::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Literary Sketch: James Joyce's "Counterparts"

Summary: Farrington, a mid-level bureaucrat at a Dublin law office, is berated by his mousy boss when he fails to complete an assignment on deadline. Farrington, a heavy-set, plodding man with few prospects and no ambitions, spends his days darting out to the pub around the corner for quick draughts of porter. After a particularly nasty row with his boss, Farrington heads out for a night of drinking at his favorites taverns. Penniless until payday, Farrington pawns his watch for drinking money. The night passes in a drunken blur as Farrington is humiliated after flirting with a London woman and then by a smaller man who beats him in an arm wrestling match. That night, his rage fueled by drink, Farrington returns home to wife and five children. He teaches his youngest boy a lesson by beating him with a walking stick as the boy prays for his soul.

In his 1916 book of fifteen short stories called Dubliners, James Joyce paints a gloomy portrait of Ireland’s capital and of an Irish culture strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, England’s occupation, and by a population preoccupied with drink. One of the stand-outs in this collection is “Counterparts.” The story is a master work showcasing the never-ending cycle of family violence. The rage in the story is evident from the first sentence, which uses the adjective “furious” twice – once to describe a bell and the second time a voice.

The reader is introduced to Farrington, a red-faced gigantic man who Joyce constantly portrays as heavy, plodding, drooping, and ruddy. “When he stood up he was tall and of great bulk. He had a hanging face, dark wine-coloured, with fair eyebrows and moustache: his eyes bulged forward slightly and the whites of them were dirty.”

We meet Farrington just as his boss at a law firm launches into a verbal tirade against him. Mr. Alleyne, a little, bald man with an English last name (Farrington’s foils in the story all carry English surnames), lashes out at Farrington with all the cruelty of a petty tyrant. Part of Alleyne’s verbal assault consists of mimicking Farrington’s replies. This is important because at the end of the story, just before Farrington his attacks his son with a walking stick, he verbal abuses his son in the same way.

At the end of the scene, the reader is left feeling sympathy for poor Farrington, even as we catch a glimpse of his unfocused rage. Joyce excels here at building up the reader’s empathy for Farrington as he begins to drop clues in the narrative that Farrington might not be worthy of such compassion.

A feeling of desperation clings to poor Farrington as he realizes he neither has the time or the inclination to finish his work assignment for Alleyne. His anger builds and he begins to imagine ways in which to lash out – but settles on daydreaming about drinking at the pubs with his friend later in the evening. The day ends with another verbal assault by Alleyne, this time in front of a woman client. Farrington, befuddled and embarrassed, manages an accidental quip that sends Alleyne into a fury that jeopardizes Farrington’s job.

In the end, Farrington apologizes to his boss and realizes his work life will now be “a hornet’s nest.” He feels, “savage, thirsty and revengeful, annoyed with himself and with everyone else.” Unable to corner the firm cashier for an advance in wages, Farrington pawns his watch for drinking money. With six shillings in his pocket, Farrington’s mood lightens.

The middle part of the story takes place at various Dublin pubs as Farrington joins his companions for a night of carousing. It is here that the reader begins to have deeper doubts about Farrington’s character. He embellishes his argument with his boss to make it seem as if he gave Alleyne a good comeuppance.

Farrington is a desperate man – desperate for approval, desperate for attention, fearful that the night will finally end. Farrington uses his new-found money to buy round after round until – drunk – he begins to resent his friends as sponges (ironic because before pawning his watch, Farrington plotted on how to beg and borrow from his drinking companions). Two events cap the evening – Farrington’s shameless flirting with an English woman and his loss of an arm wrestling match against a much smaller man (also an Englishman).

On page 9, the reader is introduced to some stunning information. Farrington – a man we imagined as a lonely bachelor – is married. His previous behavior, although often boorish could be explained away by his rough behavior at work. Now Farrington’s anger and his selfish behavior are seen in a new, disturbing light. The pity we once had for this man suddenly seems wasted on him.

The last part of the story we find: “A very sullen-faced man stood at the corner of O’Connell Bridge waiting for the little Sandymount tram to take him home. He was full of smouldering anger and revengefulness. He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything.”

Farrington arrives home and we discover not only a wife at home, but five children. A boy, Tom (who Farrington at first calls Charlie) greets his drunk and seething father at the door while the rest of the brood sleeps. Joyce strikes a staggering blow against the Roman Catholic Church. Farrington’s wife, Ada, is at church – safe in the sanctuary of her religion while her children sleep alone and unprotected from their violent father. It is a mistake that will cost poor Tom. “The little boy cried O, pa! and ran whimpering round the table, but the man followed him and caught him by the coat. The little boy looked about him wildly but, seeing no way of escape, fell upon his knees.”

We now recognize Farrington for what he is: a bitter drunk who beats his wife and children. The story ends with Tom pleading for his father not to beat him and vowing to say a Hail Mary for him – another slap at the church. The prayers do nothing to alleviate the pain and anguish leveled against the defenseless boy.

But upon further reflection we realize that Farrington does merit our sympathy – for was he not at one time Tom? And will not poor, young Tom one day be the big, raging Farrington? Joyce has taken us full circle, which is surely why this stunningly emotional short story was called “Counterpart” in the first place.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
You missed the point about the boy at the end of the story.

All of the "Hail Marys" in the world will not stop the beating. There is nothing else the boy can do. He can only believe in (religious) miracles. His life is ruined.

Blogger GFS3 said...
No, we didn't miss the point about the boy. It's not about the beating of the boy -- it's about the larger picture of the family dynamics and what will happen to the boy after the beating.

Blogger Despedida Soltero said...
Nice story... i like it.. Thanks for sharing.

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