Young, Analytical Joyce in “The Dead”

December 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Counterintuitively, James Joyce was too button-down as a young writer and needed many years to loosen up and indulge himself before he produced his best work. (Or maybe it’s intuitive if you give weight to his Catholic upbringing.)

“The Dead” captures an interesting point in his development. It’s long been touted as one of the great short stories, but I have my cynical suspicions that it’s so respected because it finds Joyce working in a traditional mode whose techniques and values (restraint, precision, neatness, politics) square with contemporary ones. But is it an interesting story?

Joyce is a very analytical writer in “The Dead”. He shows the impressive technical mastery he’d already gained at just 25 years old. He lays out his themes clearly, and balances them (living vs. dead, Irishness vs. cosmopolitanism, inner life vs. outer life, etc. etc.) with great precision.

It’s suspiciously precise, actually. Even allowing for the protagonist Gabriel’s fastidiousness, and how the narration hews to his mindset, the storytelling is just so clean. Examples:

Diction: “My wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” says Gabriel. “Mortal” of course is an allusion to death, and how it undergirds the characters’ inner lives.

Irishness: Describing the outgoing, genuine Miss Ivors: “the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto”. There is implicit and explicit tension between Gabriel and other characters regarding his cosmopolitan attitudes and interests. The holiday party is a hearth-and-home affair reminding him in different ways of his Irish roots.

Music, and Intellectualism: “Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages.” Mary, a member of the avant-garde younger generation, alienates herself just so from the party’s guests by playing a sophisticated piece.

Physical description: On oft-drunk Freddy Malins: “He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips.” Notice how many blunt words this sentence uses — “coarse”, “blunt”, “convex”, “tumid”, “protruded” — to sell you on the frankness of Freddy’s character. I especially take issue with this sentence. It’s such a utilitarian all-at-once description of such a conventional kind, and it’s light on specifics. It’s more rhetoric than literature.

Foreshadowing, foreshadowing, foreshadowing!: “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” I mean, come on. The ending centers on Michael Furey’s doing just this (in the rain, anyway). So the gestures of the ending epiphany are explicitly broadcast.

This writing is all just so tidy that I accuse it of contrivance and fastidiousness. Joyce had all the techniques at his command so early in his career, but he applies them like implements, or wields them like arrows in a quiver, one after the other in discrete succession. I get the sense in his later writing that he didn’t care about tidiness. While Ulysses, for example, is every bit as calibrated and analytical as “The Dead”, the various techniques go into a wild kaleidoscope. And his descriptive gifts are most often put to¬†describing, for the sake of richly populating a vibrant world. The real creative act isn’t the assimilation or organization of techniques — it’s pressing forward with the creation of an organic something, rather than an assemblage. Something that lives and breathes, something organic, something with a soul.

P.S. Let me give an example of where the analytical voice of the storytelling in “The Dead” is an animating force. Here is the crowd watching Mary Jane play: “Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes.”

Simple as that. Counting out the men, and their group behavior, lends an insidious undercurrent to their being there, I think. Their arrival and their departure are fleeting. Perhaps callous, perhaps shallowly intrigued by Mary Jane or her playing. None of the men is characterized; they simply lurk. This is the fluid motion of a party.

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