Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Still Christmas Week: James Joyces' THE DEAD; Christmas Epiphany

e·piph·a·ny  (-pf-n)
n. pl. e·piph·a·nies
1. Epiphany
    a. A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as
        represented by the Magi.  Three Kings Day.  The Twelth Day.  Also, Twelth Night, the Eve
        before the Twelfth Day according to some traditions.
    b. January 6, on which this feast is traditionally observed.
2. A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.
3. a. A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.
    b. A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization, as with the
        Buddha's enlightenment..
Here in the United States, when Christmas falls on Sunday as in this year, we also take Monday as a holiday.  Most businesses stay closed, just as most opened up today, Tuesday.  But not everyone is done with Christmas yet.
The first day of Christmas, as in the song, was Monday, also called Boxing Day and the Feast of St. Stephen, when your love provides a partridge in a pear tree, and when the snow lays round about, deep and crisp and even, and when Good King Wenceslas traditionally plays Good Samaritan.

The Feast of the Epiphany does not come until January 6th of the New Year.  James Joyce's "The Dead" takes place on this day in 1904 at a party in Dublin.  It is a dinner party, a gathering of family and friends not unlike our own gatherings in any year, a mix of people of different ages whose capacity for love and empathy has evolved to different degrees.

The original story is easy to find on-line, and there is a published play of it, and John Huston's excellent movie adaptation has been on television this season.  Most people enjoy the music associated with the story.  You can hear Susan McKeown's excellent rendition of "The Lass of Aughrim" at this youtube link.

The rather egotistical main protagonist has arranged a special romantic interlude with his wife for this holiday, his wife played in the movie by Angelica Houston.  When Houston's character hears that particular song, it triggers her memory of her first love.  A bit later, as the couple are preparing for bed, she confesses her sorrowful memory of that lost love to her husband, which spoils the mood for their lovemaking but creates an epiphany in the protagonist.

Readers differ greatly in their interpretation of this, but a lot of Joyce scholars think that the lady was regreting the loss of her own child which was the result of a connection with her dead lover.  No other reason is given for her admission into a convent in her youth.  Whether the child died in a miscarriage or was given up or lost for some other reason is a bit beside the point.
The protagonist, hearing her story, feels pity for his wife for the first time, and perhaps for the first time loves her with a love that is not possessive but rather empathetic, an unconditional love not based upon sexual gratification or physical appearence.

Joyce expands the metaphor at the end of the story, and in the film this is given in a voiceover.  Again, different readers interpret this differently, depending on their own ideas about epiphanies, awakenings, and the meaning of the title.  You'll have to decide for yourself.

Some scholars have pointed out that this story is autobiographical, and surely it is, but like all great authors, Joyce parlayed his own experience into the symbolically universal.

1 comment:

  1. I named my daughter epiphany. Well, the Greek spelling of the word. And one of my favourite movies.