Sunday, October 21, 2012

James Joyce's Dubliners: "A Mother"

Throughout Dubliners, James Joyce expresses a theme of paralysis; residents of the city seem trapped in destructive patterns that they are unable to escape.  Thus, the priest from "The Sisters" is literally paralyzed by a stroke; Eveline is trapped on the docks by her fear, unable to run away from her wretched life with her lover; Mr. Doran cannot escape his relationship with Polly; and Mr. Farrington inflicts his own misery and humiliation on his son. In "A Mother," Mrs. Kearney's stubbornness and pride ruin her daughter's musical career, stifling a promising performer before she even has a chance to prove herself in public.  Yet, the rejection and mistreatment of a young performer also reflects the insularity of the Dublin musical scene during the turn of the century.

Mrs. Kearney was an accomplished young woman who "sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life." But when no man does, she settles for Mr. Kearney, an older man who's stable.  But despite her thoroughly practical marriage, she remains romantic at heart, and thus projects her desires onto her eldest daughter, Kathleen.  Eventually, a man named Mr. Holoran approaches Mrs. Kearney about having Kathleen accompany singers at a series of four concerts that his society is giving, and Mrs. Kearney throws herself into preparing for the concerts.  She buys expensive cloth to make Kathleen's dress beautiful, and sends tickets to all her friends.  

But despite her struggles, the first concert has very poor attendance.  She discovers that the society has decided to cancel the Friday concert, and is desperately hoping to have a good crowd on Saturday.  Mrs. Kearney insists that the committee pay her daughter for four concerts, but Mr. Fitzpatrick, the secretary, puts her off.  By Saturday, Mrs. Kearney is angry enough that she demands Kathleen's pay before her daughter will go on stage.  There is enormous tension, but Mr. Fitzpatrick brings Kathleen half of her wages, and she goes on stage for the first half of the concert.  But at intermission, when Mrs. Kearney angrily demands the rest of her daughter's pay, Mr. Fitzpatrick refuses, saying they will pay her only after the committee meeting on Tuesday.  They get in a heated argument, and another woman volunteers to take Kathleen's place at the piano.  Enraged, Mrs. Kearney and her family leave.

It's clear that no one is this situation acts well--obviously, it's unjust for the committee to avoid paying their musicians.  Thus, Mrs. Kearney's anger is understandable, and perhaps justified.  But however justified it is, her anger is also foolish, and in the end she destroys her daughter's career.  It seems that Mrs. Kearney is once again reliving the arrogance of her youth; as a young woman, she thought so highly of her accomplishments that she offered no encouragement to the men around her.  Likewise, she has so inflated her daughter's importance that she reacts with disproportionate rage when she isn't paid immediately.  

As a musician, I know first hand how frustrating it can be getting paid for gigs; I frequently received money for performances months after they took place, and I often had to call and complain before I was paid.  But I also understood that music is a business where it's important to have connections--you must remain friendly even when you're frustrated, or no one will hire you.  Furthermore, Kathleen did not have top billing--as an accompanist, her role in the concert was important, but the audience was clearly attending for the artistes, or singers.  This was clearly the type of small scale gig that a musician is offered to try them out before offering them anything more substantial.  Thus, Kathleen's position was low-status, but perhaps a good starting point.  It's clear that this enrages Mrs. Kearney, who is arrogant enough to believe her daughter to be more important than she is.

However, the shady committee members also behave badly.  Instead of being honest with Mrs. Kearney, they avoid her and refuse to fulfill the contract they made with her.  They ruin a young musician's career simply because they don't like her mother.  This bitterness and backbiting show the paralysis of the musical scene in Dublin, which Joyce further emphasizes by the empty concert halls, and singers like Madam Glynn, who's old fashioned singing and mannerism are laughed at.  The vengeful music reviewer, O'Madden Burke, tells the committee to pay Kathleen nothing--he is old-fashioned, and clearly has little sympathy for the musicians he's paid to judge.  Why is a music reviewer so concerned with small financial details when it's his place to write about the music?It's this narrow-minded infighting that takes away from the point of the concert, which is music and artistic expression.    

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