Inis Mac Neasáin: Eyes & Characters in Joyce’s “Dubliners”

Eyes – the reason reading exists – and their descriptions are often overlooked in literary works; frequently, their descriptions are only used to enhance the attractiveness of a blonde-haired, clear-eyed protagonist in hopes of appealing to a readership’s inherent adoration of beautiful heroes. Although the choice of character eye color in most novels may seem arbitrary, in Joyce’s Dubliners, carefully chosen eye colors and eye-centric scenes become integral to understanding Joyce’s narrative storytelling.

Every possible human eye color is found within the text of Dubliners but the one that Joyce chooses the most frequently is blue – blue eyes appear in the collection a total of seven times; more specifically they appear in the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room every time a new character’s eye color is mentioned. However, the choice of blue was not arbitrary, a close reading of the stories revealed an interesting phenomenon, the character’s that were described as having blue eyes were also the ones most obsessed with material possessions and worldly pleasure.

The thieving maid with “her unabashed blue eyes” in Two Gallants is the first character described as having blue eyes (aside from the sailors from An Encounter whom embody all possible eye colors.) Her connection to Corley helps solidify her connection to material goods; Corley’s conversation with his friend Lenehan, is mostly about how the maid (or slavey, as Corley calls her) makes a living by working at the house she steals from – she pilfers mostly cigars and cheese in order to keep Corley’s attention and shows no intention of stopping (a claim that is made clear by the gold coin she gives Corley at the end of the story); in a sense Corley serves as a male-prostitute for the blue-eyed maid, further solidifying her obsession and reliance on material goods and worldly pleasure.

Ignatius Gallaher is the second major character on which Joyce bestows blue eyes. This insufferable “antagonist” in A Little Cloud is a pivotal character in the collection of stories for a reason greater than his “bluish slate-colour[ed]” eyes. Ignatius Gallaher shows that every character in Dubliners that has dreamed of escape from Dublin has been incorrect – wealth and/or leaving Dublin does not equal success or an escape from the stagnation and boredom infused in Dublin’s residents, for although Gallaher is prosperous and successful in his career, he is absolutely insufferable and obsessed with bragging about his travels and “knowledge.” He is alone and hides in the worldly pleasure of alcohol; his eye color shines vibrantly in the text.

The next pair of “dark blue and steady” eyes belong to Mrs. Sinico from A Painful Case; she is easily the most tragic blue-eyed character. Mrs. Sinico plays the supporting role in Mr. Duffy’s story and the reader is only aware of her when Mr. Duffy is aware of her. While Mrs. Sinico’s obsession with material goods and worldly pleasure seems more acceptable and permissible, it is still reliance; in Mrs. Sinico’s case she gains such a dependence on Mr. Duffy (and alcohol) that she takes her own life. The character of Mrs. Sinico can be read as a glimpse into the possible future of other blue-eyed characters – an obsession with worldly pleasure can end a life.

The next three characters with blue eyes are all protagonists in Ivy Day in the Committee Room – Old Jack, Father Keon, and Crofton are the only characters in the story that have their eye colors described by Joyce. Ivy Day is characterized by the flippant nature of all the characters in the story, as well as by the pervasive presence of alcohol. The characters in this story (particularly the three mentioned above) show no true allegiance to any cause and instead only seem to swear fealty to the worldly pleasure of alcohol and inebriation.

Another eye color that is commonly utilized by Joyce is the color grey (though the color green is tied with grey, grey is much more concrete in its connotations.) This eye color appears a total of three times in Dubliners; it is cleverly used by Joyce in order to mark or indicate characters that are only liked by others because of underlying motives or outlying reasons.

The first character in Dubliners described as having grey eyes is Jimmy Doyle in After the Race. Although Jimmy starts off as a carefree, affluent youth, the reader is able to quickly pick up on the fact that Jimmy Doyle is a nouveau riche – his rich friends are able to be careless with their money but in the end Jimmy ends up poor and embarrassed after a card games that drains him of his wealth.  While Jimmy seems to fit in with the wealthy at the start of the story, by the end of it the reader is lead to infer that he only ever fit in because he was perceived as being a wealthy gallant.

Polly Mooney is chosen by Joyce to bear the burden of grey eyes in the story The Boarding House – her love affair Mr. Doran is what ends up justifying her eye color. In this story, Joyce treats the reader to heavy doses of dramatic irony; we, as the audience always know what is going on in the boarding house, whereas Polly is cleverly duped into believing that Mr. Doran actually loves her. Were it not for Mrs. Mooney’s conversation with Mr. Doran, or more importantly Jack Mooney’s silent threat, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Doran would have married Polly– her grey eyes are justified by the fact that she is only “loved” because of the threats of which she is unaware.

The final character with grey eyes is the heroine of Clay, Maria – the connotations between grey eyes and the status of outsider are painfully clear within this story. Maria cannot seem to do anything correctly in Joe’s house; she forgets the plumcake on the tram, Joe becomes cross at everyone for not being able to find the nutcracker for Maria, and in the end she cannot even sing the verses of her song correctly. Although it can be argued that Joe does actually love Maria (there is no reason to say that he does not) it is fairly obvious that his allegiance to her only manifests itself a few, short times a year – he does not in fact do anything to help her out of her poverty, she remains as an outsider in a wealthy home.

The importance of eyes, however, does not simply stop at the connotations between statuses, character traits, and colors; Joyce regards eyes in such a high manner that he ends four of his fifteen short stories by focusing in on the character’s eyes. Three of the stories utilize eyes in a similar fashion – the heroes eyes fill with tears that stem from various emotions, whereas the last story of the quartet does the exact opposite of the previous three, the heroine’s eyes show absolutely no perceivable reaction.

A sense of hope is associated with the eye-centric endings that involve tears – in the stories Araby, A Little Cloud, and Clay the men of the stories feel such intense emotion regarding their situation that they are moved to tears. The tears of these characters can be interpreted as hopeful because of the pervading theme of paralysis throughout the stories of Dubliners – although these protagonists are paralyzed, they can still cry – they are not yet dead; they are not as bad off as other Dubliners, others such as Eveline.

“Her eyes gave her no sign of love or farewell or recognition.” The final sentence of Eveline serves as a counterweight to the endings of Araby, A Little Cloud, and Clay. In Eveline the metaphorical air of the story is extremely stagnant and stale and any sense of fresh hope is brutally murdered in the climactic scene at the end of the story – Eveline throws away everything she had dreamt of because of a sudden, last minute panic attack; unlike the men of Dubliners, Eveline was not paralyzed – she was dead, her eyes were dead.

The symbolism of eyes is nothing new in the world of literature, however, the specificity in which Joyce crafted Dubliners allows for the rewarding of close reading, something that is most likely not the case in other works of literature. Joyce’s Dubliners is a masterpiece filled with intricate details; claims that he spent hours choosing the particulars of every scene, for this reason, cannot be doubted. The lives of Dubliners are expertly recounted in this collection of stories – and the eyes of Ireland shine, forever brightly, within its pages.

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