I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

What had Gretta on?


At the time of his death in 2008 David G Wright was completing his book Dubliners and Ulysses: Bonds of Character. The editors suggest it is perhaps his most important work. Declan Kiberd describes it as a “deft and beautiful book which explores the links between DublinersA Portrait and Ulysses … He confirms the epic nature of Joyce’s continuing project and the rigour with which the great artist re-created an entire world.” The book is indeed beautifully written and will fascinate readers of Joyce.

Speaking of the links between “The Dead” and the final triad of episodes in Ulysses, “Eumaeus”, “Ithaca” and “Penelope”. Wright comments on Gabriel Conroy’s marriage and that of Leopold Bloom:

The marriages shown in both works are subject at the moment to similar kinds of stress, caused by the presence of a third party. After travelling to the hotel, Gabriel must confront for the first time Gretta’s past attachment to Michael Furey. After returning to his home, Bloom must confront for the first time the reality that Molly’s affair with Boylan has now been consummated. We imagine that neither household, after these revelations and developments, can ever be quite the same again. While the now-dead Michael Furey obviously poses no further threat in his own person to the Conroys’ marriage, Gabriel responds to Gretta’s revelation about him with profound alarm and self-mortifying unhappiness, yet also with a new degree of humility and an enhanced respect for Gretta’s autonomy. Boylan may or may not pose a future threat to the Blooms’ marriage in his own person: Molly expresses the hope that he will visit her again during the following week, obviously for sexual as well as musical purposes, but she also appears somewhat disillusioned about his personal qualities, contrasting them unfavorably with Bloom’s. We may also intuit that Boylan’s interest in Molly is unlikely to last. Bloom displays an equanimity in the face of Molly’s infidelity which, paradoxically, does much to support her esteem for him. Like Gabriel, he respects the autonomy of his wife.
The dates of the action in “The Dead,” two days early in January 1904, appear critical for the marriage of Gabriel and Gretta, just as the days depicted in Ulysses, 16 and 17 June 1904, appear critical for the marriage of Bloom and Molly. Yet in neither the case of the Conroys nor that of the Blooms can we feel any certainty about the outcome of the marital difficulties which have been treated in the text. It is almost as difficult for readers to imagine Bloom and Molly waking in the morning as to visualise Gabriel and Gretta next day. (References to Gabriel and Gretta within Ulysses, however, give no suggestion that any problems have befallen them in the ensuing five months or, at least, no hint that the Blooms are aware of any such problems.)
“The Dead” also contains a final scene whose basic characteristics obviously fascinated or even obsessed Joyce, since he redeployed it again with minor variations in most of his subsequent works, notably Ulysses. Gretta lies asleep, while Gabriel remains awake thinking inconclusively about their relationship. In the last episode of Ulysses, Bloom lies asleep, while Molly remains awake thinking inconclusively about their relationship. Of course, Molly occasionally reflects on other topics as well, but Bloom remains the main focus about which her thoughts orbit, besides being the starting point and end point of her meditation. Strikingly similar conclusions appear in Exiles and Finnegans Wake.
While Gabriel and Gretta obviously differ from Bloom and Molly in some aspects of character and situation, there are also many points of significant resemblance. Like Gabriel, Bloom is an intelligent, thoughtful but insecure Dubliner, with an interest in literature and a professional affiliation with a newspaper. Rather curiously, Gabriel’s mother and Blooms mother were both called Ellen … Like Gretta, Molly is warm and spontaneous, making her husband seem a little aloof, hidebound and hesitant by comparison. Gretta grew up in Connaught and Molly grew up in Gibraltar, so both women are to some extent foreign residents of Dublin. In each case, the wife’s origins “elsewhere” help to complicate her husband’s relationship with his native city. Both couples have had a son and a daughter, though the Conroys still live together as a family while the Blooms’ household has been fragmented by the death of Rudy and the departure of Milly from home. In both cases, though, the children remain offstage, and readers never encounter any of them directly. In each marriage, the wife loves her husband but is aware of his failings, and nurtures the image of another man, a secret past admirer, who might (she thinks) have compensated for such failings. Gretta thinks about Michael Furey, and mentions him to Gabriel for the first time on the night of the story. Molly thinks about Gardner, whom she has apparently never mentioned to Bloom. (Gardner’s name also creates a further faint link to “The Dead,” since Michael Furey’s most memorable appearance was in a garden.) In addition, Molly Bloom has a few affinities with the other women who confront Gabriel during the story. Like Lily, she sometimes takes a dim view of “the men that is now” … With Molly Ivors she shares her first name, her feisty quality, her insistence on being her own person, and her refusal to take any nonsense from men.
Intriguingly, it becomes clear in Ulysses that the Blooms not only resemble the Conroys, but somehow know them socially. A direct social encounter between the couples would have been a palpable delight to witness, but Joyce parsimoniously withholds such a scene from us, perhaps in part because the delicate affinities and contrasts he sets up between the two pairs might have been compromised by such a direct confrontation. We learn nothing about how the two couples might originally have met each other, though that is also true of most other connections between the Blooms and the Dubliners characters who reappear in Ulysses. In “Calypso,” Bloom recalls Molly asking him “What had Gretta Conroy on?” … confirmation of an occasion when Bloom had met, or at least seen, Gretta when Molly was not present, and also an oblique reminder of the importance of Gretta’s dress in “The Dead.” In “Aeolus,” Bloom reflects of J. J. O’Molloy that “[I] believe he does some literary work for the Express with Gabriel Conroy” … phrasing which might suggest that Bloom actually knows Gabriel better than he knows O’Molloy, even though Gabriel does not appear in Ulysses.

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