James Joyce’s themes include Irish mores, art, sexuality, and aesthetic integrity. Within this pattern Exiles can be considered a part of the continuing development of his genius. The play’s importance lies in the fact that it is Joyce’s last portrait of the artist. Exiles marks a turning point in Joyce’s career.
Exiles is also generally regarded as Joyce’s least successful work. It never managed to succeed on the stage, and it attracted little critical or popular support. Critics found the play to be inert and dramatically static. One of the problems is the overly diagrammatic portrayal of the characters. Each of them clearly represents an intellectual position, and they are pitted against each other until they come to dramatically unsatisfying resolution.
Joyce described the dramatic form to be the highest to which the artist can aspire. It is to be achieved after passing through the lesser stages of lyric and epic. Joyce, however, does not seem at home in this form; it lacks the narrative voice that he uses with such effect in his fictional works. Without that voice, readers are left with the dogmatic and undramatic dialogue of Richard Rowan and other characters.
The play does have a model, however; it is a version of a problem play by Henrik Ibsen, who was Joyce’s earliest master. The play investigates the difficulty of having a relationship between man and woman while preserving the freedom of each. The protagonist, Richard, does not wish to abrogate the freedom of his wife, Bertha. He insists that she be free to accept an invitation to an assignation, even free to have an affair with one of his former friends. Indeed, Richard seems to feel that this betrayal is desirable. As Stephen Dedalus claims in Ulysses (1922): “There can be no reconciliation without a sundering.” Thus betrayal is a prelude to a reconciliation and a deeper and closer relationship.
The characters are clearly symbolic; Richard and Beatrice represent the spiritual, and Robert and Bertha represent the physical or material. Richard was close to Beatrice for years, and their union becomes closer; she will become the inspiration for his art as Beatrice was for Dante Alighieri. Robert tries to instigate a love affair with Bertha. Joyce sees the necessity of contraries coming together for a true relationship. The union of Richard and Beatrice would be sterile and that of Robert and Bertha debased. The play ends with Richard’s victory in Bertha’s affirmation of her love for him; however, he has doubts about her fidelity, a “wound” that debilitates him. These doubts, like the betrayal, paradoxically enhance rather than diminish the relationship, as Joyce’s own doubts about the fidelity of his wife, Nora Barnacle, increased his passion for her.
The play also has an important design in its imagery. Joyce uses images of water, stone, and roses to define the characters’ nature. Robert and Bertha are closely associated with water. When Robert meets Bertha at the cottage, he is drenched in the rain, and Bertha spends time swimming in the nearby sea. This image would seem to be a positive one. It is the hydrophobe Richard, however, who seems to have the better of it. He does not sink “like a stone” in water as Robert does but rises up, as Joyce suggests in the notes to the play. The “stone” in the play is brought in by Bertha and admired by Robert. They both are closely connected to the lower elements, while Richard is associated with the soaring aspiration of the artist. The “roses” that Robert brings for Bertha are “blown” and corrupted, which identifies both...
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of them with the corruptions of the flesh. Robert is a debased sensualist with no spiritual sense at all.
Freedom is clearly one of the most important thematic elements in the play. Individual freedom, even in marriage, is insisted upon by Richard for Bertha. Bertha seems quite willing to do without that freedom and to re-create her earlier surrender to Richard. Another aspect of freedom is, of course, the freedom of the artist. It is the essential state for any meaningful creation. Stephen Dedalus speaks of flying over the “nets” hindering his freedom to create, and Richard refuses to be tied down to a conventional position of professor that the tempter Robert is offering. In the play, however, what the audience sees is Richard’s freedom from things, not his freedom to do anything such as to love or to create. It seems more of a negative virtue, a refusal. The audience hears of Richard’s book, and he is constantly writing something offstage. However, the nature of that work and his status as a creator are unclear.
Another theme is that of exile. Joyce defined himself as an exile, and that condition gave him the perspective to analyze the Ireland that he left behind. Richard returns from exile—as Joyce did in 1912—but it is uncertain if he will settle in Dublin. Robert writes a newspaper article on Richard that describes him as an exile who left Ireland “in her time of need” and now comes back to reap rewards. If Richard remains in Dublin he will become a character similar to Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead,” a short story in Dubliners (1914) that describes a similar situation. Conroy is a fussy and sterile professor who learns about an earlier love of his wife, Gretta. This revelation destroys him; he cannot build upon the “betrayal” as Richard apparently can. Both characters suffer from the paralysis of Dublin.
Although the play did not meet with much critical approval, it does have some interesting connections to Joyce’s other works. There are parallels between the play and “A Painful Case,” another story in Dubliners. Stephen Dedalus, who appears in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915) and Ulysses, is an exile and a character who insists on his freedom from family, church, and state. He sees it as the necessary condition for the artist. Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses, has an unfaithful wife whose infidelity may lead to a reconciliation and resumption of their sexual relationship. He shares some of the masochistic pleasures in betrayal that Richard does. Exiles has, therefore, an important place in the canon of Joyce’s works.