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Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 1

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

When I was teaching high school students, I found that they generally had little use for literary criticism. They would tolerate it and sometimes even appreciate it if they felt that the external material I was introducing to their study of a book or story illuminated some element in the text, but they were incredibly resistant when they felt that I was imposing meaning on the text. It was as if they experienced criticism as a hostile force.

DublinersI kind of understood how they felt when I read Harry Stone’s “‘Araby’ and the Writings of James Joyce.” While I found the background material he provided interesting and useful, I found much of his analysis less than convincing—not simply because I disagreed with him, but because I thought he occasionally abandoned Joyce’s story to create readings that really are not supported by the text.

My main complaint is in his analysis of the girl, and of the narrator’s final revelation. Stone suggests that, when he encounters the vapid and possibly mendacious English salesgirl, the boy realizes that his own beloved is equally false—that is, that she is just a girl. Stone musters an encyclopedic amount of information to buttress this conclusion, but I just don’t see it. The boy’s discovery, as I see it, is not about the girl, but about himself.

I think the text supports this reading, without any appeals to other women in Joyce or well-known Irish poems or controversies surrounding the florin. Joyce writes, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” [emphasis added].

The girl isn’t mentioned here—the boy’s new self-knowledge—and, to me, the particular excruciation Joyce describes is a specifically adolescent kind of torment. In his moment of clarity—when the shabby reality of Araby dismantles his romantic dreams—he is poised between a childish dream and adult knowledge. He is, at this moment, old enough to recognize his silliness, and young enough to feel mortified by it.

I realize that my own reading makes external appeals—not to history or religion but to my own keen recollections of adolescent embarrassment. It is, then, reader-response criticism. In class, we touched on the potential and the limits of this kind of criticism (although one might argue that all literary analysis boils down to reader-response criticism), but I do feel that it’s a valid approach to Joyce. Dubliners is full of stories without conventional endings. Joyce doesn’t explain the meaning of his stories. He concludes not with resolution, but with the moment of crisis. Joyce intended Dubliners to be a mirror in which the Irish can see themselves; thus, he rouses the reader, and compels her to find meaning in her own experience.

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5

March 7, 2005 | Permalink

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