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Crossing Chronotopic Borders

in James Joyce’s The Dead

Florentina Anghel
University of Craiova

People generally define their existence by considering the spatial and

temporal coordinates which they transformed into instruments helping them to
measure their life and coordinate their actions. In his poem “Crossing the Bar”
Tennyson saw death as an escape “from our bourne of Time and Space”
(Tennyson, 1215), thus, memorably limiting human existence, through temporal
and spatial conventions. Both time and space owe their importance to man who,
by inventing them, minimized and limited himself. With his acute sense of
history, Yeats states “man has created death” in his poem “Death” (Yeats, 2193).
Man’s mind, yet, refused to stay in line and, after investigations, scientists
discovered that time and space are relative notions and even that they can be
represented through one another. If one can accept temporal relativity, it is much
more fascinating to understand spatial relativity, mainly possible because of
“pathological” experiences such as hypersensitivity to spaces (Cotrău, 42).
Chronotopic studies in literature are related to Bakhtin who published a study on
space and time Forms of Time and Chronotope. He introduced the concept
chronotop defined as the essential connection between the temporal and spatial
relations artistically turned to good account in literature. Bakhtin sustained the
indissoluble character of space and time, time being seen as the fourth dimension
of space (294). Thus, time is condensed, becomes visible while space becomes
more intense and enters the movement of time, of the subject, of history (294);
they are understood and rendered through one another (294).
Besides Bakhtin’s theory I would also mention Bergson’s philosophy of a
durative time, measuring the intensity with which people live their life events and
a past-present simultaneity that he promotes in relation with an implicit spatial
simultaneity (1995). Investigations of man’s psyche showed that man’s perception
of things is relative in both intensity (time) and form (space). Such theories
reflected in a literary work lead to various time-space interrelations analysed in
such works as Genette’s Narrative Discourse (1988).
This study aims at bringing evidence to sustain spatial and temporal
relativity restricted to James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” published in his
volume Dubliners. As we deal with time and space, a contextualization of the
short story is more than welcome, if we consider the revolutionary theories in
philosophy, psychology and literary theory at the beginning of the twentieth
century. I mention the contextualization for the sake of a theory of synchronicity,
since a work of art is more or less determined by the time when it was written.
Joyce’s work suggest his being informed about aesthetics and philosophy starting
from Plato and Aristotle to his contemporaries.
The title of the short story, “The Dead”, is a violation of people’s ability to
perceive reality, as it suggests a state beyond human existence, therefore beyond
temporal and spatial boundaries. However, the characters in the story act within
chronotopic limits being presented in a very common situation: “the Misses
Mokan’s annual dance” in “the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part
of which they had rented from Mr. Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor”
(Joyce, 1995: 122).
Joyce uses spatial units, enclosures contained in other, larger enclosures,
attempting boundlessness. The main space is the house of Gabriel’s aunts,
vertically presented: the guests have to go upstairs where the party takes place.
While what is represented in space is generally perceived as a quantity, the aunts’
house suggests a qualitative perception of space (Cotrău, 44): the ground floor,
being closer to the streets of Dublin, may suggest an ordinary perception of the
Anglo Irish cohabitation at the end of the 19 th century, somehow dissimulated by a
pragmatic adjustment for survival. By going upstairs, Joyce’s characters acquire
freedom within a “highly spiritual“ space: they can freely talk about their
condition, promote their tradition, revive Irish customs by creating a space within
a space, an oasis of Irishness. They actually attempt a syntopy (Cotrău, 40),
simultaneity of spaces which paradoxically is supposed to mean a denial of their
contemporary spatial context, although their space is part of this contemporary
space. They mentally revive a past creating a contemporary simultaneity.
Similarly, temporal sequences are self-contained while the house artificially
suggests separation between present − the ground floor, Gabriel’s contemporary
Dublin, and past − upstairs, Irish customs revived within an Anglo-Irish
The space that the characters create is not isolated because they make it
interfere with elements of contemporary cohabitation. The conversation between
Miss Ivors and Gabriel stands for a dialogue between free Ireland, space suggested
by Miss Ivors’ invitation to an “excursion to the Aran Isles” and by her mentioning
other places with old Irish resonance like Connacht, where Gabriel’s wife is from.
Her almost aggressive plead for preserving Irish customs and language, for
promoting Irish history is made visible through “… the large brooch which was
fixed in front of her collar” and which “bore on it an Irish motto” (130). Miss
Ivors’ effort to revive the past deepens her into the present as she wouldn’t have
worn the brooch, had the British not conquered Ireland. The effect is twofold: on
the one hand it encloses past and present, Irish and Anglo-Irish spaces making
them all interdependent and simultaneous; on the other hand it sharpens the
discrepancy between a pure past/free Ireland and the contemporary Anglo-Irish
The dialogue brings several glimpses of the outside present into the inside
present: when Miss Ivors calls Gabriel “a West Briton” (130); when Gabriel
admits to himself that he writes a column in The Daily Express (131) (a British
newspaper); when Gabriel states that Irish is not his language (132) and
culminates with Gabriel’s words: “O, to tell you the truth, I’m sick of my country
sick of it!” (132). Another moment that relates the present with the past is
Gabriel’s speech in which he describes the past as a “more spacious age” because
of the great names of the singers and of the qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of
kindly humour (142). The present is described as a “less spacious age” (142)
because the new generation lack all those qualities and names. He sees their
gathering as a revival of the past tradition and the people present there “cherish the
memory of the dead” (142).
“The Dead” in the title, which apparently refers to the fact that the guests
used to mention dead people in their conversations making the latter be always
present at their gatherings, may also be a metaphor for the past and present fusion,
for the Irish space vertically and horizontally coexisting with the Anglo-Irish
space. Since the story is presented from Gabriel’s perspective, Joyce also reveals
the “map “ of his protagonist’s psyche, torn between Irish tradition and European
openness. Gabriel’s speech doubled by his thoughts and attitude emphasizes the
uselessness of his aunts’ effort to revive the dead past.
The event the short story focuses on represents a cycle that at least the
three ladies and Gabriel’s family re-experience every year. The narrator announces
it in the introduction but also contextualizes it both spatially ad temporally.
Although a routine, the event is not comfortably received by Gabriel who, for the
first time, is late. Such a detail creates a slight tension and anticipates differences,
as the reader may expect the short story to reveal and overstep the routine of these
annual meetings. While describing everything Gabriel sees and hears in detail,
Joyce makes him reveal the space where the dance takes place and where the
refreshments are served in time. It is a three dimension conquer of the party in
‘I’m the man for the ladies,’ said Mr Browne, pursuing his lips until his
moustache bristled and smiling in all his wrinkles. ‘You know, Miss Morkan, the reason
they are so fond of me is −’
He did not finish his sentence, but, seeing that Aunt Kate was out of earshot, at
once led the three young ladies into the back room. The middle of the room was occupied
by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were
straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and
plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed
square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in
one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters. (Joyce, 1995: 127)

He uses the focalization technique, starting from larger spaces and

presenting objects and details, therefore, three dimension spaces linearly described
by passing from one point to another (space presented in time): the back room,
two square tables in the middle of the room, the caretaker straightening a large
table cloth − a movement suggesting that people need time to perceive space−,
sideboards, dishes arrayed, the top of the square piano.
“What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space”
(Joyce, 1993: 253), yet, objects can be apprehended in time by “passing from point
to point, led by its formal lines”, by analyzing its parts which may make the
beholder “feel the rhythm” (Joyce, 1993: 253) of the object’s structure. What
makes Gabriel pass his time is what he hears and what he sees. To be more precise
in the interdependence space-time, Joyce chose to show how music (audible) is
followed in space:
“Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of
runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. (…) The only person who
seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the key-board
or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt
Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page”. (Joyce, 1995: 129)

There are two movements suggesting time-passing: “The hand racing

along the key-board” and Aunt Kate turning the page. Any movement implies
time-passing as it unites two points drawing a line: The “nebeneinander”
expressed by “nacheinander” in Joyce’s Ulysses (49). To suggest the same thing
Joyce makes Gabriel’s eyes “wander to the wall above the piano” (Joyce, 1995:
It is obvious that Joyce wants to follow the chronological sequence of
events as they are perceived by Gabriel during the party. Thus, he needs one page
to inform the reader about what Gabriel sees while his aunt is playing the piano.
He actually replaced the audible through the visible, time and space becoming
interchangeable. However, there are moments when Gabriel gets lost in his
thoughts, time becomes durative in a Bergsonian way.
The story is structured on more complementary plans. A parallel
chronotopic matrix is related to Gabriel’s wife and their relationship. Gabriel is
never close to his wife at the party, he even admires her and notices her being
caught in by the Irish spirit of the party, which he does not share. The physical
distance between them spatially marks their difference in opinions and attitude.
When they get closer, it is obvious for him that they are not compatible since she
seems absent, turned on the past, while he belongs to the present and projects his
future plans outside Ireland, in Europe. Their marriage is an almost metaphoric
coexistence of different spaces and times: she is more domestic and related to a
dead past and space, Gabriel is expansive and oriented towards outer spaces.
Gabriel’s investigation of her chronotopic limits turns out to be painful: he
finds out the love story that marked her youth and that she could not forget; the
memory of the young fellow who died because he had waited in the rain to see her
is more present than Gabriel is. He actually gets aware of her living too much and
too intensely in the past with a dead person while he becomes almost absent. He is
also fascinated by people’s tendency to ignore the now and here for the sake of a
then and there, which implicitly supposes a past-present synchronicity and a here-
there syntopy.
Chronotopic limits can be crossed at the level of the narrative by using
anisochronies (Genette, 86) and anisotropies (Cotrău, 42), which render the story
fragmentary but also reinforce the idea of spatial and temporal simultaneity. The
time of the short story combines the Greek and the Hebrew paradigms, namely the
cyclic time and the linear time. Within the Hebrew linearity according to which
time meant a “linear succession of instants” (Cotrău, 48), we can speak about a
chronology of events: the guests come to party, they sing and dance and eat at the
party, they leave the party. To disrupt the possible boredom of such a monotonous
process, Joyce also implied a cyclic representation of time, the Greek paradigm,
rendered through recurrence or eternal present. The entire event organized by
Misses Morkan is repeated every year, Gabriel has to deliver the speech and cut
the goose: ‘It is not the first time that we have been recipients − or perhaps, I had
better say, the victims − of the hospitality of certain good ladies.’ He made a circle
in the air with his arm and paused” (Joyce, 1995: 141). This routine determines
him not to believe in freedom and entraps him in an endless cyclic movement
similar to that of the horse that he laughs at in his joke.
Besides these two patterns, the reader can identify several epiphanies
which are characterized by “timeless eternity” (Cotrău, 48), or duration according
to Bergson’s viewpoint. The first one happened when Gabriel realized that there
was grace and mystery in his wife’s attitude ”as if she were a symbol of
something”, perhaps a regressive/catamorphic symbol as he would suggest in the
title of the picture he imagined: “Distant music” (Joyce, 1995: 146). Another
epiphany appears in the end, when Gabriel’s identity “was fading out into a grey
impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and
lived in, was dissolving and dwindling” (Joyce, 1995: 156). With Joyce, we cannot
speak about pure time, the time patterns mentioned above overlap one another
assuring the complexity of the work. Besides the concrete spaces such as the
house, Dublin’s streets, Gabriel’s bedroom and the garden, there are references to
Irish space and a very interesting syntopy at the end of the story when Gabriel sees
his wife’s dead lover, Michael Furey, in his garden.
James Joyce’s temporal models were illustrated in his portrait, realized by
Brâncuşi, and representing a vertical line and a spiral, meaning coexistence of two
fundamental time paradigms − the Greek and the Hebrew −, which implies
coexistence of spaces, too.
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Univers, 1982.
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− Gîndirea şi mişcarea. Trans. Ingrid Ilinca. Iaşi: Polirom, 1995.
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Literature, Fifth edition, vol.2, Abrams M.H. (ed). New York and London:
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