Joyce’s “The Encounter”

Though I prefer Joyce’s short story “Evaline” to his story “An Encounter, ” I think “An Encounter” introduces a more dominant theme in his works, sexual dysfunction. It’s a strange story. If it wasn’t for his later works, it might even seem to be nothing more than one of those enigmatic moments that sticks in our brain for some unknown reason. It would certainly be easy to dismiss it if Joyce didn’t give the event more significance by contrasting it to “the restraining influence of the school.”

The narrator, a boy of unspecified age, is just beginning to be sexually attracted to women but has not yet had a girl friend. The “encounter” in the story is preceded by a discussion of events that take place at school.

The adventures related in the literature of the Wild West were remote from my nature but, at least, they opened doors of escape. I liked better some American detective stories which were traversed from time to time by unkempt fierce and beautiful girls. Though there was nothing wrong in these stories and though their intention was sometimes literary they were circulated secretly at school.

There’s so much going on in this “simple” paragraph that it’s hard to know what to see as significant. “Doors of escape” implies that school does more than impose self-discipline; it imprisons its students. I’m not sure what is meant by “unkempt fierce and beautiful girls,” but I’m fairly sure it’s not the Madonna-version of women promoted by Catholic schools. Then, of course, there’s the implication in the phrase “circulated secretly” of the appeal of the forbidden.

Instead of the reprimand convincing the narrator that the school’s view of women is the correct one, it seems to convince him of the need to escape their influence:

This rebuke during the sober hours of school paled much of the glory of the Wild West for me and the confused puffy face of Leo Dillon awakened one of my consciences. But when the restraining influence of the school was at a distance I began to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me. The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the intention of the Catholic teachers to create a “hunger again for wild sensations” and to convince the boy that “real adventures” must be “sought abroad.”

I don’t think it’s accidental that Joyce preceded his remembrance of this encounter with these incidents at school if he didn’t see a connection between them. Of course, skipping school leads directly to his encounter with the strange old man, but the old man’s story contains the same kind of schizophrenic split that the boy feels between his reading and its forbidden nature.

At first the old man appears benevolent enough, simply interested in the two boys who are playing hooky and in engaging them in conversation. He seems to favor the narrator, drawn by his bookish interests, referring to literary works I’m only vaguely familiar with. Then, however, he begins discussing “little girls” and how appealing they are.

Every boy, he said, has a little sweetheart.

His attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal in a man of his age. In my heart I thought that what he said about boys and sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the words in his mouth and I wondered why he shivered once or twice as if he feared something or felt a sudden chill. As he proceeded I noticed that his accent was good. He began to speak to us about girls, saying what nice soft hair they had and how soft their hands were and how all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew. There was nothing he liked, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair. He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. At times he spoke as if he were simply alluding to some fact that everybody knew, and at times he lowered his voice and spoke mysteriously as if he were telling us something secret which he did not wish others to overhear. He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice. I continued to gaze towards the foot of the slope, listening to him.

Though it seems a little strange that an old man would suddenly begin talking about little girls with young boys, there’s nothing particularly disturbing about the man’s views at first. It’s not the kind of talk the boys would have heard from their teachers, certainly, but it seems like common sense. Little boys at a certain age normally find little girls soft skin and beautiful hair attractive. Old men, however, should not find them magnetizing, and certainly not obsessively so.

The encounter takes a turn for the worse:

After a long while his monologue paused. He stood up slowly, saying that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slow | away from us towards the near end of the field. We remained silent when he had gone.

After a silence of a few minutes I heard Mahony exclaim:

—I say! Look what he’s doing!

As I neither answered nor raised my eyes Mahony exclaimed again:

I say … He’s a queer old josser!

The reader can never be sure “what he’s doing,” but it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess, especially when the conversation takes a much darker turn right after the old josser returns.

He began to speak on the subject of chastising boys. His mind, as if magnetised again by his speech, seemed to circle slowly round and round its new centre. He said that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping. A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good: what he wanted was to get a nice warm whipping. I was surprised at this sentiment and involuntarily glanced up at his face. As I did so I met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead. I turned my eyes away again. The man continued his monologue. He seemed to have forgotten his recent liberalism. He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him. I waited till his monologue paused again. Then I stood up abruptly. Lest I should betray my agitation I delayed a few moments pretending to fix my shoe properly and then, saying that I was obliged to go, I bade him good-day. I went up the slope calmly but my heart was beating quickly with fear that he would seize me by the ankles. When I reached the top of the slope I turned round and, without looking at him, called loudly across the field: —Murphy!

One can only conjecture that the old josser had been punished precisely this way for having had a secret girlfriend or lying to an adult about his feelings for a girl. It sounds remarkably like the kind of canings that used to happen in Catholic schools, though it’s also entirely possible it was the kind of punishment he received from a parent.

How that kind of punishment has become something the old josser “loved … better than anything in this world” is beyond my understanding, though I’m sure Freud must have offered some theories on it.

Seems to me the narrator had a “real adventure” and didn’t have to seek it abroad.

Joyce’s “Eveline

Having just finished Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, I was pleasantly surprised by the stories in his first published work The Dubliners. In hindsight (the best kind of sight, obviously) I wish I had started with The Dubliners, since many, if not most, of the themes found in Ulysses can be found in these stories, and, unlike Ulysses, the stories are crystal clear, their starkness reminding me of Hemingway’s stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” which appeared a few years later or even some of the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, like the famous “Richard Cory.”

The poetic, four-and-a half-page “Eveline” focuses on the kind of destructive home life that Joyce and his siblings apparently suffered. In this case, though, the story focuses on a daughter’s decision on whether or not to flee the family and save herself while leaving her younger siblings behind.

Most readers would quickly agree Eveline has every justification for leaving.

But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl; but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And now she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages—seven shillings —and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn’t going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad of a Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday’s dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions.

As an ex-caseworker and teacher this kind of abusive father is all too familiar. In the first few pages, Joyce has the reader convinced Eveline is going to run away to save herself, and justifiably so though there’s a small hint she is having second thoughts.

She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work—a hard life—but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.

Second thoughts are understandably a part of making such a drastic decision, but the reader wonders in what way is the life she has just described not a “wholly undesirable life”. It’s one thing to sacrifice your happiness for the sake of children left in your care; it’s something quite different to see that decision as anything but the self-sacrifice it is.

This moment of self-doubt is quickly followed by the realization that if she stays her life will be sacrificed, just as her mother’s life was:

As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy?

Even in this moment of clarity, though, there’s the suggestion of doubt in the phrase “perhaps love, too.”? Could you really justify running away to a foreign country with a man you didn’t love?

None of these doubts, though, quite prepare the reader for the ending of the story. At the station as the two are about to elope, Eveline suddenly pulls away as her lover is pushed ahead with the rush of he crowd:

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish!

—Eveline! Evvy!

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

Haunting eyes. Not the eyes of someone who has consciously decided to save her younger brothers and sisters. The eyes of someone totally defeated, unable to love or even to regret the sacrifices we sometimes demand of ourselves.

Considering most of Joyce’s works are considered biographical, it’s hard not to wonder if he didn’t feel guilty at times for leaving his younger brothers and sisters behind when he fled to Europe with his wife, knowing at the same time that failing to leave would have made his life unbearable.

Some Opening Comments on Joyce’s Ulysses

As long-time readers may recall, one of my goals in turning this blog from a political blog to a “literary blog” was to focus on books that had been sitting on the shelf since I attended college. I have cleared away nearly all the poetry books I bought back in college. However, I still have a few classic novels sitting on the shelf that I purchased from a book club while attending college with every intention of reading them much earlier in my life.

Thus, when a group of bloggers I know decided to read Joyce’s Ulysses as a group, I decided it was finally time to read Joyce’s three books I had on the shelf. Some preliminary reading suggested it would be a good idea to begin with Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist, so I finished that rather quickly before starting Ulysses. While it wasn’t a favorite, it was a fairly enjoyable read, and I finished it in two days.

However, I have spent most of the last two weeks struggling through Joyce’s Ulysses, finally finishing it last night. I’m a fairly fast reader, and it probably should not have taken more than 15 hours to read the book. That obviously didn’t happen. At some points I found the novel almost impenetrable/unbearable. In fact, I rented the movie Ulysses from Amazon and watched it twice within 7 days to try figure out the sequence of events. I even bought a newer movie, “Bloom” which I’ll be watching before I actually try to say something literate about the book. I also found and watched an hour-long biography of Joyce online and watched it twice. The plot summary at Wikipedia also helped me to keep track of what was going on in the novel. I did, however, refuse to buy Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, a 694 page book explaining the many references found in the novel. I have no desire to become an expert on Ulysses, thank you.

It took me three days, and several naps, to get through one particularly obscure 60 page section of the book. At times I was tempted to skip long passages of the novel, particularly long lists of names that meant nothing to me, but I resisted the temptation and read every single word, though I make no claims to actually understanding everything, or even most, of what I read.

Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations for the novel since it was rated the best novel of the 20th century by several different sources. Let me just say that if I’d been told that as a senior in high school and I had read this book, I would never have changed my college major from physics to English, exactly what I did after discovering Thomas Hardy’s novels.

I doubt that this novel would even make my top 50 books of the 20th century though, in retrospect, I can see how it might have been one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century. Thomas Hardy is sometimes considered the first modern novelist, but the style of his novels seems ancient compared to Joyce’s style in Ulysses. I can even see where many of my favorite novels might have been inspired by this work.

The book raises many questions, but strangely the main question it raises for me, which has very little to do with the book itself, is what is MY criteria for a great novel. It’s obvious that my criteria is obviously quite different from those critics who argue that this is the greatest novel of the 20th century. I’ve never really thought much in terms of “favorites,” whether it be songs, movies, books, or, even, birds. I don’t even know if I would be capable of compiling a list of the 100 best books I’ve read, though I do have a short list of books that have made the greatest impression on my life.

A few favorites, in more-or-less chronological order, are Melville’s Moby Dick, Clemens’ Huckleberry Finn, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Heller’s Catch-22, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not sure what that tells me about my criteria, but all of them either introduced me to new insights into myself or into the society I live in. All of them made me re-examine my own beliefs and ideas. Some author’s, like Faulkner, for instance, are known for their uniques writing style. Others, are admired despite their “lack of style.” I like to say that I most admire a “simple” style, though Faulkner definitely doesn’t qualify as having a simple style, and I probably admire his sentence structure, his multiple uses of clauses, more than any other writer, except perhaps Hemingway’s very different style.

It’s pretty clear that “style” is not one of the main factors I use in judging a novel. Though I do admire some writer’s eloquence, it’s the ideas behind the eloquence that determine whether the novel becomes a favorite.

It’s also clear that when I encountered a novel plays a major part in determining my reaction to it. For instance, I happened to read Jude the Obscure at precisely the moment I began to realize that all may academic skills and the number of colleges recruiting me was not going to help me to get into some of the elite colleges that wanted me to consider them. My parents’, and my, lack of money was going to be a major determining factor, that and my unwillingness to borrow money to pay for tuition and board and room. In other words, I actually identified with Jude, and still do many years later. Luckily, my future wasn’t as bleak as Jude’s: I was going to go to a local college and live at home, but I was going to go to college. This sense of identifying with the major character(s) seems like an important part of my criteria for a good novel.

I’ve already written about some of these novels and pointed out that a friend sent me Heller’s Catch-22 while I was stationed in Vietnam and I could hardly get through more than a 100 pages before I put it away. It was several years after I returned that I encountered it again in a graduate course that it became a favorite. My Vietnam experience gave me the background I needed to fully appreciate the author’s insights into life. Recent years have given me an even greater appreciation of Milo Minderbinder.

I suspect that if I’d read Ulysses earlier in my life I might have been more impressed with it, though I doubt I would have understood it any better. It is, without a doubt, the most innovative novel of the early 20th century, years before its time.

The book would probably have been more meaningful if I had been Irish, or even if I had been Catholic. Heck, it would probably have been more meaningful if I believed in the concept of sin, but I don’t, and, as far as I can tell, I never have believed in it, though I’m all too familiar with making mistakes, sometimes profound mistakes that have affected my whole life.

Perhaps the novel would have seemed more profound if I had been Anti-Semitic but, having been raised in the Pacific Northwest I hardly recognized anyone’s religion, nor, as far as I can tell, did I ever personally know a Jew until I went into the army. At Fort Knox Officer’s Training I ended up running around with Jewish lawyers who had graduated from NYU. I had no idea they were Jewish until another officer asked me why would run around with “those kikes.” I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about or why it was his concern who the hell I ran around with.

I’ll be out-of-town birding for a while, but I’ll have more to say about The Dubliners, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses when I return.