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  • A Little Cloud of Queer Suspicion
  • Michael F. Davis (bio)

A number of the stories in Dubliners have what we might call “oblique” titles that, instead of pointing directly to an apparent principal character or an ostensible major theme, point away to seemingly secondary characters, subordinate themes, or minor—even incidental—narrative concerns.1 Consider, for example, the first and last stories. While “The Sisters” is primarily concerned with the young boy–protagonist’s processing of the death of a priest with whom he had a fairly intimate relationship, the title identifies the secondary figures of the priest’s two sisters, directing our attention to their sisterly part in upholding illusions concerning the dead priest/brother and to their eventual disillusionment. While the last story, “The Dead,” is primarily concerned both with the adult Gabriel Conroy’s attempts to uphold illusions of himself and with his eventual disillusionment, the title singles out what seems to be a more widespread theme of death. Although both stories have oblique titles, these titles might be said to activate similar but reverse lines of signification. It has been suggested that while “The Sisters” might have made a more “appropriate” title for “The Dead,” “The Dead” might have been a more appropriate title for “The Sisters.” While the first story’s title might point across the volume to the last story, the last title points across the volume to the first. Thus, Joyce’s use of titles functions like the rhetorical stitch of a double chiasmus, by which, as he suggests himself in Finnegans Wake, Dubliners is “doublends jined,” or “double ends [Dublin’s] joined.”2

In addition to the beginning and ending stories of Dubliners, a number of stories near the middle also have oblique titles, including “Counter-parts” and “Clay,” both of which identify specialized objects in the text that are not actually named and elevate these objects into leading narrative conceits. The title “Counterparts” activates a highly specialized term to [End Page 231] designate the duplicate copies of legal documents, of which there are clearly many in a story that opens up and unfolds in an office dedicated to this specific work, and with a protagonist engaged (or not engaged, as it were) in such work. Indeed, the story focuses on Farrington’s failed efforts to complete a few of these duplicate copies adequately. Thus, the title gives a technical name to something everywhere present in the text, but unnamed as such, a rhetorical device that resembles an inverse allusion: a direct reference to something with which few can be expected to be familiar, rather than an indirect reference to something widely familiar. While the title gives a technical name to an unnamed object, it also functions in almost the opposite way, to mobilize a literary conceit. Instead of pinning down a particular meaning, the word “counterparts” opens up metaphorical potentials: For instance, the abuse in the workplace might be said to have its “counterpart” in the abuse in the home.3 The title “Clay” activates a more common term, but one that designates specifically and esoterically the use of a lump of garden soil in a family game played at the very end of the story. This usage is both elusive in the story and obsolete in practice, the game involving garden soil having long since fallen out of cultural use at the time at which the story takes place. Once again, Joyce’s title-phrase identifies an object in the story that is never actually named in the story. And once again, the title phrase activates a literary conceit, suggesting not only the biblical symbolism of clay—the substance from which we are made and to which we return—but also a more arcane Christian discourse concerning the figure of the Virgin Mary, with whom the central character, Maria, is closely identified.4

In addition to these two stories, there is another in the middle of Dubliners, the eighth of fifteen titles and, therefore, at the structural center of the volume, “A Little Cloud.” This title is more oblique than any of the others, so much so that we might call it “obscure.” There is no actual “little cloud” in...


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pp. 231-261
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