Essay: Mental Vacanies - 'Dubliners' -

Essay: Mental Vacancies – ‘Dubliners’

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
— James Joyce

As psychoanalytical critic, Ross C. Murfin, observes, “We are all Freudians, really, whether or not we read a single work by Freud” (311). This is definite truth: whether the true meaning of the id, the ego, or the superego are explicitly known by the broad public, conscious and subconscious can generally be considered layman’s terms. After all, the first sensation an infant experiences is that of desire; it is only during development and subsequent adolescence that this raw human feeling is differentiated into want and need. So much has this “language” (Murfin 312) permeated society that liberal art studies – both basic and higher education – typically involve the analysis of media; that is, literature, film, television, theatre, art, etc. The accepted idea is that since everyone has “repressed wishes and fears” (Murfin 315), it is reasonable to assume that said unconscious desires diffused into creative works, be it fictional or factual. Film is an excellent medium for psychoanalytical criticism, since visual as well as verbal cues can be utilized for implanting subconscious ideas. It must be argued, however, that literature is the most effective for psychological analysis, due to its ability for extreme amounts of detail and the power of the written word. This critical technique is best suited for longer works, like novels, but can be used quite effectively in novellas or short stories. James Joyce’s Dubliners collection is unique, as all of its stories are technically separate entities, yet carry prevailing themes throughout. Although nearly all the “Dubliners” (i.e. the protagonists) face similar mental challenges, the main characters of “Eveline” and “The Dead” both prominently struggle with repression and the ignorance thereof. The duo desire escape from or control over their respective circumstances, but are unable to move past their repetitive routines.

To begin with “Eveline,” is to examine youth. Eveline herself, the eponymous focus of the tale, is a young girl, not even out of her teens, with adult-sized worries. It should be stated that most of the family situations of the Dubliners are not healthy or ideal, least of all of the happy, nuclear type. Eveline’s mother has passed away, and besides her estranged brother, her only next of kin is her abusive, alcoholic father, with whom she resides. Therefore, it is seemingly fortuitous that she has met a young man, a lover if you will, who is willing to rescue her via marriage (Joyce 36-9). A typical reaction for most women would be to elope and never look back.

Eveline, however, has conflicting desires: to leave or stay at home. This internal struggle affects the mood of the entire story. The descriptions are somber and with very little detail (Group Discussion F, 14 November). The most pictoric scene is that outside the window: “Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterward crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses” (Joyce 36). The subtle alliteration emphasizes a harsh “k” sound, and Eveline goes on to reflect on memories of her father beating her and her siblings with a stick, an object with the equally brutal onomatopoeic association (THWACK!). Thus, the first desire is established: she has little nostalgia for her childhood and even now, her father continues to torment her: “Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. […] [S]he had nobody to protect her.” (Joyce 36-8). It seems rather obvious to the reader that Eveline is in a dangerous situation and ought to vacate immediately. As anyone who has been in an actual abusive relationship can disclose, however, it is not nearly so simple. Despite the oppressive environment, Eveline feels a sense of daughterly duty towards her father (Group Discussion F, 14 November). Also, during this time period, it was expected – if not required – for children to care for their parents, regardless of the circumstances.

The technical definition of repression is the “psychological attempt by an individual to repel one’s own desires and impulses towards pleasurable instincts by excluding the desire from one’s consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious” [emphasis added] (Laplanche 390). Eveline is repressed due to her (misguided) affection for her home and father. She is repressing her desire to leave, even if such a route allows her escape from abuse. It can be conjectured that this domestic attachment would not be nearly as restrictive if not for a promise made to her mother: “Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air. Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could” (Joyce 40). Even so, she has already promised her lover, Frank, that she will run away with him. After all, “[w]hy should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness” (Joyce 40). Her mother had had to deal with her unsatisfactory husband on a daily basis, and it is implied that the strain of such a relationship played a toll upon her health, which lead to her early demise. Eveline muses over “the pitiful vision of her mother’s life…that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” (Joyce 40). Needless to say, Eveline does not want to follow in her mother’s faltering footsteps (Group Discussion F, 14 November).

It is not as though Frank is a terrible choice, either. He is described as “very kind, manly, open-hearted” (Joyce 38); in other words, the stereotypically perfect man. The cliches that make up Frank do not detract from the story; he is essentially a plot device for Eveline, a means of escape: “Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too” (Joyce 40). As can be inferred from the latter bit of the quote, Eveline does not actually love Frank. Assuredly, she is quite fond of him, but he is merely the means to an end (Group Discussion F, 14 November). This apathy comes to a head at the end of the story:

She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. […] She answered nothing. […] [S]he prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. […] Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? […] He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to gon but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition. (Joyce 41).

The language in this passage is terse and without emotion. The sentences are short; there is no need for elaboration, as her decision has always been clear, though not to herself.

Eveline lives a habitual life: she keeps house, cares for two young children, and goes to the shops on weekends. The only variation is acquiring money each week from various sources, and any outings with Frank. As she observes, “It was hard work – a hard life – but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life” (Joyce 38), and it is for that reason that she allows Frank to leave without her. Eveline is not impulsive: the story is almost entirely composed of her agonizing over making a decision. She is trapped by endless routine, and does not possess the willpower to break free, hence the creation of excuses to stay: “Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. […] She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh” (Joyce 39) and “Home! […] Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which had never dreamed of being divided” (Joyce 37).

Ultimately, then, her repressed desire to leave remains in her subconscious. She fails to recognize the trap of her provincial life, and loses the opportunity to elope with Frank. Her obsession with conserving her past bars the path to a brighter future. In the end, she has remained static, stuck in a rut, and unlikely to ever change (Group Discussion F, 14 November).

If Eveline represented youth, then Gabriel of “The Dead” is middle-age. A married, educated, and overall successful man, Gabriel has a reasonably healthy domestic life. His aunts eagerly await his arrival at their annual dance, he being “their favorite nephew” (Joyce 179), and is in charge of diverting a potentially embarrassing situation when another guest arrives drunk, and delivering the evening speech. Throughout the evening, he is authoritative and assertive, but inadvertently, his actions also reveal his pretentiousness and sexism.

Gabriel is repressed because he is not in control: as a man, he is supposed to be distinguished, intelligent, and a patriarchal leader. Three encounters – with three women, no less – leave him with his self-confidence in tatters and reveal his (uncontrollable) insecurities. Since Gabriel represses his lack of control through his overbearing demeanor and assertion of his masculinity, it is somewhat fitting that a mere maid should be the first to knock him off his high horse (Group Discussion F, 30 November). In what can only be assumed to be an attempt at small talk, he casually remarks to the housemaid:

—O, then…I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:

—The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.

Gabriel coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake… (Joyce 178).

Clearly, Gabriel did not expect an honest answer, least of all such a perspicacious one. He blames his educated background and middle class status for his awkwardness around servants, and attempts to apologize by tipping her, further showcasing his reliance on social status and money (Group Discussion F, 30 November). Gabriel prides himself on his knowledge and actually worries about whether his speech contains references too highbrow for his listeners: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. […] The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting peotry to them which they could not understand” (Joyce 179). In the last sentence, note the word, “could”; Gabriel not only comes off as pretentious, but suggests that his superiority is completely unable to be understood by anyone not on his level. He is handily proven wrong in the second encounter – with a Miss Ivors.

During this time, Ireland was owned by the United Kingdom and there were social movements and political parties that desired complete Irish independence. Despite nationalist efforts, in 1920, Ireland was actually split into two parts: Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the United Kingdom, and the independent Republic of Ireland (“Partition of Ireland”). Since Dubliners was written in 1914, this separation had not yet occurred, and as such, there are numerous references to Irish Nationalism in the stories. Most Irish were expected to have an opinion on the matter and either a stance with Irish unity or British rule. Although Gabriel revels in his obscure literary know-how, his conversation with Miss Ivors reveals startling gaps in knowledge of political issues (Group Discussion F, 30 November).

—[W]hy do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land…that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?

—O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!

—Why? asked Miss Ivors. […] [A]s he had not answered her, Miss Ivors said warmly:

—Of course, you’ve no answer. (Joyce 189-90)

The outburst is childish: he has nothing better to say, and his retaliation at Miss Ivors’s probing suggests “the swearing crutch of the intellectually deviant” (Vasquez). Enervated by Miss Ivors’s superiority, Gabriel mentally chides himself for being unable to defend his position, and, no longer capable of controlling the conversation, frees himself from further discussion with her (Group Discussion F, 30 November).

The final encounter is with his own wife, Gretta, and is the most revealing of Gabriel’s character. When the party is nearly over, he sees his wife listening to music, and is inexplicably overcome with sexual desire (Joyce 209-13). Lust buoys his spirits, as he feels this at least, is one person he can control; he is her husband, after all. When they are alone, Gabriel subtly attempts to make love to her, but Gretta is not interested. She is remembering another man in her life, a teenage romance that resulted in her lover’s untimely death. Humiliated for the third time that night, Gabriel bitterly notes that “[w]hile he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another” (Joyce 219). However, Gretta’s story speaks to him in an unexpected way: the boy had been so in love with Gretta, he stood in the rain beneath her window, and told her he did not wish to live if she left for school in another city. Although the boy was already quite ill, Gretta believes that he died for her sake (Joyce 220-1). Upon reflection, Gabriel comes to the same conclusion: “It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. […] He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (Joyce 222-3). True love, in fact, is an extension of his repression. Not only is the concept of romance foreign to him, he recognizes that he has never had control over his wife. Even playing the part of her husband has not allowed her to forget the other men in her life (Group Discussion F, 30 November).

Unlike Eveline, Gabriel actually allows his repressed desires to enter his consciousness: “His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling” (Joyce 223). In a flash of understanding (an epiphany), he realizes that he has never been in control over his, or anybody else’s life. All people are governed by Death and will one day pass from this world; still, their ideas and works might live on, though Gabriel knows that he has contributed nothing to the world that would merit any sort of memorial. He has the opportunity to change his ways, but given the context of the overall text, it is unlikely that he will do so (Group Discussion F, 30 November).

Both Eveline and Gabriel struggle with psychological repression: escape and control, respectively. Eveline eventually rebels against her unconscious desires, and succumbs to the lure of habits and routine. Gabriel recognizes his lack of control, but his story ends without any conclusions. It is extremely plausible, however, that he will consider his epiphany to be too little, too late, and personal change futile.

Works Cited

  • Group Discussion F, 14 November, “’Araby’ and ‘Eveline’”
  • Group Discussion F, 30 November, “’The Dead’”
  • Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. New York: The Viking Press, 1983. Print.
  • Murfin, Ross C.. “What is Psychoanalytic Criticism?.” Howards End (Case Studies in Contemporary             Criticism). Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. 313-323. Print.
  • “Parition of Ireland.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 25 November 2011. Web. 30 November 2011.
  • Vasquez , Jhonen. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut. San Jose: Slave Labor Graphics, 1997. Print.



Don’t worry, gentle readers, I’ll be returning to the editing articles later on, but for now, have another essay from my literary past! This one was from an “Introduction to Critical Methods” English college class in 2011. I don’t remember too much about it, to be honest, but I think there was a lot of poetry. I have a healthy appreciation for poems, but I don’t pretend to understand it. I don’t have the feedback for this essay, so I’m just gonna say I got an A. 😉

“Dublin Sunrise” by Miguel Mendez is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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