“I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis” (Letters II 134). Beja compares the protagonist of Joyce’s Counterparts Farrington to Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener claiming that Bartleby’s response to the menial occupation of copyist for a law office is self-destructive passivity while Farrington’s manifests itself as a kind of impotent rage. The issue then becomes to determine the cause of Farrington’s misery and name a culprit. Popular readings of Counterparts posit that it is the British presence that serves as the main oppressive force for Farrington. Joyce’s many allusions to British colonization have had critics reading the British as the culpable ones, who are indifferent to and yet the seeming source of Farrington’s misery.
Contrasting with these readings, I believe Joyce is not only exposing the detrimental effects of British colonization but also characterizing a particular mentality of colonized Ireland through Farrington who uses Britain as yet another scapegoat to rationalize his failures and discontent. Our protagonist can scarcely see his own culpability in regard to his shortcomings and how quick he is to blame anyone but himself for them. I will go on to argue that it is Farrington’s inept adaptation to the cultural shift that the British have produced and his inability to feel any pride or dignity in his daily life because of these cultural changes that is in large part the source of Farrington’s frustrations.
I believe Joyce’s depiction finds both Farrington and the British equally blameworthy in creating all the “indignities of life which enrage [Farrington]” (Dubliners 80). Farrington is
the inevitable product of the material conditions under which [he] lives, and of the accumulated burden of centuries of colonialism. The "socialistic" ethic of Dubliners does not rest in Joyce's sympathy for this urban under-class but in his painstaking efforts to show… how the fates of his characters are socially determined down to the smallest details of idiom or gesture; how each character both contributes to, and is held prisoner by, the general paralysis of the city.
While many people have been quick to criticize the British (which I too am inclined to do) few have thoroughly argued as to how the British characters present in Counterparts are more at fault in making life more difficult for Farrington than Farrington himself. One cannot fail to see how neglectful Farrington is at his work and how quickly he finds blame anywhere but with himself. I believe popular critics have become much like Farrington himself, looking for anyone with which to place blame besides the one most responsible for shaping his destiny: himself.
I suppose the reason that I am resistant to a reading which directs its blame heavily upon the British is because of how little Joyce’s references to the British seem to actually be ‘oppressive’ forces. Both his arm-wrestling opponent that beats him and the woman in one of the bars who will not reciprocate his gaze are sources of his feelings of inadequacy. Both these characters could be construed as ‘incidentally’ British. I say this because they could’ve easily been Irish and stimulated a similar response out of Farrington. Surely Farrington was doubly bothered by the fact that they were British, but I feel that Farrington uses the fact that they are British to transfer the blame about his own feelings of failure from himself to this cultural shift in Ireland instigated by the British. For Farrington their British-ness justifies his anger, because he associates it with the cultural invasion, but the nature of the incidents themselves which enrage him so, have nothing to do with their being British. An Irish woman could’ve rejected him, and a man with an Irish name could’ve beat him in arm-wrestling, but had they been so, these incidents wouldn’t have afforded him the opportunity to shift the blame of his humiliation.
Of course I do recognize that the British characters do bear some cultural weight and are potentially a factor in Farrington’s escalating ruin of self-esteem. When Farrington notices the woman in the bar, what he finds “striking in her appearance” is her “scarf of peacockblue muslin [which was] wound round her hat and knotted in a great bow under her chin,” her “yellow gloves reaching to the elbow,” and her “plump arm which she moved very often and with much grace” (Dubliners 79). What Farrington notices about this woman is her grace and decadence, much of which seems to be her apparent access to money. The class difference between them might surely explain why she does not return his look, as Farrington seems acutely aware of. Immediately following this rejection Farrington, “cursed his want of money” recognizing that were he not so “generous” in buying drinks, and were he more financially well off and decadently dressed himself, the woman might have given him a second glance.
Similarly with Weathers, Farrington “cursed all the round he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to [him]” (Dubliners 79). While Farrington cannot even enjoy his own generosity toward his mates, he is particularly annoyed with the British Weathers who he calls a “sponge” despite the fact that Weathers had “protest[ed] that the hospitality was too Irish” (Dubliners 78-79). While Farrington spends a considerable amount on his Irish friends, he makes a point of begrudging Weathers for his own hospitality. This is a prime example of how Joyce subverts the indication that the bulk of Farrington’s problems are the fault of the British. It is Farrington that piddles away his money in the name of compunctious generosity. His social stasis (i.e. his want of money) and emotional paralysis are nobody’s fault but his own, in this case for he is willing to sacrifice his own capital, an act which produces the conditions of life with which he is so disgusted. He insisted on providing the good time, and even went the lengths of pawning what was likely one of few valuable possessions in the hopes that intoxication would allow him to forget his discontent.
The clearest metaphor in the story which illustrates the hopelessness of Farrington’s escaping his dismal predicament is when Farrington is returning home when “his great body [is in] the shadow of the wall of the [British Infantry] barracks” (Dubliners 81). The irony about the presence of the barracks is that Farrington doesn’t acknowledge how their presence renders him politically impotent. He merely passes in its shadow, not seeing how it robs him of his volition. He notices when he is rejected or beaten at arm-wrestling, but his blindness to this reflects the paralytic nature of this class of Irishmen. He cannot see past what directly infuriates him. The barracks represent a kind of indirect oppression, mentioned only in passing. They do not affect him directly but remain a symbol of the source of his plight.
There are many seemingly fixed aspects of Farrington’s life which he is in part responsible for, but his neglect for both family and work are both the cause and effect of his misery. Waltzl writes that “[Farrington] is already trapped by life, having made constraining choices earlier” (227). While he is perhaps a victim of circumstance concerning the effects of colonization, his choice to procreate so often no doubt put him in a type of bondage, in that he has no choice but to work at any place that work was to be had. His work is alienating and unfulfilling, so as a consequence he shirks his duties. Of course, this too is a conscious choice which contributes to the life that he suffers through. He is trapped by his need to work, but is free to do well, to make it as bearable as possible, but chooses not to. Perhaps out of a lack of perspicacity or just the realization that the prospects of this job hold no more hope for him than providing for his family.
The immobility of Farrington’s occupation is certainly something he is aware of. “Farrington lives and works in a system in which he cannot succeed” (Dubliners 324). He sees no incentive for his efforts and shirks as much as he thinks is possible without getting fired. His non-productivity stems from his lack of freedom in making vital decisions about his job. He is paralyzed doing menial work (which provides him little self respect) that he can neither escape nor bring himself to do.
A factor that I believe has such a burly ruffian doing the work of a copyist is due to the effects of industrialization in Britain which reappropriated the Irish working-class from labor to mostly service industry jobs. The percentage of employment composition in the industrial sector reported about Ireland in comparison to Britain in 1907 was 4.2% (Bielengerg 822). What this tells us is that Britain, though assuming control over Ireland through colonial rule kept the bulk of its industrial interests in Britain. Not to claim that industry cannot also be alienating (as a copyist is), I believe that Farrington would’ve been more fulfilled at a job which encouraged him to exert himself physically. Conditions as they were in Ireland, Farrington was coerced into taking a civil servant’s job when it clearly doesn’t suit him. While in his office, desperate to leave to the publichouse Farrington’s “body ached to do something, to rush out and revel in violence. It seems clear that Farrington typifies a conventional Irish man, complacent in a world where brute strength is valued. He and his lads try to outdrink and outmuscle each other, capable of demonstrating their prowess only through their physical feats. It is their manhood, which is associated with their physicality that gives their identity any value. It is the measuring stick among them and the only way in which they know to impress. Farrington felt he had “lost his reputation as a strong man” among the group and consequently the only mode of social retribution among his peers and those others in the community that might identify him as such (Dubliners 79). He is emasculated by a job which does not demand his manliness, by being at the mercy of a runt of a boss, by a woman he is unable to attract, and by being “defeated twice by a mere boy” in arm-wrestling. Even in the home he commands little respect (Dubliners 81). “His wife was a little sharp faced woman who bullied [him] when he was sober” (Dubliners 81). The only examples in the story where he asserts himself are greatly destructive, both to himself and his family. The first being, his gibe to his boss, “the cost of [which] is an abject apology and the need to remain completely servile in the future if he hopes to keep his job” (Delaney 260). Familial abuse (which seems to be a frequent occurrence) is the only other place Farrington is able to successfully exert himself in a physical manner. His wife is “bullied by him when he [is] drunk,” and his son Tom receives a thrashing for letting the fire go out (Dubliners 81). Farrington asserts his dominance to his son in much the same way that Mr. Alleyne, Farrington’s boss patronizes him in a mocking voice. When Farrington offers explanation as to why his work has yet to be done, “but Mr. Shelley said, sir,…” Mr. Alleyne mimics him in derision (Dubliners 71). Similarly, when Tom tells his father where his mother is, Farrington does the same “At the chapel. At the chapel, if you please” (Dubliners 81). Because Farrington is powerless at his work, he exerts his dominance over the one person that is too powerless to defend against his attacks: his son. Just as society has slain Farrington’s opportunities [someone who is socially innocent] he beats a child which embodies his entrapment in his social predicament who is innocent in every sense of the word. The child offers to serve as his father’s mode of spiritual contrition telling him that he’ll, “say a Hail Mary for [him] if he doesn’t beat him” (Dubliners 82). It is this internalized oppression that make Dublin the paralytic city that Joyce saw.
The activities which he engages in which are intended to counterbalance the his thwarted attempts to dominate certain situations throughout the day. All that begins as a success for him turns sour, usually due to the shortsightedness of his actions. He is giddy as he conceives of the idea to sell his watching for nearly a crown not thinking of losing the watch but having a night of drinks. He does not worry about the consequences of zinging his boss but how good it felt to do so, and how proud he will feel when he recounts the story to his friends. Before arriving home the real summation of the day dawns on him, “He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money, and he had not even gotten drunk” (Dubliners 80). Even the principal goal of getting drunk (which he had sacrificed both his watch and a more harmonious existence at work) he could not succeed in doing.
Farrington, incapable of swallowing his pride, could not help but to be indignant toward his work and his boss. In this way, he sets himself up to fail at every turn. His rebellion is futile because he is bereft of any other occupational choices. His condescension toward his boss illustrates his inability to adapt to the changing social climate. While Britain was certainly an oppressive force, Farrington’s unwillingness to cope with the struggles British occupation presented made the effects all the more unbearable. Farrington ineptly works himself within the constrained conditions to which he is subject.
Farrington is paralyzed, trapped by the conditions of the economic state of Ireland. He is unsatisfied in his work, uninvolved in his home life and cannot enjoy his time with his friends (unless he can maintain his dominant physical status). However, he is not completely without choice. He chooses to slack off at work and make snarky comments at the expense of his happiness and potentially his job. It is his choice to not cultivate a healthy home life. It is his choice blow his money on alcohol, and it is his choice to consider the measure of a man only by his biceps. We all are faced with social constraints and seek to work against such injustices, but Farrington’s make-the-worst-of-it mentality is what keeps him in his violent depressions. The line of internal oppression could stop with him, but instead he perpetuates his own unhappiness by hurting his family.
Bienlenberg, A. “What happened to Irish Industry after after the British industrial revolution. Some evidence from the first UK Census of Production in 1907.” Economic History Review 61, 4. 2008.
Delaney, Paul. “Joyce's Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners.”
College English, Vol. 34, No. 2. Nov. 1972
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Margot Norris. New York: Norton, 2006.
Walzl, Florence L. “Pattern of Paralysis in Joyce's Dubliners: A Study of the Original Framework. College English, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Jan., 1961), pp. 221-228