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  • Possible-Worlds Theory and Joyce's "Wandering Rocks":The Case of Father Conmee

The 1982 International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin celebrating the centenary of Joyce's birth offered a reenactment of the Ulysses episode called "Wandering Rocks." This chapter of the novel looks at Dubliners going about their business during a brief period on a Thursday afternoon in June 1904. During the 1982 reenactment, figures dressed in Edwardian costume simultaneously acted out relevant scenes in various parts of the city-with the intended result that no spectator could take in more than a few of the dispersed segments of the episode. This performance was complemented by other instances of mapping the fiction onto the actual city, most notably by fixing a plaque on Leopold Bloom's (fictitious) birthplace at the house on 52 Clanbrassil Street. The moment testified to the powerful realism of Joyce's work, whose fictional figures become as real to us as once living persons. At the same time, this commemoration marked a reversal of the more prevalent relationship between fact and fiction in Ulysses, where large numbers of historical personages mingle with fictional characters. "Wandering Rocks" displays what Clive Hart in his seminal 1974 essay called a "documentary reality."1 He describes the ramification of the episode's relationship to the city as "Joyce's most direct, most complete celebration of Dublin, demonstrating succinctly his conception of the importance of physical reality, meticulously documented, as the soil from which fictions may best grow" (181). In this documentary quality, Hart finds something more at stake in "Wandering Rocks" than mere mimesis or literary realism. The narration represents such a verifiable reporting of facts that readers may construe the episode's failure to correspond to the real world as "error" (197). These occasional [End Page 21] disjunctions between the real and the fictional world create only one of a number of reader "traps," as Hart calls them, which make reading the chapter a "dangerous imaginative journey, in emulation of the Argosy" (188). I plan to revisit some aspects of the "documentary reality" of "Wandering Rocks" and the traps for the reader that it produces, in order to explore them through an area in the field of narratology known as the possible-worlds theory of fiction. The work of four theorists will be particularly useful in pursuing these issues: Lubomir Doležel's 1998 Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds, Ruth Ronen's 1994 Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, Marie-Laure Ryan's 1991 Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory, and Thomas G. Pavel's 1986 Fictional Worlds.2 My hope is not only to explore the process of world creation in "Wandering Rocks" but also to extend the implications of possible-worlds theory for an ethics of reading the episode. My counterpart to Hart's "reader traps" will be ethical traps in the sense that they challenge reader responsibility to be just-both to real and fictional persons, as well as to the text itself.

Possible-worlds theory allows us to examine the episode's interplay between history and fiction in a way that illuminates how fictional worlds are constructed. How does "Wandering Rocks" reproduce not only the actual characters that populate 1904 Dublin but also the worlds created in and by their minds? And what is the consequence of inventing imaginary, or possible, worlds for fictional figures drawn from real life? Joyce's transformation of the figure of Oliver St. John Gogarty into the fictional persona of Malachi Mulligan resorts to the device of the roman à clef-a strategy with its own ethical challenges and pitfalls. Readers with the key to Mulligan's historical counterpart can certainly take issue with the portrait,3 but Mulligan is nonetheless presented as a fictional character. But the Reverend Father John Conmee in "Wandering Rocks" is given the name of the historical person and represented with details that correspond factually to his biography, yet he is endowed with thoughts that must of necessity be fictional. Since these thoughts produced in the world of the novel are potentially scandalous, they could incur an unjust defamation of a highly placed historical Jesuit4 living in a situation sufficiently modern (Conmee died in 1910) and sufficiently local within Ireland to produce cultural harm. The reader is thereby challenged to sort through the evidence-a process normally intuitive but capable of a more rigorous analysis made available by possible-worlds theory. My aim is to conduct such an analysis not only to delineate protocols of responsible writing and [End Page 22] responsible reading, but also to interrogate its ramifications for the genre of modernist fiction and for this genre's ability to dramatize the more general operations of fiction itself. The outcome of this exploration may not entirely exonerate Joyce's fictional treatment of Father Conmee, but it vindicates his larger narrative strategy in Ulysses for raising the stakes of reading. The deployment of dearth and excess of information, the gaps, the curious nonnarrative moments, and the disruptive narrative fragmentation of "Wandering Rocks" are hallmarks of modernistic fiction. Yet in the light of possible-worlds theory these maneuvers can be construed to highlight operations implicit in earlier fictional world constructions that kept their implications of uncertainty thematically at bay. "Wandering Rocks" may show a Father Conmee living in the best of all possible worlds, although the reader must fend off hints of his impurity in order to believe this. But his Dublin remains inhabited with destitute, ill-educated half-orphans reminiscent of Victorian fiction, whose lives intersect with the Jesuit's both directly and tangentially to effects neither the text nor the reader can control or ultimately judge. Possible-worlds theory illuminates how this state of affairs and its consequences are produced.

Possible-worlds theory would formulate the occurrence of the numerous actual persons, places, and events that occur in Ulysses as examples of trans-world identity (Doležel, 17). But it would maintain that when the names of historical entities are transferred into the domain of fiction, they achieve an ontological status different from their nonfictional "prototypes." Lubomir Doležel points out that "it is quite evident that fictional persons cannot meet, interact, or communicate with real people" (16). In order to formulate how trans-world identities function to create the sense of "documentary reality" that Hart formulates, Marie-Laure Ryan offers a detailed set of accessibility relations to illuminate how fictional worlds reflect the sense of the reality of our actual world. These include identity or compatibility of properties and inventory, as well as chronological, physical, taxonomic, logical, analytical, and linguistic compatibility (33). We might say, then, that "Wandering Rocks" exhibits a high degree of such compatible relations with the historical world of 1904 Dublin, and that these give the fictional episode extraordinary access to its historical prototypes. Chronological compatibility, for example, assures that most of the "historical events" of Ulysses are compatible with actual historical events occurring on June 16, 1904. When Father Conmee "passed Grogan's the Tobacconist against which newsboards leaned and told of a dreadful catastrophe in New York,"5 the text refers to a story that actually [End Page 23] appeared in the Irish Freeman's Journal on June 16, 1904. A steamer called General Slocum had caught fire on the East River in New York, and over five hundred people, most of them schoolchildren on a Lutheran Church outing, had perished on board.6 The first person that Father Conmee encounters as he leaves his presbytery, "the wife of Mr David Sheehy, M. P." (10.17), is likewise real.7 And yet Conmee will also interact with fictional figures and enjoy the specific fictional supplement of private worlds of thought that Marie-Laure Ryan designates as the alternative possible worlds of fictional figures. It is these that will create ethical issues for the reader of the episode. The Reverend John Conmee presents a particularly interesting case of trans-world identity because he has crossed into Ulysses from two different ontological worlds. On the one hand, he has been imported from the actual sites of Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College, where James Joyce encountered him as a student. On the other, he has crossed over intertextually from the fictional actual world of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man-a transitional space that Stephen Dedalus recalls earlier in Ulysses when he thinks of himself as "A child Conmee saved from pandies" (9.211). The figure of Conmee in "Wandering Rocks" also seems to have made another intertextual crossing from the papers of Joyce biographer Herbert Gorman. As Richard Ellmann describes it, "Joyce did not forget Conmee's encouragement, and when, long afterwards, his biographer Herbert Gorman described Conmee as 'a very decent sort of chap,' Joyce struck out the words and wrote instead, 'a bland and courtly humanist' " (29). This amended description of the biographical Conmee fits the Conmee of "Wandering Rocks" perfectly. This fictional figure therefore shares with the historical figure a proper name and a limited series of properties. These include benign fairness ("He was their rector: his reign was mild" [10.187-88]), a willingness to support the education of boys with hardship cases (like Joyce), and the bland and courtly demeanor Joyce pointed out to Gorman.

How then does the historical John Conmee become fictional? Marie Laure Ryan raises this specific question and gives the following answer:

If objects are inherently fictional or real, how can one explain the presence of historical individuals and real locations in a world of fiction? How can the invented Sherlock Holmes live on the geographically real Baker Street, or the imaginary Natasha in War and Peace lose her fiancé in a war against a historical Napoleon? These [End Page 24] examples suggest that the attribute of fictionality does not apply to individual entities, but to entire semantic domains: the Napoleon of War and Peace is fictional because he belongs to a world which as a whole is fictional.


The John Conmee of "Wandering Rocks" is fictional because all of Ulysses is a fictional domain, although he appears much more real than Napoleon because his trans-world identity is focused locally rather than universally. Nonetheless, if John Conmee, like the Napoleon of War and Peace, is a persona with a trans-world identity who inhabits a fictional world, then he shares the characteristic of incompleteness with that fictional world. Doležel points out that "incompleteness is a universal extensional property of the fictional-world structuring" (169) and goes on to say that "gaps, let us repeat, are a necessary and universal feature of fictional worlds" (169). Ruth Ronan elaborates three facets of this principle:

1. represented objects are never fully determined in all their aspects;

2. spots of indeterminacy are never totally absent from fictional objects;

3. while reading a literary work we are seldom aware of any gaps or spots of indeterminacy.


The modernist novel is, of course, an arguable exception to Ronan's third point, and Joyce's fiction, for one, takes trouble to foreground its gaps and indeterminacies. The question is to what end, and one possible answer in the case of "Wandering Rocks" appears to be ethical challenge. When we examine the textual features that contribute to the incompleteness of John Conmee as a fictional entity, we encounter a further consequence of fictional incompleteness-namely, that it produces logical and semantic implication. This in turn creates a problematic interpretive and ethical situation for the reader, who is now confronted with a Jesuit whose properties begin to veer from the benign portrait that emerges from the Joyce biography and takes on troublesome and indeterminate innuendoes.

Let me begin by sketching out the principal movements of the Reverend Father John Conmee, S.J., as they transpire in what Ryan would call the TAW or textual actual world of the "Wandering Rocks" episode of [End Page 25] Ulysses. Because he checks his watch, we know that Conmee leaves his presbytery at precisely five to three on the afternoon of June 16, 1904, with the intention of walking to a northern suburb of Dublin called Artane. "Five to three. Just nice time to walk to Artane" (10.2-3). He encounters a one-legged sailor, and at Mountjoy Square meets Mrs. Sheehy and exchanges small talk with her about her sons who are attending Belvedere College. He remembers that he must mail a letter to the Father Provincial of the Jesuit order and, after exchanging pleasantries with three little Belvedere schoolboys, engages one of them to drop the letter into the mailbox. He then sees Mrs. M'Guinness, the pawnbroker, and passes a variety of shops and businesses until he comes to Newcomen Bridge, where he gets on a tram. At Howth Road, he descends and begins to walk along the Malahide Road, and as he walks he reads his breviary. A "flushed young man" (10:199) and a young woman emerge from the gap of a hedge in a bit of disarray, and Father Conmee silently blesses them before turning back to his breviary. He is last glimpsed walking "through the hamlet of Donnycarney, murmuring vespers" (10.842-43). These are the sum of Conmee's actions in the episode-hardly enough to amount to a plot. But while Father Conmee is walking and talking to people on his journey northward from Dublin, the narration-either through interior monologue or free indirect discourse-also gives us access to the private worlds of his thoughts.8 These reveal that within the teleological framework for fictional plot postulated by Ryan, Father John Conmee can be seen as enjoying the best of all possible worlds on this particular afternoon:

The best of all possible states of affairs for a system of reality is one in which the constitutive propositions of all private worlds are satisfied in the central world. In such a system, everybody's desires are fulfilled, all laws are respected, there is a consensus as to what is good for the group, what is good for the group is also what is good for every individual, everybody's actions respect these ideals, and everybody has epistemic access to all the worlds in the system.


In other words, the private worlds of Father John Conmee-his obligation, knowledge, and wish worlds, to use Ryan's categories-circle in perfectly aligned orbits around his actual world. "It was a charming day" [End Page 26] (10.179) is how the text summarizes the subjective effects of this harmony. Readers grasp these features of semantic structure intuitively, causing them to regard Conmee as smug. But if we recall Doležel and Ronen's reminder that fictional representations are inevitably incomplete and that gaps are constitutive of fictional worlds, then potential cracks in this best of all possible worlds may be glimpsed. There are three kinds of gaps-of different order and varying significance-produced in the Conmee segment. The first-giving us only one side of the conversation between Father Conmee and Mrs. Sheehy-is relatively insignificant. The second is an important factual gap, when Conmee reveals that the onset of his walk was delayed by a visit from Lady Maxwell, without telling us either who Lady Maxwell is or what she came to see him about. The third is a gap in the plot, since we never learn of the outcome of his visit to Artane.

Although we might not construe it as a gap-since we are able to reconstruct the information-the impetus behind Father Conmee's walk on this particular day must nonetheless be inferred. The narrative shift into Conmee's thoughts at the opening of the segment suggests that he is on a mission of mercy on this particular afternoon. "What was that boy's name again. Dignam? Yes. Vere dignum et iustum est. Brother Swan was the person to see. Mr Cunningham's letter. Yes. Oblige him, if possible. Good practical catholic: useful at mission time" (10.3-6). There is a great deal implied in this passage, but because the thoughts themselves are telegraphic and disjointed, they require reader retrospection to narrative information established in an earlier chapter to make sense of them. Paul Grice, whose philosophical work on the logic of ordinary conversation explores the concepts of conventional implication and conversational implicature, suggests that implied information requires familiarity with an unstated context in order to be understood.9 The context for Conmee's thoughts is offered in the earlier "Hades" chapter, where the mourners at Paddy Dignam's funeral worry about the fate of the dead man's family, since his life insurance policy was mortgaged. Tom Kernan assures the men that "Martin is trying to get the youngster into Artane" (6.537). We learn in "Wandering Rocks" that Cunningham has sent a letter requesting Conmee's help in placing Dignam's son in a school-presumably a Christian Brothers school, judging from the clerical title of Brother Swan.10 Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann reports a similar kindness on the part of the actual, historical John Conmee, who encountered Joyce's father, John Joyce, in Mountjoy Square one day in 1893: [End Page 27]

He was not yet Provincial of the Jesuit Order in Ireland; he became so in 1906-9, but he was already influential. Hearing that his former pupil was obliged to attend the Christian Brothers' school, and remembering his ability, Conmee kindly offered to arrange for James, and his brothers too, to attend the fine Jesuit day-school, Belvedere College, without fees.


By having the fictional Father Conmee meet Mrs. Sheehy in Mountjoy Square, the very place where the historical Conmee met Mr. Joyce in 1893 and offered his sons scholarships to Belvedere, Joyce deliberately gestures to a trans-world similarity. However, Joyce takes the liberty of supplementing the fictional Conmee's altruistic action with an institutional strategy: "Mr Cunningham's letter. Yes. Oblige him, if possible. Good practical Catholic: useful at mission time" (10.5-6). While not unworthy, this mental appeal to a social quid pro quo positioning Cunningham to help with fundraising for the African missions that are the priest's current project compromises his concern for the fatherless boy and produces a modification of his virtue. We have glimpsed here one of Conmee's private worlds, his obligation world, as Ryan calls the "system of commitments and prohibitions defined by social rules and moral principles" (116) that constitutes one of the possible worlds of fictional entities. Although Conmee seems satisfied with the course of its orbit, it may complicate the reader's judgment of the priest's charity.11

The next example, Father Conmee's conversation with Mrs. Sheehy, offers an even easier case for using inference to reconstruct gaps produced by implication. Their conversation of polite small talk gives us only one or another side of the exchange, obliging us to infer the missing questions and responses. Mrs. Sheehy's answer-"Very well, indeed, father. And you, father?" (10.18)-presupposes Father Conmee's inaudible inquiry about how Mrs. Sheehy is doing. We have no trouble reconstructing the general import of this fragmentary conversation ("And her boys, were they getting on well at Belvedere? Was that so? Father Conmee was very glad indeed to hear that" [10.20-21]) even without hearing the precise achievements of the Sheehy boys. The more serious question raised is why the narrator, who appears capable of hearing both sides of the conversation, relays only fragments and relays them in a mimicking paraphrase. It is as though this narrative discourse is determined to draw our attention [End Page 28] to its own incomplete construction, as though the intent is to highlight gaps that will require us to infer their meaning. Put differently, we might say that the text here foregrounds a feature of narrative that Doležel calls saturation, which he defines as "the ratio between fictional facts and gaps in the structure of the fictional world" (281). While the stakes of the gaps in the case of the Conmee-Sheehy conversation are negligible, they become far higher in the case of another much larger and more serious gap in the Conmee section of "Wandering Rocks." When we leave Father Conmee reading his breviary in a cabbage field at the end of the segment, we learn that he is completing an interrupted and deferred spiritual chore. "Nones. He should have read that before lunch. But lady Maxwell had come" (10.191-92). Who is Lady Maxwell and why had she come? An earlier bit of information gives us evidence that a Lady Maxwell is indeed abroad on the streets of Dublin at this time, just as Conmee is, and that she may therefore indeed have visited Father Conmee at the presbytery just before the opening of the episode. We are told that Mr. Maginni "passed lady Maxwell at the corner of Dignam's court" (10.59-60). But we are never told why Lady Maxwell visited and caused Father Conmee to miss saying his nones at the appointed hour. Even more troublesome, why do Conmee's thoughts not reveal what the meeting with Lady Maxwell was about? The ratio of fictional fact to gap here produces something Doležel calls zero texture, or absence of informational wording, a situation that largely denies us the semantic resources for drawing reasonable inferences and leaves only the option of risky speculation.

Our intuitive speculations on the mystery of the meeting between Father Conmee and Lady Maxwell benefit from the principles for responsible interpretation that Doležel formulates in his discussion of saturation. The challenge of interpretation is to recover implicit meanings in texts rather than to impose them, he argues. And this process will require attention to "markers of implicit meaning in explicit texture," which will be of two kinds: lacunae, or "felt absence," and "the presence in the texture of some signals or indexes, particularly hints, insinuations, and allusions, most of them found in co-text or context" (173). I have already described the lacunae or zero texture with respect to the meeting between Father Conmee and Lady Maxwell. On the other hand, attention to the positive markers, the possible signals, hints, and insinuations in the text produces a wide range of possible constructions that are difficult to prioritize responsibly with respect to validity. The context of the priest's thoughts [End Page 29] on Martin Cunningham suggests a plausible possibility, namely that Conmee may have met with Lady Maxwell to enlist her philanthropic support for the African missions. But if so, why do neither the narrator nor Conmee's thoughts remark on this? Another possibility is suggested by a different context that is far more problematic because it has little basis in action, which Doležel would consider a sounder foundation for inference than purely rhetorical elements of textual language (176). The text of Ulysses drops numerous rhetorical hints that Father Conmee may have the character, and perhaps the reputation, of a subliminal ladies' man. The narrator, who calls him "Don John Conmee" (10.174) and has the cabbages in the field metaphorically "curtsying to him with ample under-leaves" (10.181), has already shown the priest flashing a brilliant smile, enhanced by "arecanut paste" (10.32), at two women. His courtesies to Mrs. Sheehy, wife of a member of Parliament, and to the stately, silver haired pawnbroker Mrs. M'Guinness, whose "queenly mien" (10.67) Conmee admires, are not in themselves necessarily suspect. But they resonate with Leopold Bloom's thought in the earlier episode of "Lotus Eaters," when he thinks "Conmee: Martin Cunningham knows him: distinguished looking. Sorry I didn't work him about getting Molly into the choir instead of that Father Farley who looked a fool but wasn't" (5.331-33). Is Bloom implying that the good-looking Father Conmee might have been more susceptible to his wife Molly's ample charms than Father Farley? Stephen Dedalus's friend Lynch in the later episode "Oxen of the Sun" offers the implication that the "ivory bookmark" (10.190) in Conmee's breviary would have been "a witty letter . . . from Glycera or Chloe to keep the page" (14.1156). These examples of Doležel's signals and indices allow us to infer that Conmee's delicate interest in the ladies may have become noticeable not only to some of the more profane young bachelors in Dublin but even to sober citizens like Bloom.

These markers or signals add a highly problematic dimension to Father Conmee's possible worlds in Ulysses. Although his obligation world is signaled by his action-his willingness to walk to Artane to persuade Brother Swan to take Dignam's son into his orphanage-we have had far less evidence of the private possible world Ryan would call his wish world. This may be the result of Father Conmee's resolute conflation of his obligation and wish worlds into the same domain, a domain in which his private and public worlds are in accord because his personal desires conform to his obligation to create a world of general well-being around [End Page 30] himself. Conmee's attention to high-born ladies could jeopardize this harmony and put his obligation and wish worlds into conflict. Were his undocumented meeting with Lady Maxwell construed as a tryst, the harmony of his worlds would be shattered. Any compromise of Conmee's celibacy threatens to destabilize not only his private worlds but also a public world that relies on the congruence of his obligation and wish worlds for its own stability. Given the historical Conmee's leadership position within the Irish Jesuit clergy, such an insinuation could exert troublesome effects outside the novel as well. We detect here not only a thematic tension and paradox within the Conmee segment but also a larger textual paradox in Joyce's construction of "Wandering Rocks." In spite of the signal in the Homeric title (included in the Linati schema) that the Dublin of the chapter will be an arena of unmoored and potentially clashing fragments, Joyce simultaneously creates an aura of completeness for the city. The range and diversity of the citizens and the full gamut of their everyday activities significantly stabilizes its portrayal. Thomas Pavel has argued that "cultures and periods enjoying a stable world view will tend to seek minimal incompleteness" while "periods of transition and conflict tend to maximize the incompleteness of fictional worlds" (108-9). The gaps in the Conmee section therefore threaten the episode's stability, and I would argue that Joyce thematically and performatively addresses just these issues in the text itself. Like his historical prototype, the fictional priest is the author of a "little book Old Times in the Barony" (10.161-62)-a fictional fact that opens a vista into Father Conmee's knowledge world, to invoke another of Ryan's modal fictional operators. Anne Fogarty writes,

The historical Conmee authored in real life a short pamphlet titled Old Times in the Barony. This text was first published in part in New Ireland Review in 1895 and subsequently issued by the Catholic Truth Society in three imprints in 1900, 1902, and 1907. The study is an idiosyncratic but heartfelt meditation on a traditional rural world in the vicinity of "Luainford," the author's designation for Athlone. Conmee depicts this forgotten locality in idyllic terms as a self-sufficient feudal economy, an epitome of Celtic civilization, and an organic community undisturbed by class divisions . . .12

This description suggests that the bygone world evoked by Conmee in real life and in fiction portrays a stable world untroubled by gaps or conflicts. [End Page 31] But the fictional Conmee also thinks about a new historical work touching on his present home of Belvedere College. This is "the book that might be written about jesuit houses and of Mary Rochfort, daughter of lord Molesworth, first countess of Belvedere" (10.162-63). He seems mentally to write its first sentence in the pastoral spirit of Old Times in the Barony: "A listless lady, no more young, walked alone the shore of lough Ennel, Mary, first countess of Belvedere, listlessly walking in the evening, not startled when an otter plunged" (10.164-66). But this bucolic world was shaken by a scandal and marked by a gap. We are reminded of Ryan's comment that "A French formula for successful novels lists the following ingredients: religion, sex, aristocracy, and mystery" (154).

Gifford and Seidman give a concise description of the matter of the historical Mary Rochfort, married in 1736 to a man who later became the first earl of Belvedere:

In 1743 she was accused of adultery with her brother-in-law, Arthur Rochfort; though apparently innocent, her unscrupulous husband blackmailed her into admitting guilt by promising divorce. However, with the verdict in his favor and his brother in exile, Robert did not divorce his wife but rather imprisoned her on the Rochfort estate near Lough Ennel in County Westmeath. Mary Rochfort was released from her house arrest when her husband died in 1774, but she continued to live as a recluse.


Father Conmee clearly does not take the historical presumption of the wife's innocence on faith. His thoughts ask, "Who could know the truth? Not the jealous lord Belvedere and not her confessor if she had not committed adultery fully, eiaculatio seminis inter vas naturale mulieris, with her husband's brother? She would half confess if she had not all sinned as women did. Only God knew and she and he, her husband's brother" (10.166-70). Conmee confronts here a problem of zero texture in the historical narrative, as Doležel would term it, a problem not even hypothetically soluble by imaginary appeal to the confessor, who would conventionally be thought to represent the one reliable repository of the truth outside of the principals. In trying to puzzle out the conundrum produced by the gap, Conmee's construction illustrates a point made by Doležel: "the fictional text's texture manipulates incompleteness in many different [End Page 32] ways and degrees, determining the world's saturation" (169). In his reconstruction of the Rochfort scandal, Conmee paradoxically produces a partial narrative incompleteness in order to express a moral compromise formation. Trevor Williams, who directs a Marxist critique at the priest's "Conmeeism," makes this observation on the countess's imaginary confession: "The penultimate sentence offers several ambiguities: 'not all sinned' appears to admit of a half sin (like being half pregnant), but presumably Conmee means that women confess only what it is politic to confess."13 This comment points to another possible meaning of Father Conmee's speculation, namely that it makes a self-reflexive point capable of meliorating his flirtatious reputation. Perhaps Conmee's reported thoughts in Ulysses themselves confess only what it is politic for him to confess. If we turn this notion back to the gap of the meeting between Father Conmee and Lady Maxwell, the possibility emerges that the lady visited the priest in order to go to confession. In that case his refusal to divulge its content even in his thoughts observes his sacred vow to preserve the secret of the confessional. Why does Conmee suppose that Mary Rochfort's confession was cleverly half-confessed? His curious hypothesis produces at least an oblique implication that Lady Maxwell too might have made a titillating confession whose whole truth remains obscure to him. If so, might it have prompted the good Father to allow his imagination to penetrate the countess's vas naturale mulieris in the interest not only of historical but also moral speculation? The reader's dilemma in adjudicating whether the priest's thoughts are prurient or represent the clerical burden of adjudicating the morality of sexual behavior may therefore be resolved by Father Conmee himself. Unlike the incomplete world of fiction, the historical world is complete and factual. What the real Mary Rochfort and her brother-in-law did or did not do is a fact and not a gap. But Father Conmee recognizes that it is a fact that eludes the collective epistemic possibility; in the end, he acknowledges, "Only God knew and she and he, her husband's brother" (10.170). His speculations are ultimately chaste, for they express no desire for carnal knowledge per se, but merely a desire for knowledge of carnal knowledge in the interest of moral accountability.

Given the Jesuit's actual existence, as well as possibly Lady Maxwell's (Gifford reports that "Thom's 1904 lists a Lady Maxwell as residing at 36 Great George's Street North" [261]), has Joyce violated an ethical boundary in his play with their trans-world identities in Ulysses? A reasonable [End Page 33] way to approach this question is offered by the accessibility relations discussed earlier, as well as Ryan's "principle of minimal departure," which she calls "a law of primary importance for the phenomenology of reading." She explains, "This law-to which I shall refer as the principle of minimal departure-states that we reconstrue the central world of a textual universe in the same way we reconstrue the alternate possible worlds of nonfactual statements: as conforming as far as possible to our representations of AW [the actual world]" (51). Although Ryan's focus here is on reading rather than writing, her principle helps us to gauge just how far the textual actual world into which Joyce has placed John Conmee and Lady Maxwell departs, at least in plausibility, from their existence in the historical Dublin of 1904. The action of the priest, a walk through the city, passing businesses, taking a tram, and continuing his walk in the suburbs, represents an extremely minimal departure from constructions that a biographical or historical work might make of a typical afternoon in the priest's life. By the same token, the fictional thoughts imputed to John Conmee-thoughts about the poor and disadvantaged as well as about Mary Queen of Scots and other aristocrats of yore-likewise represent a minimal departure from what the actual priest could be construed as thinking. This fictional representation thereby conforms to the accessibility relation Ryan calls "psychological credibility," insofar as we can believe that the mental properties of the fictional Conmee resemble those of priests in the actual world (45). Except for the problems created by the gaps and the incompleteness of the priest's fictional world, Joyce adheres remarkably closely to a principle of minimal departure in recreating his historical figures as fictional counterparts. As a contrast, Joyce offers us an incident in his Dubliners story "A Little Cloud," where Ignatius Gallaher-whose profession as a journalist should reasonably give him high standards of truth and accountability-plies Thomas Chandler with titillating stories about both the clergy and the aristocracy. "He revealed many of the secrets of religious houses on the Continent and described some of the practices which were fashionable in high society and ended by telling, with details, a story about an English duchess-a story which he knew to be true."14 Both Joyce and Father Conmee are more responsible than this in their thoughts about Jesuit houses and Irish aristocrats. Neither has stooped to Ryan's French formula of mixing religion, sex, aristocracy, and mystery together in order to produce a ripping good story-although the reader might have wondered momentarily if they had done so. Were the reader to maintain that Father Conmee and Lady [End Page 34] Maxwell shared a tryst, the speculation would constitute an imposition rather than a recovery of meaning, in Doležel's terms, and thereby commit an ethical transgression. In contrast, the notion that they participated in a religious confession is a plausible inference grounded on oblique evidence-but merely an inference all the same. In the end, the Jesuit remains impugned only for smugly imagining himself as a character in a utopian bygone age. "Don John Conmee walked and moved in times of yore. He was humane and honoured there" (10.174-75).

If this is all that the incompleteness of Conmee's portrait amounts to, why bother bringing the historical Jesuit into "Wandering Rocks" at all? This question relates to the final gap in the Conmee narrative, namely that we never learn the outcome of the priest's errand of mercy-not even in the later chapters of Ulysses. The first segment leaves off with Conmee reading his breviary in a cabbage patch before he reaches Artane to discuss young Patrick Dignam's education and future with Brother Swan. Later in the episode, we encounter "Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam" himself on a far more prosaic errand than that of the priest, dawdling on his way home with a "pound and a half of Mangan's, late Fehrenbach's, porksteaks he had been sent for" (10.1122-24). The boy, of course, has no idea that he has become the principal in a plot to help him and his family, instigated by Martin Cunningham, and that a high-ranked Jesuit is at that moment abroad on his behalf. Nor, except for creating a mnemonic device to help him remember the name ("What was that boy's name again? Dignam. Yes. Vere dignum at iustum est" [10.3]), does the priest give the boy himself another moment's thought on his journey. Why would Joyce leave this action of the episode incomplete in Ulysses and how does the incompleteness function to characterize this particular fictional segment of the episode? One way to approach this question is by way of Ryan's discussion of narrative plot in terms of states and events. "A proposition represents an event when it forms a possible answer to the question 'and then, what happened?' " she writes (124). In this light, the appearance of the Dignam boy later in the episode fails to constitute an event because it sheds no light at all on "what happened." How then does it function? Here Ryan's distinction between "plot-functional and nonfunctional information," which opposes narrative and descriptive elements in fiction, is helpful. "Intuitively, narrative elements are those that contribute to the advancement of the plot, while nonnarrative elements flesh out the narrative universe and make it more vivid, without moving the plot forward" [End Page 35] (Ryan, 125). Father Conmee's journey in "Wandering Rocks" has certainly moved the plot forward, though only spatially and temporally.15 But Patrick Dignam's dawdling past shop windows and thinking about boxing matches constitutes a distinctly nonnarrative element of the episode. His appearance certainly contributes to making the narrative universe more vivid, "fleshed out," as Ryan puts it, by giving the object of Conmee's errand of mercy a body, a consciousness, and a highly distinctive idiom. His cap awry on his head, his collar springing up annoyingly because the "blooming stud was too small for the buttonhole of the shirt" (10.1156), Patsy Dignam is full of preadolescent interests and slang. "He saw the image of Marie Kendall, charming soubrette, beside the two puckers. One of them mots that do be in the packets of fags Stoer smokes that his old fellow welted hell out of him for one time he found out" (10.1141-44). But he is also capable of a poignant moment of mourning for his father. "Never see him again. Death, that is. Pa is dead. My father is dead" (10.1169-70).

One possible explanation for why we never learn the result of Father Conmee's errand of mercy is that the actual outcome, whether or not the boy is placed in the Artane orphanage, matters less than having the issue of the outcome matter to the reader. If "the boy" remained an abstraction to the reader, as he does to John Conmee, then the question of whether or not he is taken into the suburban home for destitute boys could hardly be a subject of concern to the reader. But by fleshing the boy out, clothing him in an ill-fitting mourning outfit, showing him "pawing" the pork-steaks he was sent to buy for supper, and revealing that he is bored by the "blooming dull" post-funeral "jawing" and "sighing" at home (10:1125- 29), Joyce makes him alive, or "vivid," to us, to use Ryan's language. The "nonnarrative elements" of his mind, excited by a future of boxing matches and cigarette packs with pictures of girls on them, make us worry whether the religious charitable institution looming in his future will create a huge conflict between his actual world and his wish world. At the same time, the "Wandering Rocks" episode has given us other nonnarrative information that provides a context that should give us pause about wanting to keep young Patrick Dignam in the impoverished home his father has left. Not long after we leave Conmee reading his breviary on the last stretch to Artane, the narrative takes us to the kitchen of the motherless Dedalus girls, trying to keep themselves alive with no money from their drunkard father. We learn that the pawnbroker Mrs. M'Guinness of the "queenly mien" (10:67) that so charmed Father Conmee [End Page 36] refused to take Stephen's schoolbooks in hock. Maggy Dedalus was thereby obliged to beg for pea soup from Sister Mary Patrick of the nearby Sisters of Charity convent so that she and her sisters would have something to eat. Young Patrick Dignam may not get chops for his supper much longer if efforts to stiff his dead father's creditors in the matter of the mortgaged life insurance policy don't pan out. Would we rather see the boy free on the streets and starving or see him consigned to the regimentation of an institution? The later image of Dilly Dedalus illogically buying a French primer with the money her father gave her for milk and a bun poignantly marks her commitment to expanding the vistas of her knowledge world even at the cost of hunger. Stephen's sister resists having her wish world contracted to mere physical survival, like an animal's.16 We see Joyce here following what Ryan terms "specialized guidelines" that occasionally modify or complement her general guideline for narrative tellability: "a good plot must present a conflict and at least one attempt at solving it" (154). The specialized guideline at play in "Wandering Rocks" may be a form of narrative irony produced by what Ryan calls semantic opposition (155). In this case, the goals of Father Conmee's smugly unconflicted private worlds may be seen to be in sharp conflict with the possible goals of the beneficiaries-or victims-of his charity. However, it is this insight-rather than the solution of the conflict-that makes Joyce's disruption of conventional plot in "Wandering Rocks" significant.

We can usefully summarize the contributions of possible-worlds theory to exploring the narrative workings of an experimental text like the "Wandering Rocks" episode with a final look at its status as what Doležel calls "a modern myth" (187). The episode is unusual in Ulysses because-unlike most of the other Homeric parallels in Joyce's novel-it refers not to an incident or narrative event but rather to something we might consider counterfactual in The Odyssey. Warned by Circe of their danger, Odysseus chooses to brave the passage between Scylla and Charybdis rather than the treacherous course of the Wandering Rocks that clash together at intervals at the mouth of the Black Sea. What might be the narrative point of structuring an episode in parallel with an Odyssean event that is both plotless and disnarrated, to invoke Gerald Prince's narratological term for events that fiction tells us did not happen?17 Doležel's distinction between classical and modern myth offers some possibilities for answering this question that, in turn, usefully encompass the problems with the Father Conmee segment that I have just been exploring. The semantic domains of classical mythology comprise a dyadic system [End Page 37] encompassing a natural and a supernatural world whose boundaries are sharply drawn and whose power and accessibility relations are asymmetrical (Doležel, 186). In other words, the gods have power over and access to the world of mortals, but mortals have no power or access to penetrate the supernatural world. "Human fate is governed by nonhuman forces or beings, which neither individuals nor humanity as a whole can control or mollify" (187). But in modern myth two variants of this mythic semantic structure appear. In one, "the boundary between the natural and supernatural domains is removed and their modal opposition is neutralized," and in the other "the boundary between the two domains is preserved." Both domains of this world "are natural, but one of them, constructed explicitly, is determinable, 'visible,' while the other one, constructed implicitly, is indeterminate, 'invisible' " (187). "Wandering Rocks" represents this second type of secular variant of modern myth in the sense that it displays a natural world peopled by visible figures and an invisible domain that implies relationships and connections among them that the figures themselves can neither divine nor control. Notwithstanding the sway of religion over their lives, the Dubliners in the episode evince little interest in the question of what mysterious or invisible powers control their fates. Although their natural world is one in which the gods are capable of capriciously destroying five hundred Lutheran children on a ferryboat, Father Conmee does not question the ways of God in this case. "In America those things were continually happening" [10.90-91]), the Jesuit thinks to himself, and a little later we hear Tom Kernan's supposition that the insufficient firefighting equipment and lifeboats on the ferry were the result of "palm oil" (10.731), or bribery and graft. Providence, for Boody Dedalus, resides in "Our father who art not in heaven" (10.291)-the natural absent provider of his children's absent provisions.

The visible natural world of "Wandering Rocks" represents the movements of dozens of Dubliners across the city, each of them related to one or more of the others, and many of them-like Leopold Bloom and Blazes Boylan-on a potentially catastrophic collision course, should they clash like wandering rocks. This modal "should" points to the incompleteness, to the counterfactual, in the fictional world of the episode-to what is possible, what could occur, what did not occur, what may or may not occur. The sense of this modality is what prompted Karen Lawrence to intuit the episode's opening into possible worlds in advance of the elaborated formulations offered by possible-worlds theory. "Instead of Aristotle's definition of plot as an imitation of an action, this narrative [End Page 38] gives us plot as infinite potentiality," she wrote in 1981 (87). This infinite potentiality is the invisible domain of Joyce's secular modern myth, the web of potential relationships, possible events, and ironies implicit in the incomplete fictional world of "Wandering Rocks." Father Conmee and Patsy Dignam never run into each other on their respective errands on the Dublin streets on the afternoon of June 16, 1904, never physically collide, yet the boy's fate may be on a collision course with the priest's clerical duties. Their relationship is asymmetrical both with respect to knowledge and with respect to power, since the priest is aware of the boy but the boy is unaware of the priest, and the priest has power over the boy while the boy has none over the priest. One might think that the reader functions like a demigod of this invisible domain, with epistemic access to the fates that are in the process of weaving causes into potential effects, but with no powers of intervention. This condition would seem to leave us at least with the power of judgment, in an enabled ethical position to make responsible determinations about actual and possible events in the fictional world. But its incompleteness and the gaps constrain even this possibility for the reader. We may be able, with careful discrimination, to arrive at a reasonably responsible judgment with respect to innuendoes that impugn a fictional priest's probity-a judgment whose stakes are high, given the Reverend Conmee's trans-world identity as a provincial of the Jesuit order before his death in 1910. But our judgment of the potential effects of the fictional priest's altruistic interventions in the life of the fictional boy remain indeterminable and baffled in our confrontation with the invisible world in which the workings of fate are never entirely revealed nor sealed. Father Conmee's trans-world identity here too raises the stakes of judging what is for the best because it links the fictional world of paper orphans to the historical Dublin in which the lives of actual children hung on responsible or irresponsible decisions made by institutions and their representatives. Joyce may have included such elements of "documentary reality" as the real-life disaster of the General Slocum fire with its hundreds of young casualties in order to highlight the painful helplessness of our knowledge-in life and in fiction-when confronted with the invisible domains in which events are produced.

Possible-worlds theory, with its grounding in analytic philosophy and philosophy of logic, offers readers and critics strategies for clarifying with greater rigor and precision interpretive assumptions that are generally made intuitively. Its usefulness for approaching a text like Ulysses resides [End Page 39] in what Ruth Ronan calls "the legitimization of referential problems and of issues that have to do with the relations fiction-reality [sic] in literary theory" (6). The episode "Wandering Rocks" has long been considered a pivot at the structural and stylistic center of Ulysses, commingling the earlier realism of the novel with its later experimentalism in a way that constitutes what Steven Morrison has called a "borderland." This liminality, he finds, "accounts in large part for the reason why the tenth chapter of the novel is such a rich field for debate."18 My deliberate tactic of focusing on a segment of "Wandering Rocks" whose realism is heightened by trans-world identities was designed to emphasize that modernistic uncertainty resides in fiction in general, and that Joyce's deft maneuvers in this episode make its normally hidden presence visible to the reader. This uncertainty in turn challenges the reader to interpret responsibly. The historical reality of a figure like the Jesuit John Conmee gives a particular ethical specificity to the "risks" that confront the reader and suggests that they have higher stakes with respect to defamation and injustice than the pleasurable reader traps discussed by Clive Hart and Kathleen McCormick. McCormick states that " 'Wandering Rocks' requires us to become 'strong readers,' willing to take charge of our own interpretive situations, actively creating interpretations rather than waiting for the text to foreground 'correct' ones."19 Possible-worlds theory gives readers conceptual tools such as accessibility relations and minimal departure to undertake these risky challenges on a surer grounding. We may still wish to generalize interpretations of Father Conmee as a symbolic figure in the text, as many readers have done. Andrew Gibson offers a generalization of this kind of characterization: "'Wandering Rocks' begins with Conmee, representative of the Church, and ends with William Humble, Earl of Dudley, representative of the State. We start with one of Ireland's two 'imperial masters' and finish with the other."20 Without disputing this image of his function, a possible-worlds analysis allows us to limn the relationship between the influential historical Jesuit, his fictional counterpart, and his role in his community by tracking power relationships in the fiction narratologically rather than typologically. This approach also allows us to ground what Steven Morrison calls the episode's "doubleness" in a philosophically inflected model of fictional world building. Morrison writes, "If, as was said earlier, 'Wandering Rocks' occupies a space between contending possibilities, then one aspect of that pervasive 'doubleness' is the episode's overt and finely balanced position between-and embodiment of-the two constant 'notes' of Ulysses, a labyrinthine [End Page 40] and precise structure on the one hand, a playful and protean openness on the other" (9). Possible-worlds theory allows us to explore this 'doubleness' as a product of the incompleteness of all fictional constructions and allows us to resist deterministic readings of the text by treating its gaps productively, as posing tests to logical and principled interpretation. It thereby offers a rich methodological resource for the narratological analysis of James Joyce's Ulysses, and the text, in turn, provides a fertile ground for exploring and testing the applicability and usefulness of the theory.

Margot Norris
University of California, Irvine
Margot Norris

Margot Norris is Chancellor's Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. She is author of four books on Joyce's work: The Decentered Universe of "Finnegans Wake" (1976), Joyce's Web: The Social Unraveling of Modernism (1992), Suspicious Readings of Joyce's "Dubliners" (2003), and a monograph on the 1967 Joseph Strick film of Ulysses. She has two additional books-one on anthropomorphism in modern intellectual history, Beasts of the Modern Imagination: Darwin, Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernst and Lawrence (1995), and another titled Writing War in the Twentieth Century (2000). Her current project is a narratological study of Ulysses.


1. Clive Hart, "Wandering Rocks," in James Joyce's Ulysses: Critical Essays, ed. Clive Hart and David Hayman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 186.

2. Lubomir Doležel, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Ruth Ronen, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Thomas G. Pavel, Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986). Further references to these works will be cited parenthetically in the text.

3. For example, Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses claims "I paid the rent" (1.631) for the Martello Tower, yet Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce states that "records show it was Gogarty who... paid the £8 annual rent" (172). Joyce can be thought to be unfair to Gogarty, although he is guilty only of pretending that the matter is otherwise between the fictional figures of Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). Further references to Ellmann's biography will be cited parenthetically in the text.

4. Kevin Sullivan notes that "Conmee's talents had clearly marked him for success.... Beginning with his installation as rector of Clongowes, he continued to serve the Society in positions of trust and responsibility for the remainder of his life, and on August 7, 1905, he was named by Rome Provincial of the Irish Jesuits." Kevin Sullivan, Joyce Among the Jesuits (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 15.

5. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler et al. (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 90. Further references to this edition of Ulysses will be cited in the text.

6. The Los Angeles Times reported the death of the last survivor of the General Slocum disaster, Adella Wotherspoon, 100. "Wotherspoon was 6 months old when the paddle-wheel steamboat, named for Civil War Maj. Gen. Henry Warner Slocum, caught fire below decks as it took German American church members on an outing on the East River in New York City on June 15, 1904." "Adella Wotherspoon, 100; Last Survivor of Ferry Disaster," Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2004.

7. Don Gifford and Robert Seidman gloss her: "Bessie Sheehy, whose husband David (1844-1932) was a member of Parliament (Nationalist) for South Galway [End Page 41] (1885-90) and for South Meath (1903-18)" (260). Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman, "Ulysses" Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's "Ulysses," rev. and exp. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). According to Andrew Gibson, her grandson was Conor Cruise O'Brien (33). Andrew Gibson, "Macropolitics and Micropolitics in 'Wandering Rocks,' " in European Joyce Studies 12: Joyce's "Wandering Rocks," ed. Andrew Gibson and Steven Morrison (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), 27-56. Further references to these works will be cited parenthetically in the text.

8. Fritz Senn calls this maneuver "a unique act of usurpatory brainwashing" on Joyce's part: "he replaces the irretrievable thoughts of a real Irish priest with his fictional forgeries" (162). Fritz Senn, "Charting Elsewhereness: Erratic Interlocations," in European Joyce Studies 12: Joyce's "Wandering Rocks," 155-85.

9. Paul Grice, Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 31.

10. This inference will be confirmed a few segments later, when Martin Cunningham tells Mr. Power, "The youngster will be all right... I wrote to Father Conmee and laid the whole case before him" (10.955). Gifford supplies the name of the institution at Artane, the O'Brien Institute for Destitute Children, which is not specifically mentioned in Ulysses. However, the "Artane Orphans" make an appearance in the fantasy world of the "Circe" episode (15.1879).

11. Sherry offers a much larger discussion of the theme of charity in the episode (36). Vincent Sherry, "Distant Music: 'Wandering Rocks' and the Art of Gratuity," James Joyce Quarterly 31, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 36.

12. Anne Fogarty, "States of Memory: Reading History in 'Wandering Rocks,' " Twenty-First Joyce, ed. Ellen Carol Jones and Morris Beja (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 69.

13. Trevor Williams, "'Conmeeism' and the Universe of Discourse in 'Wandering Rocks,' " James Joyce Quarterly 29, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 275.

14. James Joyce, Dubliners (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 71.

15. Karen Lawrence comments on "Wandering Rocks": "Instead of plot as conspiracy [as reflected in Stephen's theory on Shakespeare], or at least as motivated drama, we find the characters' actions plotted according to the coordinates of time and space." Karen Lawrence, The Odyssey of Style in "Ulysses" (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), 84. Further references will be cited in the text.

16. Joyce may here seem to be dipping into the tropes of Victorian fiction to sprinkle "Wandering Rocks" with melodramas of destitute children and the neglectful wardens of their welfare. However, Stephen Hero certifies that Joyce was keenly sensitive to the difference between modernistic and Victorian treatments of the child. When May Dedalus is moved by the fate of Hedvig Ekdal in Ibsen's The Wild Duck, Stephen quickly thwarts her sentimentality by saying, "I hope you're not going to mention Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop." James Joyce, Stephen Hero (New York: New Directions, 1963), 86. Yet coming from a household in which the youngest sibling, Mabel, or "Baby," died of typhus at age fourteen-"the last victim of our family life," as Stanislaus Joyce put it-Joyce was obliged to find his own modernistic [End Page 42] strategies for representing the exigencies of poverty-stricken children in turn-of-the century Dublin. Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper (New York: Viking Press, 1958), 236.

17. Gerald Prince, Dictionary of Narratology, rev. ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 22.

18. Steven Morrison, "Introduction," in European Joyce Studies 12: Joyce's "Wandering Rocks," 4. Further references will be cited in the text.

19. Kathleen McCormick, " 'Just a Flash Like That': The Pleasure of 'Cruising' the Interpolations in 'Wandering Rocks,' " James Joyce Quarterly 24, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 275.

20. Gibson argues that unlike the Viceroy's purely symbolic representation, however, Conmee's power is represented "micropolitically" in the episode, "bound up in Conmee the individual priest seen in the midst of his daily business" (29). [End Page 43]

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