Gnomon: The Theme of Incompleteness in Dubliners



“It had always sounded strangely to me, … the word gnomon in the Euclid.” – the narrator in “Araby”

Euclid defined gnomon as the plane figure formed by removing a similar parallelogram from a corner of a larger parallelogram. In Dubliners, James Joyce used it to typify incompleteness, a major theme in these short stories about the empty, broken, or otherwise incomplete lives of the people. (In that same opening  paragraph, Joyce also mentions the thematic words paralysis and simony, good subjects for another blog post.)

In reading the stories, the reader comes across an astonishing number of things that are missing, lost, empty, barren, deserted, uninhabited, bare, denuded, alone, dinged, battered, or  broken. Some people, some things; most explicitly, some implicitly.

Throughout the stories, there are deaths, old maids, at least one notably unmarried man, an omnipresent shortage of money, frequent hopelessness, and other broader, general gnomons (incompletenesses? incompletions?) Then there are the frequent contrasts of light and dark (i.e. and absence of light); more possible fodder for another blog post. Here I’ll focus on specific things and people that have gone missing or are broken. And I doubt that I have found them all.


When visiting the house of mourning for the dead priest, “We all gazed at the empty fireplace.” The mourners chatted awkwardly, Eliza wept, and then “she put it back again in her pocket and gazed into the empty grate.”

Significantly, the narrator lives with his aunt and uncle. Clearly his parents are missing.


Three boys (the narrator, Mahony, and Leo Dillon) planned a day’s miching (hookey), for an expedition across the Liffey to the Pigeon House, an abandoned waterfront fort. At the start, Leo Dillon failed to show up. The narrator and Mahony “arranged a siege; but it was a failure because you must have three.” Getting thirsty by lunchtime, “we could find no dairy and so we went into a huckster’s shop.” Refreshed, Mahony “chased a cat down a lane, but the cat escaped into a wide field.” Soon, “it was too late and we were too tired to carry out our project of visiting the Pigeon House.” (It’s hard to avoid the related theme of paralysis.)

Missing: Leo Dillon, dairy, cat, destination


“An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours. … I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle pump. … Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth.  … the empty gloomy rooms liberated me. … I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. … I remained alone in the bare carriage. … I could not find any sixpenny entrance.” Once he arrives at the Araby bazaar, most of the stalls are closed, there are hardly any people around, and the large hall is dark and empty.

Another “aunt and uncle” household; more missing parents.

Missing, empty, or broken: house, parents, bicycle pump, window pane, rooms, a train, a half-price entrance, stalls, the bazaar hall


“The photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium.”


The protagonist, Jimmy Doyle, is well-off and his father has sent him to expensive universities. Told from Jimmy’s point of view, the story is not filled with tangible symptoms of brokenness and emptiness. Jimmy doesn’t perceive that. His own incomplete understanding of human nature is left for us to figure out. Even when he loses a lot of money in the card game, we can’t be sure he’ll fill in any of his gaps.





Farrington, a scrivener in a law firm, hoped that his boss, Mr. Alleyne would not “discover that the last two letters [of the Delacour correspondence] were missing.” To no avail, “Mr. Alleyne began a tirade of abuse, saying that two letters were missing.”  De la coeur means of the heart, and it’s quite clear in this story that both Alleyne and Farrington are missing part of their hearts.

Alleyne continues to berate Farrington, culminating in, “Do you take me for a fool? Do you think me an utter fool?” Farrington’s tongue gets the better of him, and he replies, “I don’t think, sir, that that’s a fair question to put to me.” A rather expensive witticism, as Farrington’s subsequent musing implies that he’ll likely lose his job because of it.

Later, trying to drown his troubles at the bar, he engages in an arm-wrestling contest, and “lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice” by a young Englishman. Angry and humiliated by the day’s events, he returns home, finding “the kitchen empty and the kitchen fire nearly out.” His wife has gone to church. His dinner is not ready. The fire has gone out, for which he beats his defenseless young son.

Missing or lost: heart, job, reputation, kitchen, wife, dinner, fire.


Poor Maria, an old maid, who lives in a charity home for women, wants to visit her married nephew, Joe, on All Hallow’s Eve. She buys an expensive plumcake, but at Joe’s house, it seems to be missing. Maria left it on the tram. They made the best of it and “handed round the nuts. Nobody could find the nutcrackers. … How did they expect Maria to crack nuts without a nutcracker?” Maria brings up Joe’s estranged brother Alphy, but “Joe said that Alphy was no brother of his.” Maria sings an old favourite, but “when she came to the second verse she sang [the first one] again.” By the end of the evening, Joe “could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.”

Missing: husband, plumcake, nutcracker, second verse, corkscrew


The story opens:

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern, and pretentious. He lived in an old sombre house, and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built. The lofty walls of his uncarpeted room were free from pictures. He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron wash-stand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons, and a square table on which lay a double desk.

Now that’s empty! It’s a pathetic description, but almost comical in its barrenness. The short list of furniture that “he had himself bought” in his “uncarpeted room” is priceless.

He goes to a concert at the Rotunda. “ The house, thinly peopled and silent, gave distressing prophecy of failure. The lady who sat next him looked round at the deserted house once or twice and then said: “What a pity there is such a poor house tonight! It’s so hard on people to have to sing to empty benches.”

Later on, “the river lay quiet beside the empty distillery and from time to time a light appeared.”

By the end of the story, Mr. Duffy’s loneliness, isolation, and emptiness are emphasized repeatedly, “his life would be lonely too … if anyone remembered him .. cold and gloomy .. gaunt trees … bleak alleys … darkness … outcast from life’s feast … No one wanted him; he was outcast from life’s feast (sic) … the grey gleaming river … the darkness … He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.”

Missing: a life.


“Old Jack raked the cinders together with a piece of cardboard and spread them judiciously over the whitening dome of the coals.” No kidding, that’s the first line of the story. Maybe he should have a poker? Wouldn’t that be better?

A denuded room came into view and the fire lost all its cheerful colour. The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address.”

The election canvassers have been waiting to get paid, or at least some stout. When the bottles arrive, “there’s no corkscrew.” Hmmm, sounds familiar. And then, “there’s no tumblers.”  Later, we’re reminded, “O, I forgot there’s no corkscrew.” It seems they don’t get any wages for their minimal efforts.

They spend a lot of time in this story tending a weak fire; perhaps that’s a form of incompleteness, but the symbolism of the fire as the Parnellite movement would be an interesting blog post on its own.

Missing: a poker, furniture, wall decorations, a corkscrew (again), tumblers, wages, a decent fire


Another case of missing patrons at a concert, and by the end, another reputation lost.


Mr. Kernan fell down the stairs in a pub. “There was two gentlemen with him. … And where were they? … No one knew.”

“One of the gentlemen who had carried him [Mr. Kernan] upstairs held a dinged silk hat in his hand.  … The battered silk hat was placed on the man’s head. … They agreed that the gentleman must have missed his footing. … a piece of the tongue seemed to have been bitten off.” And Mrs. Kernan noted with some satisfaction that her husband’s  “tongue would not suffer by being shortened.” Heh.

Missing or damaged: two gentleman, one silk hat, Mr. Kernan’s footing, a piece of his tongue


While not a morbid story, there’s much that’s incomplete: the bare hallway … Miss Kate and Miss Julia (spinster sisters) … Mary Jane (their unmarried niece) … Lily’s non-wedding …  plain roast goose without any apple … the broken electric light in the hotel room … and even a removed candle.