Friday, September 21, 2012

Reading James Joyce's Dubliners--"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"


I went on my first trip to Europe in the summer after my freshman year in college at the University of Oklahoma.  I was taking a study-abroad class that summer, called "British Literature Between the World Wars" and for part of the class, we studied in Oxford and stayed at Brasenose College.  As part of the class, we read Irish author James Joyce's Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I loved this class, more than any literature class I took in college.  Studying at Oxford was exhilarating--the cobblestone streets, the ancient library full of historical books, and walking through what seemed to me to be a living museum.  I even loved the books I was assigned, so much so that I later took another class on Joyce's Ulysses and wrote my honors thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf, another author I discovered that summer.  

This wonderful trip reinforced my strong desire to travel, and gave me confidence in my ability to handle myself in a different country.  No doubt, that's one reason why I insisted that my husband and I go abroad for our honeymoon, and one reason why Ireland had so much appeal. 

After enjoying the glorious Irish castles and countryside for a few days, it occurred to me that I would really like to explore Irish authors and books more deeply as way to remember our trip.  I felt that visiting Ireland might give me a new perspective on the books I had read a few years before.  With that in mind, I've decided to try to read or re-read all of James Joyce's books, and blog about them.  I've started with Joyce's first written book, Dubliners, which is a collection of short stories inspired by Joyce's experiences with Dublin's people.

The first story in Dubliners is "The Sisters," which despite its title mostly concerns a young boy who learns that his friend, an elderly priest, has died of a stroke.  Joyce vividly depicts the boy's confused reaction to the old man's death, while exploring the character of the disappointed and disgraced old man.  When the adults discuss the priest, it's revealed that he had been accused of simony, which is the buying or selling of sacraments, and that he (or perhaps his alter boy) had broken a chalice for the communion.  The priest had been kind to the boy, and had tried to teach him the meaning and importance of the sacraments of the Catholic Church, but his dreary and disappointing life leave the reader questioning whether the old man was satisfied with his choice to devote himself to religion.  In the end of the story, one of the sisters who had given the priest a room in their home describes the incident that lead the church to retire him.  Late one night, the elderly priest had gone missing, and another priest found him sitting by himself in a dark confession box, laughing to himself.  This incident reflects a painful and unknowable ambiguity--was the old man laughing at night in the confessional because he had lost his own faith?  Or was it because he felt guilty for his sin of simony?  He is described as a "disappointed man," but what caused this disappointment is left murky.  It reminds the reader that people are fundamentally a mystery--this old man's inner life is unknowable, perhaps even to himself, and even less so to the mourners who try to remember him.

The next story, "An Encounter," also depicts a young boy in Dublin, this time one who wants to have an adventure, like the ones he reads about in comics about the Old West in America.  He and his friend Mahony decide to skip school so they can wander through Dublin's streets and catch a ride on a boat to Pigeon Island.  Their trip through the streets of Dublin is at first exhilarating as they watch large ships leaving the docks and explore the lively city streets.  But as the day grows later, the boys realize that they have missed the last boat out to Pigeon Island, and that they only have a short time left to enjoy their freedom.  While playing and resting in a field by themselves, they see a strange, shabby old man approaching them.  At first, he walks by, but he turns around a sits down to talk with the boys.  He initially seems friendly enough, asking them about school and books and their "sweethearts," but they are wary enough that the boys secretly agree to go by different names, so he won't know who they are. Once Mahony runs off to chase a cat, the old man turns darker and more vicious.  He tells the remaining boy how much pleasure it would give him to whip misbehaving boys, especially ones who have sweethearts.  Joyce describes how as the old man continued to elaborate on his desire to whip unruly boys, his voice "grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with [the boy] that he should understand him." Understandably unnerved, the boy waits until the man pauses then stands up to slowly and carefully escape him.  He is relieved when his friend comes back and they can leave.

The whole story creates an atmosphere of casual menace.  Why would this old man at first encourage the boys talk of girls, then abruptly switch tactics and describe his desire to beat them?  It's notable that the change only takes place when the one boy is alone--once he is more vulnerable, without a friend for support, the predator can reveal his claws.  It's also interesting that the old man justifies his desire to hurt a young boy by suggesting that it is a just punishment; but his eagerness and enthusiasm for the whipping suggest that he is only trying to excuse a far darker desire.  He voices pleads with the boy for understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, for the violence he wants to inflict on him.  The boy escapes from the old man before he can act on his desire, but the incident leaves him frightened, and reveals an ominous side of the city they were excitedly exploring only a few moments before


Blog Posts for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"Araby" and "Eveline"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"The Boarding House"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"

"Grace" 

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