Joyce apparently said many times that Dubliners is meant to be more like a novel than a collection of individual stories. At the same time, he also spoke to the process of writing Dubliners as one of gnomon, which Wikipedia summarizes as “the whole of a person revealed by a single part” but which also refers to a parallelogram with two segments (aka a corner) removed. A curious conflict given that the former is about representation and the latter, arguably, about erasure, or what is held back.
This feels different to me than deliberate (or otherwise) ambiguity, even if the resulting effect on trying to “interpret” such stories is very similar. There’s a very clear instance of this erasure in “The Encounter” when the older man walks away after their initial meeting:
“… I saw him walking slowly 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 at what he’s doing!
As I neither answered nor raised my eyes, Mahony exclaimed again:
–I say… He’s a queer old josser!
I don’t need previous experience reading Ulysses to guess that the erasure here is the older man masturbating. This is not just a prudent elision given the time and context of publication, but also leaves open to question the narrator’s understanding. Does he know what’s happening and chooses to ignore it, is he simply otherwise preoccupied, or is he in some way protecting himself because of past experience?
As one part of a larger puzzle, “An Encounter” is significantly more complex than it might be in another context. We have to consider not just the events of the story, but how the story fits into the larger picture Joyce is painting. The most salient question: should we allow the obvious perversion of the older man in the story to color our interpretation of “The Sisters?” There’s ample potential evidence of a story of molestation in the first story, but too many ways to view how it might (or might not) be connected to the second. Joyce could be painting any of a variety of pictures, signaling to the reader to reconsider the first story or making it clear that he can very easily convey such events clearly if he wishes to.
If anything, the boy’s lack of reaction to the man in “An Encounter” makes me think that retrospectively assigning sinister meaning to the first story is a mistake…
Joyce gets into the darker heart of obsession and monomania. The way the man spoke as if “magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind … slowly circling round and round in the same orbit.” This is a condition I know. I’ve felt it. Anyone who suffers from chronic depression or bi-polar disorder certainly has.
Such obsessions can focus on many things. In this case, the older man is supremely creepy. The simple line “every boy has a little sweetheart” made me shiver. But there were two moments in “An Encounter” that really shook me, and one of them is tied to the man’s erotic preoccupation. It comes when Joyce so clearly lays out the older man’s obsession:
“… 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…”
Chilling… yet the “unfolding of an elaborate” mystery precisely describes some of my most important experiences and engagements with the things that matter most to me.
The other shivery moment is the end of the story. Regardless of how much experience or knowledge of pedophilia we attribute to the narrator, he knows something is very, very wrong with the older man. The boy may not be mature enough to be a analytical about the aspects of Mahony he dislikes (in the weird world of Joycean narration, in which sometimes the characters sound like themselves and sometimes like some vastly older and more mature version of themselves—and this isn’t in any way limited to just the central character(s) we take to be representative of Joyce himself), but there’s no question in my mind that he not only feels the temptation to abandon Mahony, but actually does. Only belatedly calling out to him.
It’s a kind of immature (I assume, for most people, but not for me) attempt to both do a relatively wicked thing and absolve oneself of responsibility at nearly the same time. He doesn’t wholly leave Mahony to the older man, but neither does he go to him and escape the situation directly either. He leaves Mahony’s fate, for a few minutes at least, in the hands of fate… and than savors the feelings of penitence when fate is, apparently, on the same side as he:
“And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.”
I know almost nothing about Joyce as a person. Which is a distinct weakness when conversation turns—as it naturally does with a collection like Dubliners—to questions about autobiographical elements. Lanny raises some interesting questions about Joyce’s own personality, such as how Joyce’s own “bookishness” might have contributed to an anger at institutions that allowed, if not condoned, negative behavior toward him.
This is perfectly reasonable. The problem is I have no idea how autobiographical Dubliners is meant to be, nor which particular elements might be more so than others. Fresh Air broadcast an interesting interview with Woody Allen last year in which he talked about his childhood. Turns out Allen was, in fact, quite an athlete in multiple sports (track & field and baseball), was pretty happy at school, and was usually among the first picked for games. What is commonly attributed as autobiographical, his nerdy bookishness (and his sexual compensation, but that’s another thread altogether) and being such an outsider, isn’t true after all. Or at least not as reliably and predictably as it is usually treated.