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Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word, paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it, and to look upon its deadly work. – boy narrator, The Sisters
Paralysis. For the characters in the works of James Joyce, it is a literal force that prevents them from moving physically, from developing and maturing, from forming or honoring a truly realized sense of self.
Although expressed through the immature vocabulary, naivete, and limited life experience of a child, the quote above is profound for the ostensibly contradictory and surprising sentiment it suggests. Are Joyce’s characters helpless in the matter of their own lives, strangely attracted to the forces of paralysis that hold them captive? Do they simply choose to back away from risk, from the leap of faith that profound change necessitates? Or, as citizens of Dublin, of that “dear dirty” city, are they victims of a fate inflicted upon them by their frozen metropolis, a proverbial dead-end street paved with the filth of immorality and overrun with the shards of shattered dreams?
These characters return to their motionless state time and again, bereft, mourning the loss of a missed opportunity or of a potential never fulfilled. Therefore, not only is paralysis in Joyce a force that prevents, dissuades, thwarts and frustrates. It has a more insidious effect, that of anesthetization, and a more pernicious allure, that of the comfort that accompanies complete surrender. In Dubliners, illustrated by stories such as “Eveline” and “The Dead,” and their instances of both literal and figurative paralysis, Joyce proposes that to be truly paralyzed, one must be more than merely “stuck” or immobile. The most devastating brand of debilitation occurs when one is unaware of his own frozen state. So ensconced is the individual within the schema of paralysis that he cannot see beyond its iron-walled borders, cannot recognize the need or call for change. His ignorance and fearful ambivalence are the dual-sided bullet piercing the heart of personal growth, self-actualization and emotional fulfillment.
In one of the episodes in the middle “Adolescent” section of Dubliners, “Eveline” tells the story of a nineteen-year-old shop girl facing a crossroads. She is a pensive girl, overwhelmed with childhood memories and of her loss of individuals close to her, death’s finality and the inevitability of change. The concept of “home” is very dear to Eveline, although its fabric of stability has started to unravel. She has strong attachments to her physical setting, her city Dublin, her home on the avenue, as well as to comforting recollections of the children who “used to play together in that field – the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple.”
This was a simpler time for Eveline, when her mother was still alive and her father had not yet been driven, bruised and battered by life’s hard knocks to his current incarnation as a drunken, abrasive man. However, as Eveline laments, things change, and her present state is one of unhappiness and disappointment. She assumed the role of matriarch within her household upon her mother’s death. The pressures of maintaining her family, of attending to the demanding needs of the younger children-and the confluence of these responsibilities occurring under the watchful, critically disapproving eye of her father-bring Eveline to her breaking point. Consequently, she is now preparing to “go away like the others, to leave her home” and forge a new life with her lover, Frank.
However, Eveline is thwarted, her genuine desires and longings muted by her interior paralysis. She is fearful, uncertain about making this transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from girl to woman, from a life of stifling obligation to one of liberating, self-guided activity. Eveline at times expresses visceral ecstasy, invigorated by the prospect of becoming Frank’s wife and moving with him to Buenos Aires, a city whose very name (“good air”) symbolizes freshness, newness, and rebirth. The city stands in sharp contrast to Eveline’s decaying home-life in Dublin, as characterized by the textual descriptions of her inhaling the “the odor of dusty cretonne” and noting the “yellowing” of old childhood photographs. Eveline is not merely unfulfilled and uninspired, but panic-stricken at the possibility of following in her dead mother’s footsteps, fated to repeat or enact her pitiable life “of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.” Eveline’s internal monologue reveals the desperation of her terror:
Escape. She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
However, more significantly blocking Eveline from achieving total happiness, from reaching the heights of self-actualization, are not the dead-end trappings of her current situation. Rather, Eveline’s greater source of paralysis, of remaining in a locked, motionless state, is her own ambivalence. Her nerves cause her to misremember the upsetting events of her past, or to reinterpret the more difficult, frustrating aspects of her present. She is comforted by “the familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided,” and rationalizes that her life “was hard work-a hard life-but now that she was about to leave it, she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.”
The lingering memory of her mother’s death, particularly of the woman’s final nonsensical outburst of “Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!,” with the empty meaning of those words mirroring the cumulatively empty meaning of her life, convinces Eveline of the urgency behind her need to escape. However, this looming maternal specter also keeps the girl trapped. Eveline’s guilt at leaving home stems from the contract she made with her dying mother, a promise to preserve the household as long as possible. Even though her mother is no longer a physical entity in Eveline’s world, her faceless presence continues to wield a powerful influence. In a way, Eveline is as much a slave to the obsolete, irrelevant expectations of her dead mother as she is to the archaic social parameters established by her figuratively dead mother-country.
At the crucial moment of action, when Eveline must follow through with her decision to escape the festering cesspool of a home-life that will assuredly lead to the death of her soul, handicapping her emotional and personal development, Eveline backs away. Frank, whom she had previously regarded as her savior, is now depicted as himself a figure of death and destruction: “All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her.” Faced with the tumult of change, with the risk of heeding organic desire, Eveline denies her budding sense of self and returns to the paralytic sphere. Although once the source of fear and concern, paralysis for Eveline is also an anesthetizing drug, the nullifying effect of which she finds almost impossible to resist.
Brought to the threshold between old and new, between life and death, Eveline resorts to familiar comforts and patterns of thought, subsuming her nascent, fragile identity to the authority of divine intervention: “she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty.” However, religion, specifically Catholicism, and the belief in God are not infallible institutions. In Joyce, the Church is constructed as susceptible to and guilty of perpetuating corruption, as evidenced by Father Flynn committing acts of simony and publically losing his own faith in “The Sisters.” Instead, more sacred than these bankrupt, supposedly “hallowed” establishments, are the sanctity of the inner-person and his (or her) own intuition/instinct.
How appropriate is it, then, that only after Eveline appeals to God for guidance does she become overwhelmed and gripped by the visceral force of self-doubt: “Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.” A blind adherence to religious “faith,” an unthinking, unequivocal belief in its ability to heal, instruct and save, are products of cultural indoctrination rather than of one’s free will. Therefore, they contribute significantly to Eveline’s figurative paralysis.
At the close of the story, Eveline stands alone on the pier, watching Frank, her salvation, fade like an unpleasant memory into the horizon: “her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.” In the end, Eveline is powerless before the dehumanizing effects of paralysis. She mourns not the loss of her one true love and the missed opportunity she will live to regret. Rather, and even more tragically so, she grieves for her own humanity. In remaining locked in her arduous, dutiful role at home, in her uninspired occupation, in a physical setting that is a veritable cesspool of grimy, emotionally choleric water, Eveline has stunted her own human development.
She will never form the capacity to truly love, to feel, to connect to something outside herself. Having been complicit in the abortion of her nascent self-identity, Eveline allows herself to stand as a blank host into which paralysis can infect its debilitating disease. She is consigned to a life of wakeful death, a concept revisited and raised to staggering literary and emotional heights in the longest and final episode of Dubliners, “The Dead.”
Arguably the most complex or layered of the fifteen stories that comprise Dubliners, “The Dead” demonstrates the intense force with which paralysis dulls the senses, prevents individuals from attaining happiness, occludes understanding of fundamental human truths and, in essence, exacts a form of spiritual and developmental death. However, what were to happen if the presence and influence of paralysis over the individual, the dangerous ease with which it unconsciously inculcates and breeds complacency within the psyche, were not so much reversed or cured, but acknowledged? What is the flip-side of paralysis if not the epiphany, the procurement of knowledge and, therefore, achievement of personal freedom?
In “The Dead,” the lead character, Gabriel Conroy, is another Dubliner afflicted with the paralysis embodied by his city, and evidenced by his unrelenting self-obsession and solipsism. The story places him at the home of his aunts, Kate and Julia Moran, as part of a lively Christmas dinner and celebration. An academic, both as a professor and part-time book reviewer, Gabriel is a man who lives and thinks within the confines of his inward self. He attempts to form a self-definition, and identifies himself in relation to others along superficial lines. During the night’s festivities, Gabriel is planning to make a grand, impressive speech, and spends a significant amount of time mentally preparing for the occasion, sorting the exact quotations and original lines he will use to showcase his intellectual prowess. Gabriel is mindful of the disparity in sophistication and sheer “bookish” knowledge existing between himself and the other guests:
He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of cultur differed from his.
However, Gabriel’s intense insecurity softens any implied smugness, and lends itself to a characterization of a man eager to please rather than one of an elitist braggart. At the beginning of the night, when addressing the young housemaid Lily, Gabriel makes the imprudent mistake of conjecturing, “O…I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?” when she informs him that she has completed her school studies for the year. Offended by the glib suggestion, Lily retorts, “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you,” and abruptly, an indication of her anger, walks away. Gabriel harbors the embarrassment of this incident, the dark taint of which colors his thoughts throughout the night, including his reluctance to convey any trace of snobbery in his speech:
He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake, from first to last, an utter failure.
Therefore, Gabriel is clearly a character defined by externals, motivated by his fear of judgment and disapproval, his identity the product of others’ capricious perceptions, rather than the extension of any genuine, well-developed and self-guided notion of personhood. In this sense, Gabriel is a figure of the walking dead, moving though life without truly knowing himself, detached from his environment, all the while not cognizant of this debilitating disconnect. He has been so conditioned, so socialized to paralysis that the point where his “automatic,” more contrived, calculated and fragile self ends, and his authentic self begins, has been completely effaced. That is, until his wife hears a hauntingly familiar melody, and, through the visceral momentum and sheer emotion of her memory, illustrates for him how a dead man, a shade, can somehow “be” more alive, impact upon another more profoundly, than Gabriel ever has in waking life.
The night’s festivities have carried over into the next day, as signaled by the “piercing morning air,” and the lingering guests are finally preparing to return home. Before he is ready to leave, however, Gabriel must locate his wife, Gretta, who has disappeared unexpectedly. Gabriel catches sight of Gretta, leaning her body at the top of the staircase, straining, Gabriel assumes, to listen to a distant sound. But Gabriel, in his physical and figurative paralysis, is unable to hear what his wife is apparently experiencing: “Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.”
Striking this curious pose, engaged in an activity suffused with mystery and silent intrigue, Gretta loses all her recognizable qualities and becomes an enigma to Gabriel. He abstracts her-in a move that betrays his inability to connect on a human level to that which is unfamiliar-and reconciles the inner-conflict caused by his uncertainty by deeming her “a symbol of something.” Even within this profoundly organic experience, Gabriel is unable to express himself in emotional terms. He immediately turns inward, as his is custom, and removes himself from the very personal moment by contextualizing it within the framework of art and academia: “If he were a painter, he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness, and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.” As a man, however, as a husband and lover, Gabriel is unsure of how to relate to this vision of his wife.
Gabriel is correct, however, for Gretta is symbolic in her deep red “terracotta” and “salmonpink” attire, with the rush of color that suddenly assails her cheeks as she turns to face Gabriel, with her “eyes that were shining” with the vibrant light of life. Gretta is a figure of genuine experience, of warmth and active feeling, and so powerfully conveys this attitude that she ignites in Gabriel a kind of passion heretofore hidden from the reader. More importantly, this moment plants the seeds of epiphany within Gabriel, as he begins to recognize the festering abyss of routine, of staleness, of emotional frigidity and dusty boredom into which their relationship has descended:
A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire.
Gabriel is excited, stimulated, and moved; however, this departure from a self-centered, “mental” state to one of raw, spirited feeling, does not read as hopeful or optimistic. Rather, Gabriel’s emotional burst is foolish and pathetic, indicative of both his naivete and the irreversible effect paralysis has had on his ability to “get” others. He is not the source of Gretta’s happiness or fulfillment. He is not responsible for the deluge of emotion by which she seems to have been overcome. He is not, as he wishes to be, the “master of her strange mood.” In a revelation that invokes in Gabriel bitter humiliation, “a shameful consciousness of his own person” at the pinnacle of his own arousal, Gretta admits that the thoughts currently assailing her soul concern “that song, The Lass of Aughrim” and the memory of the boy who once sang it, Michael Furey. Thrust right back into his default disconnected mode, at a loss for words or understanding, and left like a little boy only with a series of questions, Gabriel asks: “And who was this person long ago? Someone you were in love with?” Although she never directly answers that question, the sadness and longing that woefully drip from the words of her vague responses convince Gabriel that his assumptions are correct. Yes, this was a boy whom she loved, and one who died in the midst of their acquaintance. Gabriel asks, “And what did he die of, so young, Gretta? Consumption was it?” Consumption would be the easiest, most logical explanation, so it is no wonder this is Gabriel’s first thought. But, no, his death was caused by something more unintelligible, more dangerous and mysterious than consumption. As Gretta muses, “I think he died for me.”
And with this line, with this jolting statement and honest, heartbreaking admission, Gabriel awakens to the figurative paralysis into which he has been imprisoned, the pseudo-life of motionless movement he has been blindly leading. A dead man, a distant memory, through Gretta’s eyes and words, conveyed a vibrancy and animation that Gabriel as a living being had never achieved; he had never moved another person so profoundly, “had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.” At this moment of epiphany in “The Dead,” snow suddenly begins to descend upon Ireland, and, in this way, Joyce links figurative paralysis with its natural, literal manifestation (the hemiplegia that opened Dubliners in “The Sisters”). An instance of nature exerting its power, its authority, over the realm of humanity by producing a climactic event almost supernatural in its rarity, the snowfall stands as a metaphor for the spontaneity and illogic of organic emotion, a concept Gabriel Conroy has never grasped. Given the chance to relate to his wife, bond with her, forge a greater intimacy on the basis of her heartfelt disclosure, Gabriel regresses inward. He is consumed by the typical feelings of shame, guilt, insecurity and inferiority. However, new to this mix once veiled by blissful ignorance, is an added element of sobering awareness.
Despite his sudden recognition and intuitive self-evaluation, Gabriel is still unable to connect himself with his outside world. He may realize finally that he is incapable of evoking passion in others, or of truly experiencing it in himself. However, he remains immobile, unable to associate with both his immediate environment, “the solid world itself,” and with “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.” His is an epiphany encountered too late, the weight and extent of his paralysis too great, too comfortable and safe, to motivate internal change. Existing in a frozen state is a painful experience for Gabriel, especially now that his eyes have been opened to the damaging effects of paralysis; yet this is the only mode he knows.
Presented with the choice to abandon their lives of entrapment, of disappointment, the characters in Dubliners retreat. Eveline returns without ever having left home. Gabriel undergoes an intense emotional and sexual catharsis, only to withdraw from this rush of emotion, surrendering once gain to the fetters of self-obsession.
However, despite the bleak timbre of the stories contained within, Joyce concludes Dubliners with a kind of ambiguity, in an open-ended manner, that allows for the possibility of hope and redemption. After all, the reader is left with the image of Gabriel at an impasse, in a limbo state between paralysis and the freedom his newly-acquired awareness also presents. He stands with doubt on the proverbial pier from which Eveline recoiled, thus denying her own self’s happiness. What is to come of the morning after the snowfall? Will these snowflakes freeze an already frozen, impenetrable desolate tundra? Are they cast from Mother Nature like a cultural sentence, exacting a final, icy death upon the whole of Ireland? Will they further bury Gabriel’s insubstantial identity, as reinforced by the “wayward and flickering existence” he has been mindlessly performing, an actor in a bankrupt play rather than a member of the human, feeling community? Perhaps. Or perhaps the sun will rise and ignite a massive thaw, melting the ice and cold, allowing the healing waters to rush over the hills and valleys of Gabriel’s, of the any-man’s, physical and psychological landscape.
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