Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Interactive Stories in "Dubliners." (Special "Dubliners" Number)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Interactive Stories in "Dubliners." (Special "Dubliners" Number)

Article excerpt

In "The Boarding House" Bob Doran, fearing that his affair with Polly will become known, reflects that "Dublin is such a small city: everyone knows everyone else's business" (Dubliners 66). Most readers probably skip past this comment cheerfully enough, finding it commonplace; yet it seems on reflection quite false as an account of the community depicted in Dubliners. It's often striking how little the characters know of each other's business.

The tone and meaning of Dubliners owe much to the gap between what the characters know and what we know (or can discover). This discrepancy in turn depends on the hermetic confinement of the major characters to a single story each and on our access to literary contexts. Such contexts continue to shape our reading, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Apart from drafting Dubliners, Joyce's chief literary preoccupation in 1906 was a voluminous correspondence with the publisher Grant Richards. In the course of this correspondence Joyce declares, on 5 May 1906, that he has been writing his stories

in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is

a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to

deform, whatever he has seen and heard. (Letters 2: 134)

Those of course are famous phrases. But we may not have been sufficiently skeptical in reading them. Joyce was carefully manipulating the manner in which Richards regarded the stories, and goading him into thinking out and clarifying his own standards of judgment. In the course of this correspondence, Joyce also cultivated an ability to mimic Richards's typical manner of expression, to write to him in publisher-speak. As Joyce refined this mimetic strategy he became increasingly capable of guiding the publisher's responses; and he perfected modes of address which he then deployed in the stories, notably "Counterparts," where the fussy office language closely echoes the tone of the letters.

The correspondence, in fact, became a text parallel to that of Dubliners itself, serving several analogous purposes. In a letter to Richards of 23 June 1906, Joyce declares

I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in

Ireland by, preventing the Irish people from having one good look

at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass. (Letters 1: 64)

The "looking-glass," of course, is the text of Dubliners. But Joyce had been doing much the same thing in his letters to Richards: prompting him to have a good look at himself, in a looking-glass of Joyce's own fabrication. And Joyce was quite aware that the Dubliners typescript and the Richards correspondence had become interrelated texts, each in a sense operating as a reflection or parody of the other; he even remarks to Richards, in the course of his "scrupulous meanness" letter, "I see . . . that my letter is becoming nearly as long as my book" (Letters 2: 135).

Let's return to that particular piece for a moment. Joyce's phrase "scrupulous meanness" reflects a little harshly on his tone in the stories but may seem broadly congruent with them. Yet the primary meaning of "scrupulous," according to the OED (one of Joyce's favorite books), is "troubled with doubts or scruples of conscience." Where Joyce deploys the word in his creative writing he normally uses it in that sense, or else, and more often, in a parody of that sense. Eliza Flynn tells us that Father Flynn was too scrupulous always. . . . The duties of the priesthood,%%,as too much for him" (Dubliners 17). Being overly scrupulous, that is, helps to kill a character in the collection's very first story.

The word "meanness" might seem in Joyce's letter to carry a more apparent tinge of self-directed irony, as evoking noble austerity rather than reprehensible stinginess. Yet dictionary definitions of the word "mean" equate it to "common, base, or sordid," and it typically appears in Joyce's fiction with a heavy critical loading. …

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