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Sympathy and Joyce's
Tanja Vesala-Varttala. Sympathy and Joyce's Dubliners: Ethical Probing of Reading, Narrative, and Textuality. Tampere, Finland: Tampere UP, 1999. ii + 308 pp.
Dubliners occupies a curious position within Joyce studies. Although scholars continuously reinterpret individual stories and the collection, its extensive debt to literary realism sets it apart from Joyce's later experimental fiction. Dubliners seems to be "about" clear themes, such as paralysis, maturation, and day-to-day existence in "dear dirty Dublin"; while critics disagree over particular readings, the collection inspires an interpretive confidence seldom aroused by Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.
Tanja Vesala-Varttala's study productively unsettles such confidence. She argues that "Dubliners probes and problematizes sympathetic involvement" while the text draws attention to "similarities between sympathetic encounters and acts of reading." As she examines the ethical questions the stories raise, Vesala-Varttala uses narrative theory (particularly the work of Ross Chambers) to argue that the textual function of the tales surprises, challenges, and engages in dialogue with a reader who suddenly finds his or her moral certainties in question. Dubliners thus demonstrates that the "magnetic sympathy between the reading self and the literary text possesses a power to touch and to change the [End Page 506] reading self," especially if that self is an "oppositional reader" interested in dialogue with, rather than mastery over, the text.
Vesala-Varttala reads the collection as a "composite whole" and therefore organizes her chapters around "shared themes and concerns." After an overview of the meanings attached to sympathy and literary texts preoccupied with sympathetic encounters, she begins her reading of Dubliners with "The Dead," in which "sympathy or judgement for a given character [. . .] is elicited while [. . .] the self-reflexive text invites the reader to ponder on the nature of his/her involvement in character construction." Subsequent chapters focus on "A Painful Case," which blurs narrator, character, and reader and "brings the reader into intimate contact with disorder"; on the child narrators of the first three stories, who lead readers into unsympathetic responses and draw attention to the possibility of failure inherent in reading; on female and feminized figures whose "paralysis" is challenged by the textual function of the narrative; and on stories in which group formation and identity demonstrate the discursive--and therefore changeable--nature of power relations. Throughout her book, Vesala-Varttala draws attention to the textual function's disruption of hierarchies and challenge to the scapegoat mechanism, its warnings about reader confidence, and its insistence that readers respect all characters.
Vesala-Varttala's work is most innovative when she argues that "the textual function of the narration" demands a reader response counter to "the satiric narrative function of the same narration." In other words, "mis-en-abyme figures and diverse narrative devices" challenge the mimetic meaning of individual stories. Thus the pervert of "An Encounter," who impels the child-narrator to flee and inspires caustic critical responses, is ensconced within a text that "plea[ds] for a more courageous and considerate reading." Instead of turning away from such characters, the text invites readers to revise their desires and to turn "toward the monstrous other."
The implications of such readings will trouble scholars committed to materialist or political readings of Dubliners. While Vesala-Varttala creatively disrupts some long-standing critical accords, her readings ascribe a power to the textual function that seems to minimize the gender and class constraints placed upon the most oppressed Dubliners. For example, Vesala-Varttala argues that Eveline "ends up challenging her [End Page 507] employer's impatient and reproachful address [. . .] by not moving and simply letting Frank and the readers wait" at her tale's end. While Eveline resists Frank, and perhaps the ideology of romantic love, by refusing to board the boat that would take them to Buenos Aires, her action seems unlikely to "challenge" her supervisor's previous disrespectful behavior. Similarly, Vesala-Varttala's argument that the slavey of "Two Gallants" "need not be perceived as [. . .] quite so rigidly fixed" in an...