What's the Point of Difficult Reading?

James Joyce

          You sit reading the first dozen or so pages of some celebrated classic and gradually realize that having to sort out how the ends of the long sentences fix to their beginnings is taking just enough effort to distract you entirely from the setting or character you’re supposed to be getting to know. After a handful of words you swear are made up and a few tangled metaphors you find yourself riddling over with nary a resolution, the dread sinks in. Is the whole book going to be like this? Is it going to be one of those deals where you get to what’s clearly meant to be a crucial turning point in the plot but for you is just another riddle without a solution, sending you paging back through the forest of verbiage in search of some key succession of paragraphs you spaced out while reading the first time through? Then you wonder if you’re missing some other kind of key, like maybe the story’s an allegory, a reference to some historical event like World War II or some Revolution you once had to learn about but have since lost all recollection of. Maybe the insoluble similes are allusions to some other work you haven’t read or can’t recall. In any case, you’re not getting anything out of this celebrated classic but frustration leading to the dual suspicion that you’re too ignorant or stupid to enjoy great literature and that the whole “great literature” thing is just a conspiracy to trick us into feeling dumb so we’ll defer to the pseudo-wisdom of Ivory Tower elites.

            If enough people of sufficient status get together and agree to extol a work of fiction, they can get almost everyone else to agree. The readers who get nothing out of it but frustration and boredom assume that since their professors or some critic in a fancy-pants magazine or the judges of some literary award committee think it’s great they must simply be missing something. They dutifully continue reading it, parrot a few points from a review that sound clever, and afterward toe the line by agreeing that it is indeed a great work of literature, clearly, even if it doesn’t speak to them personally. For instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses, utterly nonsensical to anyone without at least a master’s degree, tops the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels in the English language. Responding to the urging of his friends to write out an explanation of the novel, Joyce scoffed, boasting, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” He was right. To this day, professors continue to love him even as Ulysses and the even greater monstrosity Finnegan’s Wake do nothing but bore and befuddle everyone else—or else, more fittingly, sit inert or unchecked-out on the shelf, gathering well-deserved dust.

Jonathan Franzen-Courtesy of Frank Bauer
            Joyce’s later novels are not literature; they are lengthy collections of loosely connected literary puzzles. But at least his puzzles have actual solutions—or so I’m told. Ulysses represents the apotheosis of the tradition in literature called modernism. What came next, postmodernism, is even more disconnected from the universal human passion for narrative. Even professors aren’t sure what to do with it, so they simply throw their hands up, say it’s great, and explain that the source of its greatness is its very resistance to explanation. Jonathan Franzen, whose 2001 novel The Corrections represented a major departure from the postmodernism he began his career experimenting with, explained the following year in The New Yorker how he’d turned away from the tradition. He’d been reading the work of William Gaddis “as a kind of penance” (101) and not getting any meaning out of it. Of the final piece in the celebrated author’s oeuvre, Franzen writes,

The novel is an example of the particular corrosiveness of literary postmodernism. Gaddis began his career with a Modernist epic about the forgery of masterpieces. He ended it with a pomo romp that superficially resembles a masterpiece but punishes the reader who tries to stay with it and follow its logic. When the reader finally says, Hey, wait a minute, this is a mess, not a masterpiece, the book instantly morphs into a performance-art prop: its fraudulence is the whole point! And the reader is out twenty hours of good-faith effort. (111)

In other words, reading postmodern fiction means not only forgoing the rewards of narratives, having them replaced by the more taxing endeavor of solving multiple riddles in succession, but those riddles don’t even have answers. What’s the point of reading this crap? Exactly. Get it?

            You can dig deeper into the meaningless meanderings of pomos and discover there is in fact an ideology inspiring all the infuriating inanity. The super smart people who write and read this stuff point to the willing, eager complicity of the common reader in the propagation of all the lies that sustain our atrociously unjust society (but atrociously unjust compared to what?). Franzen refers to this as the Fallacy of the Stupid Reader,

wherein difficulty is a “strategy” to protect art from cooptation and the purpose of art is to “upset” or “compel” or “challenge” or “subvert” or “scar” the unsuspecting reader; as if the writer’s audience somehow consisted, again and again, of Charlie Browns running to kick Lucy’s football; as if it were a virtue in a novelist to be the kind of boor who propagandizes at friendly social gatherings. (109)

But if the author is worried about art becoming a commodity does making the art shitty really amount to a solution? And if the goal is to make readers rethink something they take for granted why not bring the matter up directly, or have a character wrestle with it, or have a character argue with another character about it? The sad fact is that these authors probably just suck, that, as Franzen suspects, “literary difficulty can operate as a smoke screen for an author who has nothing interesting, wise, or entertaining to say” (111).

            Not all difficulty in fiction is a smoke screen though. Not all the literary emperors are naked. Franzen writes that “there is no headache like the headache you get from working harder on deciphering a text than the author, by all appearances, has worked on assembling it.” But the essay, titled “Mr. Difficult,” begins with a reader complaint sent not to Gaddis but to Franzen himself. And the reader, a Mrs. M. from Maryland, really gives him the business:

Who is it that you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who enjoys a good read… The elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don’t smoke, have abortions tri-yearly, are antiseptic, live in penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper’s and The New Yorker. (100)

In this first part of the essay, Franzen introduces a dilemma that sets up his explanation of why he turned away from postmodernism—he’s an adherent of the “Contract model” of literature, whereby the author agrees to share, on equal footing, an entertaining or in some other way gratifying experience, as opposed to the “Status model,” whereby the author demonstrates his or her genius and if you don’t get it, tough. But his coming to a supposed agreement with Mrs. M. about writers like Gaddis doesn’t really resolve Mrs. M.’s conflict with him. The Corrections, after all, the novel she was responding to, represents his turning away from the tradition Gaddis wrote in. (It must be said, though, that Freedom, Franzen’s next novel, is written in a still more accessible style.)

            The first thing we must do to respond properly to Mrs. M. is break down each of Franzen’s models into two categories. The status model includes writers like Gaddis whose difficulty serves no purpose but to frustrate and alienate readers. But Franzen’s own type specimen for this model is Flaubert, much of whose writing, though difficult at first, rewards any effort to re-read and further comprehend with a more profound connection. So it is for countless other writers, the one behind number two on the Modern Library’s ranking for instance—Fitzgerald and Gatsby. As for the contract model, Franzen admits,

Taken to its free-market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation… You’re the consumer; you rule. (100)

Franzen, in declaring himself a “Contract kind of person,” assumes that the free-market extreme can be dismissed for its extremity. But Mrs. M. would probably challenge him on that. For many, particularly right-leaning readers, the market not only can but should be relied on to determine which books are good and which ones belong in some tiny niche. When the Modern Library conducted a readers' poll to create a popular ranking to balance the one made by experts, the ballot was stuffed by Ayn Rand acolytes and scientologists. Mrs. M. herself leaves little doubt as to her political sympathies. For her and her fellow travelers, things like literature departments, National Book Awards—like the one The Corrections won—Nobels and Pulitzers are all an evil form of intervention into the sacred workings of the divine free market, un-American, sacrilegious, communist. According to this line of thinking, authors aren’t much different from whores—except of course literal whoring is condemned in the bible (except when it isn’t).

            A contract with readers who score high on the personality dimension of openness to new ideas and experiences (who tend to be liberal), those who have spent a lot of time in the past reading books like The Great Gatsby or Heart of Darkness or Lolita (the horror!), those who read enough to have developed finely honed comprehension skills—that contract is going to look quite a bit different from one with readers who attend Beck University, those for whom Atlas Shrugged is the height of literary excellence. At the same time, though, the cult of self-esteem is poisoning schools and homes with the idea that suggesting that a student or son or daughter is anything other than a budding genius is a form of abuse. Heaven forbid a young person feel judged or criticized while speaking or writing. And if an author makes you feel the least bit dumb or ignorant, well, it’s an outrage—heroes like Mrs. M. to the rescue.

            One of the problems with the cult of self-esteem is that anticipating criticism tends to make people more, not less creative. And the link between low self-esteem and mental disorders is almost purely mythical. High self-esteem is correlated with school performance, but as far as researchers can tell it’s the performance causing the esteem, not the other way around. More invidious, though, is the tendency to view anything that takes a great deal of education or intelligence to accomplish as an affront to everyone less educated or intelligent. Conservatives complain endlessly about class warfare and envy of the rich—the financially elite—but they have no qualms about decrying intellectual elites and condemning them for flaunting their superior literary achievements. They see the elitist mote in the eye of Nobel laureates without noticing the beam in their own.

         What’s the point of difficult reading? Well, what’s the point of running five or ten miles? What’s the point of eating vegetables as opposed to ice cream or Doritos? Difficulty need not preclude enjoyment. And discipline in the present is often rewarded in the future. It very well may be that the complexity of the ideas you’re capable of understanding is influenced by how many complex ideas you attempt to understand. No matter how vehemently true believers in the magic of markets insist otherwise, markets don’t have minds. And though an individual’s intelligence need not be fixed a good way to ensure children never get any smarter than they already are is to make them feel fantastically wonderful about their mediocrity. We just have to hope that despite these ideological traps there are enough people out there determined to wrap their minds around complex situations depicted in complex narratives about complex people told in complex language, people who will in the process develop the types of minds and intelligence necessary to lead the rest of our lazy asses into a future that’s livable and enjoyable. For every John Galt, Tony Robbins, and Scheherazade, we may need at least half a Proust. We are still, however, left with quite a dilemma. Some authors really are just assholes who write worthless tomes designed to trick you into wasting your time. But some books that seem impenetrable on the first attempt will reward your efforts to decipher them. How do we get the rewards without wasting our time?

Also read "Can't Win for Losing: Why There are so many Losers in Literature and Why It has to Change."

And: "Life's White Machine: James Wood and What doesn't Happen in Fiction."

And: Stories, Social Proof, & Our Two Selves

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 3 of 3

From a SMVA perspective, then, readers seek out signals of Gabriel’s propensity for altruism and cooperation, and, once they receive them, are compelled to volunteer affect on his behalf. In other words, they are anxious for the plot to unfold in a way that favors and vindicates him. According to Flesch, this dynamic is the basis of “narrative interest,” which he defines as “anxiety on behalf of and about the motives, actions, and experiences of fictional characters” (7). Having detected Gabriel’s “difficult-to-fake” signal of his genuine concern for the caretaker’s daughter, readers can be counted on to sympathize with him. Immediately after he insists that Lily accept a coin and leaves her presence, he begins brooding over whether to include the lines from Browning in his speech. Here readers become privy to the tension underlying his self-consciousness: “he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers” (179). His thoughts continue:

"their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry" (179).

Gabriel’s mother, through whom he is related to the hosts of the party, turns out to have “married T.J. Conroy of the Port and Docks” (179). In other words, “the brains carrier of the Morkan family” (186), as Aunt Kate calls Gabriel’s mother, married into money. Leonard contends that “the Browning quote is there to invite from [Gabriel’s] audience authorization for his viewing of himself as someone with refined tastes and a superior education” (460). But that Gabriel is more educated is not a boast he wants to convince everyone of; it is rather a fact he goes out of his way not to lord over them, as is the higher grade of culture his mother married into. Leonard also charges Gabriel with having “contempt for them as peers” (460), but if that were the case he would not bother himself about appearing “ridiculous” before them. The Lacanian is treating the reality Gabriel is trying to mitigate as a fantasy he is trying to propagate.

The predicament Gabriel faces that readers hope to see him through is that he really differs from the people at the party in important ways. His sense of not belonging is real, and yet he cares about them. To this day, anyone who has left a small town to go to college is faced with a similar dilemma whenever he or she returns home and realizes how vast the gulf is separating the educated from the uneducated. And, far from using his books as props for some delusion of grandeur, Gabriel genuinely loves them, so much so that when one arrives for him to review it is “almost more welcome than the paltry cheque” (188). It turns out that the Browning quote Leonard fails to credit him for not including in his speech came from one of these books he has reviewed. Gabriel originally applies the phrase “thought-tormented” to the “music” (192) of the Browning poem in his review. The phrase turns up again in his speech, but this time, in an act of creativity inspired by his confrontation with Miss Ivors, he has turned it into a charge against “a thought-tormented age… educated or hypereducated as it is,” which he also claims to fear is lacking in “humanity,” “hospitality,” and “kindly humour” (203)—this from the man who was mortified earlier lest the assembled audience “think that he was airing his superior education” (179). Rather than risk that verdict, Gabriel makes a complete concession to the sensibility of Miss Ivors, believing it to be more closely aligned with that of his audience than his own.

He is in this scene inhibiting his impulse to hold forth on the poetry he genuinely loves and the principles in which he genuinely believes because he recognizes that they will not only go unappreciated but will even be offensive to many in his audience. This is intelligence keeping passion in check, something Gabriel alone in the story is capable of. But this is also intelligence in the service of dishonesty; Gabriel is being disingenuous. His thoughts really are tormenting him throughout the story with greater self-consciousness. Lacanian critics may see this as a form of narcissism, but it is remarkable how reliably self-sacrificing Gabriel is. Indeed, the epiphany he experiences is that he is too self-sacrificing, a “pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians” (220). Hearing his wife Gretta tell the story of Michael Furey, the boy who braved the weather for her in a condition of ill-health and who died as a result, he recognizes a quality he himself lacks. What he finds so threatening and at the same time so admirable about Furey is his unchecked impulsivity, his passion untempered by intelligence. “Better pass boldly into that other world,” he thinks, “in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (223). Much like the eponymous Eveline in an earlier Dubliners story, Gabriel is at risk of being paralyzed by his duties to his family and to his culture.

That Gabriel is in a sense too altruistic does not imply that his epiphany is a repudiation of altruism; what Gabriel calls into question are the dishonesty his good nature leads him to and the provincialism that necessitates it. It is ironic that his realization is prompted by a former inhabitant of Galway, an Irish territory Miss Ivors had tried to persuade him to acquaint himself with earlier. But it must be noted that for Furey to be true to himself there meant he had to die. And yet there is a nostalgic note in the enigmatic line, written by an expatriate from Ireland now living on the continent: “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (223). Gretta is of course also from Galway, and when Gabriel tells her of Miss Ivors suggestion she responds, “I’d love to see Galway again” (191). When Kelley argues that Gabriel’s vision of snow falling all over Ireland symbolizes how “Mutuality replaces mastery” (206) in his consciousness, he is only half-wrong. Gabriel has felt horribly alone all night. He has even felt alone throughout his marriage; when Gretta falls asleep after telling him the story of Michael Furey, “He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife” (222). But he has learned Gretta is just like him in that she keeps her true thoughts and feelings to herself: “He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes” (223). Mutuality is not replacing mastery; it is replacing isolation.

The central premise of Joyce’s story, that Gabriel needs to escape the close-minded nationalism of his Irish culture, or at least find a way to be true to himself within it, simply fails if Gabriel is not a character worth saving. Though Flesch insists one of his goals in Comeuppance “is to assert the reconcilability of a Darwinian perspective, one that accepts evolutionary origins and constraints on human mental processing, with the best of European philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary theory” (207), it is difficult not to see the various Lacanian readings of “The Dead” as bestowing their views on the story rather than discovering them in it. In a bit of irony Lacan himself might have appreciated, it is the Lacanians who are the true narcissists, looking as they do into the story and seeing only their own principles reflected back at them. There is also an element of self-righteousness in their negative characterization of Gabriel, since naturally these critics are claiming to know better than to be so controlling and to put on such superior airs. But in imposing their self-consciously esoteric views they are doing a disservice to readers—and themselves—by making the story far less enjoyable.

Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Belknap,

2009. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Ed. Minneapolis: U of

Minnesota P, 2008. Print.
Flesch, William. Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological
Components of Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York:

Penguin, 1996. 175-224. Print.
Kelley, James. “Mirrored Selves and Princely Failings: A Lacanian Approach to James Joyce’s

‘The Dead.’” In-Between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism 12.1-2 (2003):

201-09. Print.
Leonard, Gary. “Joyce and Lacan: ‘The Woman’ as a Symptom of ‘Masculinity’ in ‘The Dead.’”

James Joyce Quarterly 28.2 (1991): 451-72. Print.
Trujillo, Ivan E. “Perversion as the Jouissance of The Woman in ‘The Dead’: Joyce, Lacan and

Fucking the Other.” Other Voices 1.3 (1999): 1-11. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.
Wynn, Karen, J. Kiley Hamlin, and Paul Bloom. “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” Nature
450.22 (2007): 557-560. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

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

Getting Gabriel Wrong: Part 1 of 3

Soon after arriving with his wife at his aunts’ annual celebration of Christmas, Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” has an awkward encounter. Lily, “the caretaker’s daughter” (175), has gone with Gabriel into a pantry near the entrance to help him off with his coat. They exchange a few polite words before Gabriel broaches the topic of whether Lily might be engaged, eliciting from her a bitter remark about the nature of men, which in turn causes him to blush. After nervously adjusting his attire, Gabriel gives her a coin and rushes away to join the party. How readers interpret this initial scene, how they assess Gabriel’s handling of it, has much bearing on how they will experience the entire story. Many psychoanalytic critics, particularly followers of Jacques Lacan, read the encounter as evidence of Gabriel’s need to control others, especially women. According to this approach, the rest of the story consists of Gabriel’s further frustrations at the hands of women until he ultimately succumbs and adopts a more realistic understanding of himself. But the Lacanian reading is cast into severe doubt by an emerging field of narrative studies based on a more scientific view of human psychology. The theories put forth by these evolutionary critics, particularly the Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect Theory formulated by William Flesch, highlight textual evidence that undermines readings by prominent Lacanians—evidence which has likely led generations of readers to a much more favorable view of Joyce’s protagonist.

At a glance, two disparate assessments of Gabriel seem equally plausible. Is he solicitous or overbearing? Fastidious or overweening? Self-conscious or narcissistic? While chatting with Lily, he smiles “at the three syllables she had given his surname” (177). He subsequently realizes that he “had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll” (177). Lacanian critic James Kelley asserts that these lines describe Gabriel “reveling in his position of superiority” (202). When Gabriel goes on to inquire about Lily’s schooling and, upon learning that she is no longer a student, whether he can expect to be attending her wedding sometime soon, she “glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: / —The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (177). Joyce leaves unanswered two questions in this scene: why does Lily respond “with great bitterness”? And why does Gabriel lose his composure over it? Kelley suggests that Lily is responding to Gabriel’s “attitude of superiority” (202). Gary Leonard, another Lacanian, sees the encounter similarly, charging Gabriel with the offense of “asking a real woman a question better asked of a little girl in a fairy tale (of course she is that unreal to him)” (458). But Leonard is holding Gabriel to a feminist standard that had not come into existence yet. And Gabriel’s smiling and reminiscing are just as likely reflective of a fatherly as they are of a patriarchal attitude.

One of the appeals of Flesch’s Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect (SMVA) theory, which views the experience of fiction as a process of tracking characters for signals of altruism and favoring those who emit them, is that it relies on no notional story between the lines of the actual story. When encountering the scene in which Lily responds bitterly to Gabriel’s small talk, readers need not, for instance, be looking at a symbol of class conflict (Marxism) or gender oppression (Feminism) or one consciousness trying to wrest psychic unity from another (Lacanianism). Evidence can be culled from the scene to support the importance of these symbols and dynamics, along with countless others. But their importance rests solely in the mind of the critic serving as advocate for this or that theory. As Flesch’s fellow evolutionary critic Brian Boyd explains in his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, “Such critics assume that if they can ‘apply’ the theory, if they can read a work in its light, they thereby somehow ‘prove’ it, even if the criteria of application and evidence are loose” (387).Unfortunately, those trained in the application of one of these theories can become so preoccupied with the task of sifting between the lines that their experience—to say nothing of their enjoyment—of the lines themselves gets short shrift. And, as Boyd points out, “We learn more when evidence against a reading surfaces, since it forces us to account for a richer stock of information” (387, emphasis in original).

The distorting effect of theory can be seen in the Lacanian critics’ obliviousness toward several aspects of “The Dead” Joyce is trying to draw their attention to. Why, for instance, would Gabriel be embarrassed by Lily’s bitter response when there are no witnesses? She is just a lowly caretaker’s daughter; that he would be at all concerned with what she says or how she says it tells readers something about him. Joyce makes a point of suggesting that Gabriel’s blush is not borne of embarrassment, but rather of his shame at offending Lily, accidental though the offence may have been. He “coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake” (178), and that mistake was supposing Lily would be getting married soon. That Lily’s bitterness at this supposition has anything to do with Gabriel as opposed to the one or more men who have frustrated her in love is unlikely (unless she has a crush on him). Concerning her “three mistresses,” she knows, for instance, that “the only thing they would not stand was back answers” (176), implying that she has ventured some in the past and been chastised for them. Aunt Kate even complains later about Lily’s recent behavior: “I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all” (181). This may or may not be enough evidence to support the idea that Lily’s recent transformation resulted from a courtship with one of those men who is all palaver, but it certainly goes a long way toward undermining readings like Kelley’s and Leonard’s.

When Gabriel thrusts a coin into Lily’s hand, his purpose may be “to reestablish his superiority” (202), as Kelley argues, but that assumes both that he has a sense of his own superiority and that he is eager to maintain it. If Gabriel feels so superior, though, why would he respond charitably rather than getting angry? Why, when Aunt Kate references Lily’s recent change, does he make ready “to ask his aunt some questions on this point” (181) instead of making a complaint or insisting on a punishment? A simpler and much more obvious motivation for the thrusting of the coin is to make amends for the accidental offence. But, astonishingly, Leonard concludes solely from Joyce’s use of the word “thrusting” that Lily and Gabriel’s “social intercourse is terminated in a manner that mimics sexual intercourse” (458). Yet another Lacanian, Ivan Trujillo, takes this idea a step further: having equated Gabriel’s blush with an orgasm, he sees the coin as the culmination of an act of prostitution, as paying her back “for his orgasmic feeling of shame” (3).

From the perspective of SMVA theory, laid out in Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Gabriel’s blushing, which recurs later in the story in his encounter with Molly Ivors, suggests something quite distantly removed from sexual arousal. “Blushing is an honest signal of how one feels,” Flesch writes. “It is honest because we would suppress it if we could” (103). But what feeling might Gabriel be signaling? Flesch offers a clue when he explains

"Being known through hard-to-fake or costly or honest signaling to have the emotional propensity to act against our own rational interests helps those who receive our signals to solve the problem of whether they can trust us. Blushing, weeping, flushing with rage, going livid with shock: all these are reliable signals, not only of how we feel in a certain situation but of the fact that we generally emit reliable signals. It pays to be fathomable. People tend to trust those who blush" (106, emphasis in original).

The most obvious information readers of “The Dead” can glean from Gabriel’s blushing at Lily’s response to his questions is that he is genuinely concerned that he may have offended her. Lacanians might counter that his real concern is with the authentication of his own sense of superiority, but again if he really felt so superior why would he care about offending the lowly caretaker’s daughter in an exchange with no witnesses? In fact, Lily’s back is turned, so even she misses the blush. It can be read as a signal from Joyce to readers to let them know a little about what kind of character Gabriel is.