Monday, December 4, 2017

Elision in James Joyce's "The Dead"

Elision: an omission of part or parts (

For many years now, I have been interested in the idea of elision: of what is not said in a piece of literature. Agatha Christie is a master of this, of what might be called the unarticulated ellipsis. Jane Austen, I would argue is too. I also believe elision can be both unconscious and conscious on the part of the author.

Reading Joyce's "The Dead" last night, I suddenly wondered if there wasn't a elision in the text. Does Gabriel Conroy, the story's protagonist, make an overt sexual overture to the maid Lily?

We learn first that the guests are segregated by sex into different rooms on different floors to take off their outer clothing on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve. As Lily thinks:
It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies' dressing-room. 
Gabriel and his wife thus separate on arrival. Gabriel seems to make a point of lingering behind, taking extra long to scrape his galoshes. He
continued scraping his feet vigorously while the three women went upstairs, laughing, to the ladies' dressing-room.
Then he follows Lily into the pantry where she is supposed to help him off with his overcoat. Gabriel
glanced at her. She was a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair. The gas in the pantry made her look still paler. Gabriel had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll. --Yes, Lily, he answered, and I think we're in for a night of it. He looked up at the pantry ceiling, which was shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet on the floor above, listened for a moment to the piano and then glanced at the girl, who was folding his overcoat carefully at the end of a shelf. --Tell me, Lily, he said in a friendly tone, do you still go to school? --O no, sir, she answered. I'm done schooling this year and more. --O, then, said Gabriel gaily, I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: --The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you. Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake, and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes.
We next learn that "Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake."

We're obviously meant to believe that Gabriel is embarrassed because of what he said, but we're also primed to believe he made a pass at her. So much emphasis is put on the separate dressing rooms for men and women, and Gabriel apparently tries to linger behind to be alone with Lily.  A rendez-vous with a maid in a pantry is as much a cliche as anything else that happens in this cliche-ridden opening.

Was his "glance" lustful, openly appraising? Does he touch her inappropriately? Is there a history between them or between Gabriel and a friend of hers (or both) that makes him believe she means him when she says the "men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you?" At the very least, the blush suggests he was thinking of what he could "get out" Lily sexually. Or does it mean that he just tried to get something out of her, a kiss, a feel, a hug? In any case, it's clear he's not with her in that pantry innocently. And as we don't get told every detail of what happens--for instance, we're not shown Lily helping him off with his coat, only folding it to put on a shelf--there could be elided moments of contact.

It's long been noted that Gabriel offering her money as a Christmas gift could be seen as insulting, treating her as a prostitute:
--O Lily, he said, thrusting it into her hands, it's Christmas-time, isn't it? Just... here's a little... He walked rapidly towards the door. --O no, sir! cried the girl, following him. Really, sir, I wouldn't take it. --Christmas-time! Christmas-time! said Gabriel, almost trotting to the stairs and waving his hand to her in deprecation. The girl, seeing that he had gained the stairs, called out after him: --Well, thank you, sir. He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him ...
As I noted in my blog on Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Jane Austen's Emma,  elision plays a role in both novels:

It's more vital in Christie than in Emma. However, Austen does point to elision when she notes, long after the fact, that Harriet Smith has purloined a few worthless "treasures" pertaining to Mr. Elton. If Austen elided that ... what else has slipped from Emma's view?


  1. I think you undervalue the elision in Emma. Seems to me that is a book all about the things left out — most of the action of the book is left out, in that it happens outside the pages we are reading. I was just doing Chapter 27 in class today, and Miss Bates’s extended monologue on the apples Mr Knightley is so kind to give them. Miss Bates, not usually one to be at a loss for words, uses the ellipsis three or four times in that passage, as if she catches herself about to say something she ought not. I agree with you about the Joyce though. I don’t know if Gabriel actually groped her, but he is definitely flirting.

  2. I do think there's quite a lot of elision in Emma, including with the all wise Miss Bates.