Epiphanies of Despair

To modern high school students, epiphanies and realizations come daily. We discover new ideas about everything from math to our personal identities every day, both lifting us up and pulling us down. These revelations come from every direction, from conversations with friends to exposure to literature. In literature, one of the greatest transmissions of awakenings is through the epiphanies of the characters themselves. The short stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners contain many examples of this, in nearly every story, especially including Eveline, A Little Cloud, A Painful Case, and The Dead. These revelations follow the common trend of loss and regret, often marked by death and despair, basing themselves on the disappointment, conflict and controversy that Joyce witnessed as a child in Ireland.
Eveline is the story of a young woman who has lived a life of oppression and abuse under the rule of her drunkard father. She is rarely recognized for all she does for him, and does not appear to have any mode of escape from this. However, this all changes when her boyfriend, a sailor named Frank, offers to take her to Buenos Aires with him. The story itself is her internal argument over whether to leave her father behind, likely ending his existence due to his complete dependence on her, or abandon her chance for true love and escape and continue serving out her responsibility as a daughter. Her epiphany comes at the end, when she realizes that responsibility will hold her back in Dublin forever. She realizes that her personal desires mean nothing in the face of the welfare of others. This is relatively similar to the mentality of Irish citizens following the discovery of Charles Stewart Parnell’s scandal. Parnell was a staunch Irish nationalist. He created the Home Rule Act which would have given Ireland a greater say in the British parliament that controlled the country. However, in 1889, Parnell was found to be having an affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. As in any scandal, this caused both the British and the Irish to lose their respect for him, even though he didn’t resign from his political position. He died two years later, never having redeemed himself. Between and after these two events, Ireland began to better recognize its culture, increasing the number of people that spoke the Irish language either along with or rather than English, and placing more general emphasis on traditional arts. Despite this, the negative publicity caused by Parnell’s affair and death broke Ireland into many different groups, preventing any attempts to become independent in the near future. This is much like what happens to Eveline because this surprising event caused Irish citizens to have the epiphany that they had loyalties and responsibilities to much more than simply the nationalist cause, such as their religion and political party. Furthermore, much like Eveline, while they approached the escape from England’s (or Eveline’s father’s) grasp, they were unable to actually escape, and would spend the rest of their time before independence regretting this fact.
A Little Cloud is the story of a timid man named Little Chandler who considers himself to be unsuccessful in life. The story itself is the conversation between him and a friend, Ignatius Gallaher, who has become a successful publisher in London. Little Chandler’s epiphany starts with him beginning to believe that the key to success lies in leaving Dublin, as Gallaher did. However, its ending point is simply a regret for everything that he has done until now: marrying a wife that is controlling and who he doesn’t love, and giving up the poetry that means so much to him because of his wife. However, despite this regret, he is unable to leave the situation that he has gotten himself into, he is paralyzed by the responsibility he has to the mistakes he has already make. Once again, this is similar to what was occurring in Ireland at the time because it, too was stuck in the rut of dependence that the divisions caused by the controversy over Parnell’s scandal had resulted in. By the early 20th century, the citizens of Ireland clearly desired independence from Britain, but their earlier choice to judge Parnell based on his actions in a way that caused them to split into various factions based on other beliefs, prevented them from doing this. Both share a regret of something that could have been prevented, which they eventually realize and, in the case of Ireland after the publishing of Dubliners, push towards.
Regret is also marked by a realization that what one has doesn’t justify that sacrifice made to acquire it, or simply that it isn’t as good as one previously thought. Around 1912, Dublin began to realize this, too. Throughout the 19th century, a growing percentage of the population lived in poverty. Having realized how unfortunate this situation was, as Little Chandler does of his relationship with his wife, the city decided to begin a movement to rebuild the slums in which these people lived to make the city more urbanized. This caused the displacement of nearly 30% of the population of Dublin, but did eventually increase the quality of life. While this is the clear indication of Dublin’s epiphany of this fact, it would have also been apparent to James Joyce, who published Dubliners years before this initiative began. To any of these people living in dismal conditions, escape from Dublin to any city that didn’t have the problems with poverty that Dublin did at the time (London, Paris, or for that fact, any big European city) would have seemed like a fantastic opportunity, as it does to Little Chandler. Even to James Joyce, who grew up in a securely middle class family, this was an epiphany of despair.
James Duffy’s epiphany in A Painful Case is somewhat similar to that of Little Chandler in A Little Cloud in that it is marked by regret of what could have been yet wasn’t. Once again, this represents Ireland’s lost attempt at independence under Parnell. However, the fact that the focus of A Painful Case is Mrs. Sinico’s death, the focus of the connection should be on death rather than simply the loss of faith in the idea and the various reasons for this. The death of Parnell occurred when James Joyce was nine years old, meaning that he would have remembered it clearly. Thus, it would have been clear to him when he published Dubliners that Parnell’s death sealed Ireland’s action of giving up on Parnell’s attempts to make Ireland independent of two years before, when his scandal was discovered. This scandal for Mr. Duffy was Mrs. Sinico touching his face. It was an adulterous affair, like that of Parnell with Kitty O’Shea, and eventually tore apart both parties.
However, while this connection made in the adulterous affair makes sense, this isn’t the full body of Mr. Duffy’s epiphany. His ultimate realization is that “he [feels] like he [is] alone” (Joyce 92). In direct connection with Ireland at the time, each of the factions that the populace had fragmented into may have believed this: that they had a goal of unity but their beliefs, like Mr. Duffy’s against adultery, would prevent this union. The more direct connection though, would be in considering James Joyce’s life. He would have felt completely alone in Dublin during the time before and during the publishing of Dubliners. The main reason for this would be that his ideas weren’t accepted by the people of Dublin. They were too critical, too rooted in reality. There was a reason he lived much of his life in Paris and Zurich: he wasn’t alone in his radical ideas there. Perhaps the reason for this might have been the response to a metaphorically similar event to that which occurs with Mr. Duffy: the death of a small remnant of hope for acceptance of his writing in Dublin. Mr. Duffy finds somebody who shared his views of poetry and art, then loses her. The same may have happened to James Joyce.
The final and longest story in Dubliners is titled The Dead. The ultimate revelation is had by Gabriel, a character who, at the end of the story, learns that his wife continues to remember a dead lover from her teenage years. Gabriel realizes the inherent connection between the dead and the living. He realizes the idea which dictates any feeling of despair either here in literature, or in life as a whole. He realizes that “they [are] all becoming shades” (Joyce 176), that it is “better [for them to] pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, then fade and wither dismally with age” (176). He realizes that there is no hope in life, that a legacy is imagination, and that there is no future for remembrance. He realizes that which anybody living in Dublin at the time of James Joyce would have, including Joyce himself. He has the epiphany of despair for all epiphanies of despair. It is James Joyce’s final lesson for the readers: that their lives have no meaning. They will all die eventually, and there’s no avoiding it.

Works Cited
Joyce, James, and Thomas Devlin. Dickey. Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Chamber Music. New York: Gramercy, 1995. Print.
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Dubliners.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2004. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.


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