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"The Dead"
January 6, 2012 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet...
Today is the feast of Epiphany, the last day of the traditional Christmas season; the day also when the Misses Morkan held that grand affair, their annual dance, in James Joyce's "The Dead."

-An annotated version of the story from Wallace Gray's World Wide Dubliners.

-The Dead (1987); John Huston's last film, starring his daughter Anjelica and a raft of Irish theatre veterans.

-A series of podcasts from University College Dublin exploring the civic, cultural, and historical context of the story.

-A recording of "The Dead" by Elizabeth Klett, the queen of Librivox.

-Dubliners, in ebook and audiobook form.

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again..."
posted by Iridic (71 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmmmm. You'd have thought that James Joyce, of all people, would have known what "literally" meant. I never noticed that before.

Great book, though--and a terrific film.
posted by yoink at 9:29 AM on January 6, 2012


I'm pretty sure he did, yoink.
posted by koeselitz at 9:39 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


(What I mean is that that line has always annoyed me, too. But it's kind of a rabbit hole, such that I just stare at it for a long time every time I read the story. Because – everybody says, "well, she's not literally run off her feet" – but what does that even mean? What is it to be literally run off your feet? What a way to start a story. And a story that ends so very differently. I think Joyce was doing something there, but I have no idea what, is what I'm getting at.)
posted by koeselitz at 9:45 AM on January 6, 2012


From the annotated version:

"literally run off her feet: a fine example of stylistic infection, in which the personality of the character being written about begins to influence the author's choice of words and rhythms. The correct word would be 'figuratively,' but to say 'literally' is common among many people, particularly those with Lily's minimal education."
posted by Iridic at 9:53 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think Joyce was doing something there, but I have no idea what, is what I'm getting at

Well, you're probably right. On the other hand, this is one of those unavoidable conundrums of interpretation, isn't it? I mean, if a crappy writer wrote this sentence we'd just say "well, that's obviously a faux pas." But when a great writer does it we say "a ha, there must be a reason for this!" And, of course, there very well could be--or there very well might not be (people were using "literally" to mean "really, really" long before this and the solecism might simply never have struck him).

The simple answer, of course, is to say "aha, who cares about authorial intent--which is unrecoverable anyway?" But what that answer ignores, I think, is that we need at least some imaginary figure of "the author" to regulate the kind of reading we choose to do. As I said above, if we're reading a piece of really bad writing we decide "whoever wrote this isn't sophisticated enough to be playing the kind of game that would demand that I look beneath the superficial crudity of the expression for some deeper significance--perhaps a deliberate performance of incompetence for satirical purposes or what have you." There comes a point (and this is particularly true, I think, in reading poetry) where we have to decide how much credit we're willing to extend to the writer--how far we're willing to wander down apparent blind alleys to see if there might be some interpretive gold hidden in the darkest recesses--and inevitably that question of "credit" is tied to some notion of authorial capacity--if not necessarily authorial "intent."
posted by yoink at 9:53 AM on January 6, 2012


Hugh Kenner discusses the first line at length in one of his books – Joyce's Voices, I think. The short answer is that it's an example of free indirect discourse.

In another book, it is pointed out that an artist's errors are volitional.
posted by cobra libre at 9:54 AM on January 6, 2012


My dad tried to show me the John Huston film when I was younger, explaining what a poignant and important story this was. I was having none of it. I didn't get it. I was too young. I hadn't ever loved anyone - let alone loved someone and lost them - let alone loved someone and lost them and then loved someone else.

I'm still not sure that I get it.
posted by jph at 9:55 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"stylistic infection"

Curious term. I'd have gone with "free indirect discourse" myself.
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or exaggeration, even.
posted by grog at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2012


Great post!

and by the way,

His dark eyes fixed themselves on her again drinking in her every contour, literally worshipping at her shrine.

when a thrill went through the packed court literally electrifying everybody in the shape of witnesses swearing to having witnessed him

its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe), numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe

that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which it is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive


All from Ulysses.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:14 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


-The Dead (1987); John Huston's last film, starring his daughter Anjelica and a raft of Irish theatre veterans.

A rep cinema I used to frequent twenty years ago published a calendar showing all the movies playing that month. The limitations of two-colour printing being what it is, there was rarely any art to speak of on the calendar itself (which had dates maybe an inch-and-a-half square), usually just a movie title: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or KOYAANISQATSI or LIQUID SKY. Sometimes, if the title were short, the director's name might be included: LYNCH'S BLUE VELVET or NICOLAS ROEG'S WALKABOUT. This style backfired one them once -- premiering Huston's final, posthumously released film, the calendar read JOHN HUSTON'S DEAD.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:17 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is interesting, lucia__is__dada.

I guess the question, then, is what the hell "literally" means.
posted by koeselitz at 10:19 AM on January 6, 2012


Nice, lucia_is_dada. Perfectly illustrates my conundrum above, of course. Because that gives us pretty clear information that Joyce, the man himself, used "literally" to mean "really, really" and not, well, literally. So there's really no reason to read that first line of "The Dead" as free indirect discourse. Except that we don't want to think of Joyce as perpetrating such an obvious solecism, and it feels so right to impute it to Lily instead.

Interesting.
posted by yoink at 10:25 AM on January 6, 2012


I meant to add: Here's an annotation you'll never see to any of those uses of "literally" from Ulysses:

"The correct word would be 'figuratively,' but to say 'literally' is common among many people, particularly those with Joyce's maximal education."
posted by yoink at 10:27 AM on January 6, 2012


Because that gives us pretty clear information that Joyce, the man himself, used "literally" to mean "really, really" and not, well, literally. So there's really no reason to read that first line of "The Dead" as free indirect discourse.

Those examples are all from Ulysses, which relies on a whole fuck ton of free indirect discourse.

I have no dog in this particular race, but that second example especially is clearly a pastiche. Most of Ulysses is pastiche...
posted by mr_roboto at 10:31 AM on January 6, 2012


One interesting thing about the film versus the original is that I always took the story (and its closing sentence, in particular) to be ironic (in keeping with the general character of the book, which, let's face it, is a hatchet job) in the cruelest, most accomplished way I can think of off the top of my head. The John Huston version seems genuinely touching.
posted by urschrei at 10:31 AM on January 6, 2012


yoink: Because that gives us pretty clear information that Joyce, the man himself, used "literally" to mean "really, really" and not, well, literally. So there's really no reason to read that first line of "The Dead" as free indirect discourse.

That's literally fallacious!
posted by cobra libre at 10:34 AM on January 6, 2012


[My apologies: it turns out that most of the film playlist linked in the OP is blocked in the US - everything except the second ten minutes. There are a couple of other substantive excerpts available on YouTube: the "Lass of Aughrim" and the big finish.]
posted by Iridic at 10:42 AM on January 6, 2012


There is literally no end to our appetites. I dont believe I ever was in better health...

Literally every man in Rome speaks to and laughs at Georgie. They make presents of biscuits...

And them I had to work literally night and day on Shem and Shaun and then I left, ....

At the station I literally had no breath to say what I wanted as I was doubled up by my efforts...


All from The Selected Letters of James Joyce.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 10:43 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


... maybe somebody knocked her down! (accidentally)
posted by zomg at 11:10 AM on January 6, 2012


Here in Ireland today is also called Little Christmas or Women's Christmas, when the hard-pressed women of the country have their work done by the men for a day, while they go out and party. Still practiced widely.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:11 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's literally fallacious!

It appears to be literally true that Joyce, like many other English speakers, did not use literally in its literal sense. Of course, this does not prevent us from reading the first line of The Dead as free indirect prose. It does, however, strongly suggest that Joyce himself would not have done so--the "literally" would not have struck him, personally, as a locution "marked" as being the sort of thing Lily would say and not the sort of thing the story's narrator would say.
posted by yoink at 11:20 AM on January 6, 2012


Joyce's letters, really? This is tantamount to confusing Duchamp's fountain with something you ought to piss in.
posted by cobra libre at 11:21 AM on January 6, 2012


Those examples are all from Ulysses, which relies on a whole fuck ton of free indirect discourse

Yes, it does. That does not mean, however, that every one of these instances is "free indirect discourse." It's just about every instance of "literally" from the novel.

I guess Joyce would have said "it's literally every instance of 'literally' from the novel!"
posted by yoink at 11:23 AM on January 6, 2012


Joyce's letters, really? This is tantamount to confusing Duchamp's fountain with something you ought to piss in.

Wait, what? We can't appeal to Joyce's letters to try to understand how he, personally, used words? You're setting up such a magic box of infinite recursion here that it becomes literally impossible to address the question at all. Perhaps whenever he said "literally" he really meant "teakettle"? I mean, why not--if no actual instance of him ever using the word "counts" as evidence for "how he used it"?
posted by yoink at 11:26 AM on January 6, 2012


Look, yoink, I speak or write phrases that would give pedants fits literally every day. It would be silly to infer that I was doing so utterly free of self-awareness.

Besides, have you read the "Eumaeus" episode of Ulysses? What do you think is going on there?
posted by cobra libre at 11:34 AM on January 6, 2012


Nice - I was planning to make an Epiphany post myself.

In the Christian liturgical calender, Epiphany celebrates the Wise Men's visit to Bethlehem. It also commemorates the baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana miracle (water into wine). The common theme: Jesus being revealed to the world as God.

Yesterday was the Twelfth day of Christmas. Last night was Twelfth Night (see also Shakepeare's Twelfth Night). You can officially stop celebrating Christmas now.

Today is also known as Old Christmas, so called because of the date change produced by the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calender. As Gallon of Allen pointed out, today is also also known as Little Christmas. (Have yourself a merry one)
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:36 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Literally every man in Rome speaks to and laughs at Georgie. They make presents of biscuits...
And them I had to work literally night and day on Shem and Shaun and then I left, ....


There is nothing incorrect about the usage of "literally" here. Joyce is exaggerating, but he's not misusing the word, because he's not inadvertently literalizing a metaphor. The problem with "literally swept off her feet" is that no one went after Lily with a broom; it's not the sort of mistake a writer as careful as Joyce would make in the first sentence of a story.

His dark eyes fixed themselves on her again drinking in her every contour, literally worshipping at her shrine.

This is from the Gertie McDowell section, right? It's a parody -- the language of romance that a silly girl might have picked up from bad novels (or that Bloom might have imagined such a girl to have picked up).

when a thrill went through the packed court literally electrifying everybody in the shape of witnesses swearing to having witnessed him
that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which it is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive


I'm guessing these are both from the nighttown chapter, in which it's entirely possible that the witnesses were meant to actually feel electric shocks and the building in question really was reduced to ruins. Again, not necessarily a misuse of the word.

(Joyce's Voices is an excellent book. So is everything else Hugh Kenner wrote.)
posted by twirlip at 11:39 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Count me in with those who think median Metafilter criticism of not using the word 'literally' as accepted by prescriptivist tight asses is excessive. If you know what they meant, you know what they meant. Same with ironic, shark-jumped, question-begging and a couple dozen other trivial foibles. (I guess 'trivial foibles' is almost redundant redundant.)
posted by bukvich at 11:43 AM on January 6, 2012


There is nothing incorrect about the usage of "literally" here. Joyce is exaggerating, but he's not misusing the word, because he's not inadvertently literalizing a metaphor.

"Literally swept off her feet" is no more or less "incorrect" than "literally every man in Rome." The fact that one involves a metaphor that isn't literally true while the other involves a factual claim that isn't literally true is irrelevant.

The problem with "literally swept off her feet" is that no one went after Lily with a broom; it's not the sort of mistake a writer as careful as Joyce would make in the first sentence of a story.

No one went after Lily with a broom regardless of the use of "literally." If you are the kind of person who regularly uses "literally" as simply a general intensifier (as Joyce, clearly, was) then this usage is unlikely to strike you as a solecism any more than, say, "Lily was totally swept of her feet" or "Lily was completely swept off her feet."
posted by yoink at 11:49 AM on January 6, 2012


yoink: “It appears to be literally true that Joyce, like many other English speakers, did not use literally in its literal sense.”

Well, but that begs the question. You – like most of us – assume that the word "literal" actually means something like "concretely and non-metaphorically," and that any English speaker who uses it otherwise is speaking loosely or sloppily. But is that the case? Is that the original meaning of "literal," or the only meaning?

I've kind of wondered about this for a while. It always annoys me when people tut-tut and correct others for 'mistakes' which aren't really mistakes; I don't mean you're doing that here, but people get really het up about what "literal" is supposed to mean. So I often wonder: is that really what "literal" meant, or was used to mean?

I have a strong feeling that our sense of "literal" as "concretely and non-metaphorically" is very, very modern, perhaps dating to only the past few decades. But I may be wrong. Now I'm off to go look, I suppose.
posted by koeselitz at 11:52 AM on January 6, 2012


Look, yoink, I speak or write phrases that would give pedants fits literally every day. It would be silly to infer that I was doing so utterly free of self-awareness.

If you never gave any sign of using a particular locution in any other way than the one that "would give pedants fits" then I would have absolutely no rational basis for the claim that on any one given occasion when you used that locution you were using it ironically.

Kenner's claim that this use of "literally" is strongly marked (for Joyce, at least) as something only an "uneducated" person would do is simply disproven by Joyce's own frequent use of the word in that way in other contexts--including in his own letters when we have no reason whatsoever to think that he is engaging in free indirect style.
posted by yoink at 11:54 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


You – like most of us – assume that the word "literal" actually means something like "concretely and non-metaphorically,"

Well, no, not quite. If "most of us" assume that then that is what the word means--to us. I'm actually making a completely non-prescriptivist argument because I'm saying that Joyce clearly belonged to a community who used the word in a different way and for that community the word quite clearly did not mean "concretely and non-metaphorically."

OED gives this "non-literal" meaning of "literally" as it's third definition:
c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).
The first instance it gives of this sense of the word "literally" is 1769--and it gives plenty of obviously non-ironic uses subsequent to that. So, sure--we can say that the word has come to mean--for a very large number of English speakers--"take this is the strongest admissible sense" and we can also say that we have very clear evidence that Joyce habitually used the word in that sense.
posted by yoink at 12:05 PM on January 6, 2012


I'm still wondering, since nobody has said yet – what the hell does "run off her feet" mean literally? Or even metaphorically? I've never known, even from the context of this story. (It's not "swept," by the way, so no brooms involved.)
posted by koeselitz at 12:10 PM on January 6, 2012


What I mean is that I don't agree that Lily is not actually "run off her feet." If she's moving so quickly that her feet are at any moment not touching the ground, she is literally "run off her feet." And that is entirely possible.

Also, what's interesting about lucia__is__dada's examples from Ulysses is that all of them are literally true in the context of the story. Joyce seems to use the word exactly as we would there.
posted by koeselitz at 12:15 PM on January 6, 2012


Figuratively, it's just to be very busy, to the point of being overworked. Like, say, being the only waitperson who made it in for a lunch shift at a cafe, which was then slammed with customers.

I've always imagined it to imply that recovery from being that busy would require rest, since your feet would then ache, feeling less like feet than mere stumps at that point.
posted by rewil at 12:35 PM on January 6, 2012


Also, what's interesting about lucia__is__dada's examples from Ulysses is that all of them are literally true in the context of the story

No, they aren't. There's no "literal" electricity in the courtroom, there's no "literal" shrine to worship at--the edifice is, though, literally in ruins.

Mind you, here's another than lucia_is_dada missed:
Wagnerian music, though confessedly grand in its way, was a bit too heavy for Bloom and hard to follow at the first go-off but the music of Mercadante's Huguenots, Meyerbeer's Seven Last Words on the Cross and Mozart's Twelfth Mass he simply revelled in, the Gloria in that being, to his mind, the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
And there is no literal cocked hat, of course.

What I mean is that I don't agree that Lily is not actually "run off her feet." If she's moving so quickly that her feet are at any moment not touching the ground, she is literally "run off her feet." And that is entirely possible.

Now there's another interesting angle. What does it mean? Is it a metaphor at all? If it does mean simply "ran so fast you left the ground" then it can easily be "literally" true in the "literal" sense of the word (and, once again, the sentence ceases to be free indirect speech).

OED thinks it means something else--not inherently metaphorical although in this specific instance it would still be a trope: prolepsis, I think:
(a) to run (a person) off his (also her) feet (or legs) : to overwork or harass (a person) to the point of exhaustion (originally spec. through running)

So Lily is not, yet, "literally" "off her feet" (i.e., so exhausted that she is lying down)--but then she could "literally" be "so exhausted" that she will need to lie down.

Complications, complications.
posted by yoink at 12:40 PM on January 6, 2012


Ugh, sorry--I failed to close the blockquote: it should end at "through running)" and then go back to no indentation.
posted by yoink at 12:41 PM on January 6, 2012


yoink: “No, they aren't. There's no "literal" electricity in the courtroom... ”

It is true, and was well-known by Joyce's time, that electricity is the principle by which human nerves are actuated.

“... there's no "literal" shrine to worship at... ”

It doesn't say "worshipping at her literal shrine." It says "literally worshipping at her shrine." The worship can well be literal, can't it?
Wagnerian music, though confessedly grand in its way, was a bit too heavy for Bloom and hard to follow at the first go-off but the music of Mercadante's Huguenots, Meyerbeer's Seven Last Words on the Cross and Mozart's Twelfth Mass he simply revelled in, the Gloria in that being, to his mind, the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
In his mind being the operative phrase here.

What I mean is that I don't agree that Lily is not actually "run off her feet." If she's moving so quickly that her feet are at any moment not touching the ground, she is literally "run off her feet." And that is entirely possible.

“So Lily is not, yet, "literally" "off her feet" (i.e., so exhausted that she is lying down)--but then she could "literally" be "so exhausted" that she will need to lie down.”

Not yet when?
posted by koeselitz at 12:48 PM on January 6, 2012


So there's really no reason to read that first line of "The Dead" as free indirect discourse.

That is incorrect. Read the entire first paragraph of the story: Lily's perspective, Lily's cares and worries, Lily's language, Lily's thoughts. The paragraph is nominally in the third person but this is not the third person of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" pontificating from on high. This is the third person of the angel on Lily's shoulder, close enough to just about hear what she's thinking, to see just about what she sees and no more. Would the prim Misses Merton call a drunkard "screwed"? Say of themselves: "They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers"? That's Lily's phrasing, Lily's words.

The perspective switches when she takes Gabriel's coat, and the language does, too, look at the first long para after he gains the stairs: Discomposed, retort, dispel, indelicate. Fifty cent words if ever there were any: Gabriel's language.

That's free indirect discourse. It's a clumsy term for a technique used as frequently as it is in English literature, but this is about as plain an example of it as you can find.

what the hell does "run off her feet" mean literally? Or even metaphorically?

I've always taken it as someone criss-crossing back and forth so rapidly it almost seems as if they might make turn and leave their own feet behind them. That sort of fluttery grab this grab that don't forget the other thing mode you get into when you're packing and late for the airport.
posted by Diablevert at 12:51 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is true, and was well-known by Joyce's time, that electricity is the principle by which human nerves are actuated.

Snort.

It doesn't say "worshipping at her literal shrine." It says "literally worshipping at her shrine." The worship can well be literal, can't it?

He's literally worshipping at a metaphorical shrine. That's a neat trick. Can you literally play basketball on a metaphorical court?

In his mind being the operative phrase here.

Oh pish. It still didn't "literally" knock anything into anything whether it was in his mind or not.

Not yet when?

Not yet in the sustained action of the first paragraph. One could, of course, make the claim that the first sentence of the first paragraph refers to a later period than the subsequent sentences, but it would be a rather perverse claim. It's pretty clear that the subsequent sentences go on to illustrate just how Lily is "run off her feet." For it to refer to a later period I think it would have to read "Lily had been rushed off her feet."
posted by yoink at 1:00 PM on January 6, 2012


Hah, made myself look like a jackass, upon further reading. But I stand by back answers and Gabriel.
posted by Diablevert at 1:01 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is incorrect. Read the entire first paragraph of the story: Lily's perspective, Lily's cares and worries, Lily's language, Lily's thoughts.

Not at all. I see nothing whatsoever that marks either the first or most of the second paragraph as "Lily's thoughts" ("screwed" doesn't show up until the third paragraph and I see no reason to impute it especially to Lily). In fact a large chunk of the second paragraph is very expressly not imaginable as Lily's "take":
That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils' concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve's, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker's daughter, did housemaid's work for them. Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.
This is not the way "the caretaker's daughter" would describe the imposing ladies she serves. Nor is reminiscing about the way Mary Jane looked thirty years ago something available to the consciousness of this "slim, growing girl" as she is described later. The only time we seem, to me, to dip into free indirect "Lily world" is in the closing sentence of the second paragraph:
They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers.
posted by yoink at 1:11 PM on January 6, 2012


Kenner's claim that this use of "literally" is strongly marked (for Joyce, at least) as something only an "uneducated" person would do is simply disproven by Joyce's own frequent use of the word in that way in other contexts

I simply don't see Joyce using the word in the "irregular" sense in his novels and stories. I don't mean I find it inconceivable; I mean that the irregular usage only seems to occur where he is mimicking the voices of characters who would have freely used it in the common, irregular sense in real life. The "literally electrifying everybody" line is from the Eumaeus chapter (not nighttown, as I guessed earlier), so that's the voice of Bloom attempting to sound knowledgeable and wise -- and failing, because it's a parody. Your cocked hat example is more of the same: Bloom's voice again, at his most pompous, so Joyce has every reason to throw in the occasional solecism to undercut the pomposity.

Joyce was extremely sensitive to the nuances of language and the different registers that people used. It seems likely that he would have noticed the different usages of "literally" and the oddness of using it in figurative contexts; I don't think the occasional solecism in informal contexts like his personal letters implies otherwise. On top of that, in the case of "The Dead," the word appears in the opening sentence, where any irregularity would have been highly visible. It's hard to imagine a writer as meticulous as Joyce missing something like that. So to me, it makes the most sense to assume he deployed the irregular usage there deliberately -- speaking in Lily's voice, suggesting something about her background and character, and also just having fun with the language.
posted by twirlip at 1:11 PM on January 6, 2012


P.S. "screwed" is literally Aunt Kate's word:
Aunt Kate drew Gabriel aside hurriedly and whispered into his ear:

"Slip down, Gabriel, like a good fellow and see if he's all right, and don't let him up if he's screwed. I'm sure he's screwed. I'm sure he is."
posted by yoink at 1:14 PM on January 6, 2012


literally a plate of beans, much.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 1:19 PM on January 6, 2012


Joyce was extremely sensitive to the nuances of language and the different registers that people used. It seems likely that he would have noticed the different usages of "literally" and the oddness of using it in figurative contexts; I don't think the occasional solecism in informal contexts like his personal letters implies otherwise. On top of that, in the case of "The Dead," the word appears in the opening sentence, where any irregularity would have been highly visible. It's hard to imagine a writer as meticulous as Joyce missing something like that. So to me, it makes the most sense to assume he deployed the irregular usage there deliberately -- speaking in Lily's voice, suggesting something about her background and character, and also just having fun with the language.

Well, this is going over well-trodden ground at this point, but let me just point out that your argument is that Joyce carefully chose this usage of "literally" (which, as koeselitz points out need not even be a solecism) to "mark" the sentence as being "Lily's" because clearly nobody as educated as Mr Author James Joyce would EVER stoop to such a crass error--and you're simply waving aside the fact that he repeatedly and unselfconsciously made exactly that error in his very own letters. If you want to argue that it's "obvious" that such a usage "couldn't" be located in the author's mind and therefore "must" be located in the character's it does seem to be rather a problem that we know for a fact that this was not the case.
posted by yoink at 1:19 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


And since I'm a Hugh Kenner fanboy, here's the relevant passage from Joyce's Voices:
To wonder what "literally" may mean is the fear of the Word and the beginning of reading. Whatever Lily was literally (Lily?) she was not literally run off her feet. She was (surely?) figuratively run off her feet, but according to a banal figure. And the figure is hers, the idiom: "literally" reflects not what the narrator would say (who is he?) but what Lily would say: "I am literally run off my feet." And sure enough, the paragraph goes on to designate the shabby crew who attend that party as the ladies and the gentlemen, which would be Lily's idiom likewise. Joyce is at his subtle game of specifying what pretensions to elegance are afoot on this occasion, and he does so with great economy by presenting a caretaker's daughter (Americans say 'the janitor's girl') cast for this evening as hall maid, and coping amid inconvenient facilities with too many simultaneous arrivals....

So that first sentence was written, as it were, from Lily's point of view, and though it looks like "objective" narration it is tinged with her idiom. It is Lily, not the austere author, whose habit it is to say "literally" when "figuratively" is meant, and the author is less recounting the front-hall doings than paraphrasing a recounting of hers.

This is a small instance of a general truth about Joyce's method, that his fictions tend not to have a detached narrator, though they seem to have. His words are in such delicate equilibrium, like the components of a sensitive piece of apparatus, that they detect the gravitational field of the nearest person. One reason the quiet little stories in Dubliners continue to fascinate is that the narrative point of view unobtrusively fluctuates. The illusion of dispassionate portrayal seems attended by an iridescence difficult to account for until we notice one person's sense of things inconspicuously giving place to another's. The grammar of twelve of the stories is that of third-person narrative, imparting a deceptive look of impersonal truth. The diction frequently tells a different tale.
posted by twirlip at 1:20 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


you're simply waving aside the fact that he repeatedly and unselfconsciously made exactly that error in his very own letters.

No, I've already pointed out that most of those "errors" are not errors at all, since they don't use "literally" in a context where "figuratively" would work. Joyce certainly made mistakes -- there's an entire book about them -- but I don't think the opening sentence of "The Dead" is one of them, and given everything else I know about Joyce and his writings, I think your reading is mistaken.
posted by twirlip at 1:23 PM on January 6, 2012


Hey, who isn't a Hugh Kenner fanboy, he's great--but he's simply refusing to even entertain the possibility that Joyce actually used literally this way. I mean, his argument is based on simple conviction that it's impossible that James Joyce could commit such a solecism (as he sees it).
posted by yoink at 1:24 PM on January 6, 2012


No, his argument is that this is one of innumerable examples where Joyce does this sort of thing. That's what the book is about. Kenner follows up with a bunch of other examples -- Uncle Charles "repairing" to the outhouse in Portrait (which Wyndham Lewis complained about), an extensive analysis of Gerty's voice in Ulysses -- but I'm not going to type out the rest of it because my hands are tired. The passage above is where he states his case, his point of entry into the subject; I read the book and found it convincing.
posted by twirlip at 1:30 PM on January 6, 2012


This is not the way "the caretaker's daughter" would describe the imposing ladies she serves.

True, but it's also the second paragraph, and I directed you to the first. First paragraph we get Miss Kate and Miss Julia. Second we get "the Misses Morkan." The first is the way Lily would think of them --- it's a little taste of here perspective. I would agree that the narration it does take a step back there in describing their history. If you want we could atomize each shift in tone and each stake our syllables where we think it shifts. But I don't think it's at all arguable that this is a technique Joyce is deliberately using throughout the story: Though the whole piece is told in third, there are distinct passages where his third person gets awful close to first, with Joyce sometimes shifting back and forth from sentence to sentence within the same paragraph. See, for example, the paragraph where Gabriel looks at his mother's photograph and remembers her.
Gabriel's eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano. A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work had been taught for one year. His mother had worked for him as a birthday present a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes' heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons.
Imagine yourself in this room: You could be standing across the room from Gabriel and see the action of the first sentence and a half. But you'd have to be inside his head to know the rest. The way Joyce shifts the distance and perspective of his narrator throughout the story is often seamless and always subtle. But I think it's also deliberate and clear.

So if the question before us is "Is Joyce's use of literarily in the first line a deliberate attempt to evoke Lily's mindset and language or Joyce himself speaking unconsciously in error" it depends a great deal of the degree of subtlety and deliberateness you think Joyce capable of. The man did create a schematic of the deliberate symbolism in Ulysses which included the five different symbolic categories (Organ, Art, Colour, Symbol, Technic) to which he deliberately included allusions for each chapter of Ulyssess. (Each chapter also comprising a difference scene, hour of the day, and referent in Homer's Ulysses as well.) Myself, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt on this.
posted by Diablevert at 1:38 PM on January 6, 2012


yoink: “He's literally worshipping at a metaphorical shrine. That's a neat trick. Can you literally play basketball on a metaphorical court?”

I don't get it. Why not? Can you really not have a metaphor and a literal statement in the same sentence?
posted by koeselitz at 1:59 PM on January 6, 2012


Here are the opening sentences from some of the other stories in Dubliners:
There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free.
Stroke and blind: words with multiple meanings and usages. "The Sisters" goes on to ostentatiously introduce three other multivalent words: paralysis, simony, and gnomon. There's also the word crossed in the first sentence of Ulysses. This is a game Joyce likes to play, especially at the start of his stories: he makes you do a little mental double-take in order to confirm which usage is intended. It's like a subtle hook to grab your attention. I think a deliberate misuse of literally in "The Dead" follows this pattern.

Likewise, several other stories in Dubliners start out with the narrator mimicking a character's voice: "The Boarding House," "Clay," "A Painful Case." I don't think it's a stretch to see the same technique at work at the beginning of "The Dead." (Another example in support of that: the first paragraph twice refers to "Miss Kate and Miss Julia," and Lily uses the same language to refer to them when Gabriel enters. But a few paragraphs later, when we have an "objective" narrative voice, they're referred to simply as "Kate and Julia"; and when Gabriel's voice takes over, we get references to "Aunt Kate" and "Aunt Julia" instead.)
posted by twirlip at 2:00 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


yoink: “Hey, who isn't a Hugh Kenner fanboy, he's great--but he's simply refusing to even entertain the possibility that Joyce actually used literally this way. I mean, his argument is based on simple conviction that it's impossible that James Joyce could commit such a solecism (as he sees it).”

All else aside, isn't the Word kind of the point of the whole story? I know it's fuzzy, the concept of authorial intent, but if Joyce really didn't think at all about the sixth freaking word of a very short story, he's a crappy writer.
posted by koeselitz at 2:02 PM on January 6, 2012


Here's another example, as this thread has caused me to re-read one of my favorite stories.
While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane's idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. Mary Jane waited on her pupils and saw that they got the best slices and Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia opened and carried across from the piano bottles of stout and ale for the gentlemen and bottles of minerals for the ladies.
First sentence reads like your normal third --- but take a look at that second sentence. Is this a conversation that's happening now? No, because the preparations have already been made. This one sentence is a little mimi-flashback to a conversation among these women which happened days or weeks ago, to which none of the guests have been privvy. And then third sentence and we're back in the room. He's mostly using free indirect quotation there, as opposed to narration, but I think the purpose is the same --- it's a way of interjecting a little bit of the flavor of somebody's language into the story, giving you a sniff of their personality the way you might get a sniff of perfume as your brushed past them. The story curves for a second around their tongue and moves on.
posted by Diablevert at 2:05 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Moving on, I'd just like to point out this delightful bit of foreshadowing from the fourth paragraph of the story:
—O, Mr Conroy, said Lily to Gabriel when she opened the door for him, Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming.
posted by cobra libre at 2:21 PM on January 6, 2012


No, I've already pointed out that most of those "errors" are not errors at all, since they don't use "literally" in a context where "figuratively" would work.

Just thought I'd pop back in to point out that this is incorrect. Exaggeration is figurative language (indeed, all non-literal language is figurative). The figure is called "hyperbole." So when Joyce says that "literally every man in Rome" does something that, in fact, only a very small percentage of the men in Rome doing he is "literalizing" a figurative expression--just like "literally run off her feet" (if, that is, we choose to take that as figurative).

So if the question before us is "Is Joyce's use of literarily in the first line a deliberate attempt to evoke Lily's mindset and language or Joyce himself speaking unconsciously in error" it depends a great deal of the degree of subtlety and deliberateness you think Joyce capable of.

No, it doesn't depend on that at all. I think Joyce is capable of almost infinite degrees of subtlety and deliberateness. It is obvious that it is possible for Joyce to have deliberately written this sentence as a piece of free indirect prose putting us inside Lily's frame of reference, briefly. No one in this thread--and certainly not me--is suggesting that this is not the sort of thing Joyce does. I've already pointed out that he does do it in the last sentence of the second paragraph. What this particular instance depends on, however--if the question is literally "did James Joyce do this deliberately" is what the word "literally" meant to James Joyce and whether James Joyce took the term "run off her feet" to be a figurative expression. The only evidence we have to the first is that Joyce habitually used "literally" in the generally deprecated (by people in this thread, at least) way--as a general intensifier rather than as a way of distinguishing figural from literal uses. We don't, in fact, even know if that usage of the word was generally deprecated in Joyce's time (many such pedantic distinctions postdate the rise of undergraduate writing manuals of the Strunk and White variety).

The claim that we have to take this as Lily's voice rests upon the claim that this is "obviously" not the kind of thing the presumed narrator (someone James Joyce-ish) would say. In fact if you look at this article you'll see a Joyce scholar making precisely that claim: "the author never would have misused the adverb 'literally,' while the maid is much more likely to commit such an error." But we know that the central premise of this argument is false: the author not only would have but did, repeatedly, "make such an error."

The second point is even more difficult to decide--if the issue, again, is "what did Joyce consciously think he was doing here." It is perfectly possible to understand the expression "run off her feet" as entirely unfigurative. If that was Joyce's understanding of the expression (and how on earth could we know one way or the other?) then there is no solecism of any kind in the sentence. And if that is the case, there is, again, no reason whatsoever to read that sentence as being "Lily's" perception rather than the narrator's.

Finally, just to cheer everyone up, here's a relevant cartoon from XKCD.
posted by yoink at 6:32 PM on January 6, 2012


Exaggeration is figurative language (indeed, all non-literal language is figurative). The figure is called "hyperbole." So when Joyce says that "literally every man in Rome" does something that, in fact, only a very small percentage of the men in Rome doing he is "literalizing" a figurative expression--just like "literally run off her feet" (if, that is, we choose to take that as figurative).

On reflection, you are right about this. I thought the "irregular" usage specifically required an absurd literalization of metaphor, but it's broader than that, as you say. (It still feels more right to me to read "literally run off her feet" as a deliberate solecism, though.)
posted by twirlip at 10:34 PM on January 6, 2012


yep, metafilter can't even get past the first sentence.
posted by Shit Parade at 1:07 AM on January 7, 2012


yep, metafilter can't even get past the first sentence

I know! Literally!
posted by Wolof at 1:36 AM on January 7, 2012


I hate what all of you have tried to do to this story.

Here's why this argument is so fucking specious: let's imagine you have literally non idea who James Joyce is, never heard of him, his books, his stories. You pick up this story and start reading. At the first sentence you decide - 'this guy's a hack! He totally said 'literally' when he meant 'figuratively' but I'll keep reading anyway 'cause the bus isn't here yet'. You read some more and at the end of the second paragraph you run into two examples of totally non-standard uses of 'but' and begin to ask yourself 'what the hell is really going on here?'

Then Gabriel comes in to the party/story and the wild, wonky sentences go away (you admire the description of his overcoat). Maybe you dont even notice, but then there's a description of his Aunts. Wait, we already got a description of them though, in the second paragraph, why go back over this again? Why got back again? Either because Joyce, hack, fucked his grammar all up the first time and was hoping he could do it right the second time. Or because he's telling the story according to whose pov he wants foremost (see also Mrs.Malins' "...a beautiful big big fish,...") and Lilly, voice of the first two paragraphs, isn't in school anymore for no reason other than that she is done with it and starting the story there makes Gabriel's smarts and pretensions all the more evident.

It's a brilliant beautiful story. Thanks for the post and the chance to read the story again.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:01 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


And tell me Molly Ivors isn't the template for Molly.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:04 AM on January 7, 2012


I heard somebody else was the template for Molly.
posted by Wolof at 5:43 AM on January 7, 2012


I heard somebody else was the template for Molly.
posted by Wolof at 5:43 AM on January 7 [+] [!]


Well, damnit!
posted by From Bklyn at 10:01 AM on January 7, 2012


Quoting Joyce's letters as evidence of an unselfconscious "misuse" of the word "literally" strikes me as a very narrow interpretation of how people who love language tend to use language.

Joyce revels in distinguishing and mimicking different levels of diction and patterns of speech--that is, usages marked by class, education, profession, etc. He uses them to magnificent effect in his fiction; why would he not do the same in his letters, for his and his readers' amusement? Why would he have to or even want to stick to prescriptivist norms in his personal correspondence? Certainly this can be overdone, as with a friend who won't stop speaking in funny voices or doing accents (and I'm sure many people object to parts of Ulysses and the entirety of Finnegans Wake on similar grounds), but I doubt any of his friends would have thought that (or cared if) he didn't know what "literally" meant. Presumably they would have recognized the hyperbole, the irony, or the specific voice he was aping.

This isn't to say that it's impossible for him to use "literally" in an unselfconscious manner, especially in less formal situations. Usage one grows up with or is surrounded by or even occasionally tries out ironically can become habitual. I'd say people who enjoy language may even be more susceptible. (Less than a year into college in LA, my affected "Dude!" became a more instinctual than comedic response, and now I sometimes have to stop myself from agreeing with someone by saying, "I know, right?") But Joyce's letters are more highly wrought performances than casual speech, and his fiction is even more deliberate, so I find it difficult to believe that he is not aware of the impact of the word "literally," especially in the first sentence of a story so concerned with the differences and distance between people.

Or, if you think awareness and intention aren't the whole story of artful communication, then let's say that Joyce demonstrates a nuanced grasp of a wide spectrum of linguistic usage and his specific word choices are bound to be significant more often than not, indeed more often than those of most writers.

-----

In a related usage note, I've always seen Cormac McCarthy's predilection for the phrase "would of" (instead of "would have" or "would've") as a sign of attention to his characters' sphere of discourse. Most of em got no use for book learnin. I haven't seen him use it anywhere that's not dialogue or the thoughts of a particular character (though I'd be interested to hear if I missed an instance).
posted by Idler King at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2012


I hate what all of you have tried to do to this story.

I'm sorry if my way of enjoying the story has annoyed you. The story is still there. It's still as awesome as ever.
posted by twirlip at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2012


I look forward to some future thread on Flann O'Brien, where we can argue about whether or not he intended to be funny. ("Consider these photographs of the author, in which he never once smiles.")
posted by cobra libre at 11:51 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eyes Wide Shut has always reminded me of "The Dead." Nicole Kidman's revelation about the naval officer is sort of a lusty version of Gretta's story about Michael Furey, with a little adulterous twist thrown in for good measure. Tom Cruise's insomniatic odyssey is like if Gabriel had been called away from his reverie/epiphany. Cruise's encounter with Domino the hooker reminds me of Gabriel speaking with Lily because both women are lower class servants and both men awkwardly give them money (and what else did he give her in the film? A cake?). Both stories also feature a conversation, albeit two very different ones, between two characters who are dancing with a member of the opposite sex who is not their partner (Gabriel and Miss Ivors, Kidman and the Hungarian). I don't know. The near-Christmas wintertime settings of both stories probably makes them feel more similar to me than they truly are. Perhaps I should investigate the novella on which Kubrick based the film…
posted by Houyhnhnm at 1:20 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


twirlip : actually what I hated was a bit more, uh, 'local' - "...all of you..." isn't really accurate. I was just a little too worked up and so...
posted by From Bklyn at 1:30 PM on January 7, 2012


I think Joyce is using language awesomely and this thread is equally awesome irregardless of what any of you think.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:59 PM on January 9, 2012


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