The Mastery of James Joyce

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James Joyce
James Joyce, about the time of the publication of Dubliners in 1914.

Have started re-reading Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners. Never studied these in a class or taught them, as far as I remember, with the possible exception of the great last story in the book, “The Dead.”

But even the first two stories, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” are great in their own way. With a few deft strokes, they nail the relation of a young boy growing up in a country, Ireland, paralyzed by the church (Catholic) and the state (England).

The first is about an old priest, Father Flynn, who has had several strokes and then dies. Told from the point of view of a young boy, his protege, the story offers one of Joyce’s typically sly and elliptical looks into the church. A powerfully Catholic country, early 20th century Ireland was rich in catechismal instruction, in other words, rote learning and unquestioning belief. The priest, retired from his duties after a stroke or two, catechizes the young boy, on the distinctions among mortal and venial sins and “only imperfections.” The boy sees him as a dying old man, in offputting physical terms:

  • heavy grey face of the paralytic
  • lips … moist with spittle
  • pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately
  • big discoloured teeth
  • tongue lie upon his lower lip

And yet the boy’s aunt remarks, talking to the priests’s sisters, “No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.”

Of course, Joyce is putting his finger up his nose and thumbing it, too, at the Catholic Church, which already by his day was as good as a corpse.

In the second story, “An Encounter,” the boy encounters another creepy old man. This one is not a priest but some kind of pederast or pervert whom the boy and his pal meet while playing hooky one day. The boys are sitting in a field, when an old man with “ashen-grey” mustache,” bids them good day. He talks about the weather, then the writers Moore, Scott, and Lytton. He suggests that Lytton is not suitable fare for young boys, and then, from “the great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth,” interrogates them on how many “sweethearts” they have.

There was nothing he liked better, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair [though] all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew.

After which, “the queer old josser,” as the boy’s friend calls him, moves to the other side of the field and evidently masturbates (no description provided). Then comes back and regales the boy if not his friend (who’s run off after a stray cat) with talk about how bad boys should be whipped.

He said that if he ever found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls.

The boy has played truant in order to have an “adventure.” Though he thought, naively, at first — like most of us, of whatever age, today — that having an adventure meant going to foreign lands, like the sailors on their ships at the quay, he finds out that the “queer old josser” was an adventure in his own right. The kind of adventure that we may not be seeking but that, however darkly or perversely, opens new vistas to us.

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