“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 3 of 3

From a SMVA perspective, then, readers seek out signals of Gabriel’s propensity for altruism and cooperation, and, once they receive them, are compelled to volunteer affect on his behalf. In other words, they are anxious for the plot to unfold in a way that favors and vindicates him. According to Flesch, this dynamic is the basis of “narrative interest,” which he defines as “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). Having detected Gabriel’s “difficult-to-fake” signal of his genuine concern for the caretaker’s daughter, readers can be counted on to sympathize with him. Immediately after he insists that Lily accept a coin and leaves her presence, he begins brooding over whether to include the lines from Browning in his speech. Here readers become privy to the tension underlying his self-consciousness: “he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers” (179). His thoughts continue:

"their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry" (179).

Gabriel’s mother, through whom he is related to the hosts of the party, turns out to have “married T.J. Conroy of the Port and Docks” (179). In other words, “the brains carrier of the Morkan family” (186), as Aunt Kate calls Gabriel’s mother, married into money. Leonard contends that “the Browning quote is there to invite from [Gabriel’s] audience authorization for his viewing of himself as someone with refined tastes and a superior education” (460). But that Gabriel is more educated is not a boast he wants to convince everyone of; it is rather a fact he goes out of his way not to lord over them, as is the higher grade of culture his mother married into. Leonard also charges Gabriel with having “contempt for them as peers” (460), but if that were the case he would not bother himself about appearing “ridiculous” before them. The Lacanian is treating the reality Gabriel is trying to mitigate as a fantasy he is trying to propagate.

The predicament Gabriel faces that readers hope to see him through is that he really differs from the people at the party in important ways. His sense of not belonging is real, and yet he cares about them. To this day, anyone who has left a small town to go to college is faced with a similar dilemma whenever he or she returns home and realizes how vast the gulf is separating the educated from the uneducated. And, far from using his books as props for some delusion of grandeur, Gabriel genuinely loves them, so much so that when one arrives for him to review it is “almost more welcome than the paltry cheque” (188). It turns out that the Browning quote Leonard fails to credit him for not including in his speech came from one of these books he has reviewed. Gabriel originally applies the phrase “thought-tormented” to the “music” (192) of the Browning poem in his review. The phrase turns up again in his speech, but this time, in an act of creativity inspired by his confrontation with Miss Ivors, he has turned it into a charge against “a thought-tormented age… educated or hypereducated as it is,” which he also claims to fear is lacking in “humanity,” “hospitality,” and “kindly humour” (203)—this from the man who was mortified earlier lest the assembled audience “think that he was airing his superior education” (179). Rather than risk that verdict, Gabriel makes a complete concession to the sensibility of Miss Ivors, believing it to be more closely aligned with that of his audience than his own.

He is in this scene inhibiting his impulse to hold forth on the poetry he genuinely loves and the principles in which he genuinely believes because he recognizes that they will not only go unappreciated but will even be offensive to many in his audience. This is intelligence keeping passion in check, something Gabriel alone in the story is capable of. But this is also intelligence in the service of dishonesty; Gabriel is being disingenuous. His thoughts really are tormenting him throughout the story with greater self-consciousness. Lacanian critics may see this as a form of narcissism, but it is remarkable how reliably self-sacrificing Gabriel is. Indeed, the epiphany he experiences is that he is too self-sacrificing, a “pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians” (220). Hearing his wife Gretta tell the story of Michael Furey, the boy who braved the weather for her in a condition of ill-health and who died as a result, he recognizes a quality he himself lacks. What he finds so threatening and at the same time so admirable about Furey is his unchecked impulsivity, his passion untempered by intelligence. “Better pass boldly into that other world,” he thinks, “in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (223). Much like the eponymous Eveline in an earlier Dubliners story, Gabriel is at risk of being paralyzed by his duties to his family and to his culture.

That Gabriel is in a sense too altruistic does not imply that his epiphany is a repudiation of altruism; what Gabriel calls into question are the dishonesty his good nature leads him to and the provincialism that necessitates it. It is ironic that his realization is prompted by a former inhabitant of Galway, an Irish territory Miss Ivors had tried to persuade him to acquaint himself with earlier. But it must be noted that for Furey to be true to himself there meant he had to die. And yet there is a nostalgic note in the enigmatic line, written by an expatriate from Ireland now living on the continent: “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (223). Gretta is of course also from Galway, and when Gabriel tells her of Miss Ivors suggestion she responds, “I’d love to see Galway again” (191). When Kelley argues that Gabriel’s vision of snow falling all over Ireland symbolizes how “Mutuality replaces mastery” (206) in his consciousness, he is only half-wrong. Gabriel has felt horribly alone all night. He has even felt alone throughout his marriage; when Gretta falls asleep after telling him the story of Michael Furey, “He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife” (222). But he has learned Gretta is just like him in that she keeps her true thoughts and feelings to herself: “He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes” (223). Mutuality is not replacing mastery; it is replacing isolation.

The central premise of Joyce’s story, that Gabriel needs to escape the close-minded nationalism of his Irish culture, or at least find a way to be true to himself within it, simply fails if Gabriel is not a character worth saving. Though Flesch insists one of his goals in Comeuppance “is to assert the reconcilability of a Darwinian perspective, one that accepts evolutionary origins and constraints on human mental processing, with the best of European philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary theory” (207), it is difficult not to see the various Lacanian readings of “The Dead” as bestowing their views on the story rather than discovering them in it. In a bit of irony Lacan himself might have appreciated, it is the Lacanians who are the true narcissists, looking as they do into the story and seeing only their own principles reflected back at them. There is also an element of self-righteousness in their negative characterization of Gabriel, since naturally these critics are claiming to know better than to be so controlling and to put on such superior airs. But in imposing their self-consciously esoteric views they are doing a disservice to readers—and themselves—by making the story far less enjoyable.

Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Belknap,

2009. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Ed. Minneapolis: U of

Minnesota P, 2008. Print.
Flesch, William. Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological
Components of Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York:

Penguin, 1996. 175-224. Print.
Kelley, James. “Mirrored Selves and Princely Failings: A Lacanian Approach to James Joyce’s

‘The Dead.’” In-Between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism 12.1-2 (2003):

201-09. Print.
Leonard, Gary. “Joyce and Lacan: ‘The Woman’ as a Symptom of ‘Masculinity’ in ‘The Dead.’”

James Joyce Quarterly 28.2 (1991): 451-72. Print.
Trujillo, Ivan E. “Perversion as the Jouissance of The Woman in ‘The Dead’: Joyce, Lacan and

Fucking the Other.” Other Voices 1.3 (1999): 1-11. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.
Wynn, Karen, J. Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom. “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” Nature
450.22 (2007): 557-560. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

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