31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 12: “Grace” by James Joyce

May 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Dubliners

In Catholic theology, grace is a supernatural gift bestowed on believers by a benevolent God. It is through the operation of divine grace that believers are able to obtain eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. In less lofty circles, a “grace period” is given to debtors to allow them time to raise money to pay off their debts. Both meanings are germane to James Joyce’s comic tale.

The central figure in the story, Tom Kernan, is a drunkard who is discovered face down in a bar, having fallen down the stairs after an heroic session of binge drinking. A friend of his, Mr. Power, rescues Kernan from the local constable, who would likely have thrown him in jail for public drunkenness, whereupon Mr. Power sees the other man home and promises Kernan’s wife that he will “make a new man out of him.” In modern terms, this involves what is known as an intervention. Power and several friends descend on Kernan’s bedroom, where he is recuperating from the mother of all hangovers, and convince him to accompany them to church, where they will “wash the pot” – that is, go to confession.

They don’t have an easy time of it. Initially, Kernan refuses even to admit that his delicate condition has anything to do with his massive drinking, let alone that he might need any kind of redemption:

– Pain? Not much, answered Mr Kernan. But it’s so sickening. I feel as if I wanted to retch off.

– That’s the boose, said Mr Cunningham firmly.

– No, said Mr Kernan. I think I caught a cold on the car. There’s something that keeps coming into my throat, phlegm or –

– Mucus, said Mr M’Coy.

– It keeps coming like from down in my throat; sickening thing.

– Yes, yes, said Mr M’Coy, that’s the thorax.

Moreover, although Kernan, who was raised Protestant, converted to Catholicism when he married, he has never been devout, preferring instead to give “side-thrusts at” the faith. For his wife’s part, she is no more devout than her husband, but thinks that any means of reforming him must be a good thing: “Her faith was bounded by the kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.”

It quickly becomes clear that the men who want to convert Kernan are not entirely knowledgeable about the theology they are espousing. Their dialogue is a combination of misinterpreted Catholic dogma and outright mistakes. Mr. Cunningham insists that “The General of the Jesuits stands next to the Pope” at mass, which is untrue, and later suggests that Pope Leo XIII was best known for the motto “Lux upon Lux,” a garbled admixture of Latin and English. He follows this with the even more absurd “Crux upon Crux,” which he claims to have been the motto of Leo XIII’s predecessor, Pope Pius IX. The men go on to elucidate a confused exegesis of the doctrine of papal infallibility, which is based on the 1870 Vatican Council declaration that the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from his chair). In the men’s tortured perception, this concept becomes a tautology:

– There they were at it, all the cardinals and bishops and archbishops from all the ends of the earth and these two fighting dog and devil until at last the Pope himself stood up and declared infallibility a dogma of the Church ex cathedra.

The irony here is that although the men evince scant understanding of the concepts they are discussing, their faith is sincere, as is their desire to help Kernan.

Aside from their questionable theology lessons, the men are able to convince Kernan to accompany them to “wash the pot” in part by telling him that the priest who will be officiating is Father Purdon, “a man of the world like ourselves.” The turn of phrase is telling, for it is here that the twin meanings of the story’s title begin to show themselves. On one level, it is obvious that the men performing the intervention want Kernan to experience the divine grace that comes with confessing his sins and promising to reform his wayward behaviour. On another level, however, Joyce is conflating ideas of religion and commerce in a way that lends the meaning of his story a pervasive ambiguity.

As it turns out, when Kernan fell down the pub stairs, he was in the company of Mr. Harford, a moneylender. When Harford’s name comes up in Kernan’s room, it sends a chill of disquiet throughout the group:

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, of 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. At other times they remembered his good points.

The implication is that when Kernan met Harford in the bar, Kernan “remembered [Harford’s] good points”: he was there to borrow money. When he goes with Power, M’Coy, and Cunningham to the church, Kernan begins “to feel more at home” as he “recognise[s] familiar faces,” one of which belongs to Harford.

Then Father Purdon ascends the pulpit: “Father Purdon knelt down, turned towards the red speck of light and, covering his face with his hands, prayed.” Purdon is the name of the street in Dublin’s notorious red light district that once housed its brothels. By invoking this name and by having the priest kneel down facing “the red speck of light” that is suspended above the altar, Joyce is making an explicit connection between organized religion and prostitution (or – at the very least – commerce). That Purdon is “a man of the world” becomes clear in the Bible text he reads:

For the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. Wherefore make unto yourselves friends out of the mammon of iniquity so that when you die they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.

The text is from Luke 16, but Purdon alters it tellingly: the original translation reads, “… so that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.” The text is a part of the parable of the unjust steward, which famously ends “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Purdon’s alterations and elisions turn the Bible passage into something much more favourable toward commerce and the business of money than it actually is. As Hope Howell Hodgekins points out, “In Luke 16, Jesus’ irony verges upon cynicism.” In Purdon’s conception, however, “Jesus Christ was not a harsh taskmaster.” There is no conflict between worldliness and Godliness in Purdon’s eyes, and the priest concludes by aligning himself directly with mammon when he compares himself to an accountant.

Significantly, Joyce’s story ends before Kernan makes his confession. It is not certain whether his immortal soul has been saved, or whether he will return to the worldliness represented by Harford the moneylender. Of course, given Joyce’s critique of organized religion as epitomized in the person of Father Purdon, religion and mammon aren’t shown to be all that far removed in the first place.

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