Recent studies of Joyce's Dubliners have focused on the many ingenious strategies of dissimulation played upon the reader by Joyce or by his narrators. Rhetorical traps abound in each story luring readers into simplistic and erroneous views of what is really going on. Even though much light has been shed on Joyce's intricate techniques of storytelling, significant aspects of these stories remain in the dark. While the veracity of Joyce's narrators is constantly being evaluated, the veracity of Joyce's characters is less frequently called to account.
Perhaps it is oversimplistic to point out that Ignatius Gallaher, in "A Little Cloud," desperately attempting to reassert dominance over Chandler, lies outrageously at a climactic moment in Corless's restaurant when he crows: "I've only to say the word and to-morrow I can have the woman and the cash. You don't believe it? Well, I know it. There are hundreds—what am I saying?—thousands of rich Germans and Jews, rotten with money, that'd be only too glad . . ." (D 81). Critics have generally refrained from discussing this passage simply because the frantic prevarications are so obvious as to make analysis unnecessary. However, in "Two Gallants," in a similar context, another passage demands closer attention than it has yet received. When the disreputable Corley disparages one particular "girl" from his past, most critics are content to accept the veracity of his claim. The claim, however, demands investigation.
"Two Gallants" and "A Little Cloud" were written in sequence in early 1906, becoming the thirteenth and fourteenth stories completed. Joyce felt that these were two of the finest stories in the collection. On May 20, 1906, he wrote to the publisher Grant Richards that "Two Gallants" "is one of the most important stories in the book. I would rather sacrifice five of the others (which I could name) than this one. It is the story (after [End Page 266] "Ivy Day in the Committee Room") which pleases me most" (LI 62). Later in October, he wrote Stanislaus that "a page of 'A Little Cloud' pleases more than all my verses" (LII 182). That Joyce enjoyed especially this disreputable pair of scoundrels can be inferred from his December 3, 1906, letter to Stanislaus contrasting the social niceties of a Thomas Hardy story with his own scrupulous realism: "Is this as near as T. H. can get to life, I wonder? O my poor fledglings, poor Corley, poor Ignatius Gallaher" (SL 137).
Characters in Dubliners frequently fictionalize their own existence in response to a variety of external and internal pressures. Maria, in "Clay," for example, a spinster with no intimate emotional bonds, needs to feel loved by others and this creates an inner psychic structure in which she has control—and is needed.1 The line "Everyone was so fond of Maria" ("Clay," 100) is hardly an objective appraisal of the esteem in which she is held. It is Maria's own appraisal—a necessary self-serving assertion of the fictional reality she has molded for herself. From one cherished snippet of memory, "One day the Matron had said to her:—Maria you are a veritable peacemaker" (99), Maria constructs a wildly improbable scenario in which she becomes absolutely indispensable as the loving mother hen of the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, "always sent for when the women quarreled . . . and always succeed[ing] in making peace" (99, emphasis mine). Can anyone visualize this reticent "very, very small person" (99) always succeeding in quelling the riots that were bound to break out at a halfway house for criminal women? Not surprisingly, Maria later finds it impossible to achieve her goal of "making peace" between the two feuding Donnelly brothers. But instead of dwelling on her failure, Maria just brushes it off as if nothing has happened.
In Dubliners, as in life, people deceive others to valorize themselves and they deceive themselves in order to exorcize the inner demons that haunt them. Such is the case with Corley and his description of one specific woman from "off the South Circular" (52). Apparently, Corley has spent much of this evening...