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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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

Dubliners | Grace | Summary



During a night of drinking, Tom Kernan falls down the stairs in the pub and is found unconscious and bleeding on the bathroom floor. No one knows who he is or where the two friends who were with him have gone. A constable comes to check on the situation, and he and a young patron clean up Mr. Kernan and give him a bit of brandy to revive him. Mr. Kernan says he had an accident and asks for a cab. Another customer, Mr. Power, spots the commotion and intervenes. He recognizes Tom Kernan and promises to escort him home. The constable, recognizing Mr. Power as a fixture from the Royal Irish Constabulary Office, agrees.

Mr. Kernan introduces himself to Mr. Power as they walk to a cab, even though the two are old friends. Mr. Power knows Mr. Kernan from his more respectable days as a tea merchant. He also knows about Tom Kernan's recent decline into alcoholism, but he still likes him, as do many of Mr. Kernan's friends. Mr. Power delivers him home. Mrs. Kernan thanks Mr. Power for his help now and in the past with domestic disputes and, occasionally, money. Mr. Power assures her he will talk to mutual friends and help Mr. Kernan "turn over a new leaf."

Two nights later, Mr. Power returns with two other men, Mr. Cunningham and Mr. M'Coy, and a plan to take Tom Kernan to church to cure his drinking. They do not tell Mr. Kernan why they are there, instead rehashing the details of the accident and the exchange with the constable, whom Mr. Kernan resents for interfering. The three visitors make plans to meet at a place called M'Auley's on Thursday, leaving Mr. Kernan out of the conversation. Mr. Kernan is curious, and the men confess they are planning a religious retreat to clean themselves up, and Mr. Kernan offers to come with them. They talk about the Jesuit Order's place in the church and reassure Mr. Kernan the priest will deliver a good sermon.

Another friend, Mr. Fogarty, stops by for a visit and brings a bottle of whiskey. The five men share a small drink and talk about past popes and church history, although most of their knowledge is partially incorrect or incomplete. As the men leave, they tell Mrs. Kernan her husband has agreed to the retreat, but Tom Kernan refuses to participate in lighting candles at the church.

When the group arrives at the church, the chapel is crowded and the men end up sitting in a five-point pattern called a "quincunx." Tom Kernan relaxes as he recognizes other men in the congregation. Father Purdon opens with a verse about friends, then continues with a sermon aimed at business and professional men, people who must live in the material world but desire a spiritual life. He emphasizes how temptations and failures are common, even normal, but the important thing is to take stock of those failings and set them right through God's grace.


"Grace," like other stories in Dubliners, highlights the importance of human connection and the dangers of social isolation. Tom Kernan is alone when he falls down the stairs in a drunken stupor and injures himself, abandoned by his drinking companions. His connection to Mr. Power saves him from arrest, and his connection to his wife, although frayed by his drinking, saves him from his injuries. The loyalty and goodwill of his old friends ultimately has the potential to save Mr. Kernan from his own bad habits.

When Father Purdon, whose very name evokes the concept of forgiveness in its resemblance to the word "pardon," gives his sermon, he chooses a Bible verse confirming the value of friendship and meaningful social bonds, saying that friends made in times of "iniquity" will receive us into heaven. The sermon is sincere and appears tailored especially to Mr. Kernan's situation. It is all about learning from past mistakes, making amends for them, and moving forward. Although the men's understanding of church doctrine is incomplete, the story is not cynical about religion. The trip to church is designed to help Tom Kernan, and it has the potential to do so. In keeping with the title "Grace," however, Mr. Kernan's salvation is not a matter of understanding church doctrine or even following customs like the lighting of candles. Rather, it is a matter of belief and faith: in God, in himself, and in the people who want to help and support him. The references to Catholic customs and Mr. Kernan's upbringing as a Protestant also speak to the common ground of religious faith that often gets lost in tense religious conflicts, such as those that divide Irish political life during this time period.

The plot to get Tom Kernan to church looks very much like a modern-day intervention strategy. In a modern intervention, friends come together to talk with an addict about his behavior, how it has affected them, and urge him to get help. Tom Kernan's friends come together to talk about his destructive behavior, but they do so in a very neutral way. The conversation plants the seed in Mr. Kernan's mind that he has a problem and is in need of help, but there is no judgment involved. Likewise, the friends do not pressure Mr. Kernan into going to church; instead, using an ingenious bit of reverse psychology in which they talk about their own plans in front of him but they seem to invite him along as an afterthought. They play on a natural human fear of being left out of a social event to draw Mr. Kernan into coming of his own free will, inviting himself along to the church. These elements avoid shaming him for his past behavior, while giving him agency in his own recovery from drinking. Ironically, they seal their plans with a drink of whiskey, an unexpected choice for a meeting designed to get a man to stop drinking.

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