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Interpretation of Grace from Dubliners, by James Joyce

The text of Dubliners seems to be born out of ambiguity, for few, if any of Joyce’s tales lead a reader to any definite conclusions. Perhaps this is what makes Dubliners so interesting to scholars, and of all the stories it contains, few are as ambiguous as Grace.

To begin an interpretation, it is helpful to look at the structure of the story. Grace begins, oddly enough, in a bar—hardly the place to find good Christians—and gives the reader a few background scenes on Mr. Kernan. It appears early on that Mr. Kernan has few redeeming qualities. He is found face down—drunk—in a bathroom with part of his tongue bitten off. Except for the charity shown by others, he would have been in some trouble with the local constable. In the early part of the story, it is difficult to see where the title Grace comes into play, for the only situations that could possibly be called "graceful" are when the young man in the cycling suit who helps wash some of the blood from Mr. Kernan‘s injury, and when Mr. Power offers to take him home.

It is a few days later that the story takes a turn. Joyce uses similar plot twists throughout Dubliners, so the reader has been prepared for unlikely changes in the direction of his stories. Also, Joyce adds a bit of foreshadowing when Mr. Power pledges to Mrs. Kernan that he and his friends will "make a new man of him". The turn comes in this scene—

He was quite unconscious that he was the victim of a plot which his friends, Mr Cunningham, Mr M'Coy, and Mr Power had disclosed to Mrs Kernan in the parlour. The idea had been Mr Power's, but its development was entrusted to Mr Cunningham.

At this point, it is still unclear what the plot turn is, but a few days later, when the three friends confront Mr. Kernan in his bedroom, we discover their intentions. The men begin an almost comedic discussion of their vague notions of religion, and confess that they are going to "wash the pot" together. What is funny about the scene is that they coax Mr. Kernan into "washing the pot" and going to church, but none of them really practice their own faith or even understand it. The men talk obtusely about their vague recollections of Popes and Cardinals and the Jesuit order, but they have very little understanding of what they are saying. Still, the reader feels good for the friends because, although they are not high-class sophisticates, they are trying to improve their ethics and help their friend. Several blunderings about the specifics of religion seem appropriate, since they are drinking whisky throughout the discussion. This is especially ironic considering their discussion of the infallibility of the Pope. They are highly fallible in their modest knowledge of the concept, and in their daily lives. Still, they mean well, and the reader feels sympathetic towards them.

Also in the bedroom scene, the reader learns that the accident in the bar came after Mr. Kernan had met with Mr. Harford. The meeting (we are left to assume) was for Mr. Kernan to borrow money, since Mr. Harford was known for such things. Mr. Cunningham‘s "moral intention", when he says, "Hm" gives the reader this clue.

Joyce uses a motif of debt throughout Grace. Debt is mentioned several times, as stated about Mr. Kernan‘s friend, Mr. Power.

Mr Power was one of these friends. His inexplicable debts were a byword in his circle; he was a debonair young man.

Also, Joyce mixes the debt motif with religion, following up on Mr. Kernan‘s revelation of his meeting with Mr. Harford. Joyce describes the history of Mr. Harford briefly—

He had begun life as an obscure financier by lending small sums of money to workmen at usurious interest. Later on he had become the partner of a very fat, short gentleman, Mr Goldberg, in the Liffey Loan Bank. Though he had never embraced more than the Jewish ethical code, his fellow-Catholics, whenever they had smarted in person or by proxy under his exactions, spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew and an illiterate, and saw divine disapproval of usury made manifest through the person of his idiot son.

The motif returns in the final scene and turns out to be quite important to the meaning of Grace. Joyce often uses motifs, symbols and other devices to hint at the meanings of his works.

Joyce uses the early parts of his stories to give the reader background information about his characters, and Grace is no exception. The reader learns very early what manner of person Mr. Kernan is in the bar, and brief histories of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Power, and Mr. M‘Coy give just enough information to understand their relationships. The only character that Joyce goes into any detail on, though, is Mr. Kernan. Joyce uses the device of Mrs. Kernan‘s memory to relate his "softer" character—

She accepted his frequent intemperance as part of the climate, healed him dutifully whenever he was sick and always tried to make him eat a breakfast. There were worse husbands. He had never been violent since the boys had grown up, and she knew that he would walk to the end of Thomas Street and back again to book even a small order.

Ultimately, though, it is Mr. Kernan‘s accident and drinking binge that instigates the three friends to coerce him into going to church, and this is what sets up the whole story.

The title Grace, it seems, refers to several things hroughout the story. Among them is the most obvious, the friends coaxing Mr. Kernan to go to church and the role religion plays, but there are a few minor points of "grace" that give the reader the impression that Joyce is playing with the text. There is the scene in which Mrs. Kernan describes her marriage—

In her days of courtship, Mr Kernan had seemed to her a not ungallant figure . . .[She was] leaning on the arm of a jovial well-fed man, who was dressed smartly in a frock-coat and lavender trousers and carried a silk hat gracefully balanced upon his other arm.

Also, there is the "grace" of the men who help Mr. Kernan in the bar. A few other small references to situations or people that could be looked on as "graceful" and the word "grace" is used several times.

Overall, the meaning of the title is playful, almost a joke. The picture of these four unlikely candidates with grace seems ironic at best, and the way they understand religion seems like a sketch from late-night television. It is with warmth, though, that the reader can laugh at these figures, because they are honestly trying to affect change in Mr. Kernan‘s life. Indeed, at the end of the story, he seems to have become quickly converted and penitent—

Well, I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God's grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts.

It is difficult, however, to believe the strength of Mr, Kernan‘s convictions. People of his age, as his wife agrees, do not change that readily. Still, there is a strong sense of hope that he will change, and Joyce leaves us with this ambiguous ending and a set of characters that are likable, if not fallible. This is what Joyce does so well in the text of Dubliners. He gives us, in each story, a set of characters; he focuses on one or two, and he tells a story about them. Each of the stories carries its own meaning to the reader, and each one can be made personal.

The final two stories, Grace and The Dead share a strong sense of resonance in their endings. This may be simply because they make no final analysis of themselves, although they do speak to the soul of the reader. The Dead makes its sorrowful point in contrast to Grace‘s light-hearted account of a serious theme. Perhaps Grace is the culmination of the composition of Dubliners, since it was to be the original ending of the book. Apparently, though, Joyce was not satisfied enough with its manner, and so continued with The Dead. Whatever Joyce‘s view of his own writing, Grace can stand on its own merit—alone, or as part of the collection.

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Works Cited

Joyce, James Dubliners,  New York:Penguin, 1993

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