Words Fail Joyce

James Joyce’s The Dubliners tells tales of loss of love and failure to love. Two stories from the 1914 collection, The Dead and A Painful Case, explore the loss and failure of love but also the failure of language and literacy. It is a supreme irony that the world’s master of language should be so sensitive to the ways in which language and literacy fail.

In A Painful Case, James Duffy, a literate loner with “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed,” meets a married woman and engages her in a friendship. When she “caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek,” Duffy breaks off the relationship. Five years later he hears of her decline into drunkenness and suicide when she steps in front of a train. His epiphany comes when he realizes that “he had been outcast from life’s feast” and is alone.

In The Dead, Gabriel Conroy and his wife attend a holiday gathering. As they leave his wife hears a tenor singing an Irish song that brings memories of a young man, Michael Furey, who died many years ago. Gabriel is so wrapped up in his own desire and ego that he fails to notice Greta’s revery till they return to their hotel room and she tells the story of the sickly young man who stood outside the gate the night before she left for the convent school and died as a result. Gabriel finally realizes that he has never known such love for any woman.

Duffy and Gabriel are literate men. Duffy owns a wall of bookshelves that “were arranged from below upwards according to bulk.” He owns Wordsworth, the Maynooth Catechism, Hauptmann’s Michael Kramer, Nietzche, and he likes Mozart. His friendship with Mrs. Sincoe is a literate one: “…he entangled his thoughts with her.. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her.” Unlike Gabriel, however, he doesn’t write. When Mrs. Sincoe asks him “why he didn’t write out his thoughts,” he answers, “For what…  with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To subject himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and fine arts to impresarios?”

When he does write for himself, he uses the third person: he is alienated from his own soul as from the rest of the world. After he breaks with Mrs. Sincoe, he writes, “Love between man and man is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.” So there can be neither love nor friendship for James Duffy. Duffy’s intellect doesn’t help him to tolerate or understand other people – he fails to communicate despite his literacy. “We cannot give ourselves…we are our own…every bond…is a bond to sorrow.”

Even after the death of Mrs. Sincoe, it takes a long while before he admits to himself that “he withheld life from her,” that he’d “sentenced her to death.” His literacy, his culture, his books, Mozart, even the love of a fine woman could not save him. “His life would be lonely…until he died, ceased to exist, became a memory – if anyone remembered him.”

In The Dead, Gabriel is not only literate: he has a degree from the Royal University. He “loved to feel the covers and turn the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day… he used to wander down the quays to the second hand booksellers…” He writes professionally and orates at the family gathering.

But, despite his literacy, Gabriel repeatedly fails to read his environment. He “could not listen” to the music at the party. He engages in a verbal duel with his old friend, Miss Ivors, when she jokingly suggests that he’s a West Briton rather than an Irishman. He’s too distracted to listen to what old Mrs. Malins tells him and ignores his wife’s enthusiasm about a trip to Ireland.

Gabriel perverts language as a tool of human communication. As he enters the party, he’s already concerned about his speech, although he disdains his audience. “He was undecided about the lines from robert Browning because he feared they would be over the heads of his hearers…their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand…He would fail with them…His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

He plans to use the speech as a way of getting back at Miss Ivors, even if it means lying about his aunts. “What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?”

Gabriel fails to communicate with his own children: “He’s an awful bother, what with green shades for Tom’s eyes at night and making him do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout. The poor child!”

Gabriel uses his gift of language to distance himself from his own people as well. he writes a literary column for The Daily Express, apparently an English versus Irish publication, and he strives to travel to the continent “to keep in touch with the languages.”

Gabriel’s epiphany comes long after the gathering ends. As he and Gretta are leaving, she lingers on the stairs listening to the tenor sing an old Irish song. Then he misreads Gretta’s changed attitude. “She…seemed unaware of the talk about her…and Gabriel saw that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart.” He’s aroused to passion, thinking of “moments of their secret life together.” But he fails to speak the words he thinks: “He longed to recall to her those moments to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy.” Roused to passion, Gabriel doesn’t notice Gretta’s revery and, instead of speaking words of love to her, he tells her about a debt repaid by Freddy Malins. She then tells the story of Michael Furey, the delicate boy who died for her sake. Finally, Gabriel sees himself for what he is: “a ludicrous figure…a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to the vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the  pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

As Gretta sleeps, Gabriel understands that “…she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake.” He thinks about the impending deaths of them all, all except Michael Furey, and realizes, “Better pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” And he knows, “He had never felt that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love…His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.” But communication fails him once more: “He was conscious of but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence.” Gabriel, whose language failed to enlighten him, now must face the final silence.