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Monday, March 7, 2011

DUBLINERS, by James Joyce: "Two Gallants"

I almost didn't read this story.  If it weren't for this blog, and the duty I feel to follow through on what I say I'll do, I likely would have put this back on the shelf and let it go for a long time.  But I read it.  And I'm glad I did!

Sundays are parties on the streets not only in the cities of Italy but, apparently, Dublin, too!

Of all the things I miss about Italy, the weekend extravagance might be the biggest.  Not that I'm a partier--quite the contrary, in fact; I hate crowds! --but there was always something quintessentially satisfying about taking a spot on a bench on the sideline of an especially buzzy piazza (maybe with a street band and some sidewalk artists), grabbing a slice of pizza, cup of hot chocolate, or an aranciata and watching.  Not even busy airports can compete with an Italian Saturday or Sunday night for the avid people-watcher.  This--this conflux of bodies, noise, music, and foggy effluvia (human and city) --was my first impression of "Two Gallants."  (I wonder if my objectivity has been tainted--and after just the first paragraph!)

Further, the description of the two young men (so not gallant!), beginning in just the second paragraph,  reminds me uncannily of a man I regularly saw while out and about the city of Modena--one Pimp-Daddy Man, immortalized here (sorry--no picture), and a pillar of slouch humanity.

As I mentioned just a second ago, I'm concerned for the sake of my objectivity.  And I wouldn't be so concerned if the last story I'd read of Joyce's weren't "After the Race," and if I didn't like this story so much.  It is my favorite of the Joyce stories so far.

At the technical level, "The Gallants" is very much alike the others up to this point in the collection.  "The Gallants" is complexly layered, heavily Irish, and fraught with Ugly.  We even get back to a taste of Joyce's old penchant for lasciviousness.  While it's not as complicated or layered as "Araby," there's yet a great deal of metaphor and allusion here and all as brilliant as usual; but I'm not going to take the time and space to set them all up for discussion.  As I said, most are typically Joycian, and why waste space discussing the same thing over and over again?

When all is said and done, this is a story about the young men of Dublin: lost, aimless, mooching, and impotent.  As Joyce sees it.  And he doesn't pull any punches.  He has very little good to say about his people, no matter the potentially positive outlook to be presumed by the colorful, though muted, first paragraph and the momentary hope we (I) feel for Lenehan.

Here are a few things I picked out that happened to help pull the whole thing together for me (in no particular order):
  • gallant:  I'm curious about whether Joyce was aware of the etymology of this or not.  While the immediate impression of "gallant's" usage here is ironic, look instead at the "probab[le]" background of "gallivant."
  • the lamps:  In the first paragraph of the story, the lamps through the city are described as "illumined pearls" atop their posts.  Pearls have intrinsic value, and these, all the more so by way of with their brightness so stark against the city's gray, are treasures beyond the common reach of Dublin's citizenry.
  • age:  In each story, the protagonists get a little older.  Young boys, pre-teens, a teenage boy, a late teenage girl, collegiate young men, and now a couple of early thirty-somethings.
  • women:  If ever a story (or its characters) were misogynistic, this is it!  From the general objectivization of the female characters to that of the sex in general, to the specific treatment of the "slavey" at Corley's direct hand to the more passive "handling" by Lenehan: notice the girly carving of the harp's base and column, and the suggestive state of its clothing.  The notes--musical--of the harp seem to chase after Lenehan, who ends up tapping them out with hands and feet, sweeping his fingers along the railings as if the metal were a harp and he the musician at her back.  It suggests a parallel to Lenehan's general impotence; it's not really a harp, he not making any music, and that harp isn't even a real girl anyway.
  • Lenehan walking:  Speaking of Lenehan's impotence, notice the position of his feet as he walks with his so-called friend.  He is regularly shoved from the sidewalk to the street--one foot on, one foot off.  If there is a "true path," which may be the direction of his ambition for comfortable hearth and home, then he is equally afoot the other, less savory road.
  • peas and ginger beer:  As with other characters through the first five stories, Lenehan and Corley (more the former, as far as I can tell) are types for their countrymen in general.  The colors of Lenehan's meal are the colors of his flag, and worth no more than the most meager of pocket change.
While I appreciate all these fine and nuanced details (of which, like I said, there's a lot more!) --as powerful and ingenious as those of any other story thus far--they are not the reason I love this story.  Finally, and much more so than even for dear Evaline, I have a character I am rooting for.  Again, it's possible that this is derivative of my misplaced nostalgia within the context of the gray, late-summer evening, but I don't think that's all of it.  The reader--if I may so speak--wants Lenehan to make something of himself.  His end is not predestined here.  He is capable of making the change!  You can feel that--sense it--somewhere, no matter how deep, within him.  He does have one foot on The Path.  The most powerful device of this effect is that of Corley and Lenehan's secret and despicable plan, which we don't fully get until the very last sentence (such timing!).  We know it's probably not very nice, we know that Lenehan thinks he wants the plan to succeed, but you, Reader, get the inkling that some part of him wants it to fail, as if he's aware of his reputation and he wants an out--like the shoplifter who wants to get caught, or the closet alcoholic who wants his bottles to be discovered.  Unfortunately, this is Joyce, and as far as he, as the author, is concerned, these stories have all already been written, and they are nothing if not tragedies.  Right along those lines, this story would only require one additional sentence (which, by the way, I'm infinitely glad is not there) to concretely reveal what we already suspect: Lenehan, though relieved, is also--even equally--disappointed that the plan succeeded.  

You want proof that there is spark, finally, to a Dubliners story (and maybe--though I hope not--it really is just me, so I'll favor the change of you/we to I)?  I was disappointed.  I was sad (not surprised) that Lenehan didn't stand up, didn't push Corley out of the way and walk firmly on the sidewalk, and far from the edge.  I am empathizing with a Joycean character!  Maybe it's the optimist in me, but I honestly thought that maybe--just maybe--Joyce was going to give us something positive and even happy.  

Well, no.  He didn't.  But he gave us--me--a spark of hope, as well as evidence that there might yet be a spark of hope--a spark of life--somewhere in Dublin--and in Dubliners.

And with that--with "Two Gallants," that is--I'm no longer turned off this book.  


Please excuse the zealous use of italics in this entry.  Consider it typographical affect of my enthusiasm for this story.


  1. Good analysis. I still liked Evaline better, but this is one of the better stories.

  2. The two stories are very different--for me (my current academic insecurity requires the final two words there). An apples and oranges kind of thing. "Evaline" still possesses so much of the nearly gratuitous quantity of layers, while the latter is so comparatively simple. Of the first several stories, "Evaline" is certainly my favorite. "After the Race" has become a sort of dividing line for me. Since then there seems a different tone to the stories, "The Boarding House," for me, seems to emphasize this different, as it's very similar to "Two Gallants."


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