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Dubliners | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In what ways does the Kernans' marriage in "Grace" embody the concept of grace in Dubliners?

Like many other women who appear in Dubliners, and many other married women around the world, Mrs. Kernan is tolerant of her husband's many faults. His business is failing, he drinks constantly, and stays away from home for days at a time, which prompts Mrs. Kernan to say, "he never seems to think he has a home at all." Her thanks to Mr. Power indicates there have been domestic disputes, and she thinks about how her husband "had never been violent since the boys had grown up." For all his hard work and respectability in the community, Tom Kernan has a more sinister side. Yet Mrs. Kernan has stayed with her husband through 25 years of marriage. After his fall down the stairs and subsequent injury, she scolds him, but she also takes care of his injuries while he recovers in bed. She brings him broth to eat and keeps a fire going in his room. If grace is a word referring to God's unconditional care and forgiveness, as it appears in the sermon at the end of the story, it also refers to the unconditional care and forgiveness people can offer to one another, as Mrs. Kernan offers to her husband.

How does "Grace" in Dubliners comment on the ongoing conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland?

Grace is a concept often associated with Protestant groups who believe salvation comes from communication with God and receiving his grace directly, not needing a priest as an intermediary for the process. Tom Kernan "came of Protestant stock" and converts to Catholicism when he marries his wife. The conversion is purely nominal; Tom Kernan does not attend church and is known to make snide remarks about Catholicism from time to time. For practical purposes, Tom Kernan is still essentially a Protestant about to attend church with his Catholic friends. The conflict between Catholic and Protestant groups is a longstanding and bitter one, woven tightly with the conflict between the Irish people and the English ruling class, but Tom Kernan's friends ignore his barbs about their religion and accept him as one of their own. This is an act of grace on their part. Once Tom Kernan agrees to go to the church retreat, though, he asks serious questions and drops his jokes. As the men answer his questions and ease his anxiety about going to mass, Mr. Power talks about crowds of Protestants coming to see a popular priest when he was preaching. Mr. M'Coy tells Tom Kernan, "there's not much difference between us." The Catholic men do assert the superiority of their church as the "old original faith," and Tom Kernan refuses to light a candle when he attends their church, but these disputes are mild in comparison with the history of violence that has plagued the two religious factions in Ireland. Their example shows how the two groups have more commonalities than differences, which renders the fighting between the groups somewhat pointless.

How is the public face of Gabriel and Gretta Conroy's marriage different from their private life in "The Dead" in Dubliners?

Gretta and Gabriel Conroy appear to be a happy couple in "The Dead." They banter and tease one another at the party, but the banter reveals small tensions within the marriage. Gabriel's excuse for their late arrival at the party blames Gretta for taking too long to get ready. Later, they talk about how protective he is about her health and the health of their children, which seems like a loving conversation, but Gretta is also lightly critical of him. She calls him "an awful bother," making their son exercise with dumbbells and their daughter eat oat porridge. She then jokes about him having her wear galoshes over her boots to protect her feet from dampness. She presents this as hilarious, but her tone also expresses a belief that his overprotection is absurd. Once they leave the party and are on the way to the hotel, Gabriel finds his desire for his wife rekindled, but the rekindling indicates their passion for one another has gone away for some time. He thinks about their first days together and, "He longed to ... make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy." While the Conroys appear happy and bubbly in public, behind the scenes their marriage is a "dull existence," devoid of affection or even true companionship.

What does "The Dead" reveal about the lives of women in Dubliners?

With the exception of Lily the housemaid, the women in "The Dead" are upper class, well educated, and wealthy enough to have servants and lavish annual parties. Even with their resources, their options are limited. Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate have made careers, of sorts, as patrons of the arts. Their niece, Mary Jane, has followed their example as a performer and music teacher. These roles are based on social expectations for upper-class women, that they entertain and instruct in artistic pursuits, but nothing too serious. Miss Ivors displays a more independent streak, with strong opinions about politics and resistance to being escorted home by a man, but she works as a teacher, a traditionally female line of work. Her political affiliation represents a departure from convention and an effort to change the status quo. Gretta Conroy also comes from an upper-middle-class family, and her primary role in life is as a wife and mother—no different from the women who are less financially secure.

What is the significance of the allusion Gabriel Conroy makes to the Three Graces during his speech in "The Dead" in Dubliners?

In classical mythology, the Three Graces are minor goddesses associated with charm and beauty. Gabriel Conroy compares Aunt Julia, Aunt Kate, and Mary Jane to these goddesses in praise for their charm and their contributions to the arts. Much of Irish Literary Renaissance writing alludes to myths and legends, but these myths and legends are often Irish in origin. James Joyce uses such a technique when he creates a parallel between doomed lovers Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico and legendary doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde in "A Painful Case" by setting Mr. Duffy's home in the town named for Isolde, Chapelizod. With this allusion to the Three Graces, Gabriel (and Joyce) draw a line between these great contributors to Dublin's culture and the ideals of Western culture as whole. The connection suits Gabriel's (and Joyce's) more European-oriented worldview, while elevating the status of his family members' life's work and artistic pursuits. In association with the Three Graces, they approach an ideal that is goddess-like.

How does Gabriel Conroy's story about his grandfather's horse reflect Gabriel's own life in "The Dead" in Dubliners?

While the guests make small talk as they prepare to leave the party, Gabriel Conroy tells a story about his grandfather's horse, which falls in love with the horse statue in a monument and circles the monument, much to his grandfather's frustration. Gabriel tells the story as a funny anecdote, and people laugh because it is a funny story. Seen through the lens of Gabriel's marriage and his wife's revelation that she still harbors feelings for Michael Furey, her first love who died, the image of the besotted horse circling a statue becomes more poignant. Gabriel's wife has never revealed an important part of her past, an experience that has shaped her identity. Not that their marriage has been a sham, but Gabriel has spent years of his life married to a woman of whom he does not fully know. In the same way, the horse spends time circling a statue, trying to love the statue, and failing to get the statue's attention because the horse does not understand the statue is not a real horse and can never respond to him as he wishes it could. So it is with Gabriel's marriage to Gretta Conroy.

What does the subplot featuring Freddy Malins in "The Dead" in Dubliners reveal about Gabriel Conroy?

Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate treat Freddy Malins as a bit of a menace. They do not want him in the party if he has been drinking, but they never explain what he is likely to do. Is he a violent drunk? Is he going to expose himself to the party guests? Their concern is not clear, but they are adamant he be kept from the party if he has been drinking. Gabriel Conroy determines Freddy is only a little tipsy and lets him in anyway. Gabriel has less concern with social convention and the expectation of decorum at the party. It turns out Freddy is a fun party guest and he keeps people laughing throughout the evening, so Gabriel's instincts about Freddy were correct. Later, in the hotel, Gabriel tells Gretta he loaned Freddy a pound when he opened a Christmas-card shop in the city, and Gabriel was surprised when Freddy paid him back. Gretta tells Gabriel he is a generous person, to placate him. The relationship with Freddy reveals more than just monetary generosity. Gabriel has a generous spirit that wants to see the good in people and give them a chance. Freddy does not have a good reputation, but Gabriel gives him a chance to enter the party and it pays off. Gabriel loans Freddy money, which also pays off. In his speech, Gabriel talks about the importance of hospitality, and his interactions with Freddy show that Gabriel also demonstrates hospitality.

What does Gabriel's argument with Miss Ivors, combined with the content of his speech, reveal about patriotism in "The Dead" in Dubliners?

When Gabriel Conroy tells Miss Ivors he would rather go to Europe than to the west of Ireland, and when she asks why and presses the question, he confesses to being sick of his country. At this remark, she questions his loyalty to Ireland and calls him a "West Briton," a term used to describe Irish people who still think of Ireland as a western extension of the United Kingdom. She has already questioned his loyalty once because he writes book reviews for a newspaper that supports the United Kingdom. Gabriel is offended by the name, and he fixates on her comment and the embarrassment the confrontation has caused him. Miss Ivors's attitude toward Gabriel's desire to see more of the world reveals a narrow view of patriotism, and a narrow view of the world. Having interests outside one's own country and wanting to experience the world does not diminish the devotion a person has to their homeland. In his speech, Gabriel praises his country for its hospitality, for its devotion to history, for honoring the dead, and for its support of the arts. He sums up the best aspects of Irish culture in a speech whose tone is sincere and loving toward his country. Even though Gabriel is "sick" of Ireland and wants to get away, his temporary frustration does not equal disloyalty or hatred. He shows it is possible to be frustrated by a social and political climate and still love the country and culture.

For what reasons might "The Dead" in Dubliners have been praised by critics as one of the finest short stories in the English language?

"The Dead" pulls together many of the themes and character types appearing in the other 14 stories that make up Dubliners: Gabriel Conroy's simultaneous desire to conform to social convention and his desire to escape from Ireland for a vacation; the class-based awkwardness in Gabriel's conversation with Lily the housemaid; and Gabriel's struggle to come to terms with his own identity after learning about his wife's first love, who died. The camaraderie of food and drink are on display, and Freddy Malins provides a mild caution about the pitfalls of drinking—though he is on his best behavior at the party. In its structure, the story unfolds in pieces, building to Gabriel's crisis through a series of details, some of which seem unimportant at the time. He looks at a picture of his deceased mother early in the story and hears his aunt sing a song. Even the song that triggers Gretta Conroy's memory of her lost love, Michael Furey, looks like a throwaway moment when it is happening. It is only through the perspective of the story's ending that the reader is able to look back on all the details scattered through the narrative and see their profound significance. In this way, the structure of the story imitates life itself; the moments of our lives seldom reveal their true significance while they are taking place. They become important when viewed as part of the larger picture. Finally, the language and descriptive detail are perfectly balanced and poetically rendered. Gabriel observes the colors of his aunt's embroidery hanging on the wall of her house. He relishes the feel and smell of newly printed books. He observes his wife's boots and clothes draped on a chair in their hotel room. The rendering of snowfall in the last scene captures the quiet and softness of winter weather, while leaving the reader to ponder the questions in Gabriel's soul.

If Dubliners, along with James Joyce's other work, contributes to a sense of "Irish identity," what kind of identity does it create?

Dubliners presents a realistic view of the Irish identity, and a realistic view of human nature. The stories do not idealize the characters or attempt to cover their flaws. "The Sisters" features a priest who might be a dirty old man, and "An Encounter" features an old man who certainly is dirty. Young characters such as Eveline, Little Chandler, and Jimmy struggle to learn who they are and what they want out of life. These struggles do not end with age, as Mr. Duffy and Gabriel Conroy find themselves in various states of crisis when they discover the core beliefs they hold about themselves are wrong. These are people who can be brash and domineering, as is Mrs. Kearney, or even violently abusive, as demonstrated by Farrington. Even the political process is messy and filled with contradictions, as seen in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." In spite of these flaws, Dubliners also reveals the best aspects of Irish character, put forth eloquently in Gabriel Conroy's speech to his aunts' party guests. Friendship, loyalty, and hospitality are a source of redemption, as seen in friends who go to great lengths to help one another in "Grace" and "Clay." Families can come near a breaking point and be repaired, as seen in "Grace" and "A Little Cloud." Honoring the memory of history and those who made sacrifices in the past carries benefit, as the campaign workers put aside their differences to honor Charles Stewart Parnell in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." Honoring the arts can have tremendous benefits as well, helping form human connections as seen in "A Painful Case" and "The Dead." The diverse points of view and experiences of a nation's people make up that nation's identity, and like individual identity, it is always evolving, striving to improve, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

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