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Jimmy Butts

Hellacious Hellenism: Joyce’s Cynical (and Affectionate) view of Ireland

Joyce once wrote, “No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland” (qtd. in Delany

257). While this quotation may sound bitterly cynical, Joyce kept looking back to his homeland

over the course of his writing career for inspiration. In this light, the cynicism that Joyce

projected toward Ireland might just not be cynicism in our contemporary understanding of the

word. In other words, in falling upon the heels of Irish Nationalism, Joyce rerouted the

perspective of the Irish into one of questioning, instead of attempting to provide the answers that

the patriotism of writers like Yeats, and Lady Gregory had. Critic David Daiches claims that one

of the forces that tugged at Joyce “was patriotism, both political and cultural, and this too he

eventually dismissed, resisting the claims of the “new” Irish literature of Lady Gregory, W. B.

Yeats, and others” (198). Because of this complicated relationship that Joyce experienced with

Ireland, a framework needs to be established in order that readers can comprehend Joyce’s

cynicism and longing for his homeland. That framework may be interestingly formed by looking

at Joyce’s writing through the lens of the ancient Greek philosophers, the Cynics.

With the publication of Dubliners, Joyce began a public criticism of Ireland, the likes of

which had not occurred in Irish literature previously. While an initial impression of Joyce’s view

of Ireland in Dubliners and specifically in “The Dead,” may show an irreverent cynicism

towards the Irish, Joyce lamented the sickness he saw within his country, and sought to remedy it

through a blatant attack on its symptoms. Despite what seems to be an overt attack on the

qualities of the Irish, Joyce opened a new depiction of the Irish people’s struggling relationship

with their country. According to Richard Ellman’s foundational biography on Joyce, which

sheds light on Joyce’s complex cynicism and nostalgia toward Ireland, Joyce wrote, “I call the
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series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemoplegia or paralysis which many consider a city”

(Ellman 163). Joyce’s betrayal may not be strictly read as negativism, however; instead, a

careful reading at exactly what Joyce is criticizing should reveal an attempt to set right the

skewed state of his dear Irish contemporaries.

As a critic who sees Joyce’s attitude toward the Irish as strictly negative, Jean McGarry

writes, “That Joyce renders so exquisitely the different moods and atmospheres of a long holiday

party makes the story remarkable. That the ordeals he prepares for his characters are so utterly

deflating makes it unforgettable” (1164). However, while remarkable, “The Dead” is not

deflating, simply honest. Instead, in bold Hellenic fashion Joyce—in the same philosophical

vein of the ancient Greek Cynics, such as Diogenes—spoke out on the frustrations of his country

in order to duly uplift it and restore life to its “hemoplegia of the will,” as he called it. Critic

Brendan P. O’Hehir says it this way, “James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” is a morality play

cast in the form of an Aristotelian tragedy” (3). Although “The Dead” may sound bitter and

harsh in its treatment of Irish life, the story was in fact to be the resuscitation of the entire

collection of stories in its reconciliation of Joyce to Ireland. In looking at Joyce’s personal

commentary upon Ireland—for he is known to have both loved and reviled the country—and

through a careful reading of Joyce’s dealing with patriotism and cynicism in “The Dead,” I

believe that Joyce the cynic will emerge as an Irish optimist in his literary aims.

None of the writings of most influential of the Greek Cynics, Diogenes, remain, but we

have remnants of his philosophy through other Greek writers. Diogenes was seen as rejecting

the proactive assertions of the Hellenic political movement, and Joyce was seen as an offensive

exile of Ireland. Likewise, Joyce was criticized for his own anti-cultural worldview. Still, it was

Joyce’s intent to uplift Ireland. In one of his private letters he wrote, “My intention was to write
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a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city

seemed to me the centere of paralysis” (Qtd. In Delany 256). It is in these private confessions

that we are able to see Joyce’s true, and complicated, love and frustration for Ireland.

The Greek Cynic Diogenes and James Joyce have more in common philosophically than

might be otherwise noted, though, early in his career, Joyce mocked Hellenism. According to

Ellman’s biography, “He distrusted Plato […] and described Hellenism in an early notebook as

‘European appendicitis’ (103n). Nevertheless, Joyce eventually found inspiration in the Greeks

and adopted Hellenistic philosophy and imagery for his Irish based fiction. He later would buy

books of Greek mythology as a source for his fiction, and would name his semi-autobiographical

character a name of hyper-Greek origin, “Dedalus.”

One of the fundamental beliefs of the Cynics was the disenchantment and rejection of the

political polis, the Greek city-state, in deference to natural laws. “The inventor of the philosophy

known as Cynicism, Diogenes (c. 410-320 BC), would certainly have said that he was an

idealist.” “One of his claims was to be `a citizen of the cosmos' -- presumably because with his

`philosophy' he could live anywhere and get on with anyone. He certainly raised serious

questions of the relationship between city-state institutions and `natural law'. What attracted

people to Cynicism was its demand for absolute standards of moral integrity, whatever the

implications” (Jones 24). That is the role of the individual in institutional settings found certain

faults with Diogenes and Joyce alike. Likewise, Joyce rejected the political “city-state” aspects

of Dublin, so in Dubliners Joyce found a subtle way to condemn the frustrating political

aspirations that resulted from nationalism and to uplift the natural laws of the country. “After the

death of the Irish national leader, Parnell, in 1892 the confused ebb of post-Parnell Irish politics

added to the prevailing atmosphere of decay a note of muddled hopelessness that all the heroics
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of the Irish literary revival were unable to hide. It was into this mess that James Joyce grew up”

(197). As a result, Joyce was opposed to “patriotism,” and he condemned other writers, such as

Williiam Rooney, “for spoiling his art by patriotism,” referring to Rooney’s writing as employing

“those big words which make us so unhappy,” in other words “patriotism” (Ellman 112).

Joyce most directly and harshly criticizes those Irish political views in his story “Ivy Day

in the Committee Room,” but “The Dead” in stark contrast seeks to reconcile and approve

aspects of the more positive remnants of Irish society. Ellman claims, “To write the second story,

“The Dead,” Joyce had to come to a more indulgent view of Ireland” (230). The indulgent view

that Joyce takes is essentially one of appreciating the aspects of Ireland which he left behind,

while condemning the aspects of the country that he had become so cynical about. While a

modern definition of cynicism carries negative connotations, the classical view of Cynicism

proper carried with it a longing for change through a recommitment to the older, more natural,

ways and customs. Joyce also longed for change in Ireland, and expresses his distaste with the

state of things in the scene where Gabriel dances with Molly Ivors.

Gabriel Conroy reflects Diogenes’ cynicism toward his fatherland in “The Dead.” He

awkwardly avoids the questioning of the stereotypical Irish nationalist, Molly Ivors, during their

dance. She is described as “talkative,” modest, and patriotic, as “her collar bore on it an Irish

device” (187). She says to Gabriel, “I have a crow to pluck with you,” and criticizes him for

writing for a British paper, The Daily Express, under the initials “G.C.” (187). Her intense

patriotism is overwhelming and unnerving to Gabriel, as it would have been for Joyce, and as it

would have been for Diogenes. Here the frustration with politics is central to all three of these

men’s philosophies. Gabriel wants to respond to Molly “that literature was above politics” (188).

Then, for a short while Gabriel begins to feel more “at ease” while Molly’s talk becomes
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friendlier. However, she returns to bold patriotism again, inviting him on an excursion to the

Aran Isles in the west of Ireland. He objects, and the conversation becomes hostile once more.

Molly asks, “haven’t you your own land to visit,” “that you know nothing of, your own people,

and your own country?” (189). The next line with his reply reads, “O, to tell you the truth,

retorted Gabriel suddenly, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” (189), and when Ivors asks

why, he cannot answer. One critic, O’Hehir, explains, “Molly Ivors is a foil, an externalized

projection of a hidden aspect of Gabriel” (6). Yet, cynical towards Irish politics, Gabriel

questions, in the fashion of Diogenes, “Had she really any life of her own behind all her

propagandism?” (192). Thus, Gabriel cannot reconcile himself to an overt and aggressive

patriotism like Molly, and questions her foundational beliefs, that is what lies beneath her

nationalistic pose.

Still later, Molly Ivors, in all of her patriotic vigor cannot stay to dinner, and misses the

most essential aspect of Irishness, spending time with the family at dinner. Gabriel, when

remembering it at his speech, thinks, “she had gone away discourteously” (203). Thus, her Irish

Nationalism is discourteous, unmannerly, and in stark opposition to the fundamental aspects of

Ireland’s heart; Molly Ivors while patriotic is not hospitable, or of a kindly humour, thus she is

not a good kind of Irish. That is, she uses her Irish nationalism as antagonism as when she says

goodbye in Irish, a language that Gabriel does not speak, by saying, “Beannacht libh” (196).

Joyce used these moments of understanding, calling them “epiphanies,” for the uplift of

the Irish people, not to demoralize them. He wrote to his brother Stansislaus,

“Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and

what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying… to give people some kind of

intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into
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something that has a permanent artistic life of its own… for their mental, moral, and

spiritual uplift” (163).

The moral uplift of “The Dead” may not be apparent at first, but in Joyce’s subtle treatment of

the Irish characters, namely Gabriel, there is a certain sympathy. Joyce also wrote, “I seriously

believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people

from having one good look at themselves in my nicely-polished looking glass” (Qtd in Delany

257). While one consequence of looking in a mirror results in a vision of the Irish people’s

failings, Joyce made sure to include the admirable aspects of the people as well. Joyce would

not hold back in his careful Irish moral history, he showed everything.

Although Joyce does not write poetry that sings Ireland’s praise, he certainly writes a

complex literature that whispers its subtle admiration, and a longing for a renewed national

wholeness. In fact, like a remonstrating father, Joyce’s longing for nationalistic unity, and his

inherent love for the country, are most evident in Dubliners through his intense analysis of “dear

old dirty Dublin.” Joyce sympathetically wrote, “Sometimes thinking of Ireland it seems to me

that I have been unnecessarily harsh” (Ellman 231). However, in “The Dead” Joyce did succeed

in expressing a sympathy for the natural aspects of Ireland, while questioning the unnatural

political and cultural aspirations of the Irish people.

Gabriel’s struggle with Irish nationalism may be illuminated by this quotation of Joyce’s,

where he condemned his own bitter artistic treatment of Ireland, saying, “I have not reproduced

its [Ireland’s] ingenuous insularity and its hospitality” (231). And yet, Misses Morkan’s annual

dance is one of the clearest depictions of Irish hospitality in all of Dubliners, even in all of Irish

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After the dinner, the central event of the evening, has settled down, Gabriel begins his

powerful speech. In his speech, however, Gabriel, after rejecting the Irish nationalism posed by

Molly Ivors, embraces the natural qualities of Ireland along with its nostalgic attractions. The

dinner event reflects all of the hospitality that Joyce valued about Ireland, while the party

remains separate and isolated from the corrupt outside world. Gabriel compliments his aunts for

the hospitality they offer at their home. He says, “I feel more strongly with every recurring year

that our country has no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so

jealously as that of its hospitality. It is a tradition that is unique as far as my experience goes

(and I have visited not a few places abroad) among the modern nations” (202-203). Ellman

writes about this very quotation, “This was Joyce’s oblique way, in language that mocked his

own, of beginning the task of making amends” (245). Like Gabriel, Joyce had also traveled

Europe, but remained nostalgic toward Ireland’s rustic, natural way of life.

However, critic Jean McGarry reads the speech differently, writing that Gabriel “delivers

a phoney and fatuous after-dinner speech, waxing untypically sentimental about Ireland and the

dead relatives” (1165). While the speech is untypical in Joyce’s writing, the speech is far from

phony. She does not read Gabriel’s speech or Joyce’s view as moralizing. McGarry also

comments, “The phrases of the speech to come, although well-shaped, are a strange blend of

sentiment and cynicism” (1169). There is cynicism revealed in the story, as when Gabriel

blatantly exposes himself in his dance with Molly Ivors, but the dinner speech’s appreciation of

Irish hospitality is genuine. Gabriel is merely expressing the same views that Joyce himself held,

a value for the charming characteristics of Ireland, and a bitter distaste for its out of control

politics. While McGarry sees Gabriel’s dinner speech as “playing shamelessly to his audience”

with “unctuous flatteries, which lead to sappy praise of the very Irish qualities that, in his
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skeptical ways, Gabriel has always despised” (1169), it seems more logical to look at Gabriel’s

dinner speech as a carefully delineated praise and criticism of distinct aspects of Ireland’s


The speech continues in its admiration of Ireland. Gabriel says,

“A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and

new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even

when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a skeptical

and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new

generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of

hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day” (203).

Here, the Irish qualities of humanity and hospitality come from the past, from “The Dead,” not

from the “misdirected” youth of Joyce’s time, represented in the distasteful Molly Ivors. In a

sense, it seems that Gabriel believes that the Irish nationalists have lost the better aspects of their

Irishness. Or, in terms of the Greek Cynics we are using as a lens, the people seemed to be

trading politics for the natural laws of humanity, a bad trade in Joyce’s estimation.

Gabriel is the messenger, as his angelic name implies, in this narrative touting the

admiration and frustrations with the state of Ireland. His message, the dinner speech, heralds

Ireland’s praise at the end of a collection of short stories that condemns Ireland’s failings.

Interestingly, “Conroy” means “wise,” and while Richard Ellman cites several other inspirations

for the name in his biography, an acknowledgement of Gabriel’s wisdom in this last installment

of the collection of stories seems appropriate. Joyce wrote based upon his own life, so the

characters in the short story are based upon actual Dubliners whom he knew. “Most of the other

party guests were also reconstituted from Joyce’s recollections,” Ellman writes (246). This
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tendency of using Ireland and its people as his constant source for material show how connected

that Joyce remained in his mind to Ireland. His sympathies stayed with the people, while his

criticisms were developed toward the threats he saw in his homeland.

As the story progresses, the strikingly Irish songs that appear in the story reflect more of

Gabriel’s, and Joyce’s, coping with nationalism. “The only aspect of Dublin that he could accept

wholeheartedly was its love of song” (197). While we have seen that Joyce felt affectionate

about other aspects of Dublin, like its hospitality, the songs in the story certainly add another

dimension to the Irishness that Gabriel faces on this particular evening. The Lass of Aughrim is a

strongly west Irish song, and represents the savage, fundamental Irishness that Gabriel struggles

to reconcile himself to. However, his wife is moved by the piece as Bartel D’Arcy sings it at the

end of the evening, and it recalls to her mind her past, a past rife with elemental Irish character.

In the final scene of the story, as Gabriel looks out of the window contemplating, the

narrator says, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (223). Gabriel’s

journey westward is towards an acceptance of Irishness, a resignation to his heritage, or at least

that of his wife’s heritage. Gabriel, like Joyce, in this confrontation of the people of Dublin, and

farther west, like Galway, is forced to reconcile, to appreciate, and to fall in love with the old and

admirable aspects of Irishness. Therefore, like Diogenes and the rest of the original Cynics,

Joyce eschewed the political corruption of his country for the natural truths of Ireland:

hospitality, family, and tradition. Critic Paul Delany claims, “Joyce remained an anarchist, a

pacifist, and a foe of English imperialism” (265), and Joyce himself claimed, “For God’s sake

don’t talk politics. I’m not interested in politics” (Delany 266).

It seems obvious when Joyce is viewed through the lens of classical Cynicism, that he did

not hate his countrymen after he left Ireland, but simply longed for their improvement. Joyce
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never stopped looking westward as he traveled Europe, picking apart the heart of Ireland in

careful speculation and admiration. He rebuked Ireland’s shortcomings from his objective,

exiled stance, but let us not be cynical of his genuine love of Ireland too. For Joyce, like Gabriel,

and like Diogenes have been battered enough by the harsh politicos, yet “The Dead” shows

Joyce’s tenuous attempt at reconciliation with a long lost love, one that he had almost lost as

Gretta had Michael Furey, but Ireland, the hospitable, was more forgiving of Joyce, than time

had been for Michael.

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Works Cited

Daiches, David. “James Joyce: The Artist as Exile.” College English 2.3 (Dec 1940): 197-206.

Delany, Paul. “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners.” College English

34.2 (Nov 1972): 256-266.

Ellman, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Jones, Peter. “Ancient & Modern: Cynicism.” The Spectator 288.9055 (Feb 23, 2002): 24.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin, 1996.

McGarry, Jean. “Civility in Dublin.” MLN 113.5 (Dec 1998): 1160-1173.

O’Hehir, Brendan P. “Structural Symbol in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.” Twentieth Century Literature

3.1 (Apr 1957): 3-13.