Thoughts on James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ or ‘Revenge of the Cringe Inducing Marginalia’

One of the guilty pleasures/occasions for misery that comes from re-reading a book is the re-inspection of old marginalia. It allows for the momentary solemn reflection on how far you have indeed come since those long gone dearly departed days, while simultaneously and no less solemnly jotting down new observations, truly the best observations that any observer has ever observed while reading James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners on the 130 bus.

However, occasionally a note from the undergraduate days, those long gone dearly departed undergraduate days, when an interpretation will strike one by virtue of its idiocy. I found one such the other day in the short story ‘Clay’ and it merits this public self-flagellation.

The paragraph reads as follows:

“But wasn’t Maria glad when the women had finished their tea and the cook and the dummy had begun to clear away the tea-things! She went into her little bedroom and, remembering that the next morning was a mass morning, changed the hand of the alarm from seven to six. Then she took off her working skirt and her house-boots and laid her best skirt out on the bed and her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed. She changed her blouse too and, as she stood before the mirror, she thought of how she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning when she was a young girl; and she looked with quaint affection at the diminutive body which she had so often adorned. In spite of its years she found it a nice tidy little body.”

At the point in which Maria sets her alarm, I had written: “mastery over time. Derrida?”

Analysing the note, I find it to be indicative of the kind of critics I was into at the time. I wanted to find whatever critical approach, no matter how ostentatiously difficult, that would help me fashion a chart in which I could look up any book and therefore be able to stop worrying about how little I understood in the books I was reading.

I bought a book on metre in poetry and rigidly memorised the definitions of the terms ‘dactyl,’ ‘anapaest’ and ‘pyrrhic’ with the same intention. This all missed the crucial point in the application of a schema. What I didn’t learn until much later was that a character setting an alarm, a pyrrhic emphasis does not always mean the same thing in every situation. What is really at stake in the context in which these tropes are deployed.

Which is why the marginal note above is so fabulously ridiculous. Rather than reflecting a supposed mastery over time, a point at which one could bring in Mr. Derrida’s assault on the sacred cows of Western metaphysics, Maria’s setting of the alarm is intended as an assertion of utmost mundane-ness, just another part of her daily ritual of little, nice and tidy propositions.

Like the proverbial boiling frog (and the metaphor is particularly apposite, bearing in mind Joyce’s malevolence towards his creatures in this sequence of fifteen stories) each of ‘the Dubliners,’ are steeped in mundane details that are the unsung gems of the novel, stacked neatly and with admirable restraint before the apex/nadir of the epiphany. These are the hands of Maria’s clock, the bookshelf of James Duffy and the petit bourgeois existence of Jimmy Doyle’s father. Beyond the book’s famous snow, they deserve attention.

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