Grace: Summary and Analysis
Tom Kernan: a tea merchant and alcoholic
Messrs. Power, Cunningham, M’Coy and Fogarty—Tom Kernan’s friends
Mrs. Kernan—his wife
Father Purdon—priest running the “businessman’s retreat” at the local church
The beginning of “Grace” finds Tom Kernan, a tea merchant, lying face-down and drunk on the lavatory floor of a Dublin pub. Helpless and incoherent, Kernan is saved from further embarrassment by his friend, Mr. Power, who delivers him home to his wife.
Two days later, Kernan receives three visitors: Messrs. Power, Cunningham, and M’Coy. Unbeknownst to Kernan, Power has informed Mrs. Kernan that the three friends intend to bring Tom to a church retreat that will help him mend his ways. The three shrewdly suggest that Kernan join and he agrees, believing it was his idea—and not theirs—that he come along.
The retreat has been specifically designed for businessmen, and the four friends are joined by a fifth, the grocer Fogarty, and many other merchants whom they know from the community. The priest, Father Purdon, delivers a sermon on a passage from the Gospel of Luke (16:8-9), which he tells them is designed for men who live “in the world and, to a certain extent, for the world.” The men listen attentively.
Stanislaus Joyce tells us that his brother patterned Tom Kernan’s progress in this story after Dante’s Divine Comedy: the “fall down the steps of the lavatory is his descent into hell, the sickroom is purgatory, and the Church […] is paradise at last” (228). Of course, a close reading shows us that Kernan and his friends will never reach paradise, as they really have no clear concept of the soul, penance, or the divine act of Grace itself. This sarcastic comparison to Dante is the basis for Joyce’s story: he felt too many Irish Catholics believed in a lazy, spiritually devoid religion that Kernan’s group represents. According to his brother, Joyce attended a sermon on Grace at the same Gardiner Street church referred to in the story, and returned “angry and disgusted” at the distorted exposition he heard. Because it so infuriated him that “such shoddy stuff should pass for spiritual guidance,” Stanislaus writes, the concept behind the story was born (227).
Ironically, Tom Kernan is a tea-taster by profession, but it is whiskey—not tea—that has caused him to careen down the stairs of a men’s room in a drunken stupor. Having bitten off the end of his tongue as well, Kernan can’t even express himself until the young cyclist and Kernan’s friend, Power, rescue him.
As he recuperates, Kernan is visited by three of his friends: Power Cunningham, and M’Coy. Joyce intentionally assembles three visitors to construct a mock trinity, not the holy trinity in the Christian sense. In fact, the friends, representing (with their allegorical names) power and cunning, have come to make Kernan “the victim of a plot” intended, ironically, to save his soul.
As the men speak of the Church and Catholicism, the substance of their discussion tells us a great deal about their potential for Grace and salvation. For example, although he provides them with a seemingly endless supply of information about Christianity, the Pope and Church doctrine, Martin Cunningham’s recollection of “facts” and “history” is completely erroneous. Joyce tells us his words “built up the vast image of the Church in the minds of his hearers”; however, virtually all of Cunningham’s statements are a mixture of mistakes, lies, and general misinformation. Since his friends are equally ignorant about the Church, they accept his statements unquestioningly and even admiringly.
In the matter of faith and redemption, the men are equally inadequate, seeing Tom’s salvation as “a little…spiritual matter” and comparing his participation at the retreat to “a four-handed reel.” (emphasis added) The characters’ use of slang to discuss spiritual issues, such as Cunningham’s...
(The entire section is 1,064 words.)