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James Joyce – A Little Cloud (in: Dubliners) Essay

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A Little Cloud has not generated significant critical debate, despite Warren Beck’s unorthodox interpretation of the denouement in 1969. Chandler’s relationship with his son – not with his wife Annie or journalist/ friend Gallaher – could be the crucial, epiphanal element of the story – Joyce portraying a father who is just beginning to ‘learn […] what the heart is and what it feels’ (A Portrait 252), a man whose conscience is awakened, despite his flaws. However, scholars have generally agreed that the ineffectual protagonist abuses his infant son and refuses to take responsibility for his own shortcomings.

The story ends with the following paragraph: ‘Little Chandler felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child’s sobbing grew less and less: and tears of remorse started to his eyes.’ (81) Though it’s likely that Chandler is genuinely sorry for having frightened his son, most Joyceans insist that the protagonist cries out of self-pity, that his ‘epiphany’, if he does experience one, is egocentric – of a man who may dream and suffer but who will never ‘produce’.

Except for Beck, many veteran Joyce scholars affirm that A Little Cloud develops the famous ‘paralysis’-theme and that it complements, in tone and circumstance, the other pieces which precede the final story, The Dead. Walzl believes that ‘The Dead seems to reverse the pattern of increasing insensibility that Dubliners other-wise traces’ and that no one prior to Gabriel, the protagonist, ‘undergoes a com-parable change or has such an enlightenment’. Similarly, Ghiselin suggests that A Little Cloud fits into the over-all schema of Dubliners by representing the sin of envy. Ruoff asserts that the story ‘describes a would-be artist’s pathetic failure to transcend a narrow existence of his own creation’, and Bernard Benstock’s inter-pretation mentions that Chandler ‘regresses to adolescent self-pity’. Indeed, all focus on Chandler’s ‘sloth, his cowardice, his self-delusion, and his final rage and humiliation’ assert that he is ‘shamed, not ashamed’. But what with Joyce’s use of ‘remorse’?

Probably the most important reason for assuming that Chandler is not enlightened by his experience involves several of Joyce’s own statements. A Little Cloud was written in the early months of 1906, when Joyce was 23 and the father of a six-month-old son, Giorgio. But In 1904, speaking about Dubliners, he had told a friend that he wanted ‘to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city’ (Letters 55). Another frequently quoted letter asserts, ‘It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories’ (Letters 63-64). The combination of ‘paralysis’ and ‘odour’, then, while justified by many details in the works themselves, may have also clouded our perception of scattered, positive sensations which some of the pieces generate.

As Gillespie argues, ‘The opinion that this [negative] attitude dominates the final form of the stories […] oversimplifies Joyce’s emotional attitude toward his country and unjustly circumscribes the artistic potential of the work’. Similarly, Garrison observes that ‘Joyce’s explicit statements concerning his artistic intentions in Dubliners are not very useful as a basis for interpretation’. Although Joyce’s defense of his work provided us with an opportunity to clarify his intent, it probably was not meant to narrowly limit or define our reactions as readers. If Joyce at least partially intended the final story, The Dead, as a tribute to the more positive aspects of Dublin culture (Letters II 166), it is not unreasonable to discern a hint of this attitude in A Little Cloud.

Joyce once told his sister, ‘The most important thing that can happen to a man is the birth of a child’, and since his only son and first-born child was about six months old when A Little Cloud was begun in the early months of 1906, life circumstances are relevant to this discussion. But such issues do not necessarily help us interpret the story, for Joyce might, after all, have been drawing a portrait of an unfit father. Reviewing the story’s link to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while examining information about the young writer should enrich our understanding of his state of mind, reveal key similarities and differences between Joyce and his protagonist, and test the validity of an alternate reading of this story.

In general, Chandler’s disposition is melancholic, ‘but it [is] a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy’ (68). He is fastidious about his appearance and, probably, careful about his work even though he finds it ‘tiresome’ (65). Joyce also emphasizes Little Chandler’s shortcomings throughout the story. He lives in a ‘little house’, reads by a ‘little lamp’, drinks ‘small whiskies’, displays ‘childish white front teeth’, and is given ‘short answers’ by his prim wife. Joyce invites us to imagine an ordinary man, still capable of a dream, but ruled by circumstances and his own, considerable inadequacies. Joyce employs important imagery which firmly links this story to central Joycean themes: ‘[T]he thought that a poetic moment had touched him took life within him like an infant hope […]

A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind. He was not so old–thirty-two’ (68, emphasis added). Linking ‘infant hope’ with ‘a light’ so early in this story hints at Joyce’s lifelong interest in the ‘consubstantiation’ of father and son as well as procreation in the literary sense (Ulysses 32, 155). By the time Joyce wrote A Little Cloud, both physical and artistic generation had become realities. Of course, the reader soon realizes that Chandler won’t succeed, despite his ‘soul’, for he is not original and hopes to capitalize on popular trends, although he realistically admits that ‘he will never be popular’ and hopes only to ‘appeal to a little circle of kindred minds’ (68). Recalling Joyce’s claim in 1904 that only ‘two or three unfortunate wretches […] may eventually read me’ (Ellmann 163) offers an interesting echo.

The location of Chandler’s poetic ‘mood’ is also relevant, for it may be based on one of Joyce’s own experiences. A similar incident occurs at a pivotal point in A Portrait. In Chapter 4, Joyce presents a rare interaction between the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his brothers and sisters during the family tea. Structurally, this scene occurs at an important juncture. Immediately preceding the epiphany of ‘profane joy’ which Stephen experiences on the beach while watching a girl wading, this episode also follows the interview with the religious director of his school, after which Stephen decides not to become a priest. As he walks home to a squalid, over-crowded house, interesting parallels to A Little Cloud occur. Like Chandler, he crosses a bridge, symbolically connected to opposing attractions, but clearly, like Chandler, moving toward a new possibility. Stephen notices a shrine to the Virgin which is ‘in the middle of a hamshaped encampment of poor cottages’ (162).

Unlike Chandler, however, Stephen does not romanticize the image, for he actually lives here, and he laughs to think of the man ‘considering in turn the four points of the sky and then regretfully plunging his spade in the earth’ (162). Without even a hint of rain, the man must begin work. The cloud image in this scene of Portrait is intentionally delayed. Stephen, the university student, then enters his home and finds his brothers and sisters seated at the table. He realizes the contrast between his privileged position as the eldest son and theirs: ‘The sad quiet greyblue of the dying day came through the window and the open door, covering over and allaying quietly a sudden instinct of remorse in Stephen’s heart. All that had been denied them had been freely given to him, the eldest: but the quiet glow of evening showed him in their faces no sign of rancour.’ (163) After one of his sisters, who is as nameless as Chandler’s son, tells him that the family has once again been evicted, her similarly unnamed little brother begins to sing.

The others join in, and Stephen thinks, ‘They would sing so for hours […] till the last pale light died down on the horizon, till the first dark nightclouds came forth and night fell’ (163). But Joyce does not end Stephen’s musings on a negative note, just as he does not seem to end A Little Cloud with a protagonist who pities himself more than his screaming son. Stephen remembers ‘that Newman had heard this note also […] giving utterance, like the voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness yet hope of better things which has been the experience of her children in every time.’ (164). Despite their circumstances, the children sing. Faced with the guilt of primacy, the oldest son is forgiven by his brothers and sisters. Again, Stephen’s vision is superior to Chandler’s. He will retain the mood of this experience, be more receptive to future encounters, and sustain an ethos which will allow him to reject home and family to pursue an artist’s life, perhaps with a family of his own making.

Stephen is an artist; Chandler only longs to be one. However, in a collection of stories which includes a series of married men who beat children (Mr. Hill in Eveline, Farrington of Counterparts, and Old Jack of Ivy Day in the Committee Room), Chandler faces the truth about himself after merely shouting at his son. His experience prepares us for Gabriel’s, just as the family tea prepares us for the strongest epiphany of Portrait. And, although Joyce would work as a clerk in Rome a few months after mailing A Little Cloud off to the publisher and felt superior to his fellow employees who ‘were forever having something wrong with their testicles… or their anuses’, Chandler, unlike them, is fastidious about his manners and appearance and at least longs for an artist’s life. The first portion of A Little Cloud also reminds us of Joyce’s sentimental, poetic temperament while living in Paris as a medical student from December 1902 until April 1903, when he was called home because of his mother’s illness. Stanislaus reports, ‘He told me that often when he had no money and had had nothing to eat he used to walk about reciting to himself for consolation, like ‘Little Chandler’ in Dubliners, his own poems or others he knew by heart or things he happened to be writing then.’ (My Brother’s 231-21)

All three have an opennesss to life and desire and are willing to ‘struggle against fortune’. Through the encounter with Gallaher, Chandler appears provincial, timid, curious about ‘immoral’ sexual practices, but he definitely emerges as the better human being, and inches the reader toward sympathy. We can safely assume that, whatever Chandler’s weaknesses, Joyce had an even lower opinion of Gallaher, letting Chandler considering himself superior ‘in birth and education’. (75) Unlike O’Hara, a character in the story who fails because of ‘boose’ and ‘other things’ (70), Chandler is abstemious, employed, married, and a parent (unlike most of the Irish middle class, which was experiencing tremendous economic hardships and either postponed marriage or abandoned it altogether). On the other hand, the reader experiences Gallaher’s inflated ego and patronizing attitude toward ‘dear dirty Dublin’ and toward his friend.

Incapable of the kind of wit which might successfully redeem his position, Chandler is ultimately defeated; however, our sympathies lie not with the victor but with the young clerk and father. Gallaher may have had the ability to ‘fly by [the] nets […] of nationality, language, religion’, an aim to which the protagonist of Joyce’s next major work aspires (A Portrait 203), but he is little more than a bragging, rude scribbler in the worst Swiftian sense. A new notion in the Dubliners tales is that escape from Ireland does not necessarily equal salvation. ‘If you wanted to succeed you had to get away’, Little Chandler thinks, echoing the thoughts of the boy in An Encounter (‘real adventures . . . must be sought abroad’). And yet Gallaher, who got away, has succeeded in only the most superficial sense. Despite having seen London, Paris and heard talk of Berlin, he is shallow, boorish, and alone.

The story reveals that Chandler, however remote from being either a poet or the ‘old hero’ which Gallaher initially calls him, remains physically and morally the more appealing character. Still, Chandler himself probably feels anything but heroic, and during the gap between scenes, we imagine him returning, deflated, to his family. Like the dog viewing his reflection in the pond, Chandler drops his bone in envy of Gallaher’s, preferring the exotic narrative not of his own experience. His mood at the beginning of the final scene in the story is reflective, self-pitying, and, ultimately, enraged. However, the intensity of his son’s suffering (‘If it died!’) and the coldness of his wife’s accusation eventually result in unselfish shame and genuine contrition. Chandler’s dreams complement, not dominate, his daily world.

Allusion was a serious business in Joyce’s creative paradigm. Despite the irony of a ‘candle-maker’ or ‘candle-seller’ as a failed artist, Little Tommy Chandler’s tears suggest that he has turned from the worship of a false god (Gallaher and, perhaps, Romanticism) to the true religion of hearth and home through the unconscious intervention of his son as savior, as ‘little lamb of the world’. The final clause of the story, ‘tears of remorse started to his eyes’, is precise. Joyce does not write ‘tears of self-pity’; nor does he promote ambiguity by merely saying ‘tears started to his eyes’. When Chandler ‘back[s] out of the lamplight’, he passes the torch to the next generation, genuinely contrite.

Unlike Gallaher, Stephen Dedalus, and Joyce himself, Chandler will remain in Dublin, return to his daily tasks, and pay off the furniture. Yet, he may also foster the growth of an artist. He is, indeed, ‘a prisoner for life’, but the prison walls offer the hope of graffiti, for the child represents creativity as well as responsibility, and the story offers an early treatment of a central Joycean theme.

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James Joyce – A Little Cloud (in: Dubliners). (2017, Feb 03). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/james-joyce-a-little-cloud-in-dubliners-essay

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