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Irish Novels 1890-1940New Bearings in Culture and Fiction$

John Wilson Foster

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780199232833

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199232833.001.0001

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(p.493) Appendix: A Note on Joyce and Popular Fiction

(p.493) Appendix: A Note on Joyce and Popular Fiction

Irish Novels 1890-1940
Oxford University Press

British fiction before Dubliners (1914) had depicted the mundane lives of the lower orders, but what distinguished Joyce's stories was the thrifty eloquence by which his fellow citizens are exhibited. The stories are popular in the sense of depicting ordinary lives and commonplace thoughts, even if the economic prose style, plot irresolutions, and terse character presentations are hardly those of popular fiction, and worked against commercial success. Joyce's lower middle class is without coherence or solidarity; its culture is scrappy—half‐English, half‐Irish, inherited from above and below—and without integrity. Yet Joyce, whose own family descended to the bottom of the middle class, made himself at home with the rich but motley popular culture of his Dubliners, their sayings, jokes, anecdotes, gossip, songs, rumours, half‐baked knowledge: like a parody of the wisdom and culture Yeats, Lady Gregory, and others sought amongst the peasantry.

Joyce claimed that his was a tactical and preparative realism, an impassive fidelity to the surfaces of Dublin life, a ‘nicely polished looking‐glass– held up before Dubliners as a first step in their civic reanimation and even ‘spiritual liberation–.1 But in the meantime, the realism of Dubliners amounted to a painful truth; indeed, Joyce's realism is deeper than ground‐clearing; like Moore's in The Untilled Field (1903) it implies a moral and spiritual rot too entrenched to be reversed, certainly by a rural‐romantic revival. In 1906, while Joyce was writing the stories in Rome and trying to place them as a volume, he saw a review of The Realist and Other Stories (1906) by the popular Cork writer, E. Temple Thurston. Joyce told his brother Stanislaus that he had ordered Thurston's book from England, having been drawn to the reviewer's description of the stories as ‘daring–. Several weeks later he sent Stanislaus the book, presumably having thought it worthwhile to do so.2 The title story of Thurston's collection has less in common with Joyce's work in progress than with Poe's stories, the ‘apocalyptic stories– of Yeats, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, telling the story as it does of a painter who in pursuit of a complete realism arranges the actual death on the cross of the young man who is modelling Christ for the painter's ‘Crucifixion–, turning a living being into a perfectly achieved still life (or death). But Joyce must have been interested in Thurston's Prologue to the fifty‐page story in which he claims a greater contemporary need for truth than for love and reminds readers of the popular search for truth being conducted in science and art. Thurston believed that ‘we are passing into the adolescence of intellect–, finding ourselves between the infantile acceptance of fairy tale and allegory and the adult demand for unvarnished truth.3 Joyce's stories, in implicit contrast to the folk‐work of the Irish Revival and depicting varieties of intellectual adolescence, might have been adduced to support Thurston's claim. The Cork writer distinguished two kinds of realism—‘that which uplifts and that which casts down– (p. 6)—and Dubliners engaged in the second, of necessity, Joyce argued, his (p.494) realism re‐creating (to quote Thurston) ‘the valleys of darkness that must be passed through– (p. 7).

The actual and figurative darkness in the lives of Joyce's Dubliners is ineffectively lit by the chief characters' guttering pseudo‐romantic daydreams. In Dubliners and Ulysses (1922) these can derive from or resemble the popular fiction that offered romantic plots and encouraged in its readers extra‐textual daydreaming.4 In the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses Leopold Bloom and Gerty MacDowell—introspective or dreamy readers of popular stories—sexually converge for the reader. Gerty has read Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854)—the heroine of which bears Gerty's name—which sold 40,000 copies in a week and was reprinted as late as 1906. Bloom reads Tit‐Bits and picks up soft pornographic romances for his wife, Molly, on this occasion The Sweets of Sin, the title and swift perusal of which provides Bloom with intermittent sexual arousal during his day. The Nausicaa episode is narrated in part in the sentimental‐romantic language of such popular fiction and affectionately parodies the motifs of female self‐sacrifice, female romantic sexual longing, and male caddishness found in it, as well exploiting the popular Irish genre, the ‘Temperance– story, as Stephen J. Brown named it.5

Sexual sin is more seriously treated in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). When Stephen Dedalus visits Dublin's brothel neighbourhood, the nether world of the slums, it is a scene familiar from popular romantic‐realist fiction in Victorian Britain and Ireland (including novels by Mulholland, Meade, and Letts), though narrated with greater subjective intensity. (In Ulysses the brothel scene is a more self‐consciously nightmarish and modernist affair.) It is also a scene that belongs in a belated fin‐de‐siècle work of fiction, and the author of A Portrait and creator of the febrile novice poet Stephen Dedalus would surely have agreed with Wilde's Gilbert in ‘The Critic as Artist– that contemporary writers desired ‘to realize our own age in all its weariness and sin–, a sentiment as applicable to A Portrait as to Dorian Gray or The Sands of Pleasure. He would also have agreed with Gilbert that there is more to be learned from the sinner than from the saint.6 As we have seen, slums and sin were often coupled in episodes of Victorian and Edwardian novels that charted the hero's growth (and lapses) and A Portrait is very much of its time in this regard. Irish novels of spiritual crisis had likewise already appeared; Joyce's daring lay both in the spirituality in question—Irish Roman Catholicism—and in the implied finality of the apostasy.

In short, whereas Joyce's artistic priorities were early beyond the remit of the Irish Revival, it was some time before his fiction outgrew the preoccupations of Victorian and Edwardian fiction, popular or no. Even in Ulysses, the temperate and sober Bloom ponders in the Eumaeus episode the Irish drink plague (‘drink, the curse of Ireland–) as well as the value of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869 in controlling the spread of venereal disease, though he is equitably aware that ‘some man is ultimately responsible for [the prostitute's] condition–.7 Bloom inhabits at least the mental world of philanthropic impulse, whereas Dedalus is a stranger to it. Just as he shrugs cynically when Bloom confides his social concerns, Dedalus in A Portrait extends the purview of his ‘non serviam– to social and charitable action: he will look first to his own interests, take part in no campaign of social reform, entertain no self‐sacrifice or perform no philanthropy. ‘Dedalus,– MacCann tells him, ‘I believe you're a good fellow but you have yet to learn the dignity of altruism and the responsibility of (p.495) the human individual.–8 Joyce did not simply have Dedalus refuse to serve; he also demonstrated that refusal through perspective, an increasing reliance on the sense‐impressions and cognition of individual minds. It is the sustained prose equivalence of Dedalus's thoughts (and in Ulysses, of Bloom's and Molly's as well) that constituted Joyce's break with the popular and mainstream Victorian and Edwardian novel.

For his part, Bloom, despite his philanthropic impulse and concern for social purity, entertains many impure thoughts during his day, pondering the pleasures as well as the wages of sin. He daydreams of living the arousing excerpt of The Sweets of Sin, either as cuckolder (in the case of Martha Clifford) or cuckold (in the case of Molly).9 Bloom, after all, out of prurience as well as empathy, lives others' lives, and these include the lives of characters in popular fiction. (Later in the novel, Joyce will attribute thoughts to Bloom and develop his character in linguistic and rhetorical ways that promote him well beyond the world of popular fiction.) A major preoccupation for Joyce is the nature of the Blooms' marriage, and although its secret and rich infidelities of thought and deed make it an unusual union among the legion of fictional marriages in the 1890–1922 period, Ulysses can nevertheless be added, in that respect, to the long list of marriage novels of the time.



(1.) The mirror metaphor can be found in a letter of 23 June 1906, quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 222. By ‘civic reanimation– I mean a reversal of the ‘hemiplegia or paralysis– which Joyce diagnosed in Dublin in a letter of 1904: see Ellmann, p. 163. ‘Spiritual liberation– was to be achieved only after Ireland had acknowledged the truth of Joyce's chapter of ‘moral history– that Dubliners composed: letter to Grant Richards the publisher, 13 May 1906: see Ellmann, p. 221.

(2.) Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966), vols. 2 and 3, pp. 201, 205. Ellmann includes Thurston's book as part of Joyce's library left behind in Trieste when he moved to Paris in 1920, though he points out that the book was not among the surviving collection (having of course been in the possession of Stanislaus Joyce): The Consciousness of Joyce (London: Faber & Faber, 1977), pp. 97, 130.

(3.) E. Temple Thurston, The Realist and Other Stories (London: Sisley's Ltd., 1906), pp. 5–6.

(4.) This aspect of Dubliners appears to have influenced Hugh A. MacCartan (b. 1885) whose volume of sketches and stories, Silhouettes (1918), includes two studies of quiet desperation, unfulfilment, and negative epiphanies reminiscent of the lives of Litter Chandler and other Dubliners: “Life: A Study in Timidity” and “James Fenelon, Bachelor”, both set in lower‐middle‐class Dublin. The author, a civil servant, was born in Co. Down, and moved to Belfast and then Dublin—all three places providing settings in Silhouettes. MacCartan depicts Dublin slums, (p.496) unromantic marriage, and the aftermath of Easter 1916, but in the Joycean attempt to create literary rather than popular fiction, succeeding only fitfully.

(5.) I discuss this episode more fully in ‘The Irish Renaissance, 1890–1940: Prose in English– in Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary (eds.), The Cambridge History of Irish Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), vol. 2, pp. 151–2.

(6.) The Portable Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Aldington and Stanley Weintraub (1946; New York: Viking Penguin, 1981), pp. 99, 104. I discuss sin in Joyce in ‘The Irish Renaissance, 1890–1904: Prose in English–, pp. 147–50.

(7.) James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 553.

(8.) James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; New York: Penguin Books USA, 1992), p. 215.

(9.) A recent critic claims that Joyce set out to provoke the Social Purity advocates (which included Sarah Grand) and that much of his fiction is in conscious reaction against them as he sought notoriety for his depictions of impurity: Katherine Mullin, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (2003).