2 March 2014
Epiphany, Paralysis, and the Senses in Dubliners
The word “epiphany” derives from the Christian account of Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles as represented by the three Magi, so it is appropriate that James Joyce would use this term to describe the sudden awareness of the essence of an object, person, or situation. In Joyce’s novels, an epiphany is the moment in when all previous misconception or ignorance falls away to reveal the formerly unnoticed truth. It is the task of Joyce’s characters to seek this clarity not from a divine source, but rather in everyday situations that are at times uncomfortable or disappointing. Epiphanies are central to Dubliners, which is in essence a series of awakenings in fifteen different novellas. These various moments of insight and discernment can be read as a sequence of multiple objective epiphanies due to the fact that what materializes from the text is not only the revealing of the essence of the character, but also the revelation of the moral and intellectual paralysis of the city of Dublin itself. I posit that in Dubliners, all characters experience stimulation to one or more of the senses prior to the awareness of his or her predicament, which leads the character to recognize the emotional paralysis.
In Dubliners, the characters’ vision is of such importance that the other senses such as taste, hearing, smell, and touch seem to carry little if no significance until the key moment just before an epiphany. Furthermore, the characters seem to be visually hypnotized by the city, which allows them to be controlled by a force that numbs their other senses. Joyce’s intent to present Dublin as a city whose inhabitants are trapped in a state of paralysis is confirmed in a letter he wrote to Constantine Curran, saying the goal of Dubliners is “to betray the soul of that hemiplegia, or paralysis which many consider a city” (Ellmann, 55). Dubliners exposes what goes on behind closed doors and pulls the reader down into a labyrinth of despair and confusion. Even the opening sentence in the very first story, “There was no hope for him this time,” (1) gives the impression of loss and misery that maintains the characters in a state of immobility beginning with childhood and culminating with mature life.
The inhabitants of Dublin city are unable to see themselves for who they really are, which is interesting considering vision plays such a crucial role in the development of many of the characters. The first instance of this is notable in “The Sisters” when the boy looks up at the window of Father Flynn: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis,” (1). Initially, simply knowing that Father Flynn is dead is not enough to free him from his sense of obligation to the priest, and perhaps his muttering of the word “paralysis” is more telling of the situation in which the boy finds himself rather than the paralysis Father Flynn had been experiencing during his final days. While at first the boy is mesmerized by the mystery of the priest’s religious rituals, it is not until after Father Flynn’s death that he finally gains a sense of freedom when he allowsvhis other senses to be triggered. His dream of the “smiling” priest (2) disappeared after Nannie allowed him to see the corpse and he was able to truly experience the man for the first time: “There he lay, solemn and copious, vested as for the altar…His face was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous nostrils and circled by scanty white fur. There was a heavy odour in the room – the flowers” (5). The combination of seeing Father Flynn up close and the strong smell of the flowers precedes the boy’s impending epiphany and is furthered by him tasting the sherry and listening to the incomplete sentences and inaccurate speeches of the women around him. The result of the stimulation of the boy’s senses allows him to realize that he is experiencing a sort of...
Cited: Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.
Joyce, James, and Richard Ellmann. Letters of James Joyce. Vol. I,
II. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Print.
Riquelme, John Paul. "Eveline." Teller and Tale in Joyce 's Fiction: Oscillating
Perspectives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983. N. pag. Print.
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