Wednesday, October 24, 2012

James Joyce's Dubliners: "Grace" and the failures of religion

After his critique of Irish politics in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," and the Irish arts scene in "A Mother," Joyce takes on the failures of the Irish church in "Grace." Continuing his theme of paralysis, Joyce first depicts the central character of "Grace" passed out at the bottom of a set of stairs.  This character, later revealed to be Mr. Kernan, evidently drank himself into a stupor at a nearby bar, then stumbled and fell down the stairs.  His young friend, Mr. Power, is the only person at the bar who recognizes Mr. Kernan, a once successful businessman who's fallen on hard times, perhaps because of his alcoholism.  Mr. Power helps Mr. Kernan into a cab, where he discovers that Mr. Kernan had bitten off a piece of his tongue in the fall.

When they arrive at Kernan's home, his wife seems unsurprised by her husband's condition, and she tells Mr. Power that her husband has been drinking all weekend and has not brought home any money for his family.  Mr. Power tells her that he intends to help Mr. Kernan turn over a new leaf, and he's going to gather some of Mr. Kernan's friends to convince him to change his ways.  The practical Mrs. Kernan doubts her husband will ever change, but she's willing to support Mr. Power's plan.  

A few days later, a group of Mr. Kernan's friends arrive at his home to visit him.  The leader of this intervention is Martin Cunningham, a man respected for being influential, intelligent, and well-informed.  But Joyce notes that all his religion has not save him from his own domestic misery--his wife is an alcoholic and although he "had set up house for her six times; [] each time she had pawned the furniture on him." However well-intentioned Mr. Cunningham may be, his own personal life reveals that he is often ineffectual at best.  

Nonetheless, Mr. Kernan's friends set about convincing him to come with them to a religious retreat for businessmen sponsored by the Catholic Church.  They broach the subject indirectly by first talking about why they themselves intend to go on the retreat, then by praising the Jesuits, who are giving the retreat, and the preacher who is going to give the sermon.  Mr. Kernan seems hesitant, but he's gradually coming around.  But Joyce soon interrupts the conversation with the arrival of Mr. Fogarty, a grocer who's brought Mr. Kernan a gift of whiskey.  Although the men continue to praise the Catholic church, in particular Pope Leo XIII, the presence of the whiskey feels disturbing--after all, Mr. Kernan fell largely because he drank too much.  It's as though the men are ignoring or misunderstanding the real cause of their friend's decline, and focusing instead on superficial "spiritual" arguments.  

Only Mr. Kernan offers the slightest criticism of Catholism when he remarks that some of the popes were "not exactly...up to the knocker." But Mr. Cunningham blithely dismisses this argument, insisting that the popes were all holy when they delivered proclamations ex cathedra. He offers no logic or reason to defend his spiritual claims, thus emphasizing the misguided and illogical way they are trying to reform Mr. Kernan.  

At the end of the conversation, Mr. Kernan has at last agreed to attend the religious retreat, to the satisfaction of his wife and friends.  The next scene takes place at the retreat, where the men are all well-dressed, and Mr. Kernan notices that many of the men he knows from Dublin are there.  The priest reads a text from the bible, and tells the men that he intends to "speak to them in a businesslike way" and that he would act as their "spiritual accountant" so that they could "set right [their] accounts" with God. The priest's speech feels completely inadequate.  It's not inspiring, nor does it demand the kind of self-examination necessary for moral growth.  In effect, it offers surprisingly little true moral guidance.  It offers nothing to a man like Mr. Kernan, who perhaps desperately needs guidance and seems willing to accept it from his friends.  

Not once in the entire story is Mr. Kernan ever confronted with the fact that he drinks to much, and that his drinking is ruining his life, his health, and his family. Instead of confronting his moral failings, instead his friends discuss religion and his priest talks of "accounts." By neglecting to offer true guidance, the church failed Mr. Kernan, as it likely failed Mr. Cunningham's alcoholic wife, who no doubt sat through many retreats as well.

Blog posts for James Joyce's Dubliners:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"

"The Dead"

Blog posts for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

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