What should one take into consideration when conducting an ethical criticism of James Joyce's "The Dead"?I'm writing an ethical criticism of Joyce's "The Dead," from Dubliners, and I'm using the...

What should one take into consideration when conducting an ethical criticism of James Joyce's "The Dead"?

I'm writing an ethical criticism of Joyce's "The Dead," from Dubliners, and I'm using the protagonist Gabriel Conroy as my focal point. I will obviously examine his 'face encounters' with other characters, and how he illustrates his moral values through what he says and does. My main concern, however, is what to make of his thoughts, of which we are allowed close proximity to, but which often contrast with his actions. If I choose to judge him based on his internal monologue (which has been the primary stance of scholars aside from Melissa Free, as far as my reading goes), he is clearly a glib, classist character. However, judging him by his actions reveals a man quite ethical and often self-conscious.

So as far as ethical literary criticism is concerned, are characters normally evaluated existentially, based on their actions? Or do Conroy's thoughts (which are often not acted upon), also warrant ethical judgment? I have a three-page limit on the paper, leaving no room for a full exploration of both the protagonist's inner and outer world. I'm interested to know what such characters are typically judged by - by ethical literary critics - if even such a consideration is practical or relevant.

And of course, any general recommendations on the paper are welcome and encouraged (paper due Monday)! :)

Asked on by coryengle

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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There are several issues that come to mind when dealing with your question. The first is that any form of ethical criticism assumes some particular ethical system as a criterion of judgement. Thus your first job is to consider whether you are judging 'The Dead' against 21st century ethics (and identity politics) or against the ethical systems that would have been known to Joyce himself and his characters.

One major background issue was the religious divide between Roman Catholic, Gaelic-speaking, lower class western Ireland and the English 'Protestant Ascendancy' primarily in the south, with large estates in the west. Further complicating this is that Irish Protestantism consisted of the (Anglican, episcopal) Church of England in the south (and Dublin) and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland in the North.  Many of the issues of language and education we see in the protagonist have to do with this religious division.

Your distinction between interior thought and external act mirrors a religious divide, in which Roman Catholicism involves salvation by works and Protestantism by faith. Thus you might want to argue that if we want to judge him as a Roman Catholic we need to look at his acts and as a Protestant we need to look at his thoughts.

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