sad and twisted story?
He turned back the way he had come, the rhythm of the engine pounding in his ears. He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him. He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.
Perhaps the most positive of endings was found in “Grace” where some friends feign a return to religion so as to get their alcoholic (drinking is a theme, it’s Irish…) friend back on the right track. The story ends with a call to accept the grace of Christ. I see this skeptically of course knowing that at this time in his life, Joyce was skeptical himself of religion, and to find this ending lumped in with the rest is as if the point out that even religion offers no hope (an argument I refute no doubt).
All this ties together thoughtfully in a woman’s longing for a dead lover which is inevitably interpreted ignorantly by her husband whose “own identity was fading into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.” His name, ironically, is Gabriel: the angel who gave the greatest news our world has ever heard.
These stories seem to symbolically paint a landscape of the Irish people at that time — something I am unqualified to comment on. What I recognize more than anything though is the despair which is recurrent throughout Joyce’s Dubliners and modern literature in general. In Romantic and Victorian literature, there certainly was pessimism and despair, but modern literature is on a whole new level for it appears to lack the hope which surfaced in the earlier works. As I perused the works of the last century in studying for a test last April, it was evident that a change had come about. Not only was there no happy ending, there was no sad ending either. The despair continued forever.
I will admit I like both styles with a preference to the former. For there is more satisfaction (in hopefully not too sadistic a tone) in knowing that everyone dies. We at least know that Hamlet’s story ends. And if Ishmael had not been our narrator, he too may have plummeted with the Pequod. In all this happy and sad ending, I argue there is more hope than in equivocal endings because we are assured there is a finality of some sort to the madness of our present world. If there is no end — if this world arrived by chance and thus must depart in the same manner — how difficult it is to understand meaning in life! If this world is a Joyce story that does not end, what consolation do we have when pain enters it? Not that we prematurely end it, of course. But an end to things always reminds us, always allows us to reflect, giving us perspective of course. The idea was also in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Though the Struldbrugs lived forever, they aged just as well. The story kept on going, and they began to be envious of their fellow men who had the privilege of leaving this place. And a privilege it is if we do what Joyce’s character was poised to do in “Grace.”
All in all Joyce’s Dubliners was gut-wrenchingly depressing which is not all bad though it is good to insert pessimism into your life in a few doses at a time. I recommend Dubliners as a portrait of how depressing life can be without a purpose and with no hope in life. In this sense it is eye opening.