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Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 2

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!

DublinersI think Lenehan is my favorite character in Dubliners, and, if “The Dead” isn’t my favorite story, “Two Gallants” is. The paragraph in which Lenehan reflects on his life (57-58) is a comic masterpiece, a perfect parody of the wayward hero’s cathartic resolution to change his ways. Rather than seek a solution to his despair in himself, Lenehan decides that he still has a chance of finding himself “a simple-minded girl with a bit of the ready” and goes back to his drink-seeking perambulations fortified by essentially unchanged. Indeed, even as he dreams of an easily manipulated woman to supply him with some cash, he gives away his own few coins to another in a presumably long series of “slatternly” girls.

It’s funny, but it’s also tragic—I would call it “American tragedy” as opposed to classical if that wasn’t an anachronism. Consider the context: Lenehan is exhausted, worn out by walking and by the sometimes thankless work of being charming. And what gives him the psychic energy to find hope? A plate of peas in a cheap restaurant. Lenehan is impoverished—financially, physically, spiritually—and Joyce gives us little reason to believe that a change of circumstances is truly possible for Lenehan. He is paralyzed not just by laziness or alcohol, but by his surroundings. We don’t know everything about Lenehan—we don’t know all the details of his story—but we do know a lot about Dublin, and what we know doesn’t give us much cause for hope. It may be hard to imagine Lenehan enthusiastically engaged in gainful employment, but it’s also difficult to imagine that any such employment is available to him. And alcohol may be that became part of his disease, rather than its cause, even as alcohol makes escape increasingly less possible.

Lenehan is ridiculous, but Joyce makes it impossible for the reader to see him as anything less than human.

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March 8, 2005 | Permalink


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