What was the social scene in Dublin at the time James Joyce wrote the Dubliners and in particular his iconic short story "A Mother" -- one of the most debated tales in the Dubliners? The emphasis in this paper is on the role of women portrayed by Joyce in "A Mother" -- in particular Mrs. Kearney, whose daughter Kathleen Kearney is given a strong boost in her education and music career thanks to her mother's persistence and ambition.
Numerous scholarly explanations have been put forward through the years to explain the motivation -- within the context of the social scene in Dublin -- the willful behavior of the story's protagonist, Mrs. Kearney. This paper takes the position that Joyce created Mrs. Kearney in the image of a 19th century heroine, Anne Devlin, for reasons that will be presented in full.
"A Mother" -- What the Scholarly Critics Have to Say
Sherrill E. Grace (an essayist in Bernard Benstock's book, James Joyce: The Augmented Ninth: Proceedings of the Ninth International James Joyce Symposium, Frankfurt, 1985) suggests on page 273 that Joyce's portray of the women in Dublin, in particular, the women in "A Mother," is the "most neglected of stories" (Grace, 1988, p. 273). Acknowledging that four of the fifteen stories in Dubliners do have central female characters, Grace nonetheless asserts that the women in the fifteen stories are "marginal and marginalized" (p. 273). Moreover, the women take a seat in the back of the Joyce bus, Grace continues, because the point-of-view is "male" and reality is defined "in terms of those activities that exclude women, except insofar as they appear on the borders" (p. 273).
The "borders" that Grace alludes to are the "margins of life" include: prostitutes, wives who wait patiently for their drunken husbands to stumble home, or "as old maiden aunts and sisters" (p. 273). There is only one story in the Dubliners wherein a female gets to "speak out" about something "of major importance to herself" -- in "The Dead" -- but even in that story, Grace insists, the revelation fails to lead her husband to a "deeper understanding" of their "separate otherness" (p. 274). So, according to Grace, either Joyce's females are in the background, belittled as powerless and passive sidebar characters, or, if they do have a role that has substance, they are "monstrous" (p. 274). In "A Mother" Mrs. Mooney has "the sensibility of a meat cleaver" and Mrs. Kearney is "erased," Grace explains.
As to Mrs. Kearney, Grace asserts that the "generally accepted interpretation" is that she is a "mercenary female" who is determined to have control over those near her; that interpretation suggests that Joyce, "with wry irony," has "sanctioned her inevitable defeat" (p. 274). Hence, the average, typical critique of Mrs. Kearny is that Joyce doesn't want any sympathy "wasted" on her because she is a victim of her own bad karma, e.g., she has "fallen victim to her own pretensions and greed" (p. 274). Did Joyce present the "utter rout" of Mrs. Kearney at the end of the story to justify his assertion that Dublin is the "center of paralysis?" Grace believes this is true, and furthermore by excluding a "rebellious woman" like Mrs. Kearney, Joyce is simply reminding readers how central to our lives the "patriarchal, hierarchic values and structures" are (p. 276).
Meantime, Martin R. Kearney (apparently no relation to the fictional Mrs. Kearney) explores other scholars' views of Mrs. Kearney, and they don't mirror what Grace has put forward at all. "Early critics" believed that Mrs. Kearney should be seen as "a fright -- nothing more, nothing less," Martin Kearney explains in Short Story Criticism (2004, p. 1). Those so-called "early critics" believed that Mrs. Kearney's comeuppance at the conclusion of the story is not due to Joyce's desire to show Dublin as the center of paralysis, but rather due to Joyce's "own reproach for such a greedy, ambitious mother" (p. 1). In other words pushy, power-hungry women should be put in their place because their bad karma calls for that.
Another generation of scholars (like A. Walton Litz) disagreed with the scholars that preceded him, Martin Kearney goes on. Litz suggested that in doing away with Mrs. Kearney, Joyce was actually blasting away at "the provincialism of musical programs in turn-of-the-century Dublin" (p. 1). The logic in this particular instance is that Joyce was quite bitter when he only achieved "third place" in a singing competition he had entered called the Feis Ceoil, Litz conjectured. Moreover, Litz suggested that when Joyce refused to participate in the "sight reading test" (that was part of the singing competition), the judges gave him the bronze medal due to his reticence to participate in the whole program. When Litz posited this particular scenario other critics jumped onto the bandwagon, Martin Kearney reports.
Critic Ben Collins interpreted the scathing treatment of Mrs. Kearney to mean that Joyce was very displeased with the "entire Irish Revival movement"; in that regard, Mrs. Kearney turns out to be "the hero of the piece rather than the villain," Martin Kearney explains (p. 1). In the more recent past, critics have viewed Mrs. Kearney as "a woman with a mind of her own and the wherewithal to accomplish her goals," Martin Kearney writes on page 1. After all, Mrs. Kearney does indeed manage her household "effectively" and she also manages her daughter's music career with efficiency, and indeed the "mostly male committee members" of the Eire Abu Society's music program victimize her, Martin Kearney points out.
So it's not really her fault that she gets her comeuppance; rather, it's because the patriarchal society pushed her into a position of powerlessness. And she is described late in the story as an "angry stone image" because she has become "literally and metaphorically paralyzed" by the brutal chauvinism, Martin Kearney posits. Another scholar, Linda Page (in a 1995 article referenced by Martin Kearney) describes Mrs. Kearney as -- quoting Martin Kearney -- "a manipulative selfish matron who emotionally scars her child" (p. 1). Martin Kearney brings up the viewpoint of a critic Richard David Ellmann -- a well-respected writer and critic who was Joyce's biographer -- whose take on Mrs. Kearney was that she was "a brow beater who is a failure as a mother" (p. 1).
Having referenced and reviewed the critical explanations for the behavior of Mrs. Kearney, and juxtaposed those behavioral descriptions with the society in Dublin at the time Joyce wrote the book, Martin Kearney brings to the fore his own understanding of why Joyce portrayed Mrs. Kearney the way he did. First of all, Mrs. Kearney's maiden name is Devlin, Martin Kearney explains. This coincides with another well-known Irish name, Anne Devlin, who was the "hero of Robert Emmet's failed 1803 Dublin uprising," according to Martin Kearney (p. 1). Martin Kearney goes on to assert, "Mrs. Kearney [is a] recast Devlin figure. Hardly of the historical Anne Devlin's stature or importance, Mrs. Kearney nonetheless becomes an admirable protagonist," Martin Kearney continues.
The "shabby treatment" that Mrs. Kearney receives from the Dublin society serves two purposes, according to author Kearney. One, Joyce uses the antipathy shown towards Mrs. Kearney to "indict" the society in Dublin for being unfair and unjust; and two, Joyce uses the mean spirited responses to Mrs. Kearney to "evoke the reader's sympathy" (Kearney, p. 1).
Getting into the comparison between Anne Devlin's real-life character and Mrs. Kearney's fictional character, Martin Kearney writes that both Mrs. Kearney and Anne Devlin were in charge of domestic duties of a household, and both go beyond the call of duty. Devlin went well beyond her duties by making preparations for the insurrection against the British; she helped "ship arms and supplies from the Dublin headquarters on Butterfield Lane to rebel positions in other parts of the city" (Kearney, p. 2). Mrs. Kearney, while not going beyond the call of household duty to the extent that Anne Devlin did, nonetheless "…goes above and beyond the call of her household duties," Martin Kearney explains. Mrs. Kearney takes it upon herself to guide Kathleen's professional career, and Mrs. Kearney also helps "stage the public-spirited exhibition for the nationalistic Eire Abu Society" (Martin Kearney, p. 2).
The literary link here is that while Anne Devlin was part of a nationalistic rebellion against the British Crown, Mrs. Kearney was involved in a "patriotic" (i.e., quasi-nationalistic) musical event that had as its purpose the spread of "propaganda"; hence, the fictional character and the real life character have compatibility that apparently Joyce saw and used to the best effect. The additional parallels that Martin Kearney has dug up include: a) Anne Devlin knew the risk she was taking in a nationalistic campaign yet she also was aware than unless she held up her end of the bargain (providing arms to the insurgents) the plan would fail; b) Mrs. Kearney was not at the same level of risk as Devlin but her commitment to the success of…