Challenged to think

Joyce introduces us to the theme of paralysis in the opening paragraph of his first story, The Sisters

      I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.     

In these two sentences, Joyce starts as he means to go on; he forces his readers to think by alerting them to the fact that a single word can have multiple meanings.

The word ‘paralysis’ is most often used to describe the loss of use of a body part, resulting from a neurological illness or injury. In this sense, the word offers an accurate description of Father Flynn’s stroke injuries. ‘General paralysis’ has another medical meaning which specifically refers to the atrophy (degeneration) of brain tissue caused by late-stage syphilis. When being used outside the context of medicine, ‘paralysis’ refers to the state of being powerless, helpless or inactive. If we refer back to the Greek origins of ‘paralysis’ (paraluesthai), we find that, as well as meaning ‘disabled’ (para), the word means ‘loosen’ (luein). So ‘paralysis’ refers to both immobility and looseness.

Linked meanings

By linking the word ‘paralysis’ to the words ‘gnomon’ and ‘simony’,  Joyce further multiplies meanings.

Euclid (c. 300 BC), an Ancient Greek mathematician, used ‘gnomon’ in its geometrical sense, to refer to the part of a parallelogram which remains after a similar – yet smaller – parallelogram is removed from one of its corners. However, the word ‘gnomon’ has several other meanings, including:

  • the part of a sundial which casts the shadow
  • any column-like structure
  • a carpenter’s set square. 

The word’s Greek origins lie in gnosis, meaning knowledge. Gnosticism, another derivative of gnosis, was an heretical form of Christianity.

‘Simony’ refers to the buying and selling of holy ‘promises’, such as pardons from the Pope or promotion through purgatory. In the Catholic catechism, simony is counted as a sin.

Joyce lets his readers make up their own minds about the possible meanings and associations, of this trio of words: ‘paralysis’, ‘gnomon’, ‘simony’. However you interpret the words, it seems very likely that religion plays a role in Joyce’s definition of paralysis. As detailed in Themes > Religion, Joyce had an uneasy and complex relationship with Ireland’s dominant religion, Catholicism.

A stagnant culture

We know that, whatever its precise meaning (or meanings), paralysis was a key theme for Joyce; he says so in his letters:

      ‘My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis’ (Letters II, 134).

‘I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city’ (Letters I, 55).     

At a personal level, Joyce was frustrated with Dublin’s inability to change and move with the times. He left the city as soon as he could, moving to mainland Europe in 1904 with his partner Nora Barnacle.

Joyce returns to the theme of paralysis throughout Dubliners. For example:

  • perhaps most obviously in the protagonist’s immobility at the end of Eveline
  • Mr Duffy’s halting and waiting at the end of A Painful Case
  • Little Chandler being stuck in a boring job, in A Little Cloud
  • the futility of politics in Ivy Day in the Committee Room.
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