James Joyce’s Dubliners is a compilation of stories that all rely on character epiphanies in order to develop each story. These epiphanies change the tone of each story because each yields a negative change or reaction. In both “Araby” and “The Dead”, the characters realize or learn something about the world around them, which makes them second guess either themselves or the reason behind their actions. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contains at least one tale that relies on an epiphany to help develop theme but it doesn’t change the tone or course of the story; it just helps to portray the true meaning of the character. The Pardoner becomes a deeper character because of his epiphany, which is what makes it important to the rest of the work. The main difference between Canterbury Tales and Joyce’s Dubliners is the change each epiphany brings to the story.
The Pardoner experiences an epiphany brought upon by the immorality of the tale he tells. This tale was told to the other travelers only because they wanted “some moral thing, so that they can learn something worthwhile”(pg 507, ll. 8-9).
The Pardoner’s tale is of three men who kill each other over bushels of gold, which follows his theme to his preachings: the love of money is the root of all evil. Before he even started his tale, he explained to the travelers that he used fake relics and pardons to manipulate the poor and the sinners to freely give him their money. When he finishes his tale explains that “Jesus Christ, who is physician of our souls grant that you receive his pardon, for that is best; I will not deceive you.”(pg 539, ll 454-456).
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It is at this moment that the Pardoner realizes that he has greatly sinned, yet he hides his emotions by offering the travelers his relics in order to relieve them of any sins. This is because, although he seemed effeminate in the eyes of the host, he didn’t want the other travelers to consider him emotionally weak or to think he was affected by his own immorality. Another factor that could possibly have helped to cause the Pardoner’s epiphany is the pilgrimage; he feels the need to repent for all his hypocrisy and scams so his soul doesn’t “go a-blackberrying”(pg 511, ll 78) when he dies. The Pardoner’s epiphany doesn’t change the course or the tone of the tale in itself, because he continues to act the way he usually does in regards to his relics and pardons. However, at the end of the tale the way he acts towards the travelers is just a cover of how he is truly feeling.
The situation is different in Joyce’s Dubliners. Each story involves an epiphany that causes the character to have a negative outlook on life. It changes the tone of the story completely. For example, in “Araby” a young boy has a negative experience at a bazaar, which alters his view of the world. He just wanted to impress an older girl that he loved because she couldn’t go to Araby at all. He was so excited and mesmerized by the thought of the bazaar and possibly even winning the girl’s love, that even “the syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me”(pg 17).
However, the atmosphere of Araby was the exact opposite of what the boy had been imagining because it wasn’t exotic at all. Plus, it was dark and empty because he arrived around closing time. To top it off, the shop attendants weren’t even paying attention to the boy at all. Yet a woman finally noticed him and offered to help him, but “The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty”(pg 19).
Basically, the boy got his hopes up for no reason because he expected something exotic and found something ordinary.
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In “The Dead”, the main character experiences normalcy and finds out something, which makes him second guess himself. The epiphany comes from a memory his own wife has of her first love, Michael Furey. All of this was brought upon by Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, singing “The Lass of Aughrim” ,which Gretta Conroy overheard at her husband, Gabriel’s Aunts’ party. Michael Furey loved Gretta so passionately that he even risked his own life for her. Gabriel hadn’t done anything to that extent for Gretta, which causes him to think that “ she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him”(pg 150).
This epiphany makes Gabriel think that he doesn’t even know his wife anymore because they seemed happily married for years, yet she kept this secret from him the whole time. It’s almost like he didn’t matter as much to her as did Michael Furey, who risked a deadly illness at seventeen years old to tell her that he didn’t want her to leave him. “So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life”(pg 151).
This scene changes the whole tone of the story because Gabriel had been living a pretty normal life and believing that he and Gretta truly loved each other. Learning something like this about his wife changed Gabriel’s whole way of thinking because he didn’t love her to the extent that Michael Furey did. It’s better to “boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” (pg 152).
Dubliners and Canterbury Tales, although written centuries apart from each other, both rely on the characters’ epiphanies in order to deepen the characters and portray themes. In all the stories, except for the Pardoner’s Tale, Chaucer uses ambiguity and irony to help develop the story further. However, the Pardoner’s Tale is pretty straightforward; there’s no ambiguity to it at all , which is why the epiphany is important. Without the Pardoner’s realization that he has sinned, he cannot change his ways, and his true emotions are lost. This is similar with the tales in Dubliners because each character has discovered something that causes them to completely change their way of thinking or their way of life. These epiphanies, just like the Pardoner’s, are the key to character development and theme because the symbolism and storylines are not enough. In “Araby”, the young boy wouldn’t have learned how negative, or even unexciting the world can be without his own experience; and, in “The Dead”, Gabriel realizes there is a part of his own life that he never even knew about, which causes him to question his own life and ability to love. In both works, the epiphanies also help Chaucer and Joyce to praise or reprimand aspects of society because they promote change in the characters and the stories. So, in a sense, both Geoffrey Chaucer and James Joyce are promoting the same theme, in different manifestations, in different eras.
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