April 30, 2003

Towards a Definition of Paralysis

Paralysis is the theme of James Joyces’ Dubliners. Joyce himself declared this, writing of his work: “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.” Although it is clear that paralysis is the theme of Dubliners, it is not clear what exactly paralysis is. In order to discover what paralysis in general is, we must understand how it manifests itself in the lives of individual characters. In other words, we must begin with the particulars in order to find the universal. In the following paper, we will attempt to find the paralysis of individual characters by determining the distinctive flaws or shortcomings of those characters. After doing this, we will make some general conclusions.

The flaw and, thus, paralysis of some characters is their timidity, their fear to take a risk and better their lives. Eveline and Little Chandler certainly fall into this category. Eveline has the opportunity to escape her miserable life—which is marred by a demeaning boss and violent father—by marrying Frank, a man who will “give her life, perhaps love, too” (35). But by the end of the story, we find her “passive, like a helpless animal” (36), lacking the will power to sail with Frank to Buenos Ayres. Much like Eveline, Chandler has long been afraid to take a risk and pursue his dream of becoming published. We soon learn that he has never been published because he has been afraid to leave Dublin; and “if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin” (70). Because of his timidity, Chandler finds himself immersed in an unhappy life, working an unfulfilling job and being married to an unkind woman.

The flaw of some characters in Dubliners is their lack of self-control. Farrington and Jimmy Doyle are good examples of this. It is clear that alcohol controls Farrington’s life. His day is spent thinking about and longing for alcohol: “He felt his great body again aching for the comfort of the public-house” (91). By the end of the story, we see that Farrington’s addiction to alcohol has turned him into a mean husband and abusive father (96-97). We never get the impression that Jimmy Doyle is addicted to alcohol like Farrington is, but his inability to put down the bottle and stop playing cards results in him losing his inheritance.

The flaw of other characters is their selfishness. James Duffy has lived his life in isolation from others: he had “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed” (109). By the end of the story, we find that he is alone and miserable: “No one wanted him; he was outcast from life’s feast” (118). Much like James Duffy, Gabriel has lived his life in isolation from others. Although married, he realizes at the end of “The Dead” that he has lived a loveless life (235). It would have been better, he realizes, to, like Michael Furey, “pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age” (235).

In our short survey, we have seen that the characters in Dubliners suffer from such weaknesses as timidity, lack of self-control, and selfishness. But what do these weaknesses have in common? How are all of them forms of paralysis? The answer, as John Kelly writes, seems to be that all of these weaknesses prevent their owners from escaping “into a fuller and more meaningful existence” (Kelly vii). Paralysis can take on many different forms; its defining characteristic is that it prevents one from being what he could be, what he ought to be. For various reasons, Joyce believed his countrymen were not being what they ought to be and, in an attempt to spur them to change, he wrote Dubliners.

April 14, 2003

The Birthday Boys: A Story of Triumph

Upon a first reading, Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys might seem like a discouraging tale about human failure. After all, the book chronicles the 1912 Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott—an expedition plagued by numerous mistakes that ultimately ended in the deaths of Scott and four of his men. Upon a closer reading, however, it becomes clear that The Birthday Boys is a story of triumph.

In order to determine if one has triumphed, we must determine if he has achieved his good—for what is triumph if not the attainment of one’s good? The good, according to many people, is physical survival: to have life is to be in possession of the good. The “birthday boys” reject this view; instead, they claim that the good consists of living well—specifically, living courageously and lovingly. That living courageously is more important than mere survival is affirmed by Scott, as he declares that cowardice is worse than death (97). That living lovingly is more important than survival is affirmed by Birdie, as he elevates “the spiritual” above “the material” and claims that “nothing matters a damn except that we should help one another” (64). If we use these standards—that the good consists of living courageously and lovingly—then it is clear that the birthday boys achieve their good and, thus, triumph over life.

Although some might question their sanity, it is unarguable that the men in The Birthday Boys are courageous. Regardless of how bad the weather is or how much pain they are in, they continue plunging onward, determined to reach their goal. Scott never backs down from a challenge: for him, “there was no such word as impossible” (178). Taff refuses to complain of his own suffering and performs the unprecedented feat of building sledges in the worst of conditions (167). Although they encounter unpredictable hardship, Birdie and Cherry refuse to give up on their mission for eggs; there is “something splendid,” Birdie thinks, “sublime even, in pitting oneself against the odds” (144).

Along with being courageous, the men in The Birthday Boys are loving, both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, the men care about each other. Scott, for instance, prays for the safety of Birdie and Cherry (113), and expresses his great love for Taff (185-86). Moreover, he cannot stand to see his men suffer and, for this reason, continually orders Bill to pain-killing drugs to those in great pain (184). Similarly, Bill and Birdie spend “an inordinate amount of energy worrying about the welfare of others” (161).

More than just inward sentiment, the men’s love is expressed in actions, as they repeatedly make sacrifices for one another. Bill is constantly nursing the men, even when he himself is suffering. During his journey to find eggs with Birdie and Cherry, for instance, he spends much time trying to prevent Cherry’s feet from getting frostbite, never giving “a thought to his own” (137). Oates, though he himself is in great pain, tries to comfort the dying Taff (183). And all the men go out of their way to make each other’s birthdays special. Even as Bill, Birdie, and Cherry suffer through a life-threatening blizzard, they manage to each eat “a boiled sweet in honour of Bill’s birthday” (156).

The birthday boys triumph, not merely by being courageous and loving, but by doing so amid the greatest of adversities. Although adversity can bring out the worst in people, causing them to become cowardly and selfish, it brings out the best in “good men” (70). When conditions worsen, the men in The Birthday Boys become more courageous and more loving. By the book’s end, it is clear that the birthday boys are good men, men who have triumphed.