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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Dubliners | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What allusion is associated with Mr. Duffy's home village of Chapelizod in "A Painful Case," and how does it relate to this story in Dubliners?

Chapelizod is associated with the legend of Tristan and Isolde, a medieval tale about two doomed lovers. Isolde is engaged to King Mark of Cornwall but falls in love with Tristan and runs away with him to Ireland. Depending on the source, as is often the case with legends, different versions of the story have Tristan dying at King Mark's hand or by other means, but Tristan always dies first and Isolde dies of grief for him. Chapelizod is where Tristan asks Isolde to marry him, which is how the community gets its name (Chapel of Isolde). Mr. Duffy's relationship with Mrs. Sinico follows a similar pattern to the Tristan and Isolde myth. He becomes involved with a married woman—although Captain Sinico seems indifferent to his wife's activities. When they part ways, Mrs. Sinico is distraught and falls into a spiral of despair and self-destruction as Isolde does when Tristan dies. Mr. Duffy likewise despairs when he learns of Mrs. Sinico's death. It seems fitting that one doomed couple play out their affair in the same location as a doomed couple of legend.

What do Mr. Duffy's reading materials reveal about his personality in "A Painful Case" in Dubliners?

Mr. Duffy has three books described at the start of the story. He has a copy of Wordsworth's poetry, which indicates a romantic streak and interest in nature as well as an appreciation for poetic language. The presence of this book makes Mr. Duffy appear less dour than first impressions might indicate. He has a copy of the Maynooth Catechism, a book detailing Catholic beliefs and customs. In describing Mr. Duffy, James Joyce writes, "he lived his spiritual life without any communion with others." The presence of the catechism indicates an interest in having a spiritual life, though, or at least an academic interest in the church. Lastly, he has a copy of a play called Michael Kramer by the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann about a man unable to love his son. This title speaks to Mr. Duffy's own solitude and inability to form connections with other humans. Later in the story, after he stops seeing Mrs. Sinico, he adds two volumes of philosophy by Nietzsche, which indicates an interest in existential philosophy and nihilism, at least in an academic sense. These philosophies advocate for extreme self-reliance and hint that Mr. Duffy may not be dealing with his loneliness as well as he thinks he is.

Why is it significant that Mr. Duffy comes to understand Mrs. Sinico's death only after he goes to a pub in "A Painful Case" in Dubliners?

When Mr. Duffy first learns of what has happened to Mrs. Sinico, he becomes judgmental and angry for having known her. The revelations of her descent into alcoholism and the possibility that her presence in front of the train was intentional make him angry and ashamed to have associated with someone capable of such vice. It is an example of situational irony that news she may have had a drinking problem send him directly to the pub. He copes with Mrs. Sinico's death the same way she coped with her own loneliness during the past few years: by drinking. If Mr. Duffy is aware of this direct connection, the narrator does not say, but by participating in the activity of drinking, Mr. Duffy seems to develop more empathy for Mrs. Sinico's situation and a greater awareness of how lonely he is himself.

How does Old Jack's situation with his family in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" connect to other family problems seen in Dubliners?

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room" primarily focuses on politics, and it is unique among the stories in Dubliners because of this focus on government over personal or family issues. Old Jack's complaints about his son's behavior serve as a bridge between the personal and the political in the narrative. Old Jack's son has left school, does not have a job, and spends a lot of his time drinking, which recalls the dissolute lifestyle of Corley and Lenehan in "Two Gallants" as well as Jimmy's behavior in "After the Race" (although Jimmy's father certainly has more money than Old Jack). The inclusion of these details in a subplot for a story about politics shows how the problem of young men becoming shiftless and unproductive is not limited to a few isolated cases. It also serves as a reminder of what is at stake in political policy. The shortage of opportunities for a man to advance under the current government structure is illustrated through Old Jack's son who seeks to escape responsibility by drinking all the time.

In "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" in Dubliners, what is the problem with having a welcome speech for the king when he visits?

A visit from King Edward VII of England is mentioned as a possibility, not a certainty in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," but even the possibility is controversial. The general consensus among the Nationalists is that they do not want the king to visit; furthermore, they do not want the city government to give the king a welcome speech because such a speech would provide evidence that the people of Dublin and all of Ireland approve of the visit and the king's rule. The story takes place in a time after home rule has failed to pass in Parliament but before the active rebellions begin in 1916. Dubliners was published in 1914, so there is no way the men can know what is coming, but they do know the country is tense and divided. Apart from Edward VII's immoral behavior (he enjoyed wine, women, and song), to which Mr. Lyons sternly objects, the visit would violate the ideal of Irish becoming free through any terms. In a society as morally strict as Ireland's, Mr. Lyons would not be alone in his position, but more importantly, a welcome speech would be a show of weakness that would dampen any hopes to revive the home rule issue or make a bid for full independence. Although the campaign workers in the committee room disagree with the visit and the speech to varying degrees of passion—one of them thinks the visit would even provide strong economic stimulus—their response to the poem about Parnell shows they are united in their devotion to an autonomous Ireland.

Why does the poem bring all of the men into agreement, if only briefly, in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" in Dubliners?

Mr. Hynes's poem comments on how petty differences in morality or personal issues have done a disservice to the common cause for Irish freedom. Charles Stewart Parnell was very close to securing an autonomous government for Ireland in the late 1880s, but news of his affair with a married woman caused his supporters to leave him. The proposition for home rule failed to pass, and nothing changed in Ireland. Lines in the poem such as "hypocrites laid low" and "He lies slain by the coward hounds/He raised to glory from the mire," comment on how Parnell's own friends and colleagues abandoned him after he had done favors for them. Mr. Hynes references the censure of priests who likewise abandoned Parnell. Parnell's personal behavior was not relevant to Ireland's ability to govern itself independent of England, but it sunk the chance of autonomous rule anyway. The last stanzas express the hope that Irish independence can rise again, something the men do agree upon. Even Mr. Lyons, who earlier criticizes Parnell's morality, applauds the poem, understanding the issue of freedom supersedes the all else. The men put aside their own disagreements and remember their common cause.

What does the experience with the arts society and her mother reveal about Kathleen's personality in "A Mother" in Dubliners?

Kathleen has little agency in her own life; she does what her mother tells her to do. She has learned to speak the Irish language and play piano because her mother wanted her to do so. She is not involved in the negotiation of the contract that causes so much trouble in "A Mother," nor is she even present when Mrs. Kearney agrees for Kathleen to play piano in the concert series. Her mother's overbearing attitude toward the Society secretaries as she asks to be paid, even the way her mother takes charge of publicity before the concerts, indicates Kathleen has been subjected to this kind of pushy behavior her whole life. However, Kathleen's first line of dialogue is a critical remark about one of the singers who is supposed to be well known, but Kathleen has never heard of her. This remark shows she has absorbed some of Mrs. Kearney's critical attitude. Even though Kathleen does not actively resist her mother's will, she does show moments of independence. She tries to separate herself from the conflict evolving backstage before the final concert, looking at her shoes when Mr. Holohan appeals to her during the conversation. One line reveals Kathleen's thoughts, "It was not her fault." Kathleen's only moment of rebellion happens when she goes on stage for the first half of the show, after Mrs. Kearney has been paid but argues the payment is short by four shillings. Kathleen clearly wants to perform, so she ignores the argument and speaks her second and last line of dialogue to the first performer, "Now, Mr. Bell." The italics appear in the text, emphasizing how Kathleen is developing a will of her own, and ever so slowly expressing it.

How does the question of payment for Kathleen's performances expose flaws in the arts society in "A Mother" in Dubliners?

Mrs. Kearney's behavior backstage is obnoxious, but the Society secretaries are not without fault in the situation. Mr. Holohan does write and agree to a contract to pay Kathleen as an accompanist for four concerts, and Kathleen is not at fault when one of these concerts is cancelled. Instead of renegotiating the contract calmly and either agreeing to follow the terms or developing new terms when the issue initially arises, Mr. Holohan puts off Mrs. Kearney, sending her to speak with Mr. Fitzpatrick, who promises to refer the matter to a committee. The conflict could have been resolved during the days before the final performance, but the secretaries and the committee allow it to boil over in the final moments backstage before the show. When the baritone singer is asked for his opinion on the matter, he does not want to comment because he has been paid, so the Society has the means to pay its performers. This indicates the Society is, as Mrs. Kearney assumes, holding out on her. Whatever Mrs. Kearney's manners are like, the Society has agreed to a contract and refuses to honor it.

What degree of responsibility does Mrs. Kearney bear for the embarrassing scene backstage at the concert in "A Mother" in Dubliners?

Mrs. Kearney may be correct in her conclusion that the Society is attempting to shirk its responsibility to honor the contract they have made with her and her daughter Kathleen. Mr. Holohan and Mr. Fitzpatrick dodge her questions for days and give her little reason to trust their word. However, Mrs. Kearney's argument with the Society seems to be based more on her ego than the value of the contract. Eight guineas is a moderate sum for four performances, but if the Kearneys are wealthy enough to provide private schooling, annual vacations, language lessons, piano lessons, and access to social events, missing eight guineas is probably not going to break them—especially when the goodwill that might further Kathleen's musical career is at stake. Mrs. Kearney's inflexibility and inability to see the big picture escalates the situation to an ugly place. Mrs. Kearney has always been inflexible, and it cost her friends at school. Her backstory begins with the line, "Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite." As a young woman, she holds out for a suitor she deems worthy of her talents, another indicator of a massive ego, and marries almost impulsively to quiet her friends' gossip. The marriage turns out well for her, but the fact remains she entered the union with the same kind of rash action she displays as she ruins her family's reputation in the argument backstage.

How does the title of "Grace" connect to the sermon at the end of this story in Dubliners?

Grace is a word with two meanings in the context of the story. The first refers to the forgiveness and love God offers in the Christian religion. The second refers to the time of settling accounts in business (a third meaning of grace refers to physical coordination, which may make the title an example of situational irony in reference to Tom Kernan's fall down the stairs). The sermon at the end of the story alludes to both kinds of grace. Father Purdon speaks about Christ's forgiveness and understanding of human failings, saying Christ is "not a hard taskmaster." He also refers to the settling of accounts; in this sense, taking stock of one's life and rectifying failings. In the final lines of the sermon, Father Purdon combines the two meanings of grace by explaining how the first kind of grace—acceptance and forgiveness from God—is what makes the second kind of grace— the settling of accounts—possible.

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