Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Ivy Day in the Committee Room” is from James Joyce’s celebrated collection of stories Dubliners (1914), and it was the eighth of the book’s fifteen stories to be written. It is included, however, in the fourth and final informal category of stories into which Joyce retrospectively arranged the collection; with “A Mother” and “Grace” it comes under the heading “stories of mature public life.” These stories deal with Irish culture and society in the early twentieth century. Their emphasis is on civic institutions and public mores. Their tone, as “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” bears out, is slyly but relentlessly satiric.

Unlike the generally introspective and emotional interests of their companion pieces in Dubliners, these stories deal almost exclusively with the external features of their contexts, as befits their public orientation. Concentration on externals enables Joyce to vary and extend his use of epiphany, the method that he originated of endowing characters and their worlds with ostensibly complete autonomy, in order that they reveal their own typical nature.

“Ivy Day in the Committee Room” depicts a condition embodied by a small group of Dubliners but shared by a large number of people throughout the country. Their condition is one of shock, defeat, and social paralysis brought about by the eclipse of the political career of Charles Stewart Parnell, the nearly mythical figure who led the fight for Irish Home Rule. His departure from the political scene, followed by his sudden and untimely death, left Irish political hopes in a traumatized condition for a generation—Joyce’s generation.

Parnell, known at the height of his powers as “the uncrowned king of Ireland,” exists in the story as an ironic contrast to the impotence of his bereft adherents and as a far more desirable political option than that offered by the crowned king of Ireland, Edward VII. However, in the allusive manner of the story, such an irony has more than merely political resonance. It also points up the emotional...

(The entire section is 850 words.)