Dubliners and the Five Layers of Art

It is said that there are five layers to the scriptures: the literal, the historic, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic. Joyce felt one of his responsibilities as an artist was to rob everything he could from religion and give it to literature – when he first mentions Dubliners to a friend, he calls them a series of epicleti, and, since the publication of those epicleti, he has tuned the definition of epiphany almost entirely into a literary one – and I believe he also masterfully packed all five layers of the scriptures into that collection of epiphany based epicleti that is Dubliners, and showed that they are just as importantly layers of art.

The attaining of each successive level of the five is dependent on thoroughly achieving each and every preceding level. For there to be any successive level to a piece of writing, it must first represent its elements literally, then it can place them in a historic context, then it can allegorically represent them as something else from any other time, then it can become concerned with the moral judgment of goodness and badness, then, and only then, can it reach the anagogic level, and caress the metaphysical. But to ever attain this, a piece of writing must first represent its elements literally, so in many ways, that is the most important level. Joyce was well aware of this. Literal detail was so important to him that he said he wished to create such a perfect map of Dublin in Ulysses, that if it were wiped-out the next day it could be re-built from his book. I believe he did, and he did something similar with every element of his stories: he presents his characters so realistically that we never doubt their actions, he progresses conflicts that we never question the turns of, and he captures physical realities so well that we feel them: no matter how many essays have been written on the allegorical layer of the snow in The Dead when one reads the dead he first feels the snow – the snow is first and foremost cold, wet snow. This is what Joyce meant with his repeated talk of his finely polished looking glass: he meant that when reading his book we could feel like we watching reality – that is the first mark of truly good fiction, and the first layer of art and religious texts.

By basing the literal elements of Dubliners on a real city, at a particular time, Joyce achieves the second level of the scriptures while employing the first: he recreates Dublin at the time of his writing, and that is the historical context for his literal elements. In Dubliners, the characters talk about the current events that actual people talked about at that time, they share the sensibilities of their human counterparts, and the frames of the stories told – such as that in After the Race – are factual stories, and in this case, one that James reported on himself. Of course, restating the facts is not enough to convince a reader that a piece has attained the historic level, but Joyce does thoroughly attain that level by making us feel like we are in the historical context of turn-of-the-century Dublin. He does so by making those dinner conversations of Three Sisters, Araby, and Clay vivid, by heating his political debates with human vigor in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, Grace, and The Dead, and showing us that his characters really do have the sensibilities of their human counterparts in stories like Evelyn, The Boarding House, and A Mother.

  Because Joyce so thoroughly captures and makes us feel his historical level, he can easily represent his allegorical level through his literal facts. The allegorical level is that of Dublin: all the characters’ dilemmas, immoralities, and stupidities, thoroughly rooted in their historical context, can bee seen to represent general states of Dublin. As some critics point out, he does this by having allegorical actions take place among landmarks with loaded names, like in the two gallants, where buildings named after both British and Irish oppressors of the Irish are brought up, and as Torchiana writes of the coincidence, “If Lenehan shamelessly exemplifies a slack and indifferent nineteenth-century Irishry that stands by as the nation is defrauded, then Corley is rightly identified as the active force in bringing that nation willingly to her knees and getting paid for it to boot.” This captures Joyce’s brutality as a writer well, but the ideas that Ireland has been paying for her oppression is not new, so I think there is an even deeper, more disturbing element in Lenehan’s story, as he has a beautiful vision of a life with a home and wife, inspired by the feminine music he hears from the harp, but is distracted by that because of his friend’s impressive exploits. That is a tragedy that is surely allegorical, which points at something more original and deeply wrong with the Dubliners than does Corley putting Ireland on her knees, and it is brought up in the clearest of allegorical fashion, through the literal elements in their historical setting.

With his finger ever-present on the allegorical pulse of his stories, Joyce takes every opportunity to focus his finely polished looking glass on the moral level of his stories and characters. This is where the heart of Dubliners lies. In almost every story Joyce presents us with, there is a character in a moral dilemma, who chooses a course of action, and we are expected to judge that characters choices to evaluate the moral state of that character, Dublin, and its people. But this is not as easy as it seems, and therein lies the art of Joyce and his finely polished looking glass.

His looking glass is so finely polished, that when he is focused on a character, there is no augmentation coming from the glass, no authorial voice judging the characters for us; instead we get stories focalized on his characters so thoroughly that we hear their own judgments of themselves coming in the third person. This is obvious in A Painful Case, a very Conradian story, where a man walks away from a living woman for a shadowy ideal of conduct – but here the man outlives the woman, and seemingly has an epiphany at the end, realizing that he has created a lonely life for himself. Thus we could say that he has grown morally. But for the last few pages we have been so close to Duffy’s emotions, which are a beautifully rendered account of the move from denial to pity to remorse, that it takes effort to stand back and objectively see that nothing has changed for Mr Duffy because he will not change because of his epiphany, and as a man who sees dilemmas but will not write about them, no-one else will change because of his epiphany either. Once this is realized, you can almost hear Joyce whispering ‘paralysis’ in your ear with the same tone as the boy in the Three Sisters, which seems to be what Joyce wants us to hear at the end of many of these stories.

He surely wants us to hear it at the end of The Boarding House, where we have every reason to believe that both of the newly-engaged have made terrible mistakes, though they both feel relieved that they have settled. To believe with them would be to ignore Mr Doran’s doubts and Polly’s ambiguities. But their moral ambiguities give us something to think about long after the story is over: could they make the marriage work, or is it doomed? If so, why? Would they both have been better off if he would have ran for it?

Leaving those questions in our minds with the moral ambiguity of his characters is the power of Joyce’s art, and it is typified in Evelyn, where the ambiguity is thickest. We could easily believe that Evelyn simply turns down a good proposal because of her Dublinesque paralysis, but when more informed of Frank’s lack of Frankness, and when aware that going to Buenos Ares could very well mean going to be a prostitute, then we could say that Evelyn subconsciously made a wise decision. However, with the last description of our Eve being an animal with no knowledge, Joyce shows us the ultimate ambiguity of morality: is the fallen state positive? If we see that it may be, since man gained knowledge, we can see that Evelyn’s fallen state may have been better because she would have gained the ability to love, say farewell, and recognize, which she lacks as she turns away from Frank and continues on the path of least resistance.

This wonderful ambiguity on the moral level of his fiction is present throughout Dubliners: we are left wondering if Little Belham made the right decision, and if the Mrs. Kearney should have sold her dignity for 8 shillings and kept her good name, which still supports the broke Mr. Burke like his umbrella, but Joyce’s looking glass is nowhere more finally polished and nowhere more focalized on a single character, thus giving us the most telling ambiguities, as in The Dead.

It is in this near perfect story, Joyce’s last complete short stories, written at the height of his power that would carry him into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that Joyce focalizes on the morally ambiguous Gabriel, giving us another moral level that will keep us thinking, but also reaching the fifth layer of the scriptures, the anagogic, caressing the metaphysical with his final passage.

Again, one could simply interpret this story with its own words, and say that Gabriel has an epiphany at the end, and that because of it he sheds generous tears and decides he must leave the cruel Ireland that has made him so shallow and go westward. But this is the same sort of fairytale that Gabriel has been telling himself through the whole story, and it is a shallow epiphany. There is no other place in the book where Joyce so wholly explicates his character’s epiphany as here:

Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While 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. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a penny boy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.

But again this is not Joyce’s voice, but Gabriel’s voice through Joyce’s looking glass, just as we heard Lily’s voice through Joyce’s looking glass at the beginning of the story before focalizing on Gabriel, which is obvious from the inappropriate use of the word literal. Joyce would think none of these things about Gabriel: would not think that he were conscious of what assailed him, nor able to see himself as ludicrous as he was, nor even a penny-boy (again, not Joyce’s word) for his aunt. And these are the ideas that make him weep – he weeps not generous tears, but selfish tears, for what will going west solve? will it cure his ineptitude or lust? – No! he sees nothing in the snow, but we the readers are supposed to see his state and the state of Ireland, a state of paralysis that falls like the snow falls on Ireland, wet and cold, on the living and the dead. And when we feel that, we feel the metaphysical level, the artistic level, caressed, and see that the anagogic level, the final level of the scriptures, has been reached through pure art

Because Joyce was so religiously knowledgeable, and obsessed with taking religious concepts and making them literary, I have no doubt that he was aware he was packing his stories with all five of these layers. But even if he wasn’t he did it, and either way it is a testament to how thorough his art was, grasping every element firmly, and vividly delivering it to the reader so that he or she can above all feel it; after all, for there to be so many theories about the snow, it must first strike us as cold, wet snow – the thing itself, which, when perfectly captured, spurns on all the other thoughts, captured in all the other layers, thus robbing them from the religious and showing that they belong to pure literature.

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