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  • Stifled Back Answers:The Gender Politics of Art in Joyce's "The Dead"

A Joycean joke that isn't funny:

Question; Who killed Julia Morkan?

Answer: The pope.

I. Joyce, Ibsen, and Feminism

Although the first sentence of "The Dead" tells us that "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet" (D 175), Lily does not complain about her lot. Indeed, that is why she gets on so well with her mistresses. We learn a little later, "But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers" (176). If we decode the bourgeois agenda of the narrative voice1 at this moment, its intention to offer a politically complacent representation [End Page 479] of the Morkans and therefore to neutralize the master-servant relationship at the outset as benign, then we can read in this description of Lily as a pleasing domestic fixture its suppressed truth: the orders are scrupulously checked to make sure that Lily does not steal,2 and she is valued because she has stifled her "back answers" and does not protest the exacting demands made on her by the fussy ladies, even when she is asked to do too much, when she is run off her feet. The narration of "The Dead," promoting the Philistine ideals of the beautiful, the good, and the true (Adorno 138) in its representation of bourgeois society, successfully stifles a series of back answers that it cannot prevent from erupting in the text. Back answers repeatedly disrupt the pretty picture of prosperous and happy domesticity, of social harmony, and of refined culture in the story with a repressed force that lets them echo in our ears even after they have been silenced by a gold coin, or an after-dinner speech, or a change of topic—"The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you" (178), "West Briton!" (190), "There's a nice husband for you, Mrs Malins" (191), "And if I were in Julia's place I'd tell that Father Healy straight up to his face . . ." (195), "And why couldn't he have a voice too . . . Is it because he's only a black?" (198). Joyce dramatizes in "The Dead" the politics of art's determination to conceal its own politically oppressive functions. Joyce uses Gabriel's altercation with Miss Ivors to raise the central question of the text: whether or not art serves a political function. The moment is cleverly double, for although the couple's words concern the politics of nationalism, their engagement, as intellectual and social equals, concerns the politics of gender:

He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years' standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.

(188) [End Page 480]

Interpretations of "The Dead" have traditionally assumed that Gabriel is right and that, on the basis of Joyce's quarrels with the propagandistic aims of the Irish revival, he too would have held art above politics. But this critical stance colludes with the story's endorsement of an ideology that holds nationalism to be more properly or "literally" political than feminism—and that makes Miss Ivors' "West Briton!" the only back answer taken seriously in, and by, the story. Yet Joyce found in Henrik Ibsen not only a literary influence but also a political mentor who taught him that art is indeed a political act and that the very strategies of art, representational, dramatic, and interpretive, are ideologically significant. Joyce's politics in "The Dead" are not literalized into the form of a polemic but are rather implicit in the scepticism that the text creates in us toward the "grandiose" phrases and ideological assumptions of its own aestheticist narrative. We must be especially careful, like the women in...

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