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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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A Mother

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of "A Mother" from James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners.

Dubliners | A Mother | Summary



Mrs. Kearney wants to raise her family's social stature, so she embraces the Irish Revival and immerses her daughter Kathleen in Irish language lessons and music. She teams with Mr. Holohan, a secretary for the Eire Abu (Victory for Ireland) Society as he plans a series of concerts where Kathleen will serve as a piano accompanist for the performers. He agrees to pay Kathleen eight guineas for four concerts, and Mrs. Kearney helps with publicity and distributing tickets. The two of them develop a friendly relationship.

On Wednesday, the night of the first concert, Mrs. Kearney does not like how empty the concert hall appears, and Mr. Holohan tells her the Society made a mistake in arranging four concerts—too many to expect a full audience at each one. Mrs. Kearney also remarks that the performers are not very good. Mr. Holohan agrees and explains the Society has decided to reserve all the best talent for Saturday night's concert. Thursday's concert draws a larger crowd, but Mrs. Kearney thinks the audience is too informal. She learns Friday's concert has been cancelled to ensure full attendance on Saturday, and she insists her daughter be paid the full contracted amount, concert or no concert. Mr. Holohan refers her to another secretary, Mr. Fitzpatrick, whose manner has already made a poor impression on Mrs. Kearney. She is unable to get a straight answer from either man.

At the Saturday night concert, the audience is still thin because of the rainy evening. As the performers arrive, Mrs. Kearney insists on speaking with Mr. Holohan about the contract again. He says it is not his business and sends her to speak with Mr. Fitzpatrick again. The performers, including Kathleen, chat backstage while Mrs. Kearney becomes more agitated. She tells Mr. Holohan her daughter will not perform without being paid in full. He leaves the room, and the performers, having witnessed the exchange, make awkward conversation.

Mr. Holohan returns with Mr. Fitzpatrick and half of Kathleen's pay, saying she will get the other half at the interval. Mrs. Kearney complains the payment is still four shillings short, but Kathleen steps onto the stage with the first singer. During the first half of the performance, the Society's secretaries and others debate what will be done at the interval. Some of them believe Kathleen should be paid nothing, but Mrs. Kearney prepares for battle in her own corner of the room.

At the interval, Mr. Fitzpatrick tells Mrs. Kearney she will be paid the balance of the contract on Tuesday, but if Kathleen does not perform the rest of the concert she will have broken the contract and get nothing. Mrs. Kearney stands firm, and another performer is called upon to play a few accompaniments. As they take the stage, Mrs. Kearney ushers her husband and daughter out of the hall.


Social-climbing rarely goes well for the characters in Dubliners; "A Mother" is another example of how the rigid rules of society's expectations limit the opportunities for people to grow and change their lot in life. In "After the Race," Jimmy's attempts to fit in with an extremely wealthy crowd end with him losing a large sum of his father's money. In "A Mother," Mrs. Kearney's attempts to better her family's reputation in the community end with her destroying that reputation along with her daughter's carefully cultivated musical career.

The title "A Mother" places the emphasis on Mrs. Kearney's actions and mistakes in her dealings with the Eire Abu Society, an arts and culture group with Nationalist leanings. Mrs. Kearney's interest in Nationalism seems to stem more from an interest in making connections with the right sort of people than an interest in ideology. In the end she is far more interested in her daughter being paid for her performances—eight guineas—than in the cause the society represents. Eight guineas in 1904 would have been equivalent to roughly five hundred dollars if adjusted for exchange rates and inflation. The sum is not insubstantial, but it is also not worth the social repercussions Mrs. Kearney will face as a result of her backstage tantrum. Her reasons for said tantrum, then, are unclear, but she would be neither the first nor the last stage mother to dash her child's prospects in service of her own sense of fairness or her own sense of ego.

As a social mistake, Mrs. Kearney's focus on money also violates a more deeply ingrained social expectation. In Western culture people tend to be uncomfortable talking directly about money, and in some social circles—especially in higher classes of society—such conversations are viewed as vulgar. This attitude is visible in Mr. Holohan's and Mr. Fitzpatrick's obvious discomfort in negotiating about the contract with Mrs. Kearney, and their attempts to dodge the conversation altogether. In contrast, Mr. Holohan is polite during early conversations in which Mrs. Kearney criticizes the quality of the performers. He may or may not really agree with her, but the topic is one with which he is comfortable. That Mrs. Kearney behaves so aggressively is bad enough, but the focus of her aggression exacerbates the embarrassment.

Another factor exacerbating Mrs. Kearney's social position is her status as a woman. She argues, perhaps correctly, that the Society would treat her better if she were a man. Social expectations for women tend to censure aggressive behavior now, and this standard was certainly true 100 years ago as well. Furthermore, if it is uncomfortable for men to talk about money, it is downright vulgar for a woman to do so. Mr. Holohan scolds her for treating the Society rudely and for having no sense of decency, but his true judgment comes out in his last words to her: "I thought you were a lady." This remark tends to confirm Mrs. Kearney's suspicion that she would be treated differently if she were a man. The story thus contrasts strongly with the previous one, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," in its personal view of a family, in its focus on a strong female character, and in its use of political agendas for personal gain.
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