Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Power Play: Games in Joyce's "Dubliners."(Special "Dubliners" Number)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Power Play: Games in Joyce's "Dubliners."(Special "Dubliners" Number)

Article excerpt

In one of Dubliners' most arresting observations, the boy in "Araby" says he has "hardly any patience with patience with the serious work of life which . . . seemed to me child's play" (26-27). Reading this stunning paradox in reverse offers a way of approaching the stories through Michel Foucault's theories about power and knowledge, as well as Mikhail Bakhtin's analysis of comedy: embodying both subversion and inversion, child's play is the serious work of life.

Foucault argues in Power/Knowledge that the challenge to accepted truths comes through "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges," admitting into the discourse what has been systematically excluded by the "hierarchy of knowledges" (81-82). Dovetailing with Foucault's theory, Bakhtin's formulation of carnivalesque laughter allows people not only to admit what is normally excluded, but to, stand it on its head. Both Foucault and Bakhtin thus argue that certain limits must be transgressed in order to shift power from where it traditionally resides into the hands of the powerless.

But where does power lie? When trying to locate it, Foucault suggests a five-fold inversion of the way that power is usually studied. One should be concerned with power not at the head, but at the extremities, where it becomes "capillary"; not with conscious intention, but with action; not as the rigid and mutually exclusive poles of those who have it and those who don't, but as links in a chain; not at a global or general level, but at a minute and particular one; not with ideological concerns, but with practical applications (96-102). Such a study yields a body of knowledge that subverts existing structures of power.

Bakhtin points out that comedy itself is subversive, because it gives us new ways of seeing situations, liberated from the blinkers of the official viewpoint. The rules of everyday life are suspended and replaced by their contraries (259). This suspension of the prevailing truth and established order allows one to explore "a second life, outside officialdom" (6), in which games play an important role.

Through games, children create their own second life, outside officialdom and its rules. According to Iona and Peter Opie in their extensive studies of children's games, adults seldom realize that, even though children may need looking after, they also have their own society and their own code of jurisdiction. Children's games challenge the world of adults, puncturing the pompous shams of authority through play. Their games resist colonizing by grownups: the moment adults want to join in, children change the rules. In the struggle between life's serious work and childish games, subverting authority thus becomes power play.

Like the world of Rabelais, the world of Joyce is fined with games and game playing. Children at play run rampant through the streets of Dublin. They play till their bodies glow and their shouts echo in the street ("Araby"); Eveline remembers the "children of the avenue" frolicking together in the field; everywhere a "horde of grimy children populated the street. They stood or ran in the roadway, or crawled up the steps" ("A Little Cloud"), while the adults, like Chandler walking by, "gave them no thought" (68).(1)

When children play by themselves, without adult control or supervision, their games fall into several well-defined categories, among them chasing, seeking, hunting, racing, exerting, daring, guessing, and pretending.(2) All of these, either singly or in combination, are represented in various Dubliners stories. Surprisingly, it is not just the children who play these games; the adults do, too, and they revert to being childish in the process. Reversion, inversion, and subversion all come together in the games of Dubliners.

The guessing game is one way of coming to knowledge, and children are fascinated by riddles and puzzles, as the first story in Dubliners makes clear.(3) In "The Sisters," the unnamed young boy wishes to penetrate the world of authority, of adult knowledge. …

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