Monday, January 3, 2011

The Bully In Us

Have you ever taken out your anger on someone, whom you know cannot give it right back to you and hence you are safe from being at the receiving end. The anger would be an impotent one in that, your superior could have berated you, client could have thrashed you or simple some discontent with life in general or pure and simple jealousy. You obviously feel that you cannot give it back to you superior/client and so take it out on some like your sub-ordinate who won't respond (who in turn could very well pass this on to the one below him). At the worst, you take it out on your family, who don't know what's happening, but try to give your rants some legitimacy by saying/guessing that you are behaving so because of some external trouble. Well, this has happened to me and I guess to a lot of others too. This is the base of two short stories, 'A Little Cloud' and 'Counterparts' by James Joyce in the collection 'Dubliners' (published 1910)

'Little' Chandler is main protagonist in A little cloud. A wannabe poet, who 'when he thought of life became sad and melancholy' and has resigned to the fact that 'it is useless to struggle against fortune'.  He is someone who is just barely happy with this current life, with discontent just bubbling under the surface, though he himself may not be aware of it. He is married with a very small child. As the story starts, he leaves his office to meet an old friend 'Gallaher' who has left Dublin and gone to London and is working as a reporter. Meeting him seems to Chandler to be a high point in his daily mundane existence and he looks scornfully at the other people in the streets. He is to meet him at 'Corleys' which is apparently a prestigious bar/pub because Chandler is excited about that too. His mood is pretty good at this point.
He meets Gallaher and the two exchange greeting and talk about old times/friends. Chandler asks him about the places where he has gone abroad especially Paris. He wants to know if it is as immoral as it is being said by others. Gallaher has gone to lots of places abroad and gives Berlin the pride of place in immorality.
Gallaher was a go getter right from his younger days. Though he was not to be reputed as one with any special talent, but his attitude as as go getter has taken him away from Dublin to the lights of London. Chandler envies him a bit, but it is only a normal feeling and he does not wish Gallaher anything bad. 
Chandler drinks lot more than he normally does, Gallaher exhorts him to be more outgoing, wants him to free himself up more. Before he leaves, Chandler invites Gallaher to his home, Gallher is sorry about not being able to come since he has another appointment. Chandler leaves.the bar.
His mood changes at this point. His normal envy gives way to the more dangerous one when one starts losing control. He thinks about Gallaher, how he was inferior to him and yet has become more successful than him. His mood worsens and he even becomes resentful about life in general. He reaches home and finds that he has forgotten to buy coffee powder that his wife had asked. His wife goes out to buy it. We get the person that she is a person who runs the show in their house which is not to say that she dominates him, but she is a counter foil to his fragility. After she leaves, Chandler walks around his wife and sees a photo of his wife. Now he actually wonders why he married her in the first place. He has reached a state of breaking point. He then starts reading poems by Byron, when the child starts crying a bit. He tries to rock and comfort him, but the crying does not stop. Chandler snaps at this point and shouts at his son. The baby starts crying harder and Chandler suddenly comes out the cloud (as it were) that has been hanging over him for some time now. He tries to comfort the kid, but to no avail. His wife Annie comes back at this point and starts consoling the kid.
While watching the two, Chandlers eyes well up with tears of remorse. The story ends. One can empathize with Chandler's feelings and the tears of remorse at the end are as much an act of redemption for his acts as they could be possibly for himself, for the realization that he alone is to be blamed for his current state. Who knows about it. But the tears reveal to the reader that the cloud has lifted and probably Chandler will go back to his state of melancholy and life will proceed as before.

'Counterparts', in the same collection is based on the same theme. But here the protagonist "Farrington' is a much more despicable character. He is some some sort of junior level personnel at an office. He is also shown to be a drunkard and one who does not much care for his work. On that particular day of the story, he has a bust up with his boss and his mood worsens due to that. He leaves office to get drunk. Realizing that he has no money, he pawns his watch chain. The self destructive streak that is present in most of us manifests in this. He meets his friends in the pub and they start drinking. They go on a tour of the pubs. At the last pub, he gets into an test of strength with a much younger person and loses it. He also sees a woman in the pub and though she seems interested in him, things go no further. His mood further worsens and he is in a foul temper when he reaches home. It is revealed that he is married and has 5 kids, which makes his irresponsibility even worse. His wife is one who in Joyce's words 'she bullied her husband when he was not drunk and was bullied by him when he was'. This gives some clue on the sort of home the kids are growing up. One feels for the kids who grow up in such environments.His wife is not there and he asks the son who opens the door (whose name he does not remember), whether dinner is ready. When he sees that the fire is out, his impotent rage reaches its climax and he starts brutally beating his son, who begs his father to spare him. The story ends here.
Compared to Chandler, Farrington is a real brute, though the mention about his wife makes one think whether there is some thing else here. But over and above everything one feels for the kids of this bullying couple. 
Two stories, two somewhat similar persons, but the common point is the strong dominating the weak and the stronger dominating the strong. 
Joyce has a tremendously forbidding reputation for some one trying to read him. But 'Dubliners', to me is his most accessible work and has some little gems of short stories, which are relevant even today. (Have not read his Ulysses, Finnegan's wake and could only get through half of 'A Potrait of The Artist as A Young Man'). Dubliners in that sense is a good place to get acquainted with one who is said to be one of the most influential persons in modernist literature.  Try it, you will not be disappointed. 
Note: The collection has characters who are prickly, outright despicable, generally people who want to get out of their lives, there are not much happy characters here

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