Grace: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064

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Tom Kernan: a tea merchant and alcoholic

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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 suggestion that they “wash the pot” together, further indicates their inability to recognize the act of contrition as a serious matter. Indeed, the retreat itself—traditionally a time of contemplation and atonement—is described by Cunningham as “just a kind of friendly talk, you know, in a common-sense way.” Joyce knew from his Jesuit training that spiritual Grace and redemption were profound and mysterious, not to be approached through “common sense” with a priest who “won’t be too hard” on his listeners.

As the men drink whiskey to celebrate their renewed vow of piety, Cunningham inadvertently pronounces Joyce’s judgment of such Catholics: “we may as well admit we’re a nice collection of scoundrels.”

Inside the Gardiner Street church where the retreat is set, Joyce describes the men, joined by Mr. Fogarty, as “well dressed and orderly” with their hats carefully resting upon their knees. Although they look respectable, the assembled group is indeed a “collection of scoundrels”: a money-lender, a political dealer and “mayor-maker,” a pawnshop owner, and others with similarly questionable backgrounds. Among this group, the alcoholic Kernan “began to feel more at home” since he’s surrounded by unrepentant sinners like himself.

Father Purdon (whose name reminds us of “pardon”) preaches on the parable of the unjust steward from Luke, but his reading of this excerpt contorts its biblical meaning for the convenience and complacency of his listeners. Contrary to Purdon’s statement, it’s unlikely that the parable was specifically designed to guide “business men and professional men” in their worldly affairs. Because Purdon is also “a man of the world” and not a man of God, he simplifies the complex workings of Grace and faith, telling the men misleadingly that “Jesus Christ was not a hard task master.” The goals of their retreat, he adds, are neither “terrifying” nor “extravagant.” The irony, of course, is this: were the men actually able to discern the degenerate state of their souls (as the readers are), they would be terrified to grasp the extent of their corruption.

As the deluded men and the unscrupulous priest approach the mystery of Grace “in a businesslike way,” we understand that their redemption is impossible, for spirituality is not business. The laziness and misguidedness of this self-deceiving group will forever prevent them from adequately examining the state of their consciences. In effect, Joyce hopes that his story acts as a parable to shake the reader out of a similar complacency.

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