Introduction to Select Irish Literature and Film/The Irish Short Story

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An Introduction to Irish Short Stories[edit]

The short story, in general, is defined as “a fictional prose tale of no specified length, but too short to be published as a volume on its own…normally [concentrating] on a single event with only one or two characters, more economically than a novel’s sustained exploration of a social background…”.[1] In Irish culture, the short story has become central to the literary sphere; in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Ireland - particularly the capital city of Dublin - became a cultural hub known for its artistic achievements in the literary sphere, and the Irish short story is very much a creation of this flourishing literary culture.[2]

Irish people revere their storytellers. This reverence dates back to the earliest civilizations and cultures in Ireland, during which the highly regarded role of fili, a respected aristocratic position that one had to study and master to perform.[3] Those who held this title were thought to be descendants of the Celtic ‘vatis’ and were believed to be seers and prophetic, as opposed to a purveyors of history. While the fili was a poet, the role gradually altered over time to fulfill two functions, both of which evoke the characteristics of short story telling: (1) the fili had to fulfill the function of the seanchaí, which was to preserve Irish history, genealogies and short, local tales which often included mythological creatures; and (2) the fili was also the sgéalaí,in which one was expected to relate more fantastical stories of heroism and wonder.[4]

With the introduction and spread of the printing press, the oral storytelling culture of Ireland was challenged, eventually, by the onset of mass publishing, and, as such, much of the early short stories of Ireland are a hybrid of oral storytelling and modern literature.[5] Many authors who helped in the pioneering and shaping of the modern Irish short story grew up in rural communities in close proximity to cities with libraries; as such, these authors, such as Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor were exposed to classic works of literature and the rural storytelling still prevalent in countryside of Ireland.[6]

Through the late nineteenth and twentieth century, the Irish short story has become a hugely popular form. The short story was said to be created by the "risen people," as the late nineteenth century attracted many authors of the newly emerging Irish Catholic bourgeoisie class, many of whom originated from the impoverished regional towns of Ireland.[7] Irish writers traditionally excel at the short story genre,[8] with notable Irish authors publishing short stories or collections of short stories, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde.

Short stories in the Twentieth Century[edit]

Ireland cultivated the short story in the early twentieth century and Irish authors such as James Joyce and George Moore experimented in this genre.[9] They pioneered its form and content,[10] often creating “...critical and condemnatory…” [11] narratives regarding their “...attitudes toward art, religion and Ireland….” [12] with similar themes, symbols and images throughout both their works[13]. As a result, they created a uniquely Irish genre of literature. However, after the Easter Rising of 1916, and the onset of the first set of Troubles, this genre evolved even more.[14]. In the 1920s and 1930s, special recognition can go to the second generation of short story authors, most notably Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor, and Sean O’Faolain for reshaping the short story content to an extent from what it had been in the preceding decades.[15] The Civil War in Ireland had a huge impact on the works the authors produced, as it“…brought disillusionment and a recognition that under a different flag, there was still in Ireland dissension and corruption…the impression of being part of a troubled and alienated society made the writers invest their art with particular energy, making it a means to assert their identity before a quite foreign and possibly hostile world, or to write for an Irish audience that they had already grown to disdain.”[16]

By the end of the Second World War, the Irish short story had become an established, popular genre in Ireland, England and the United States, due to the larger distribution that was allotted to these works as the result of periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly, which regularly published Irish short stories in their volumes.[17] By the mid twentieth century, several more authors were associated with this literary genre including Mary Laverty, Elizabeth Bowen, Benedict Kiely, Bryan MacMahon, and Michael Laverty.[18]

Elements of the Irish Short Story[edit]

There are many different elements to the Irish short story, with one of the most significant being the narrative voice. The short story genre has to be economical in nature due to its shorter length; as a result, Irish short stories are often focused on a few events or subjects.[19] Through the narrative voice and narration itself, different aspects can be revealed within the text; the narrator of a short story acts as the authority of the text and information about the plot, theme and other characters is determined by the narration, or in some cases a lack thereof.[20]

Irish short stories explore a multitude of themes, including but not limited to rural and poverty hardships, provincialism, rural life versus urban life, clerical interference, and The Troubles. Furthermore, the Irish short story is well known for its treatment of social turmoil and tensions that exist within Irish culture, life and society; in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, these issues largely surrounded feelings of alienation the Irish population felt[21] as a result of the political strife, religious conflict between the Catholic and Protestant sects, nationalism and eventually Civil War and The Troubles.

James Joyce (1882 – 1941)[edit]

Born on February 2nd, 1882, James Joyce is often considered to be one of the most influential and innovative Irish writers of the twentieth century, often - though with some controversy - referred to as one of the “..fathers of the modern Irish short story.” [22] Born in a suburb outside of Dublin, Ireland, Joyce’s family enjoyed a short period of financial prosperity before they became impoverished.[23] Despite the lost wealth of his family, Joyce received a good education, studying at the finest Jesuit schools in Ireland, followed by studies at University College, Dublin where he showed his first interest and talent in writing.[24] After graduating in 1902, Joyce left Ireland[25] and travelled to Paris where he committed himself to his writing, with a focus on his poetry and “prose sketches.”[26] Following a brief return to Dublin in 1904, Joyce travelled around Europe before settling in Trieste, a city in Northeastern Italy with his wife Nora Barnacle until 1915.[27] Following the onset of the First World War and several relocations as a result of Europe’s conflicts, Joyce and his family moved to Paris, where he connected with notable people in the literary sphere such as American modernist figure Sylvia Beach.[28] In December of 1940, Joyce relocated again to Zurich, Switzerland before dying due to complications sustained during a surgery to repair a perforated ulcer six weeks later on January 13th, 1941.[29]

Despite the fact that Joyce was of Irish citizenship by birth, he did not publish any writings until his self - imposed exile from Ireland. His first book of poetry entitled Chamber Music and his second offering, a collection of short stories entitled Dubliners were published in 1907 and 1914 respectively while he was living in Trieste. His later works, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Exiles (1918) were published while Joyce was living in Zurich, Switzerland. Despite this self-exile from Ireland that took Joyce throughout the European continent, his most famous works are set in Ireland, and typically in the city of Dublin.[30] The subjects of Joyce’s short stories embodied themes that were associated with the Irish short story genre, such as hardships faced by the impoverished people of Ireland and the struggles of urban life in Dublin.

James Joyce and Modernism[edit]

Joyce was known for his contributions to the short story genre and is often considered to be a modernist writer; modernism is “...characterized chiefly by the rejection of the 19th - century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader...James Joyce...attempted new ways of tracing the flow of the characters’ thoughts in [his] stream of consciousness [style]..” [31] Joyce was critical of Britain’s influence in Ireland, but he was also critical of the Celtic Revival’s creation of Irish national identity in response to this; through his work, Joyce expressed his criticism of Ireland and Irish identity from his exiled perspective.[32] Joyce used experimental techniques with story components, such as free narrative style and methods that created a distance between the authority of the narrator and the characters in the text[33] and this spoke to his modernist, experimental style.

James Joyce and William Butler (W.B.) Yeats[edit]

While Joyce was known to be a supporter and enthusiast of his contemporaries such as W. B. Yeats, his writing style largely broke away from many of the stylistic components and literary elements that were used by them.[34] James Joyce held Yeats in high regard; Joyce had read all of Yeats’ prose works and both men held one another with immense respect as authors.[35] Despite this admiration of Yeats, in his writings Joyce showed a preference to depicting a more realistic Dublin which included portraying Ireland’s lower class and the day to day strife these people faced.[36] Joyce favoured the real world conditions in Dublin to the inclusion of Classical and Irish mythology used by other writers of this time,[37] including Yeats.

Dubliners[edit]

Written in August of 1904 and intermittently revised through September 1907, James Joyce’s Dubliners – a collection of short stories that portray different aspects of life in early twentieth century Dublin - was published in 1914. The critical reception of Joyce’s collection was lackluster and for many years, Dubliners was overshadowed by Joyce’s other publications, receiving only tepid reviews when it was published.[38]

While initially thought by critics to be a collection of unrelated short stories, more recent scholarship on Dubliners suggests that there is a thread of images and themes interwoven throughout the text, thus connecting the stories by a sort of literary structure.[39] With Dubliners, Joyce aimed to “...write a chapter of the moral history of Ireland.”[40] Some of these overarching themes include the progression from the individual to the public, from youth to some sort of maturity, a significance placed in darkness, and a thematic paralysis throughout many of the stories.[41] Scholars have agreed that Joyce’s individual short stories in this text can be grouped together[42] in threes and fours to evoke a sense of progression through life.[43] Specifically, the groups that make up the fifteen stories found in Dubliners trace a person’s life by starting in childhood, progressing to adolescence, maturity and public life,[44] culminating in death, which is evocative of the collection’s final story, “The Dead”.[45] Another element that is prevalent through the text is certain types of paralysis, particularly a spiritual paralysis that is felt by many of the characters.[46] In several stories, it is explicitly mentioned that it is raining, misty or otherwise unpleasant in terms of weather, and it has been said that this could be due to Joyce’s desire to portray a realistic Dublin. Other critics disagree, stating that the darkness of Dubliners is meant to be symbolic, and represent the darkness that Irish people are surrounded in culturally, religiously, and politically.[47]

“The Sisters”[edit]

The collection begins with a first person narrative of young boy pondering the death of Father Flynn, a priest with whom he is acquainted. He goes home and finds his aunt, uncle and Old Cotter discussing the death, despite how uncomfortable this conversation makes the boy feel.[48] The following day, the boy sees a death notice about the priest, and while initially feeling a strange sense of freedom as a result of the death, he and his aunt attend the wake later that evening. After seeing the body, the boy and his aunt sit down with the sisters of the deceased, and have a conversation about the events leading to and following the priest’s death, and his struggles and failures in dealing with this role.[49]

This opening story sets up the tone and imagery that is largely found throughout Dubliners. There is a recurring image of paralysis throughout this collection,[50] which is evident from the opening paragraph, when the narrator says that Father Flynn had suffered paralyzing strokes in the past and also when the narrator describes himself as repeating the word “paralysis”[51] every time he passes the priest’s house. This repetition is furthered when the narrator “...imaged [he] saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic…I wondered why it smiled continually…then I remembered that it had died of paralysis…”.[52] This paralysis is further reiterated with the repeated mentions of the idleness of the priest’s body in the coffin, and the poignant pauses in the conversation between the boy and his aunt, Nannie and Eliza.[53]

This establishes one of the overarching themes of the story; the boy and his surroundings are almost paralyzed, and he is aware of this, evident by his repetition and recognition of this concept. He is consciously documenting the lack of movement and the significance of paralysis in his life. With this to build on, “The Sisters” establishes the paralysis and trapped feeling that Dubliners have actually felt, in this case, in terms of mortality and to an extent, religion.[54] This story sets up the theme of Dubliners creating “...thwarted and defeated human being[s].”[55]

“Araby”[edit]

Completed in 1905,[56] “Araby” is the third story in Dubliners. It is written in first person narrative and this is important, as the narrative is then related through a limited voice, and thus, the story is dominated by “...a central consciousness.”[57] “Araby” tells the story of a boy living in urban Ireland who is infatuated with his companion’s sibling, known as Mangan’s sister.[58] When the boy eventually speaks with her, she asks him if he is going to the Araby, a bazaar she will be unable to attend due to a prior engagement, despite her interest in attending. The boy swears he will go to the Araby and bring her back a present. When the evening of the Araby arrives, the boy’s uncle says he will give him money when he returns home later that day. The boy waits until the evening when his uncle finally arrives, having forgotten his promise. The boy arrives at the Araby as it is winding down; the boy cannot afford the more desirable gifts, and he is largely ignored by the Araby staff. As the lights turn off, the boy is overcome with feelings of defeat and self-loathing.[59]

Falling into the youth group of stories, this text shows the themes that reverberate through Irish short stories. The boy lives in impoverished conditions, embodying the impoverished urban life in Dublin. The narrator describes his street at the opening of the story; he states “...An uninhabited house...stood at the blind end [of the street], detached from its neighbours....”[60] This mimics the feelings of isolation and alienation much of the population of Ireland felt due to the political and religious strife in their country. By noting the house apart from the others, Joyce demonstrates the separation present in Ireland. It may be one street or country, but in reality, there is alienation between neighbours. Joyce created this Dublin to look dreary and paralyzing, and “Araby” evokes a feeling of being trapped. This is evident with the narrator’s repetition of ‘blind’ when he describes his surroundings, stating “North Richmond Street, being blind was a quiet street...An uninhabited house...stood at the blind end....”.[61] This repetition leads to feeling trapped, as though there is no escape from this alienated street or lifestyle.

Joyce creates a contrast between lightness and darkness,[62] and in doing so creates a dichotomy for the narrator’s affection. The narrator’s surroundings are dark and depressing. The houses have “...brown imperturbable faces.”[63], he describes the air as musty, and explains a priest has died in his home. As winter approaches, he describes the houses had “...grown sombre…”[64] by the time he enters the darkened streets after dinner. Joyce creates the narrator’s surroundings to be bleak; they are lackluster and dark, and in many ways represent the “dirty Dublin” Joyce loved to portray.[65]

This darkness shifts when the narrator sees Mangan’s sister; he describes her as “...defined by the light of the half - opened door…”.[66] Illuminated amongst the darkness of the narrator’s surroundings, the definition of her figure by the light almost becomes angelic in its nature. Furthermore, the narrator states that “Every morning, I lay on the floor...watching her door.”[67] She becomes both “...a part of the atmosphere of North Richmond Street, yet something apart from it.”[68] His infatuation in full swing, the boy watches her in the morning light and this contrasts the time of day typically depicted in Dubliners, which is usually at dusk or night.[69] It contrasts between the narrator’s bleak life, and the object of his affection; Mangan’s sister is the narrator’s light.

At the end of the story when he arrives at the Araby, the boy is alienated by his surroundings and the people in the bazaar. He comes to a realization, “I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real.”[70] He realizes he will not win the affection of Mangan’s sister through a gift from the Araby, and at this moment, “The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.”[71] He loses his hope, and thus, loses the light, solidified when he declares he was “Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity…”[72] With the removal of the boy's light comes the disintegration of the boy's hope.

Joyce received criticism about his representation of the Araby in his story.[73] The Araby is based on a real event; in 1894 James Joyce attended the “Araby: A Grand Oriental Fête” in Dublin.[74] However, this event was attended by over a third of Dublin’s population over the course of the week it ran, and was much more extravagant and busy than Joyce made it out to be in his story.[75] What this minimizing of the Araby does, however, is reiterate the feelings of paralysis that is felt throughout the entire collection. With the boy realizing his efforts to win the affection of Mangan’s sister at the Araby are futile, his optimism is halted, and he becomes paralyzed in his self - loathing. By minimizing the Araby and creating an anticlimax, Joyce has achieved a realistic depiction of the disappointments of youth.

References[edit]

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