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  • The Gnomonics of Dubliners
  • Bernard Benstock (bio)

—What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.

(Ulysses 9. 147-149)

In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Rosencrantz's last line as he is about to disappear is "Now you see me, now you. . . ." The reader knows from Shakespeare's text that he is now a ghost through death; the auditor from Stoppard's play that he is a ghost through absence. The pregnant ellipsis is itself a ghost through absence, suspended aloft and rattling its chains, unspoken but nonetheless "heard" by the process of subliminal anticipation as we instinctively complete the line by availing ourselves of a preexisting text. The gnomon of Euclid resurfaces thousands of years later in the opening paragraph of "The Sisters," trailing after itself clouds of meaning probably only dimly perceivable to the young dilettante of words who is the central intelligence of the story and variously apprehended by the variety of readers of Dubliners. Gnomon coexists in the boy's mind in an unholy trinity with paralysis and simony: he incarnates paralysis, the new word, as "some maleficent and sinful being" (Dubliners 9). Paralysis is the recent apparition come to claim Father Flynn; [End Page 519] by extension simony, actually derived from a personified Simon Magus, is one who sometimes appears but should be kept away; and gnomon is a nonappearance suggesting a presence made palpable only by the concept of its absence.

The ghosts who haunt Dubliners outnumber those conjured up by either Henrik Ibsen or Charles Dickens, beginning with Father Flynn himself, and followed by green-eyed sailors, Father Butler, O'Donovan Rossa, Mrs. Farrington, Alphy Donnelly, Mrs. Sinico, Charles Stewart Parnell, Richard J. Tierney, Johannes Josef Ignaz von Döllinger, Father Constantine Conroy, and hosts of others, including the Holy Ghost.

Frequent attention has been given to the priestly presence and absence in Dubliners, a volume that begins with the death of Father Flynn. He is dead before the boy is aware that he has died, although he had been anticipating the death and attempting to read the signs of that death in the candle-lit window. Apprised of the news by Old Cotter, the boy feigns indifference rather than give the adults the satisfaction of seeing his reaction: later he finds that the pretense of indifference has evolved into a sustained absence of emotional reaction ("I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood" [12]). The signs that eluded him at night in the priest's window he belatedly encounters by day on the shop door, the formal notice that inadvertently discloses that Father Flynn before his death was already a ghost through absence ("formerly of S. Catherine's Church, Meath Street" [12]). Even before his official verification of the death, the boy is afraid of being haunted: "In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas" (11). The ghost of course materializes in his dream, strangely smiling, the smile reflected in the boy's responsive smile until roles are interchanged and the child absolves the priest ("I felt that I too was smiling as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin" [11]). The smile recurs when the boy does see the dead body (and the candles are lit), but it is only the ghost of a smile:

The fancy came to me that the old priest was smiling as he lay there in his coffin.

     But no. When we rose and went up to the head of the bed I saw that he was not smiling.


Each of the three childhood stories has its obligatory Catholic cleric, but whereas Father Flynn is so recently deceased, the priest that haunts "Araby" is remote, anonymous, unrelated to the boy who now tenants his transferred house. His domain is the "waste room behind the kitchen . . . littered with old useless papers" (29); his legacy is a suspicious trio of abandoned books reflecting either his interests (ostensible...


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pp. 519-539
Launched on MUSE
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