restricted access Joyce & Incest
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Joyce & Incest
Jen Shelton. Joyce and the Narrative Structure of Incest. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. xii + 157 pp. $59.95

About three pages into Jen Shelton's compelling and lively study of "Joyce's peculiar use of the power dynamic of incest" I became convinced that Joyce's apparently "peculiar" narrative strategy isn't at all strange for an author of his religious proclivities. For if "incest exemplifies a specific, gendered power relation in which the father makes use of his greater physical, social, and narrative powers in order to coerce the girl to accede to his will," as Shelton contends, then Joyce absorbed the details of this narrative structure at a very early age indeed. Could there be a more perfect example of the conditions Shelton describes than the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary—an innocent young maiden—whose heavenly father overpowers and impregnates her? What's more, the seduction tale Mary repeatedly attempts to tell is invariably overwritten by her endlessly proliferating fathers, as Joyce well understood. A similar interweaving of competing versions of the seduction scenario, whereby the daughter interrupts with her revisions yet the master's interpretation inevitably prevails, characterizes the narrative structure of incest as Shelton explains it.

Shelton expresses no interest in the religious inspiration for Joyce's recurring use of the incest narrative, however. Joyce's Catholic rootedness is my own particular fixation. Nonetheless, the associations I readily made as I continued reading Shelton's work indicate how flexible the incest structure can be. Among other critical frameworks, for example, Shelton recognizes similarities between the father/child configuration of the incest narrative and the colonizer/colonized structure perceived in Joyce's works by postcolonial critics. Shelton's preference for the incest narrative as an effective box of interpretive tools seems to derive from her interest in both the cultural phenomenon of incest ("in [End Page 477] the real world") and the discursive narratives emerging from the inequitable relations that incest acts out, reproduces, and disclaims.

First considering Freud's Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria as an insistently incestuous text that refuses to allow the daughter to tell her story, Shelton proceeds by demonstrating how Joyce employs the incest narrative, not to valorize it as Freud had done, but to subvert his own authorial power. This is certainly a tricky argument since, as Shelton concedes, a text is always produced by a controlling author who often inadvertently reproduces existing power relations however subversive of cultural conventions he may wish to be. Nevertheless, Shelton deems Joyce's incestuous designs to be marginally empowering for the adolescent girls whose "backtalk" (to borrow Margot Norris's term) he facilitates. Shelton focuses especially on Eveline, Gerty MacDowell, Cissy Caffrey, Issy, and, very briefly, Mangan's sister. Blame it on the lingering Old New Critic in me, but I wished for a bit more close reading early on of Joyce's texts. Admittedly, though, such scrupulous analyses increase as Shelton moves toward her pièce de résistance, a consideration of Issy's footnote letter in Finnegans Wake, Book 2, chapter 2. Shelton perceives a reversal in Issy's footnote "nineteen pages into the chapter [where] Joyce frees Issy from some of the constraints under which she has operated … and allows her to write her own version of Finnegans Wake's recurring letter." Beneath a veneer of playful chitchat, Issy revises the Wake's master missive, hinting at a relationship fraught with sexual violence and her own misinterpreted desire and despair. Given that Shelton often footnotes material that might more usefully have been provided in her own master text, I wonder whether Shelton meant to replicate Issy's strategy.

In addition to her analysis of Issy, I found Shelton's observations about Cissy Caffrey, a somewhat neglected character in Joyce criticism, interesting and insightful. Reading Cissy as a foil for Gerty, Shelton helped me see Cissy with new eyes. Whereas both young women must negotiate a script which eroticizes youth generally and young women particularly, Gerty carefully orchestrates her virginity, at once masking and enacting her desire. Conversely, Cissy is unequivocally a "forward piece" both in "Nausicaa" and "Circe." Irreverent...