Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Reading Dubliners in the Lost Weekend

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Reading Dubliners in the Lost Weekend

Article excerpt

Few novels have made the transition from book to screenplay as quickly and successfully as The Lost Weekend, a 1944 narrative by Charles Jackson that was made into a film in time to take several Academy Awards for 1945, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. The Hollywood version, with its depictions of delirium tremens and Ray Milland's desperate search for a pawnshop where he can obtain money to buy a drink, is a classic film; the novel, although a bestseller in its time, is now seldom read. It deserves and rewards reading, however, as a compelling, well crafted, and often ironic novel.

For readers familiar with James Joyce's short stories, yet another reason for its claim on our attention is the novel's opening: "The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot" (LW 3). Placed within quotation marks in The Lost Weekend, these words are taken from the book that Jackson's protagonist Don Birnam is reading, a book later identified as Dubliners (LW 8-9). The line derives from a scene in "Counterparts" in which Farrington, the protagonist of Joyce's story, is thinking of his need for a drinking spree (D 91).(1) It is interesting to note the way Don responds to Joyce's words:

   These words, on the printed page, had the unsettling effect no doubt
   intended, but with a difference. At once he put the book aside: closed it,
   with his fingers still between the pages; dropped his arm over the edge of
   the chair and let it hang, the book somewhere near the floor. This in case
   he wanted to look at it again. But he did not need to. Already he knew the
   sentence by heart: he might have written it himself. Indeed, it was with a
   sense of familiarity, of recognition, that his mind had first read through
   and accepted that sentence only a moment before; and now, as he relaxed his
   fingers' grip and dropped the book to the floor, he said aloud to himself:
   "That's me, all right." (LW3)

In this portrayal of a reader who resists what he imagines to be the author's intentions rather than his own impulse toward dissipation, Don identifies himself so readily with Farrington that his fate seems to be inscribed in Joyce's text.

Although the quotation from Dubliners appears in the first line of the novel, it is actually not the first literary quotation in Jackson's book, having been preceded by an epigraph from Hamlet. Nor will it be the last, for The Lost Weekend is a highly allusive work that follows the mind of a well-read man who imagines himself a writer and identifies with a range of literary characters and authors, even idolizing F. Scott Fitzgerald.(2) But the "Counterparts" citation is especially interesting, not only because it opens the narrative but also because it calls attention to ways in which The Lost Weekend responds to Dubliners.

Perhaps the most obvious point of the line from "Counterparts," as it is used in The Lost Weekend, is that Don has decided that he is powerless to resist the urge to drink heavily, since even the book he has just opened tells him that this is beyond his control. That Don cannot help himself (and is therefore absolved of the responsibility even to try) is one of his recurrent rationalizations, but seldom does it take such stark form as in the line borrowed from Joyce: if his "emotional nature" has a "barometer" that measures his susceptibility to "a spell of riot," then he is a mechanical figure who merely responds to pressures within and without. Indeed, readers who interpret The Lost Weekend as a naturalistic novel have been anticipated by Don Birnam himself, for he constantly reads his own actions in terms of nature and nurture, his innate tendencies and the environment that helps to shape them into a self-destructive force. It is thus typical that when he thinks again of Joyce's line, and begins to read the story once more, Don sees the book as the expected and inevitable agent of his fate:

   This is what he had been waiting for, what he had probably known all along
   in the back of his mind was bound to happen. … 
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