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Joyce and 'scrupulous meaness'

By clairegaff Jan 29, 2014 3189 Words


Module: Lit 1

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How does Joyce’s style of ‘scrupulous meanness’ suit the subject matter of Dubliners?

Joyce constructed and defined his style of scrupulous meanness in order to,” betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city” (Attridge 1990 :42). Joyce saw Dubliners as an opportunity for catharsis for both the city and Ireland as a whole. The book would purge Dublin of its paralysis and enable the people of Ireland to take,” one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass” (Attridge 1990:41). In essence, Joyce saw scrupulous meanness as a means of unmasking the provincialism that he despised. This is a comprehensive even grandiose agenda for a mere book and therefore it is unsurprising that he needed to formulate his own vocabulary to describe his intentions. Joyce’s style of scrupulous meanness is essentially an honest recording of his characters and their surroundings. In his book James Joyce- A Short Introduction, Michael Seidel emphatically argues that there is no element of “mean-spiritedness” implied in Joyce’s definition. He is not explicitly endeavouring to be” mean” about Ireland, instead he is aiming for precision (2002: 43). However as Joyce’s opinion of Ireland and the Irish was low at times it is difficult not to interpret this meanness in a debased sense. As he wrote to his wife in September 1904, “There is no life here-no naturalness or honesty. People live together in the same houses all their lives and at the end they are as far apart as ever” (Seidel 1990:42). However when defining the term itself he claimed he did not want to “deform, whatever he has seen or heard” (Seidel 2002:43). There is an overwhelming sense of sincerity and passion in these words; it’s as if Joyce sees it as a moral imperative to precisely and accurately recount the words and actions of his characters. Indeed he delayed publication for several years in order that they would be published exactly as he intended without censorship or abridgement; “I fight to retain them…..I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country.” (Connor 1996:11) Given the zealous passion evident in the extracts from his letters there would be an expectation that he would then clearly expound on the nation’s deficiencies and advocate a precise cure. This is however the opposite of what Joyce actually delivers. His modernist style makes demands of the reader. He isn’t didactic; he lets the reader interpret the unfolding action. In fact the term “action” may be a misnomer as very little actually happens in these stories. They provoke questions rather than produce answers. In his book Joyce’s Modernism, Lantham describes how modernist writers such as DH Lawrence, Henry James and Ford Maddox Ford also shared this “fascination with recording even the most innocuous experiences as they are filtered through language and the individual consciousness” (2005:5). His style of scrupulous meanness demands that he present the raw material for interpretation by the reader. In this sense his style has more in common with poetry than traditional prose, especially as there is a deep thread of symbolism woven through Dubliners . In his 1921 essay, The Metaphysical Poets TS Elliot discusses that as modern civilisation is so complex the poet, “must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning”(Lantham 2005:18). Although Elliot is discussing poetry it is easy to see how this could be applied to Joyce, particularly the idea that one must become paradoxically both more comprehensive and more indirect. This concept of being simultaneously comprehensive and indirect leads us directly to the gnomic construction of the stories in Dubliners. The word itself is presented to us in the opening paragraph of the first story The Sisters. The Joycean gnomon is conventionally accepted as the shape that remains when a smaller parallelogram is taken away from a larger one. In his book Reading Joyce, David Pierce expands upon this definition to wonder if there is both a significance to the lines being parallel and that both parallelograms meet in a shaded area. He concludes, “In this sense, The Sisters is a story full of parallel lines but is also shaped around something missing.”(2008:74) The gnomon is an intriguing concept implying as it does that absence makes up the whole and underlying all this is the ambiguous, shaded area where the two meet. On a practical level it means the reader must fill in the blanks and speculate. The absence of an authoritative narrative voice in the stories of Dubliners could be argued to be an extension of Joyce’s style of scrupulous meanness. This seems paradoxical as how can the absence of something be described as a ‘scrupulous’ description? However Latham in his essay, Joyce’s Modernism claims, “this erasure of the authoritative narrator is in fact one of the essential element of modernism”(2005; 4). Joyce’s realistic style is in fact heightened by absence. In real life we don’t mention all relevant facts as we are already aware of them, in any case there is the fascinating suggestion that some things cannot and should not be mentioned. This is the opposite of omniscient narration for although most stories in Dubliners are narrated in the third person much vital information is not shared with the reader and is probably not even known to the protagonist. In The Sisters there is plenty of evidence of this gnomic construction in tandem with his style of scrupulous meanness. The young narrator recounts the allusions and ramblings of Old Cotter but he, and therefore the reader, have missed his opening comments. In the subsequent conversation much is hinted at, “There was something uncanny about him,”(Joyce 2011:1). However he fails to deliver even a semi-coherent conclusion on the character of Old Flynn, leading to the conclusion that even while gossiping paralysis seems to affect the characters. He promises to, “tell you my opinion” (2) but nothing of note is revealed. The fact that nothing substantial or “whole” is revealed is emphasised by the constant use of ellipses. The cumulative effect of Old Cotter’s allusions is to make the modern reader wary of the old priest. At this point the reader craves clarity-is there something dangerous or unsavoury about Old Flynn? Or is Old Cotter just suspicious of education and intellectuals? Unhelpfully, the narrator’s anger is focused on Old Cotter, “alluding to me as a child” (3). This typically teenage reaction gives us no clue to the veracity of the claims. There is therefore no clue from the narrator as to whether there is any truth in his insinuations, indeed he seems similarly befuddled, “puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences.”(3) The boy’s subsequent dream is extremely perplexing. Old Flynn is personified as a grey face, an “it” and therefore cannot be considered a straightforward representation of his character. He seems to be confessing to the boy, an action that hints both at guilt and the parallel nature of their characters. However the boy’s reaction seems to be one of paralysis; he is, “smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.”(3). The overriding atmosphere in this passage and others is one of discomfort and embarrassment and again it is absence that strikes us the most; the absence of any real affection for the dead priest. In the opening paragraph the narrator states how, “night after night” (1), he checks his window for the two candles which would signify his death but there is an absence of genuine concern for his wellbeing, more a prurient interest in his death. Essentially there is a dichotomy between relationship observed by the public, “he had a great wish for him,” (2) and the evidence of the actual, private relationship as given by the narrator. The juxtaposition of the The Sisters with An Encounter increases our sense of unease about what was intonated in the former story. Again the paralysis inherent in the Irish national character is illustrated; however as in the rest of the collection the word itself is never articulated. The boy suffers through another menacing patriarch’s monologue even though he “disliked the words in his mouth” (17). This is supposed to be a day of freedom, an opportunity to “break out of the weariness of school life (13)” and yet he endures the grubby innuendos and worse of this elderly pederast. The man’s approach towards seducing the boy is disconcertingly authentic. He begins with flattery, tries to distance the child from his friend and then begins to broach inappropriate subjects. This “vulgarity of speech or of gesture” (Attridge 1990: 123) lends a haunting air of realism to the scene and amplifies Joyce’s aim of being precise even if this scrupulous meanness is upsetting. When Mahony exclaims, “I say! Look what he’s doing…he’s a queer old josser”, ( 18) the narrator fails to look up. Again he seems inexplicably imprisoned; neither he nor Mahony say what has actually happened, again what remains is absence. Eveline is so torn between her desire to escape a dreary life in Dublin and her fear of change that she cannot move. The theme of paralysis is again central to this story and even seems to take on a literal truth. At the end Eveline;”set her white face to him, passive like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (32). Her psychological and spiritual paralysis seems to have taken over her body also. There is much speculation on whether Frank’s offer of a new life in Buenos Ayres was borne out genuine love, or if he had more sinister motives. Apparently Buenos Ayres was synonymous with prostitution. The choice to remain seems similarly loaded; she has already become a skivvy to her father and there is a suggestion she may take her mother’s place as a punching bag or worse. As Suzette A. Henke describes in her essay Desire and Frustration in the Dubliners that ultimately Eveline begs God to show her “her duty” that; “Altruism and self-effacement are the edicts inscribed on the young girls unconscious…….. She reverts to a simple rhetoric of docility and obedience echoing the Virgin Mary’s response at the Annunciation.”(Thacker 2006:62) Hugh Kenner refers to Joyce’s insistence of “extreme specifity” in Ulysses. Joyce was obsessive in the accuracy of details such as location and logistics; apparently he timed the Wandering Rocks section with the aid of a map and stopwatch (Lantham 2005:130). There are obvious parallels here to the scrupulous meanness in Dubliners. This kind of geographical and factual pedantry is evident throughout the collection from the description of Great Britain Street in The Sisters through to the contents of the supper table in The Dead. One story were the setting really shines through is Two Gallants Lenehan has passed off his tart onto his mate Corley and has a couple of hours to kill while he waits for their return. He initially follows them until they take the Donnybrook tram; “then he turned about and went back the way he had come…….he came by the railings of Duke’s lawn, he allowed his hand to run along them”(47). There is no doubt that this is an extremely accurate description of the location and it adds credence to the details of the rest of the story. Up to this point Joyce has portrayed a Dublin which tolerated child and spousal abuse, perhaps even white slavery but Lenehan and Corley’s exploitation of the slavey is truly shocking. Typically what actually happened is unclear as Joyce uses misdirection with the skill of a conjurer. Corley has managed to get her to steal a gold coin from her employer but has he also taken advantage of her sexually? Is she so desperate for affection that she would have sex with such a parasite, risk pregnancy and disease and then steal for him? Joyce feels under no obligation as a storyteller to fill in these blanks. Everyday encounters don’t come with footnotes, people often use idioms that are inaccessible to people outside their circle and the majority of people reveal little information on their personal motivations and desires. This narrative realism is frustrating but it mimics “the phenomena that normal people experience a dozen times in the course of a day.” (Seidel 2002: 55) In The Dead Joyce proffers Dublin a measure of redemption. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus from Trieste in 1906 he reproaches himself about how his representations of Dublin had failed to sufficiently describe his land’s hospitality or it’s warmth; “I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city for I have never felt at my ease in any city since I left it except in Paris. I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality.”(Seidel 2002:43) This new, more generous approach to his subject is demonstrated in his depiction of food. The miserly, functional meals of the other stories are forgotten; in “The Dead” there is hospitality and a sumptuous abundance of food; “A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table, and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin, and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish” (186). This is scrupulous meanness without any disconcerting undertones; instead there is colour and festive precision. Joyce is for once using his descriptive observations to celebrate rather than condemn. There are of course some potentially stultifying influences at work in the party just like the other stories in Dubliners. Indeed the story of Morkan’s horse suggests a new kind of national paralysis, the hold of the past over the present. The Dead is a succession of minor “gnomons”, Gabriel Conway misses something in almost everything. He begins the evening by misreading Lily and ends it by completely misinterpreting his wife’s emotions and in the process stumbles across a previously unknown chapter in her life. The absence of knowledge continues as in common with all the other stories in Dubliners there is no authoritative narrative voice. Gretta may be distraught out of a sense of culpability or loss or any combination of these or other emotions. However Gabriel’s reaction to his wife’s tumultuous revelations is profoundly different from that of previous protagonists. He grieves for her dead lover Michael Furey and admires his romantic sacrifice; “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age”(212). Compare this to A Painful Case which also describes a disappointed love affair. Emily Sinico’s infatuation with him may have only played a tangential role in her apparent suicide. Her death occurs four years after Mr Duffy’s rejection of her and therefore seems tawdry in comparison to Michael’s. Worse still Mr Duffy’s response is self-absorbed and indulgent; “No one wanted him; he was outcast from life’s feast.”(107) A Painful Case ends with a prosaic, “He felt that he was alone,” (107) any notion that the train that ran over Emily is somehow haunting him is cast aside as fanciful. This is markedly different to the evocative ending to The Dead; “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (213). However in this ending we see a move away from scrupulous meanness and an affirmation of the symbolic thread which underpins Dubliners. This kind of nebulous, metaphysical ending cannot really be viewed as a blunt portrayal of Dublin life. Dubliners explicit aim was to expose Dublin as a “centre of paralysis”(Attridge 1990:40) Joyce’s style of scrupulous meanness was constructed in order to simultaneously expose and absolve this canker from Dublin’s collective consciousness. That Joyce largely portrayed Dublin in an unattractive light reflects his interpretation of reality, as he charmingly states, “It is not my fault … that the odour of ash pits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories”(Attridge 1990:41). Joyce stories unfold in a modernistic style. His work is punctuated with ellipses and absences of knowledge which Joycean scholars define as “gnomons.” This realism can be frustrating for the reader as the climatic moments and conclusions of traditional prose are absent-just as in life there are few tidy endings. In her essay “Modern Fiction” Virginia Wolf concludes that; “Life… in not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged…it is instead a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end”(Lantham 2005:7). This is a useful metaphor in understanding Joyce’s work and his mission to capture the ephemeral sometimes banal intricacies of everyday life through his style of scrupulous meanness.

Attridge, Derek. 1990. The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Connor, Stephen. 1996. James Joyce; (Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers) Lantham, Sean. 2005. Joyce’s Modernism; (Dublin: The National Library of Ireland) Joyce, James. 2011. Dubliners; (London: Harper Press)

Pierce, David. 2008. Reading Joyce; (Harlow: Pearson Education) Seidel. Michael. 2002. James Joyce, A Short Introduction; (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers) Thacker, Andrew(ed.). 2006. Dubliners; (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan)

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