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Joyce and the Narrative Structure of Incest (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 817-819 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0005

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Readers will find in this brief monograph a trope well worth applying to their own experience of Joycean narrative. The basic thesis is that each of the parties involved in incest—Jen Shelton takes father-daughter involvement to be the primary model—has an identifiable narrative. The father’s story bears the power of patriarchy and obscures his role in incest, often attributing eroticism to the daughter. The daughter’s story takes her subjectivity beyond the incident of incest; she has the “potential both to comply and resist” (3), and the combination tends to destabilize patriarchal power. Shelton finds the tensions of this arrangement more important than any resolution. While the father-daughter stories are “opposed,” they are also mutually dependent (3). Using this discursive structure, according to Shelton, “a writer . . . can build into his text both the mastery readers need if the text is to be intelligible at all and the subversion of that control that makes space for new voices and new stories” (7). Indeed, in her view, the daughter can escape being a victim of incest and become the creator of a counter-text. In advancing the importance of “the narrative structure of incest,” Shelton occasionally yields to the temptation to claim too much for her specialized theory, applying it to “experimental texts” in general, having it generate all of the incoherence of Finnegans Wake, or straining at what qualifies as incest (13, 18).

This structure of incest narrative draws from, complements, and occasionally productively revises insights of feminist psychological and literary theory, as well as the theories of such authorities as Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Sándor Ferenczi, and Julia Kristeva. Though there is fairly general awareness of Freud’s move from an early but revised theory acknowledging a seduction by the father to later readings that attributed an incestuous fantasy to the daughter,1 in Shelton’s analysis, this opens up a useful distinction between Freud and Joyce. Joyce, unlike Freud, she argues, did acknowledge the father’s seduction. It is also useful to think of the “cultural moment” of incest (2), shared by psychology and anthropology, and visible in such shared texts as Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a favorite work for numerous modernists.2

Shelton notes that in Joyce’s case, there is considerable “slippage” between art and life, as Joyce works on some of the same “textual activities” with both his wife and his daughter (3, 4). This book calls for a fair amount of negotiation among theories of incest, real-world experiences of incest, and textual discourses of the phenomenon. In most cases, Shelton does this well, showing sensitivity to the trauma involved for young women in real-world situations, and drawing upon texts that emerge from clinical resources as occasional models for narrative style. In places, she seems relieved to leave the real world behind for work in the narrative one.

Shelton deals only in passing with what would seem a highly relevant text, Carol Loeb Shloss’s study, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the “Wake,”3 for Shelton claims a separate area of interest for her book. In her view, Shloss works with the “incest status of the Joyce family,” while her interest is “incest as a model for narrative tensions” (7). She is, however, more critical of Shloss in an endnote, which cites Hermione Lee’s highly critical review of Shloss’s book and assumes its skepticism over the creative role Shloss assigns to Lucia (132 n18).4 There is a lot more to Shloss’s book, including resourceful research into Lucia’s vocation of dancing (a topic I had the pleasure of discussing with Miss Joyce in 1979). Shloss’s work, I argue, is of greatest interest as a study of twentieth-century medical diagnoses and treatments of women’s mental illnesses, using extensive medical records to accomplish this. The romance Shloss detects between father and daughter may be to some extent an imaginative creation, but it both seeks out new data for Joycean biography and escapes the incest plot.

Like her brief treatment of Shloss’s work on Lucia Joyce, Shelton is generally rather cursory in her citation of Joycean scholarship—perhaps required...

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