We remarked at the end of our summary of ‘After the Race’ – a short story from James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners – that there isn’t exactly much ‘plot’ to summarise. So how might we gesture towards a literary-critical analysis of this challenging story? Many of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners focus not on an event itself but on what happens just afterwards. The opening story, ‘The Sisters’, focuses on the aftermath of the death of Father Flynn, whose friendship with the narrator forms the subject of the story. In ‘A Painful Case’, the most dramatic event of the story, the death of Mrs Emily Sinico, occurs ‘off-stage’, and the protagonist, James Duffy, only learns about it when he reads the story in a newspaper. And as its title makes clear, ‘After the Race’ focuses on what happens after the motorcar race has finished, over the rest of the day – and throughout the same night. The story ends with the arrival of a new day, at ‘daybreak’.
And many of the ‘events’ of the story, if we can even use such a grand term to describe them, are ordinary and undramatic. The protagonist, Jimmy Doyle, and his European friends walk around Dublin, go to dinner at a hotel, talk about politics and music among other things, and then catch the train to the harbour where they go to a yacht and proceed to get drunk dancing and playing cards. But it would be a mistake to conclude that these events do not contain significance just because they are not dramatic. Consider the importance of Routh, for instance, an Englishman who joins them for the dinner and goes with them to the yacht. The fact that he wins at cards, and joins in when the group of friends begin talking politics at dinner, is a subtle way of Joyce hinting at the English rule in Ireland at this time, and the division in the country between Nationalists (who wanted Irish independence) and people who believed in English rule over Ireland (something that is tackled more openly later in Dubliners, such as when Gabriel Conroy is accused of being a ‘West Briton’ in ‘The Dead’). Significantly, Jimmy’s father began as a Nationalist but modified his views around the same time as he began making lots of money.
James Joyce was a leading modernist writer, and whilst the stories of Dubliners appear to stick to many of the formal and artistic conventions of naturalist or realist fiction – describing a recognisable world inhabited by ‘real’ characters, using real street names and locales in Dublin, and paying attention to the characters’ lives and relationships – Joyce is already far more interested in character than plot, as many modernist writers are. (Joyce shares this feature with Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, who were also both modernists who wrote short fiction.) Although the stories in Dubliners were all published some four years before Joyce began to publish his most famous work, the vast modernist novel Ulysses – which follows one man’s perambulations around the city of Dublin on a fairly ordinary day – these stories gesture towards this extreme fascination with the ordinary and everyday which we find in later modernist fiction.
One last point which is significant when analysing ‘After the Race’ in the context of the Dubliners collection as a whole: this is the fifth story in the collection. We begin with a reasonably young protagonist in the first story, ‘The Sisters’, before ending the collection with ‘The Dead’, whose protagonist is well into middle age. The protagonist of ‘After the Race’, Jimmy Doyle, is clearly fairly young and naïve, although he’s studied at university (at Cambridge, no less), so he’s clearly not as young as the narrator of ‘The Sisters’. Jimmy is around 26 years old, the narrator tells us. And his experience of getting drunk on Farley’s yacht, his admiration of his wealthier friend Ségouin, and the esteem in which he holds his father’s advice, all suggest that this is a young man setting out to make his fortune. Whilst not quite a rite of passage, his experiences in the story open his eyes to a world of the wealthy, but it’s nouveau riche people rather than the aristocracy: Ségouin’s burgeoning motorcar business, and Farley’s yacht. (Farley, in being an American, has probably made his money in industry.)
Jimmy’s father, who began as a butcher and then built an empire until the papers were referring to him as a ‘merchant prince’, is a self-made man; now Jimmy is seeking to follow in his father’s footsteps. But can such men as Jimmy – who is still a ‘butcher’s boy’ on some level despite his father’s financial success – ever truly fit into the world of such men as Ségouin, or even Farley? The fact that modes of travel, including very new inventions – the motorcar – feature so heavily in this very short story all suggest movement, progress, the thrill of success. But the story ends with Jimmy losing most of his money at cards, and he’s among the characters who can least afford to lose it. This takes us back to the story’s title, ‘After the Race’, and the early words of the narrator: ‘Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money.’ Joyce uses the new invention of the motorcar to hint at the wider pursuit of worldly pleasures which are related to it, while also suggesting that this is a ‘race’ which characters like Jimmy are never going to win.