The Six Shilling Scarlet Rage: A Marxist Reading of Dubliners

            James Joyce’s Dubliners is a text that seems inseparable from Dublin and the social conditions that defined the English Empire’s second-city to Joyce, but as author Paul Delany remarks in his article “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners,” “Modern discussions of Dubliners, …have been devoted mainly to the stories intricate and interlocking patterns of symbolic meaning” (Delaney 256). Work must be done, then, to connect Joyce’s Dublin and its heuristic – the text of Dubliners itself. By studying the depravity of Farrington as a product of his position in capitalist society and the critical theme of paralysis in the text being tied directly to corruption and ineffectuality in Irish politics, the centrality of the capitalist mode of production to Dubliners emerges. On one hand Farrington is personally depraved by a capitalist system that alienates him and leaves him chasing after women, a sense of purpose, and a vent for his anger. On the other, the specter of “Tricky Dicky Tierney” keeps all of Ireland stuck in the endless wheel-spinning of corrupt electoral politics. In synthesis, the two make central to Dubliners the specter of capitalism in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century – manifested in the themes of personal depravity and a profound inability to escape said depravity personally or politically.

One must first make clear what kind of Marxist reading we are to partake in concerning Dubliners. Are we, as author Gaylord Leroy remarks in an afterword to Delaney’s article found in the cited edition, to partake in a “vulgar Marxism” that listens for “a song of social significance” (Leroy 266)  appreciated only through knowledge of other disciplines (Sociology, History, Economics etc.)? Frankly, no, we are not to partake in such a reading of Dubliners –we are to partake in a reading, as Leroy says, that brings light to the “second reality” brought to the fore by literature. This reality is a Hegelian-esque synthesis in the way it must be understood by its foundational elements, in this case, the concrete historical and structural elements at play in early 20th century Dublin. Delaney makes clear his own “critical principle,” which will be very similar to the one utilized in this article, writing, “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary. Only then can Dubliners be seen to merit the particular status continually claimed for it by Joyce: that of a moral work” (Delany 256). Thus, to understand the moral work of Dubliners is to understand the concrete historical and economic factors at play in the city of Dublin. This is not the entire scope of Dubliners, though, as Leroy points out, such a perspective would be the aforementioned “vulgar Marxism.” Joyce also endeavors to creatively express his own, intimate Dublin from the anxiety of a young boy in love to the depravity of a child abuser to the ultimate inability to escape or transcend the cruelty and beauty of the textual city painted in such great detail by its author. In this “second reality” we find the foundation of the primary reality Joyce interacts with to construct his characters and their relation to one another. Thus, to begin to understand the discursive Dublin, we must look to that which it was creatively synthesized from – Dublin itself and the socio-economic relations that dominated life there. For the purposes of this article, I will highlight one textual thematic where the connection between the two Dublins is clear – the way the capitalist system debauches a character such as Farrington and prevents any sort of escape through political means.

“Counterparts” and its protagonist (or antagonist) Farrington are perhaps the examples that most easily come to mind when one is asked to highlight the role of the capitalist economic system within Dubliners, and it is Farrington’s profound alienation from his wealth and himself that is the main catalyst in the story. Marx defined the conditions that brought about the creation of alienation in the following terms; “The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity…”(Marx 22). It is worth noting that Farrington is referred to only as “the man” until he is with his friends – he is alienated from even his own identity when at work as a scriber. We see such a relation, one where increasing wealth elicits increasing alienation and commodification in the worker immediately within the discourse of “Counterparts.” It is Farrington’s boss and perhaps more importantly (through retrospective repetition with the English woman with the big hat) his lover Miss Delacour’s indifference to his bow, itself a symbol of submission and subservience, that catalyze in Farrington his first rage. Farrington reflects, “He felt strong enough to clear out the whole office single handed. His body ached to do something, to rush out and revel in violence. All the indignities of his life enraged him” (Joyce 90). His rage is portrayed by Joyce as a direct product of the indignities put upon him by his boss and his perfumed confidant, and his inability to secure payment or an advance of a payment for the work he could not complete. In short, the rage that defines Farrington to the end of the story, and his inability to levy it upon its’ source, is a product of the capitalist system.

After pawning his watch for a small “cylinder” of coins and reclaiming his name amongst his friends, Farrington’s humiliation at the hands of Mr. Allyene and Ms. Delacour is recreated out of work at the hands of a “young stripling” and a British woman in a big hat. Farrington at first longs for “the comfort of the public house,” (Joyce 92) but later “He cursed his want of money and cursed all the rounds he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to Weathers” (Joyce 95). This transformation is denoted by his loss of money to the “sponge” Weathers and his foolhardy expectation that the British woman would turn back to look at him upon passing – immediately eliciting from Farrington the following thought, “He cursed his want of money and cursed all the rounds he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to Weathers” (Joyce 95). Again, Farrington’s rage is made to be in a relationship with money and lack thereof. He has pawned his watch, lost all of the money he gained from it and is once again denied by a wealthy woman.

It is no coincidence that Joyce interjects with the metaphor of strength again, and as it turns out, Farrington’s strength is not only insufficient to clear out the entire office, but to even lower Weathers’ arm. This final indignity is what puts Farrington over the edge, as he reflects, “He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him” (Joyce 97). Interestingly, Marx talks at length about the way the capitalist mode of production turns a worker towards his base animal nature, writing, “…the worker no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animals functions – eating, drinking, procreating…; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx 72). This, in effect, is precisely what occurs to Farrington over the course of the story. He even fails at the animalistic test of strength, creating a rage so profound as to suggest a displaced source – Farrington cannot be as angry as he is over simply losing a contest. Farrington is enraged over his subservient yet ignored “bow,” enraged by his poverty, and enraged, as Marx highlights, by his inability to “feel himself” even in his animalistic desires for sex, drink and contests of strength. The tragic ending of “Counterparts” becomes in this light Farrington funneling his rage on the only thing he has control over – his five children and his wife, who has Joyce writes, “Bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk” (Joyce 97). None of this absolves Farrington from judgment within the text, as Joyce’s own experience with an abusive father would suggest, but Farrington can be seen as man turned into a base beast by the indignity suffered daily at a meaningless job that he can never truly be free from even after drinks. In essence, “the man” is never able to find Farrington, never able to find himself within the animalistic impulses elicited by a social structure that renders him a copying machine. This separation, between the bestial “man” and the human “Farrington” is a direct product of his position as a wage-laborer in capitalist society as established by Joyce. “Counterparts” thus emerges as a story immersed in a discourse inseparable from the capitalist mode of production at work in colonial Dublin, and is a point where the textual Dublin and the real Dublin are brought closely together by Joyce’s critique of capitalism.

From the first short-story, “The Sisters,” the concept of paralysis remains central to Dubliners and this can be seen to be a product of corrupt Capitalist politics in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” The story is pervaded by a keenly disingenuously political dialogue that always returns to money. This can be seen immediately in a dialogue between Mr. Hynes and Mr. O’Connor, “Our man won’t vote for the address, said Mr. O’Connor. He goes in on the Nationalist ticket. Won’t he? said Mr. Hynes. Wait till you see whether he will or not. I know him. Is it Tricky Dicky Tierney? By God! perhaps you’re right, Joe, said Mr. O’Connor. Anyway, I wish he’d turn up with the spondulics” (Joyce 122). Essentially Mr. O’Connor has said nothing here only suggesting that Mr. Tierney will not vote for a visit from King Edward of England simply because he’s going in on the nationalist ticket, quickly returning once again to the “spondulics.” The return to anxiety over the money defines much of the early dialogue in the text, and can be said to define the entire story. Delaney remarks on the nature of the story, “In ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ we see the hopelessness of looking to electoral politics for a solution to personal misfortune or to the paralysis of the city as a whole. The supporters of Nationalist Candidate, Mr. Tierney, recognize that he will betray the nationalist cause once he is elected…” (Delany 262). This foreknowledge seems an accepted thematic throughout the text, and as illustrated above by Mr. O’Connor’s ineffectual speech, no one seems to care. The paralysis is not only fully present, but is willingly tolerated by the story’s characters for money and influence.

This willing tolerance and active support for paralysis can be seen with precision in the deceptive yet darkly truthful character of Mr. Henchy. Henchy, his name itself similar to what his character truly represents, first attacks nationalist politics, cynically remarking, “”O, the heart’s blood of a patriot! That’s a fellow now that’d sell his country for fourpence – ay- and go down on his bended knees and thank the Almighty Christ he had a country to sell” (Joyce 125). This statement is a synthesis of much of Joyce’s critical venom in Dubliners at large, but for the purposes of this article the wellbeing of an entire state is worth nothing more than a fourpence to its leaders – even of the nationalist variety. Later, he recalls to his friend how he sold the candidacy of Mr. Tierney to an undecided fellow on the street, “He has extensive house property in the city and three places of business and isn’t it to his own advantage to keep down the rates? He’s a prominent and respected citizen ….and a Poor Law Guardian, and he don’t belong to any party, good, bad or indifferent” (Joyce 131). The contradiction is obvious, Mr. Tierney is rich, seeks lower rates for his own advantage, but is supposedly at the same time a Poor Law Guardian. Mr. Henchy is peddling political nonsense solely to get his candidate, who is running for a party he has already lampooned, elected. The story makes obvious what Henchy will later conclude, “Parnell, said Mr. Henchy, is dead” (Joyce 132). The hope of a changed and enlightened Ireland, personified by Joyce here with the shadow of Parnell, is dead – killed by the corruption and debauchment of Irish politics to money and English domination. Ireland is Farrington on a national scale – a state unable to deal with its true enemies and thus forced to destroy those that care most for its’ well-being, namely in the text, Parnell. The corks flying off the bottle are like the serenade of fire at a funeral, marking the end of a life and its descent to the cold earth. A descent narrated in the story in keenly monetary terms, as Hynes’ poem is celebrated by those who wait only for spondulics and not that which the poem professes. The poem, then, is as Mr. Crofton says, “…a very fine piece of writing” (Joyce 135) and nothing more – robbed of impact by a disingenuous system tied to monetary gain and not public good.

Dubliners is a text that is in synthesis with the conditions of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century, and cannot be wholly understood without the insights of a Marxist analysis of the impact of social-economic relations on the formation and relation of characters to one another. By studying the impact of Farrington’s proletarian status in relation to the formation of his character in “Counterparts” and the corruption of Irish politics as a mechanism for the oft-mentioned theme of paralysis in the text in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” a greater understanding of the centrality of socio-economic factors in Dubliners emerges. Yet, as elucidated above, the entirety of Dubliners cannot be explained with one heuristic. By rendering Dubliners as a synthesis of a dialectical relationship with real Dublin and the concrete material conditions that defined it, the story opens itself to many heuristics that can hope to unravel the revelations to be had in a collection covering the experiences of “all the living and the dead” (Joyce 224).

Works Cited:

Delany, Paul. “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners.” JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Joyce, James, Robert Scholes, and A. Walton Litz. Dubliners. New York: Viking, 1969. Print.

Marx, Karl. Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Mulligan. Moscow: Progress, 1956. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, English, Ireland, Joyce, Literature

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