Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

08 Apr 2011

(Short Story) Grace by: James Joyce

(Reaction) Credo Quia Absurdum by: Antonio Conejos

Grace begins with a man face down in the dirt. The man in question is Mr Kernan and his horizontal position befits a man who is down on his luck, his clothes were smeared with the filth and ooze of the floor on which he had lain, face downwards.

In all likelihood, Mr Kernan has drunk himself into this sorry state though this is never expressly mentioned in the short story. First, the waiters say they served him some rum. Second, Mr Kernan was meeting Mr Hartforfd, a notorious drunk, at the bar. Third, even when Mr. Kernan is revived, the first thing he can think of is a drink, 'ant we have a little...? [Mr Power then replies] Not now. Not now. Lastly, Mr Kernan's wretched state, unconscious in the lavatory, practically reeks of inebriation.

If Mr Kernan has physically fallen, he has also figuratively fallen from the esteemed status in society which he once held. He was once a successful businessman but now time has passed him by, Modern business methods had spared him only so far as to allow him a little office in Crowe Street. His silk hat is alternately described as dinged and battered and he owes numerous debts to Mr Power (many small, but opportunate, loans) and Mr. Fogarty (there was a small account for groceries unsettled).

Just as Mr Power physically picks up Mr Kernan from the bar and accompanies him safely home, so too does Mr Power attempt to figuratively raise up Mr Kernan; the former intends to reform the latter. Eventually Mr Power concocts a scheme between Mrs Kernan and some close friends to cajole Mr Kernan into reformation. This plot to encourage Mr Kernan to mend his ways, through the auspices of the church, forms the plot of Grace.

Those who are to deliver Mr Kernan to grace are a motley crew. Some of the characters demonstrate significant flaws. Moreover, they use trickery, half truths and ignorance to influence Mr Kernan to attend the retreat - not methods commonly associated with a genuine religious experience. Even a brief run through of the conspirators and their methods reveals that they are neither holy nor saintly.

Lackasaidical faith as demonstrated by Mrs Kernan: Religion for her was a habit and she suspected that a man of her husband's age would not change greatly before death... Her faith was bounded by her kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.

Bigotry as demonstrated by Mr Cunningham: Mr Cunningham is convinced that Catholicism is superior to Protestantism, But, of course, said Mr Cunningham quietly and effectively our religion is the religion, the old, original faith.

Pride as demonstrated by Mr Kernan himself: At first Mr Kernan is still hesitant of undergoing the retreat, I don't mind, said Mr Kernan, smiling a little nervously. Mrs Kernan, sensing his hestitation, cajoles her husband, saying that she pities the priest who will have to deal with him. Mr Kernan is not about to let his wife disparage him and, to shore up his pride and show his wife, he agrees to go, Mr Kernan's expression changed... I'll just tell him my little tale of woe. I'm not such a bad fellow.

Vanity and peer pressure as demonstrated again by Mr Kernan: The previous paragraph already hints that Mr Kernan is susceptible to peer pressure. Certainly the retreat is well-attended. More importantly, it is attended by the sort of people Mr Kernan fancies as his peers, The transept of the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street was almost full... The gentlemen were all well dressed and orderly. When Mr Kernan begins to see that this crowd is to his liking, he visibly relaxes, Gradually, as he recognised familiar faces, Mr Kernan began to feel more at home. Finally, it is evident by Mr Kernan's behaviour that he merely went along with his friends, since everyone else was going as well, instead of out of a genuine desire to attend the retreat. This go with the crowd philosophy is best seen in how he behaves at the retreat, Simultaneously the congregation unsettled, produced handkerchiefs and knelt upon them with care. Mr Kernan followed the general example.

It is apt that the company of friends decides to take a retreat with the Jesuits as this religious order is more worldly than most. Moreover, the Jesuits have a reputation for being crafty and sly, hence the pejorative, Jesuitical. In particular, Father Purdon makes it a point to explicate on a verse from the gospel which is specifically adapted for the guidance of those whose lot it was to lead the life of the world and who yet wished to lead that life not in the manner of worldlings.

Thus, everything leading up to the retreat, from Mr Kernan's drunken stupor, the machinations of his friends and even the priest leading the retreat, have been of the world. It is through men of the world speaking to his fellow-men, not some sanctimonious homily or generous act of charity, which leads Mr Kernan to the retreat.

One would expect a story entitled Grace to be filled with saintly paeans to an all loving God. Instead, Grace presents the reader with the world as it is, with flawed humans genuinely trying (however stumbling) to do right. Thus, the story implies that perhaps it is though error, duplicity, pigheadedness and false notions that we arrive at God. That we can present ourselves before something so great in such a sorry state is grace indeed.

Review:

Honestly I'm not sure if this short story presents the possibility of grace despite everything or that, considering how full the world is with subterfuge and half-truths, grace is absent; an impossibility. The latter is supported by the long list of lapses in truth, doctrine and plain common sense that Mr Kernan's friends make in their desire to get him to take the retreat with them. (The Penguin Classics edition of Joyce's Dubliners has an excellent addendum which details all of the conspirators' factual errors.)

One such absurdity is Mr Cunningham's simultaneous assertion of the Catholic doctrine of ex cathedra while at the same time acknowledging that some of the popes have been men of the worst moral fiber, O, of course, there were some bad lots... But the astonishing thing is this. Not one of them, not the biggest drunkard, not the most... out-and-out ruffian, not one of them ever preached ex cathedra a word of false doctrine. Now isn't that an astonishing thing?

It is indeed! On one hand Mr Cunningham admits that some popes were not model priests (to put it mildly) yet on the other hand he reaffirms his belief that everything the popes have said regarding church doctrine is gospel truth. And why does he believe in papal infallibility? Because the popes said so.

This sort of logic boggles the mind yet it is this kind of logical fallacy, historical error and peer pressure which leads Mr Kernan to take the retreat. As such, if the road to hell is paved with good intentions then Grace would imply that the road to heaven is paved with half truths, prejudice, pride and societal pressure.

To think we can arrive at a state of grace through iniquity sounds unintuitive, even nuts. But of course at a certain point faith must depart company with logic or even common sense. Grace quotes a latin word, Credo, namely I believe. Yet Joyce's short story implies that faith is not simply belief but, as supposedly asserted by the church father Tertullian, Credo quia absurdum - I believe because it is absurd.

Tantalizingly, the short story ends with Father Purdon's homily. The reader is left to wonder if Mr Kernan does reform his life, if he does set right [his] accounts. Thus, there is no actual religious moment in Joyce's short story. Rather, Grace is an exploration of implausible factors which may lead one to the threshold of grace. Perhaps that in itself, the implausibility of that which leads us to God, is already grace.

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