Dubliners: The eyes have it

James Joyce
James Joyce

In the 224 pages of James Joyce’s Dubliners, the word “eyes” appears 96 times, about five times as often as we would expect (see Methodology below). As in the cliche proverb, “eyes are the window to the soul,” the eyes of Joyce’s Dublin characters reveal them to us. Their colors include green, blue, grey, black, and shades in-between. In action, they examine, peer, search, note, shine, and burn. In character, they range from curious, to quizzing, to mirthless, to delicate, to keen, and even to unabashed. The frequent mention of eyes befits stories about people having epiphanies, suddenly facing reality and seeing the world as it really is.

Many of the uses are wholly self-evident. In “Two Sisters, ” Old Cotter looked at the young narrator “for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate.” Farrington, the drunken abusive father of “Counterparts,” has “heavy dirty eyes.” Home-bound, paralyzed Little Chandler “thought of what Gallaher had said about rich Jewesses. Those dark Oriental eyes, he thought, how full they are of passion, of voluptuous longing!” In instances like these, the ordinary English meaning of the words and phrases are familiar to us.

Other times, Joyce clues us in to a deeper meaning with eye-color, as he does with green eyes. (While green can generally symbolize Ireland, not so with eyes of that color.) In “An Encounter,” the young boy, playing hookey with a friend one day sees some sailors. “I came back and examined the foreign sailors to see had any of them green eyes for I had some confused notion. … The sailors’ eyes were blue and grey and even black.” (The ellipsis is Joyce’s, it’s a common device of his, to have his characters not say something indelicate,  awkward, or unsavory.) We are tipped off that green eyes suggest something problematic or strange. Then, at the climax of the story, when the “queer old josser,” clearly a child molester, enthusiastically relates his love of whipping young boys, the narrator “met the gaze of a pair of bottle-green eyes peering at me from under a twitching forehead.” It’s about the only physical detail we get about the man, and we understand better what the narrator was getting at when he examined the sailors’ eyes. Of Polly Mooney, the conniving entrapper in “The Boarding House,” we read “Polly was a slim girl of nineteen; she had light soft hair and a small full mouth. Her eyes, which were grey with a shade of green through them, had a habit of glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone, which made her look like a little perverse madonna.” She and her mother make short work of hapless Bob Doran.

Joyce’s allusions and symbols are not strict equivalences and allegories, but rather hints or suggestions. While the green eyes of Polly and the old pederast might imply that characters with green eyes are evil, that’s overly literal, too strict an interpretation. In the story “Clay,”  when Maria laughed, “her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness.” Maria is a little simple-minded and forgetful and she does cause some minor awkwardness at her brother’s holiday party, but she’s not evil in any way. As the story is told from Maria’s point of view, she glosses over some actual unpleasantness; we have to read carefully and see through her “nice” pleasant perceptions. Perhaps her “grey-green eyes” merely serve to warn us that some unpleasantness lies beneath her superficial view. Note that her eye color is mentioned in a qualifying context of laughter, sparkle, and shyness. One might even argue that the greyish shade of Maria’s and Polly’s eyes distinguishes them from the stronger “bottle-green” badness of the queer old josser.

Often, Joyce describes some character of the eyes, which does not depend on their color. Jimmy Doyle, about to be fleeced by his continental friends in “After the Race,” has “rather innocent-looking grey eyes.” He sure does. Gabriel in “The Dead,” has “delicate and restless eyes.” In the same story, the often drunk Mr. Freddy Malins’ “heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy.” Of course, we immediately understand that Jimmy, Gabriel, and Freddy are being characterized. In particular, blue eyes seem to occur in a wide variety of characters, a realistic touch, given the actual prevalence of blue eyes in Ireland. Thus Joyce usually adds more to a mention of blue eyes: “unabashed, … steady, … moist, … very bright, … staring.”

Or, the eyes represent the person, the rhetorical device synecdoche.  In “Two Gallants,” we read that “Lenehan’s eyes noted approvingly her stout short muscular body.” Later, “his eyes searched the street: there was no sign of them.” Gabriel worries about his after dinner speech. “It unnerved him to think that she [Miss Ivors] would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes.” Contemplating a picture of his wife’s, Little Chandler wonders, “Why had he married the eyes in the photograph?” As readers, we have an impersonal, almost mechanical view of the unsavory Lenehan.  This technique depersonalizes the view. Gabriel and  Little Chandler are distancing themselves from Miss Ivors and Mrs. Chandler.

The paragraph in which Little Chandler looks at the photograph is a veritable eye-fest.

He looked coldly into the eyes of the photograph and they answered coldly. Certainly they were pretty and the face itself was pretty. But he found something mean in it. Why was it so unconscious and ladylike? The composure of the eyes irritated him. They repelled him and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture. He thought of what Gallaher had said about rich Jewesses. Those dark Oriental eyes, he thought, how full they are of passion, of voluptuous longing!… Why had he married the eyes in the photograph?

Nine references to eyes in four lines.

Joyce uses omission as eloquently as repetition. “After The Race” is told from innocent Jimmy Doyle’s point of view. While wealthy, he is a country rube, awestruck by his stylish, automobile-racing, high-living, continental companions (whom he calls “friends,” although they are not). He does not comprehend their true nature at all. Tellingly, the story does not mention their eyes even once. If there’s a window into their souls, Jimmy isn’t looking at it. Similarly, Eveline, in her eponymous story, is planning to elope with Frank, a man she has met only recently, who improbably claims to be a sailor who has managed to set up a house for them in Buenos Aires. Neither she nor we know anything factual about Frank. And there is not one word about his eyes.

My favorite is the description of thrity-nine year-old Mrs. Sinico:

Her face, which must have been handsome, had remained intelligent. It was an oval face with strongly marked features. The eyes were very dark blue and steady. Their gaze began with a defiant note, but was confused by what seemed a deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris, revealing for an instant a temperament of great sensibility. The pupil reasserted itself quickly, this half-disclosed nature fell again under the reign of prudence, and her astrakhan jacket, moulding a bosom of a certain fullness, struck the note of defiance more definitely.

Awesome! I can’t really explain this. I can only say that it is not a literal description.  “A deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris.” Perhaps the only information being conveyed here is that Mrs. Sinico is intelligent, sensible, and prudent but with a defiant (rebellious? unconventional?) streak, but how much better is Joyce’s paragraph.

Methodology and Sources:

An online concordance to Dubliners.  The site has concordances to Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and several other works by other authors.

I noted at the top that “eyes” occurs in Dubliners about five times as often as words of similar frequency in English usage (i.e. book, study, right, lot, different, month, and fact). I used this Word Frequency Data site, specifically its online, free list of the 5,000 most common English words. The word “eye” is #243 on that list; for comparison, I used book (#242), study (#241), right (#240), lot (#239), different (#238), month (#237), and fact (#236). In an average piece of English prose, we expect that each of these words would appear in roughly the same frequency. Comparing the occurrences of “eyes” to this sample of seven comparable words seemed like a practical way to measure the relative frequency of the word.

Using the online concordance, I looked up the singular and plural instances of the words (eyes, eyes, book, books, etc.). “Eyes” occurred 96 times; “eye” 11 times, or 107 times overall. The other seven words occurred 140 times (27, 6, 76, 6, 7, 7, 11, respectively). Thus those words occurred, on average, 20 times in Dubliners, while there were 107 instances of “eye/eyes.” 107/20 = 5.35.

So “eye/eyes” occurred about five times as often as we would expect.