Diary: Jean McGarry, James Joyce’s Christmas Feasting
Patricia Kilgarriff and Patti Perkins as the hostess aunts in the original 2016 performance of The Dead 1904, an immersive theatrical adaptation of Joyce’s story by the poet Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz at the American Irish Historical Society.
The novelist E.M. Forster once wrote that food in fiction is “mainly social,” and what he meant is that characters “hunger [only] for each other” and don’t need to eat on the page. Maybe so, but writers of fiction are not likely to serve their characters just anything. Food in novels is a way of characterizing: what characters eat and drink can say quite a lot—not just about them, but about the writer who serves them. “The Dead,” a story many consider James Joyce’s best, a tale that is the finishing touch of his collection, Dubliners, lays a Christmas feast on the table whose lengthy description entices and repels for reasons not entirely clear. The items in this feed are given a rollicking, rhythmic, and exacting treatment. The fact that the food and drink take center stage in so short a narrative might strike a reader as rather odd; and yet, oddly, it warms up a story where we know nothing good can happen.
“The Dead” is an account of a sometimes raucous party on an island across the O’Connell bridge from Dublin proper. There’s been a lot of music and dancing and animated talk. The party is an annual event, thrown by the elderly aunts and middle-aged niece of Gabriel Conroy, the main character. The hostesses cohabit on the dreary sounding Ushers Island, where they give piano lessons. They are proudly middle class, and this fete gives them a chance to put on the dog for friends, family, and neighbors, including a few of their better-heeled pupils. A serious, cultivated man in his forties, Gabriel spends a lot of time fretting, because his part in the party is the after-dinner speech, an honor and a challenge in a culture known for witty repartee and glib appeals to nostalgia and sentimentality. The blend has to be just right, and Gabriel knows it. The author, though, takes us away from Gabriel, to spread out the following: “A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the center of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red label, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.”
Now, this Christmas feast, while lavish, might feel a little lopsided, with perhaps too many bowls of jelly and pudding, and not enough things to partner with the goose, ham, and beef. But, the savories are coming up in the next paragraph. Served directly from the kitchen is “a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin.” There’s an odd contentious note in this same paragraph that suggests something about the implications of this dish of spuds. “While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane’s idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse.”
The feasting takes place next, with clatter and gusto, and the three bustling around until they’re ordered to sit in their seats and eat up.
As I mentioned, this rather full—if not to say, obsessive—attention to the food and drink set upon the table, and on the piano nearby, might seem a surprising, almost a wasteful digression in a story that’s aiming for the crushing disappointment awaiting the protagonist a bit later in the evening. But, look more closely, and you’ll see there are a few things wrong with the banquet. I don’t think the appearance of the floury potatoes is delayed by accident, nor because they need to be hotter than the various meats. The banquet is too sweet—too many jellies, dried fruit, puddings. It’s not appetizing to ponder that goose, ham, and beef with nothing but sugary side dishes. Then, the things to drink—especially if they’re alcoholic—are sharply cordoned off. Not just off the table, but in military dress and formation. The bottles of beer have uniforms and their uniform colors are named. So, there’s a certain stiltedness—maybe even meanness—here, too, and the rigid propriety and punishing sense of order are underscored when Aunt Kate scolds her niece for even suggesting apple sauce for the goose. Who do you think you are? is Mary Jane’s reward for any deviation from protocol.
Gabriel’s coming speech is going to be both pompous and maudlin; full of hypocritical praise for his relatives, and for Irish culture, and then cloyingly sentimental about the dead-and-gone—just like the side dishes in the banquet. So, the food is not sitting idle in this story; nor is it meant to tempt the reader. Or, not much.
If you’ve had the opportunity to read Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses, you’ll see that food plays a great role there, too. What Leopold Blooms eats and drinks on June 16, 1904, as he treks around the city trying to sell newspaper ads, is as much a personal stamp as what he’s doing, and fantasizing about doing. And he’s a man who relishes his food, from the first fried kidney in the morning to the tea at daybreak on June 17th. Gabriel Conroy does not savor his food; he wolfs it down, preferring a stick of celery to desert. Leopold Bloom, au contraire, lives in his body; it gives him pleasure throughout the long day and night. His food is succulent, but he’s also fastidious enough to deplore the hoggish gluttony he sees around him, preferring at lunch a glass of wine with a bit of cheese, not the fatty animal part being carted around for slopping onto the plates. Joyce has grown up; he’s famous; people are awaiting this groundbreaking work of modernism. If the Joyce of Ulysses were putting on the dinner party at Usher’s Island, those luscious potatoes would get there faster, without the little jellies and candies, and the hero might even get some satisfaction from the fact that his wife still loves him.
🎁 Not too late to give Book Post for the holidays! 🎁
Jean McGarry’s tenth work of fiction, Blue Boy, will appear this March.
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