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The points of miscommunication in James Joyce: An essay over "A Mother" and "The Dead"

Updated on September 19, 2014

The man who made words his play things


The Nutshell

As the size of the above picture suggests, the bespectacled, mustached face of James Joyce looms large over twentieth century literature. Despite ushering in the modernist movement with "Ulysses" and leaving a gigantic word puzzle with "Finnegan's Wake", his book of short stories, "Dubliners" is his most challenging work. I've poured over the stories multiple times on my own and with professors and the plethora of themes that punch out of the text are enough to give the reader a black eye. However, one of those themes that not only can stand on it's own but provide support to the economic and social themes as well is that of miscommunication. In most of the stories, simple exchanges of words or shifts of body movement rattle the characters into acting a certain way that causes consequences; specifically, in the stories "A Mother" and "The Dead". The main characters in both stories are people who coat their insecure souls with the image of being a master communicator, but as each story progresses, this image becomes cracked.

Evidence in "Mother"

In the story “A Mother”, Mrs. Kearney cannot communicate with others because she is blinded by her arrogance. In the beginning of the story, Joyce explains how even when she was young, Mrs. Kearney was “unbending in manner” (Joyce) and because of this “she made few friends at school.” (Joyce). Mrs. Kearney is pompous and snobbish and she refuses to compromise even at the cost of human companionship. Also, Joyce portrays Mrs. Kearney as feeling that she is better than the men around her because they were “ordinary and she gave them no encouragement.” (Joyce). When she is an adult, nothing about Mrs. Kearney’s attitude has changed. She still feels better than everyone else and refuses to budge an inch when it comes to disputes. This is best illustrated in the conversations between Mrs. Kearney and Mr. Holohan. In their first conversation, Mrs. Kearney immediately jumps to the issue of when her daughter is going to be paid. Mr. Holohan calmly tells her that she needs to speak to Mr. Fitzpatrick about the issue, because it is not his business. Mrs. Kearney immediately becomes aggressive and pushy, questioning Mr. Holohan as to “Why isn’t it your business?” (Joyce). Because of Mrs. Kearney arrogance in her communication skills (she is fruitlessly trying to persuade Holohan to fetch the money for her), it costs her and someone is now left with a bad impression of her. Finally, her aggressiveness becomes too much for everyone to bear. When she refuses to let her daughter go onstage and the daughter’s only response to Mr. Holohan is “looking down at [her] shoes.” (Joyce), this causes Holohan and Mrs. Kearney to finally get into a verbal brawl, which she loses and ends up costing her daughter an opportunity. In the end, Mrs. Kearney’s inability to communicate well with Holohan costs her daughter her chance to be seen, causes Holohan to remark “I’m done with you.” (Joyce) and she leaves penniless. Mrs. Kearney failure at interacting with others costs her not only money, but respect as well.

Evidence in "The Dead"

Gabriel in Joyce’s “The Dead” cannot communicate because he is too wrapped up in his self-consciousness. Throughout the whole story, Gabriel feels awkward and unnatural when communicating with others. His first feeling of miscommunication comes in his conversation with Lily. When Lily states that “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” (Joyce 154), Gabriel becomes unnerved because he feels “he had made a mistake” (Joyce 154). His feeling comes from the fact that Lily has just commented on how she doesn’t like guys hitting on her and Gabriel interprets this as Lily telling him to buzz off, which only sharpens his self-consciousness. Vincent J. Cheng, in his essay “Empire and Patriarchy in ‘The Dead’”, states that “Lily has rendered this moment awkward by challenging Gabriel’s masculinity and his mastery, refusing to act as the child he expects of her.” (Cheng 5). Whether or not this assumption is factual doesn’t matter, because the failure in communication is all that Gabriel can see. Later, in the scene between Gabriel and Miss Ivors on the dance floor, Gabriel’s embarrassment swells up again. When Miss Ivors asks Gabriel: “…haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with?” (Joyce) Gabriel simply answers “Irish is not my language.” (Joyce). When Gabriel catches another couple listening in on their conversation he “glance[s] right and left nervously.” (Joyce), wanting to make sure that no one is staring at them. Gabriel does this because he is scared of what others will think of him if they should happen to hear his opinion on Ireland. He feels embarrassed by his way of communication because he fears the offense that someone might take. In this scene, Gabriel feels awkward because he doesn’t communicate what is on his mind in an effective manner. Finally, towards the end of the story when Gretta is telling Gabriel about Michael Furey in the hotel room, Gabriel once again fails to communicate successfully, this time with the person he is supposed to be closest to. When Gabriel first hears of Michael Furey, he begins to speak ironically, perhaps to lighten the mood. He asks her two ironic questions; “Someone you were in love with? he asked ironically” (Joyce) and “What was he? asked Gabriel, still ironically.” (Joyce). However, he falls short of his goal, because Gretta does not recognize this. Gabriel then feels “humiliated by the failure of his irony” (Joyce), and this humiliation coupled with the revelation about Michael Furey causes him to experience a “shameful consciousness of his own person” and leaves him feeling isolated (Joyce). Gabriel’s inability to fully connect with someone else causes him great sorrow in the end.

Anjelica Huston as Gretta and Donal McCann as Gabriel in John Huston's film version
Anjelica Huston as Gretta and Donal McCann as Gabriel in John Huston's film version | Source

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Taste of things to come

Dubliners was published when Joyce was only 25 and was his first release. With the theme of miscommunication, Joyce laid down on the table what he felt was wrong with not only the citizens of Dublin, but all of Ireland: that the emerging, independent Ireland couldn't communicate because it had yet to find it's own voice under English rule. In these stories, Joyce left his characters without a happy ending, victims of their misunderstanding about communication. It wouldn't be until the release of his next work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he laid the burden on his own shoulders, declaring to forge the language of his soul and his people himself.


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