“Dubliners” by James Joyce

Is it helpful to look at Dubliners as “[a] series of epicleti” or as “epiclets”?

Considering the ambiguity of “high” modernist texts, the reader welcomes any indication of the author’s intentions for a work. For instance, one cheers James Joyce’s description of Dubliners in a 1904 letter as a boon: “'[A] series of epicleti… I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” Some critics have interpreted “epicleti” to refer to “epiklesis,” the word Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians use to refer to the invocation of the Holy Ghost at the Eucharist. Thus, each short story would be a symbolic invocation or Eucharist.[1] Other critics, however, have read Joyce’s unclearly-written word as “epiclets,” which would characterize each story as a little-epic. Thus, with Dubliners, one finds it difficult to defend only one interpretation of a modernist work as valid, even if one believes in authorial intent. Reading the stories as invocations or as little epics helps the reader to the extent that it encourages one to notice Joyce’s plot structures, diction, and symbolism.

“The Sisters”

Although Joyce may have changed his conception of Dubliners as invocations after 1904—or never intended them to be invocations at all—one finds it helpful to read “The Sisters” as showing the failure of invocation and what Joyce sees as the detrimental effects of Catholicism on Irish society. The first Dubliners story, it cannot be read well as a “little epic”—it bears only negligent resemblance to Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey either in its structure or imagery. One could construe the story into a “Telemachy”-like structure: the narrator describes his ordinary life learning from the priest,[2] which is disturbed by the priest’s death.[3] The priest’s death could be seen as a call to adventure, as the narrator feels “freed” by his death.[4] But one cannot stretch the story any further to adhere to a Homeric epic structure.

In contrast, “The Sisters” reads well as a story of invocation. It begins with the death of Father Flynn, a priest who took his duties very seriously, perhaps too seriously from the narrator’s point of view—and certainly from Joyce’s. According to the characters, Father Flynn was “queer” [5] because he believes he committed a sacrilege: “It was that chalice he broke.”[6] Father Flynn apparently dropped the chalice used for the Eucharist during Mass. Yet the reader remains uncertain to what extent this was a sacrilege: “[T]hey say it was all right,” Eliza says, “that it contained nothing”[7]—that is, it did not contain wine that the invoked Holy Spirit had transformed into Christ’s blood. Nevertheless, the story’s first invocation destroys Father Flynn.  Because he “was too scrupulous always,”[8] Father Flynn feels as guilty as if he had actually spilled Christ’s blood: “That affected his mind,”[9] Eliza says. Father Flynn’s “queer”[10] behavior manifests itself as a preoccupation with confession: one night, other priests find him “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself.”[11] Notably, the two topics the narrator recalls Father Flynn teaching him about are “the duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and the secrecy of the confessional”[12]; because of his error, Father Flynn cannot mentally separate the Eucharist from confession. Even when the narrator dreams of the priest, he realizes that Father Flynn “desired to confess something.”[13]

Yet as a priest who receives confessions and prays for his congregation, he has no one to whom he can confess besides the Holy Spirit.  In the story’s second invocation, Father Flynn hides in “his confession-box” at night and “invokes” the Holy Spirit to intercede on his behalf.[14] Although Father Flynn feels his “invocation” to be absurd—while he prays, he appears to be “laughing-like softly to himself”[15]—it appears that his invocation was, in the end, successful. Twice Eliza refers to Father Flynn’s “death” and “corpse” as “beautiful.”[16] Although “he was not smiling,”[17] he looks “peaceful and resigned.”[18] Joyce describes Father Flynn’s face as “copious,”[19] which usually refers to an abundant amount of food. Father Flynn has, in death, come to mirror the Eucharist: the bread and the wine are united in Father Flynn’s coffin as his body and the “chalice.”[20] Thus, Joyce’s diction indicates that Father Flynn’s second invocation was successful—he has died reconciled with God and with himself. Yet Joyce undermines the Eucharistic image of Father Flynn’s death with his final line: “when they saw that, that made them think that there was something wrong with him…” (ellipsis in original).[21] As the last, open image is of Father Flynn confessing his sin, the reader feels that Father Flynn will continue his invocation, “laughing-like,”[22] throughout eternity, in complete paralysis and futility. 

Furthermore, the narrator’s won attempt at invocation fails: during his visit to the deceased priest’s house, the narrator “pretended to pray” but cannot “gather” his “thoughts” because he is distracted by the physical world: “I noticed how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back.”[23] Joyce undermines the entire idea of “invocation”—although the Incarnation sanctified the physical world, and physical elements undergo apotheosis at the Eucharist, both events have failed. If the physical world still bars people from communing with God, then the physical world has not been redeemed: the narrator unwittingly undermines invocation as he wanders “along the sunny side of the street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows” instead of praying for the priest’s soul.[24]

Reading “The Sisters” as a story of invocation or an “epicleti” thus helps the reader see Dublin’s religious inertia. The story both begins and ends with Father Flynn’s “paralysis,”[25] trapped in a futile Catholic society. In contrast, the narrator has been “freed” from the priest’s freezing influence, and can enjoy walking in the sunshine.[26] Thus, Joyce reveals that by abandoning the Catholic faith and its rites of invocation, Ireland may ameliorate its paralysis.

“Araby”

As Joyce continued writing Dubliners, it appears he followed his own advice and abandoned the idea of the stories as “invocation”—if he had intended them as “epicleti” in the first place. Although “Araby” could be read as an “invocation” story, it is actually more helpful to read it as a “little epic.” Joyce uses Catholic imagery in the story:  the narrator refers to his affection for his friend’s sister as a “chalice”[27] and describes the empty bazaar as marked by “a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.”[28] One could further point to the drunken uncle’s late arrival to dinner[29] and the “porcelain vases” that “stood like eastern guards”[30] as perverted images of the Eucharist. If so, Joyce shows invocation’s futility as in “The Sisters”: the narrator looks desperately “up into the darkness,” not into the light of God.[31] For the “Araby” narrator, invocation will not heal Ireland’s paralysis.

In contrast, one can read “Araby” as a sort of “Telemachy.” The story begins with a clear depiction of the narrator’s ordinary world at home[32] and continues with a call to adventure in the form of his friend’s sister: “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.”[33] After accepting her call, he endures various trials: “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.”[34] Having successfully endured his tests, the narrator takes on a greater duty: since his lady cannot visit the Araby bazaar, and he to go in her stead and bring her a gift.[35] Like Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator must leave his home to find something and bring it home. When the narrator reaches his destination, he cannot acquire a gift for the girl and must return empty-handed. While watching the young English people flirt, he realizes that he has idealized romance, and that love in the adult world is a Waste Land—the Englishwoman’s “tea-sets” and “great jars”[36] are as empty as his “chalice.”[37] Like Telemachos, the “Araby” narrator—the last of Joyce’s children protagonists—has come of age during his “epiclet.”

“A Little Cloud”

“A Little Cloud,” however, is more ambiguous; one can read it either as an invocation or as a little-epic. Joyce does not point the reader in either direction: for instance, he only uses Catholic imagery with Gallaher’s “catholic gesture”[38]; the “winds” in the Byron poem,[39] which could stand for the Holy Ghost; and Little Chandler’s son and wife, which could stand for the Christ child and the Virgin Mary.[40] If the final scene is an invocation, Little Chandler invokes himself and his own powers: “Could he not escape from his little house?”[41] “Could he, too write like that, express the melancholy of his soul in verse?”[42] When Little Chandler realizes that invoking his own ability is useless, he yells another request at his son: “Stop!”[43] Subtly increasing the story’s ambiguity, Joyce refers to Little Chandler’s wife and son as “a young woman” or “its mother”[44] and “the child” who is “Mamma’s little lamb of the world”[45] which could connect them to Mary and the Christ child. If so, then Little Chandler is rebuked for invoking his own powers instead of asking his family for help; his “remorse” at the story’s end would indicate he has learned that both his duty and his source of strength are with his family.

Yet one could also read “A Little Could” as an “epiclet” begun in media res. Little Chandler has previously received a call to adventure and refused it: “Eight years before” he sent his friend Gallaher out of “dear dirty Dublin”[46] to “the great city London.”[47] Now Gallaher returns from his quest with a boon for Ireland: himself and his accomplishments as “Ignatius Gallaher of the London Press!”[48] Gallaher’s homecoming acts as another call to adventure for Little Chandler, who feels that “[e]very step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own sober inartistic life.”[49] After a moment of “indecision”[50] Little Chandler opens the door into the bar—crossing the first threshold—and is greeted by Gallaher as “old hero.[51] His conversation with Gallaher awakens in him a desire to travel: “Could he go to London?”[52] Until the story’s end, Little Chandler does not realize that the adventure he needs is psychological, not physical: “A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind”(emphasis mine).[53] Joyce shows that leaving Dublin will not necessarily solve Little Chandler’s problems—while he longs for someplace “beautiful,”[54] Gallaher can only tales of metropolitan “immorality.”[55] The story’s end suggests that Little Chandler needs to learn “to live bravely” at home.[56] One could read Little Chandler’s ambiguously-delineated wife and son as Penelope and Telemachos. Homer’s Odyssey is the tale of a man desperate to get home to his wife and son; perhaps if Little Chandler leaves Dublin, he will spend the rest of his life wishing he had stayed with his family.

Conclusion

The Dubliners stories, like other “high” modernist works, can be read in various ways due to their characteristic ambiguity. Thus, Joyce’s description of Dubliners as a “series of epicleti” would illuminate one’s reading of the work—if one knew precisely what he meant by “epicleti.” “The Sisters,” the first story, reads well as an “epiklesis” in the Catholic sense of “invoking” the Holy Ghost; yet the other stories lend themselves to multiple interpretations, including that of the stories as “epiclets.” Since one cannot know Joyce’s exact meaning by “epicleti,” attempting to find the story’s “meaning” using this idea is futile. Nevertheless, thinking of the stories as “invocations” or as “little epics” helps one to notice Joyce’s charily-selected diction and imagery, and thus to read Dubliners better.


[1] “James Joyce: Notes (1) – Textual History,” Ricorso: A Knowledge of Irish Literature, edited by Bruce Stewart (http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/j/Joyce_JA/notes/notes1.htm).

[2] James Joyce, “The Sisters,” Dubliners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 10-11.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 15. 

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 15. 

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 15. 

[12] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 11. 

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth in our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26, KJV).

[15] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 15. 

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Ibid., 13. 

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20] Ibid., 12.

[21] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 16. 

[22] Ibid., 16.

[23] Ibid., 12.

[24] Ibid., 10. 

[25] Ibid., 7.

[26] Ibid., 10.

[27] Joyce, “Araby,” Dubliners (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995), 27.

[28] Ibid., 31.

[29] Ibid., 30.

[30] Ibid., 31. 

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Ibid., 26-8.

[33] Ibid., 27.

[34] Ibid., 27.

[35] Joyce, “Araby,” 28.

[36] Ibid., 31.

[37] Ibid., 27.

[38] James Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” Dubliners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 71.

[39] Ibid., 77. 

[40] Ibid., 78.

[41] Ibid., 77. 

[42] Ibid., 78.

[43] Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” 78.

[44] Ibid., 78. 

[45] Ibid., 77-9. 

[46] Ibid., 69.

[47] Ibid., 65.

[48] Ibid., 67. 

[49] Ibid., 68.

[50] Ibid., 69. 

[51] Ibid., 69.

[52] Ibid., 77.

[53] Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” 68. 

[54] Ibid., 70.

[55] Ibid., 72.

[56] Ibid., 77.

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