Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 2 of 3

Part 1.
It may be argued, however, that Flesch’s is just another theory; that it calls for a reading of Joyce’s story that contradicts the way Lacanians read it hardly justifies dismissing one theory in favor of the other. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, in his Literary Theory: an Introduction, answers the protest that theories get in between readers and stories by arguing that “Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own” (xii). Far from being oblivious to his own theory, though, Flesch marshals copious evidence to support the idea that people respond to characters in fiction the same way they do to people in real life, and that they therefore require no literary theory to appreciate literature. The evidence he cites comes mainly from experiments based on Game Theory scenarios designed to explore the circumstances under which people act either for their own selfish gain or for the mutual gain of groups to which they belong. But some experimenters have shown that even children too young to speak, certainly too young to be conversant in psychological or literary theories, tend to respond to the very type of signals to which Lacanian readers of “The Dead” are most oblivious.

Yale psychologist Karen Wynn published her research on children’s social cognition around the same time as Comeuppance was released, but even though Flesch’s book has no mention of Wynn’s findings they nonetheless demonstrate both how important the processes of social monitoring and volunteered affect are and how early they develop. Wynn’s team presented children as young as three months with a puppet show featuring a cat who wanted to play ball and two rabbits, one who rudely stole away with the ball when it was rolled to it and another who playfully rolled it back to the cat. The children watched the various exchanges with rapt attention, and when presented afterward with a choice of which rabbit to play with themselves almost invariably chose the more cooperative, demonstrating that “preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior toward others” (557). This tendency emerges even when the show features no puppets, but only wooden blocks with crude eyes. Game Theorists call this behavior “strong reciprocity,” which Flesch explains “means the strong reciprocator punishes and rewards others for their behavior toward any member of the group, and not just or primarily for their individual interactions with the reciprocator” (22). So, the question regarding Gabriel Conroy becomes what aspects of his behavior signal to strongly reciprocal readers how prone to cooperation he is?

Joyce deliberately broadcasts a costly signal by exposing his protagonist’s private thoughts, risking the misunderstanding of readers unfamiliar with this style of close narration (and apparently that of Lacanians); he therefore strewed helpful signals throughout the story. In the sentence directly following the first mention of Gabriel—“it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife”—a character named Freddy Malins is introduced. While the arrival of Gabriel and his wife is eagerly anticipated by his aunts and his cousin, “they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed” (176). Joyce may as well be Karen Wynn here, presenting one cooperator and one selfish actor to readers, who find out shortly thereafter that “Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke” (180) among his wife and his aunts. “It’s such a relief,” Aunt Kate says to Grabriel’s wife after he has gone to check on the state of Freddy, “that Gabriel is here” (182). Her relief can be compared not just to her feelings toward Freddy, but also toward another character, Mr. Browne, who she complains “is everywhere” in an aside to her niece. “He has been laid on here like the gas” (206). Gabriel himself neither participates in nor is in earshot of any of these character assessments. So readers can conclude that, the nature of his inner thoughts notwithstanding, he is thought highly of by his aunts.

There is one character, however, to whom Lacanians can point as having a less than favorable opinion of Gabriel. Molly Ivors, the second woman in the story to make Gabriel blush, provides a key to understanding the central tension of the plot. For Leonard, the story consists of “three attempts by Gabriel Conroy, with three different women, to confirm the fictional unity of his masculine subjectivity” (451). This is an arch and murky way of saying that Gabriel wants the women he encounters to think he is a good man so that he can believe it himself. It is therefore noteworthy to Leonard that Miss Ivors “did not wear a low-cut bodice” (187), which he insists “announces that Miss Ivors does not dress in accordance with what she imagines the male viewer wishes to see” (461). But how Joyce is really trying to characterize her can be seen in the second part of the sentence about what she is wearing: “and the large brooch which was fixed in front of her collar bore on it an Irish device” (187), which Leonard can only fumblingly dismiss as having “a signification for her that is not meant to signify anything to him” (461). But it clearly does signify something to him—that she is a nationalist. As does her dress. Décolletage is, after all, a French style.

What makes Gabriel blush is not Miss Ivors’s refusal to play to his conception of proper female behavior but her revealing to him her knowledge that he has been writing for a newspaper unsympathetic to her political leanings, as well as to the political leanings of the hosts and the guests at the party. Gabriel’s initial impulse in response and his reason for inhibiting it are telling:

"He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her" (188).

That she is a peer Leonard chalks up as further upsetting feminine expectations, “a fact as awkward and threatening as the absence of a low-cut bodice” (462). The more significant detail here, though, is that even as she threatens to expose him as an outsider Gabriel is concerned not to offend her. And that he is capable of recognizing her as a peer belies the suggestion that all she is to him is a symptom of his insecure manhood. The blush in this scene signals Gabriel’s genuine anxiety lest his anti-nationalistic political orientation and his cosmopolitan tastes offend everyone at the party.

“The Dead” is replete with moments in which Gabriel inhibits his own plans and checks his own desires out of consideration for others. His thinking better of “a grandiose phrase” with Miss Ivors is one case in point, though she does manage to provoke him to reveal his true feelings (perhaps the only instance of him doing so in the whole story): “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” (189). Two other instances of him reconsidering his plans are when he performs his postprandial speech with nary a mention of Browning, some lines of whose non-Irish poetry he has been vacillating over quoting, and when he restrains himself from initiating a sexual encounter with his wife Gretta in their hotel room after the party because she is in a “strange mood” and “To take her as she was would be brutal” (217)—this despite the fact that he is in “a fever of rage and desire” (217). Kelley cites this line along with one that says, “He longed to be master of her strange mood,” and yet another that says, “He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her” (217), to support his claim that Gabriel has “infantile tendencies toward domination,” which manifest in his “narcissistic desire and aggression” (204). This could hardly be more wrong. If he were narcissistic, Gretta’s thoughts and feelings would go unregistered in his consciousness. If he were aggressive, he would treat her violently—he would certainly not be worried about being brutal just by coming on to her. The Lacanians are mistaking thoughts and impulses for actions when it is precisely the discrepancy between Gabriel’s desires and his behavior that proves his altruism.

Gabriel’s thoughtfulness is placed into stark relief by several other characters who show neither the inclination nor the capacity to filter their speech to protect other people’s feelings. Boyd explains: “The inhibition of automatic responses is essential to higher intelligence. It is also essential to morality, to overcoming instinctive but unwise responses to, for instance, anger” (264). The main function Gabriel’s blushing plays in the story is to let readers know something about his real feelings because they quickly discover that he is uniquely capable of acting against them. In this, he can be compared to Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, who in one scene seem to be vying for the prize of who can be the most insulting to the singer Bartell D’Arcy. “Those were the days,” Browne says at one point, “when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin” (199), presumably oblivious to or unconcerned with the fact that there is a singer among his interlocutors. Even Gabriel’s Aunt Kate joins the pile-on, asserting that “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean” (199). Mr. D’Arcy, readers have been told and amply reminded, happens to be a tenor himself. And both Lily and Miss Ivors, based on their rudeness toward Gabriel, can be added to this list of those who fail to inhibit their automatic responses.
read part 3