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Discuss the theme of paralysis in any two stories from Joyce's Dubliners.


It is incontrovertible that paralysis is the overriding theme of Dubliners. In a letter to Constantine Curran, written in July 1904, Joyce stated, "I am writing a series of epicleti--ten--for a paper. I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city." In a later letter to his publisher, Grant Richards, he reiterated this desire, saying, 'My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.' Joyce's lofty intentions are paralleled uncannily in Portrait's Stephen Dedalus, who rather grandly intends ''to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.' His ambitious desires for Dubliners centre on a rather concrete goal: in holding his 'nicely polished looking-glass' up for the Irish people to have 'one good look a themselves'. Although this putative purpose may seem just as arrogantly dogmatic as the oppressive moral and social codes imposed on the Irish people by the Catholic Church - which Joyce is, in no uncertain terms criticising - they differ in one crucial respect: Joyce's assertion of opinion is completely warranted.


Richard Ellman has noted that Joyce "makes the reader feel uneasy and culpable if he misses the intended but always unstated meaning, as if he were being arraigned rather than entertained.' Indeed it is likely that, as a competent classicist Joyce was aware that epicleti, as well as referring to the transubstantiation ceremony in the Orthodox Church has a related meaning; epikleitos ' used to refer to someone summoned before court. And that is precisely what happens throughout Dubliners: the accused are summoned before Joyce's court on charges of paralysis.

Although the above esoteric etymological quibble seems to convict Joyce on Ellman's charges, all the evidence has not yet been weighed. If Joyce can, at times, be wilfully obscure in revealing his subtextual concerns, he often goes to pains to make them unequivocal. On a number of occasions Joyce chooses to express his characters' moral paralysis as physical arrest. In The Sisters, Father Flynn's situation as a stroke victim is the pre-eminent example of this technique in action and, as Brewster Ghiselin duly notes, is emphasized by its position at the very beginning of the book. Ghiselin finds this to be a 'somewhat crude means of indicating moral paralysis' largely, I feel, because he is unable to accept the primacy of Joyce's intent in Dubliners of prodding the somnambulant Irish nation out of its paralytic reverie. Joyce is not as preoccupied with literary aesthetics as he was later to become: Dubliners has a more immediate and no less noble social goal. In fact, Joyce himself remarked of Dubliners "It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look a themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass."


Father Flynn is, quit literally, a victim of hemiplegia. Hemiplegia is a medical term describing paralysis of one side of the body: unilateral paralysis. Indeed, Joyce's engagement with the issue of paralysis is very much unilateral. His subject matter is, almost exclusively, the Catholic petit bourgeois of fin de siècle Dublin. This isn't due to any misplaced Rousseauian notion of noble savagery in the urban and rural poor, but simply because these were the only people that Joyce could claim any deal of familiarity (and thus identify) with.

A cursory textual analysis of the first paragraph of The Sisters reveals many literary devices employed to explicate this theme and also connect it with the other major themes: death and religion. The phrase 'night after night', in itself repetitive, is repeated to give the reader a sense of the useless tedium of the unnamed boy's existence as well as the obvious association of darkness with death. This moving paralysis is in clear contrast to Father Flynn's fixed Hemiplegia, and indeed the story is, on one level, the tale of a boy/planet lodged intractably in orbit around a fixed, decaying priest/sun. The priest's continual association, both in life and death, with candles strengthens this image. We soon realise that the priest is only an object of interest for the boy because of the paucity of alternative interests. If it was not for Father Flynn's death, the boy would soon tire of his endless prayers as catechisms, just as he long ago grew tired of old Cotter's 'endless stories about the distillery'. The spatial paralysis of the people of Dublin, inextricably entangled within a fading colonial outpost by the web of external circumstance from which, with but a little act of will, they could break free from, is dealt with in earnest in later stories such as Eveline and A Little Cloud, is wryly alluded to in the priest's address: 'the little house in Great Britain Street.' Soon after the image of the priest 'nearly smothered in his great-coat' is symbolic of the disenfranchised Irish, smothered by the oppressive warmth of an Imperial power ' great-coats were an item of army attire adapted for civilian use. We also see that Father Flynn was already in a near state of physical paralysis in the grotesque image of his tongue lying limp upon lower lip. Soon after this, the boy revisits his dream and we meet a recurring motif: escape to the idealised, exotic East. As far as I am aware, there is no mention of escape westwards, to America, in all of Dubliners and to me this is not simply a reflection of Joyce's Europhilic tendencies; like Ghiselin I see it as something more significant, with associations of sunrise, and the return of Christ, both images of rebirth, an awakening from the dark paralysis of night. The real thematic revelations of The Sisters, however, are to be found in the concluding dialogue. It consists almost entirely of stilted conversation interspersed with platitudes of such inanity that one the eponymous sisters actually falls asleep. One particular platitude is dismembered by the subtext of paralysis and made to seem shocking. The boy's mother inquires as to whether the boy died peacefully and the sister's reply is 'You couldn't tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.' The final section of the story is the most cryptic, and interpreting it is crucial to the reader's understanding of the whole tale. Father Flynn's breaking of the chalice, and its significance is quite the enigma. 'Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing' is what the conversant sister has to say about the incident, a sentence pregnant with blasphemous meaning. As I see it, looking for some definitive empirical meaning to take from this incident, the crux of the tale is an exercise in defeat. Joyce begins Dubliners with a deliberately murky and ambiguous story, and in denying the reader any significant sense of closure, leaves the reader confused and unsettled, a frame of mind that is anathema to paralysis.


The Dead is the narrative that Dubliners concludes with. A later addition, and not part of Joyce's original conception of the work, it nonetheless widely recognised as a work of supreme genius. It is by far the most complicated work within the volume, and I must admit its sheer scope actually serves to devalue the preceding works. A number of common features link The Dead to The Sisters: for one thing, their titles could be swapped with either suffering great detriment. Both feature a pair of elderly sisters, one more vivacious than the other. Also, both mention stirabout, a rather bland porridge of oats and water.

In The Dead paralysis once again looms large as one of the defining themes, despite the story's far greater symbolic and thematic complexity. In Lily, we get a rare glimpse of how this selfsame paralysis affects the lower social classes. Like the boy of The Sisters, we are presented with an image of her in a moving paralysis, a kind of perpetual motion. Unlike the unnamed boy, she is not moving of her own volition: her paralysis is not self-inflicted. Indeed the inevitability of Lily's social situation makes it all the more haunting, but of less concern for Joyce who, urban socialist or not, did not see the paralysis of Dublin's petit bourgeois as victims of circumstance. To some degree, Lily acts as a catalyst to Gabriel's recognition of his paralysis when her unexpectedly frosty response to his banal and completely superficial inquiry sparks a feeling of unease that haunts him for the rest of the evening. It seems to set the whole balance of the evening awry for him: he fears that in his speech 'He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry'an utter failure.' While ostensible the phrase 'utter failure' applies to his imagined oratorical disaster, it seems clear to me that what it really refers to is Gabriel himself. The morally paralysing effects of the Catholic Church are hear substituted for with the stultifying effects of alcohol: which paralyses Freddy Malins no less efficiently than the weight of doctrine and proscribed thought paralyses Father Flynn. Indeed, Freddy Malins' death seems as inevitably near at hand as Flynn's was in the opening of The Sisters. Sexual hemiplegia is apparent in the strained relationship between the young girls and the men they nervously encounter. Joyce roundly rejects the Nationalist cause as a liberator from this state of inaction in his wholly unsympathetic portrait of Miss Ivors, whose strictured worldview and base partisan feelings are simply a different flavour of paralysis. To underline this, she invites Gabriel to travel further West to the Aran Islands, yet further away from the rebirth and hope of the East. Her 'cross-examination' of Gabriel does bear some fruit, however: it frustrates him so much it lends him the ability to vocalise that he's 'sick of my own country, sick of it!' Gabriel's speech is harder to garner meaning from. It's hard to adjudicate whether his generous appraisal of his elderly aunts is prosaism or something more heartfelt. And, if his praise is genuine, can we take it that Joyce share his lament for the passing of old Irish customs' I hold that Joyce has the power of judgement to perceive the positive qualities present in Irish tradition and not lump it all together as one degenerate, paralytic mass.

The final scenes of The Dead reveal its cataclysmic conclusion: in an island haunted by the ghosts of the past, the dead are more alive to many than the living. Gabriel Conroy's final, stark self-evaluation serves to crystallise the very essence of this hemiplegia in a few finely honed sentences. He realizes that, trapped as he is, he is incapable of real passion, real emotion: 'He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.' He can no more 'apprehend' this intensity of feeling any more than one whole lived such a life could perceive the 'wayward and flickering existence' he shares with the hosts of the dead. He feels his own insubstantial identity 'fading out', yet feels nothing. He can only 'sleepily' stare at the individual, differentiated snowflakes that hit his window, but cannot enter his 'impalpable' world. The image of the snowflake is soon subsumed into the grey amorphous mass of snow, 'general all over Ireland.' And this final image of white, deathly cold snow, seemingly implacable yet needing only the rising/rebirth of the sun from the East to melt it and reveal its insubstantiality is Joyce's, and my, final word on paralysis.



Ghiselin, Brewster. - The unity of 'Dubliners' 1956

Joyce, James. - Dubliners: critical essays / edited by Clive Hart. - London : Faber, 1969

Joyce, James. - Dubliners / introduction by Terence Brown. London: Penguin, 1992

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