When in 1914 James Joyce wanted to have his literary work Dubliners published by the British publisher Grant Richards, it was not at all as easy as Joyce had imagined. Before Richards could accept the work changes had to be applied that were accompanied by an exchange of various letters between author and publisher. The reason for Richard’s hesitation to publish the book in its first version was the very accuracy of its language. Literary conventions would have been shocked by Joyce’s accurate and entirely realistic description of social situations and psychological states.
In his letter to Grant Richards Joyce tries to justify his style, and it is thus that he speaks of ‘scrupulous meanness’ for the first time. The term ‘meanness’ connotes stinginess or the lack of generosity. Joyce uses it to describe the economy of language applying to his stories. However, the interpretation demands a more complicated understanding of the term. ‘Scrupulousness’ is a crucial element both in Joyce’s use of language, and in the structure and form of the stories. ‘Scrupulous meanness’ refers to a most complex and heavily allusive style that determines the reading of Dubliners. From the minimum of words Joyce succeeds to extract the maximum effect so that the very economy of his style gives Dubliners such concentration and resonance that it “passes through realism into symbolism” (Dubliners,1991, p. xix). Joyce puts this style forward as a means to express his moral intent.
This essay aims to examine James Joyce’s method of ‘scrupulous meanness’ in two short stories chosen from the collection of Dubliners: ‘The Sisters’ and ‘The Dead’. In addition, Joyce’s attempt of conveying a temper of death and hopelessness shall find access into the discussion.
‘The Sisters’ is the opening story in the collection of the fifteen stories called Dubliners. John S. Kelly refers to ‘The Sisters’ in many ways as to the most puzzling story in the collection of Joyce’s early work (ibd., p.xxix). This is for a large part due to the fact that Joyce introduces his writing technique in the style of ‘scrupulous meanness’ right away.
The three words ‘Paralysis’, ‘simony’ and ‘gnomon’ are key words that describe Joyce’s ‘scrupulous meanness’ while leading the reader through the story. ‘Simony’ and ‘gnomon’ are words of biblical origin which help to emphasize the image that Joyce attempts to draw of the Irish Catholic Church through placing Father Flynn in the centre of his story.
Bremen states that “Joyce packed [the] first paragraph with a variety of images that deserve the close attention they have received for they serve as both the introductory chords upon which the story is based and the leitmotifs that resound throughout Dubliners” 1.
On the basis of some relevant examples, the idea of mystifying and concealing important parts of the story which the reader desires to discover shall be illustrated here.
The story does not provide a definite reading of the boy’s relationship to the priest. It is told that the young boy, whose age might be around thirteen, visited Father Flynn on a regular basis. The two must have, in some way, been familiar with each other. How close they eventually were is left to the reader’s speculations. Cotter’s opinion is that he “…wouldn’t like children of [his…] to have too much to say to a man like [Father Flynn]” (Dubliners, 1991, p.8). This utterance might influence one to think of the priest as a bad man, but further on in a passage the boy speaks of how Father Flynn “…has taught [him] a great deal. [...] He has told [him] stories about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to [him] the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest” (ibd., p.11). Until we get to know the priest better through the boy’s descriptions we might feel “uneasy” until we “knew him well”2. It is obviously a relationship on a mutual basis as the boy does not only receive knowledge from the priest but as he also cares for him in a touching way when the priest’s “hands trembled too much to allow him to [empty a packet of High Toast into his snuff-box] without spilling half the snuff about the floor” (Dubliners, 1991, p.10).
However, their relationship carries a strange connotation due to how the boy thinks about the priest and also due to the image drawn of Father Flynn. Why, one may ask, discovers the boy in himself a “sensation of freedom as if [he] had been freed from something by the priest’s death (ibd., p.11)? One might speculate about the idea of the priest having abused the boy in a mental or even a physical way, or even told him about sexual encounters with women. The boy’s thoughts indicate it as if he was absolutely conscious of that what was going on being a sin even though he probably enjoyed it: “[Father Flynn] desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into something pleasant and vicious region […] I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sins” (ibd., p.9).