Money in James Joyce's Dubliners

James Joyce wrote some of the stories in Dubliners in a state of financial crisis, desperate to earn money from his writing. Katherine Mullin describes how this preoccupation with money makes its way into the stories themselves.

James Joyce was perennially bad with money, and Dubliners was generated from fiscal crisis. Precariously situated on the margins of literary Dublin and patently on the make, the 22-year-old Joyce attracted the attention of George Russell, Irish Revival poet and sometime critic. Russell was connected with The Irish Homestead, an agricultural journal with a regular fiction column, and in summer 1904 he invited Joyce to 'furnish a short story ... The editor will pay £1. It is easily earned money if you can write fluently and don’t mind playing to the common understanding for once in a way'.[1] Joyce thought little of the journal, referring to it as 'the pig's paper', and signing his stories with the pseudonym 'Stephen Daedalus'. But the pound was an incentive. ‘The Sisters', 'Eveline' and 'After the Race' furnished him with the means to emigrate from Dublin in September 1904 with his partner Nora Barnacle, beginning a life of geographical exile and imaginative return.

Dubliners' beginnings were bound up with money, and the preoccupation extends into the stories themselves. Joyce is explicit about who has money and, far more frequently, who lacks it, and what the implications of shortfall might be. In 'Eveline', the heroine's 'invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights' with her drunken father is a key reason for her longing for 'Escape!' But this is a 'squabble' of particularly gendered injustice. 'She always gave up her entire wages – seven shillings', but

the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn't going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad of a Saturday night.

Not only is Eveline her father's unpaid housekeeper, while working full time as an underpaid shop-assistant – 'her wages' are subsumed into the household budget, elided with 'his hard-earned money', and become funds she is accused of squandering. As Joyce makes clear, marriage – even a risky marriage to the mysterious Frank – is the only plausible route out. In 'The Boarding House', he carefully gives the going rate for renting one of Mrs Mooney's rooms: 15 shillings a week is over twice Eveline's weekly wage.

Women are particularly vulnerable to being swindled out of what little money they possess. 'Two Gallants' is the most obvious instance. Corley and his friend Lenehan, who longs to be rescued by 'some good simple-minded girl with a little of the ready', collude in the exploitation of Corley's casual girlfriend. The 'slavey', belonging to a servant class who worked punishing hours for scant wages, is manipulated into handing over a 'small gold coin'. The coin is a sovereign – a pound – a fantastic sum for a servant to save in 1904, and, more probably, the product of a theft which will cost her job and reputation.

A more muted cheat occurs in 'A Mother', where Kathleen Kearney's contract is not honoured by an all-male 'Committee', who nonetheless have funds enough to supply the green room lavishly with whisky. In 'Clay' too, the painful backstory of Maria – an old family retainer callously shunted off to live and work in a Magdalen laundry for 'fallen women' – is the subtext, scarcely concealed by Maria herself. The 'two and fourpence she had thrown away for nothing' on a gift of luxury plumcake that she leaves on the tram stands for a life 'thrown away' for no reward.

In 'Clay', it is the children, who Maria almost accuses of 'stealing' her plumcake, who resent her the most, and if Dubliners' women are financially vulnerable, children are the more so. In 'An Encounter', three boys each 'saved up sixpence' to fund an ultimately dispiriting day of adventure. When Leo Dillon 'funks' the day of truanting, leaving 'a bob and a tanner instead of a bob' (a shilling and sixpence instead of a shilling) for the two survivors, the funds do not stretch further than two currant buns, tolls to cross the Liffey, some 'musty biscuits' and a shared bottle of raspberry lemonade. The boy in 'Araby' is similarly impoverished, dependent on his drunken uncle's return from the pub to give him the 'florin' to furnish his longed-for trip to the bazaar. Half that sum goes on his shilling entrance, and what remains after his third-class train fare is pathetically insufficient for the souvenir with which he hopes to court Mangan's sister. The 'fall of the coins' as 'two men were counting money on a salver' underscore the boy's futile sense of himself as a creature 'derided by vanity'.

Economic marginality affects women and children most poignantly in Dubliners, but it also constrains the lives of their menfolk. 'Counterparts' concludes with Farrington savagely beating his young son after an evening's drinking, but it is closely attentive to the connections between money, masculinity and self-esteem. Farrington's working day is an ordeal of monotony punctuated by humiliation: employed as a legal copyist, he is a human version of the typewriting machine his colleague Miss Parker deploys more efficiently. His evening is a disappointment because 'he had not even got drunk', but Joyce implies how Farrington is as badly addicted to the regenerative potency he imagines money to bestow as to alcohol. After his bleak working day, Farrington longs for 'a spell of riot', and, having failed to obtain an advance on next month's wages, pawns his watch for six shillings. All but twopence is spent during the course of an evening, mostly on standing drinks for others. Two of Farrington’s rounds, moreover, are marked by buyer’s bad luck – an outsider turning up at the point of ordering. In total, he buys 19 drinks, and receives just six in return. Farrington’s earlier eagerness to ‘get money from somewhere or other’ suggests that funds are necessary for a night’s drinking, but, as the army of drinks-cadgers in Dubliners suggests, standing or reciprocating rounds of drinks is optional. Money is, however, necessary to restore his lost pride.

Money is similarly significant in 'A Little Cloud', where Little Chandler’s precarious masculinity is challenged through his encounter with his old friend Ignatius Gallaher, a man ‘whom he had known under a shabby and necessitous guise’, but who, seven years later, has become ‘a brilliant figure on the London press’. Back in his misspent youth, Gallaher’s charismatic manliness was manifest within pub culture as a man who ‘drank freely and borrowed money on all sides’. Now, however, the smart restaurant bar Corless’s becomes the arena for a contest of round-buying where both men attempt to assert their compromised sense of honour. In 'The Dead', too, money is a vital though often inept means of shoring up battered masculine self-esteem. Gabriel Conroy clumsily offers a Christmas tip to recover from the servant girl Lily's bitter refusal of his pleasantries about her future wedding: 'The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you'. The encounter foreshadows the more wounding skirmish with Molly Ivors, who rebukes Gabriel as a treacherous 'West Briton' for writing for the English tabloid The Daily Express. His weekly literary column pays 'fifteen shillings' – enough to furnish Eveline with a room of her own – but Gabriel downplays the money in favour of a nobler motive: 'The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque'.

Gabriel's 'paltry cheque', he is conscious, might seem evidence of a sin that Joyce names on Dubliners' first page. For the boy-narrator of 'The Sisters', 'the word simony in the Catechism' has a strange compulsion. It means, in ecclesiastical law, the buying or selling of spiritual benefits or church offices, in allusion to Simon Magus, who attempted to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles. In Dubliners, the term also has a broader and secular application, including the monetising of what should be freely bestowed as a gift, or should exist outside the realm of commerce: 'Eastern enchantment' in 'Araby', political integrity in 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room', love in 'Two Gallants' or 'The Boarding House', art and literature in 'The Dead'.

Simony is announced at the start of the collection as one of Joyce's key themes. It accords with the style of 'scrupulous meanness' in which he wrote the stories. But the word 'simony' made a late entrance into 'The Sisters', not appearing in the original version published in The Irish Homestead in September 1904. The addition is significant. The origin of the Dubliners stories, as Joyce was well aware, was, in his own terms, simoniacal: he wrote them for a very precise sum of money, a pound per story. That pound resurfaces in 'Two Gallants', in the 'small gold coin' glinting in Corley's palm. It is elsewhere diffused into the half-crowns, shillings and pence passed across counters, felt in pockets, treasured in souvenir purses marked 'A Present from Belfast', or furtively pressed into the reluctant hand of a servant below stairs. Dubliners' preoccupation with money, with how much things cost and how much is wanting, is Joyce's own. He knew full well that he needed to make his writing pay, and he understood, too, that necessity made him guilty of simony.

Pomes Penyeach by James Joyce

Pomes Penyeach by James Joyce

Front cover to Pomes Penyeach, which cost 12 pence but included 13 poems, making a ‘tilly’ – the Irish version of the English tradition of a 'baker's dozen'.

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In 1927, Joyce was famous and established, made wealthy from Ulysses's notoriety and living in Paris on handsome pensions from benefactors. But his leaner times were memorialised in the title he chose for his collection of verse. Published by Shakespeare and Co, Pomes Penyeach cost a shilling – 12 pence – though Joyce included 13 poems. He alluded to the Irish commercial custom of adding a 'tilly', or an extra portion, to a bulk order of 12, a version of the English tradition of a 'baker's dozen', 13 loaves for the price of 12. Joyce's joke looked back to a less successful enterprise, when, during the summer of 1904, he had attempted to raise funds through hawking his poems in the Dublin streets ‘at £1 a piece or 5/- for one’.[2] That was the time when Dubliners began life as a more successful venture, a creative investment which would appreciate into priceless literary capital.


[1] George Russell, literary editor of The Irish Homestead, writing to Joyce in July 1904: see James Joyce, Letters vol. 2, ed. by Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking, 1966), p. 43.

[2] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 163–65.

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  • Katherine Mullin
  • Dr Katherine Mullin teaches Victorian and Modernist literature at the University of Leeds. She is the author of James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Working Girls: Fiction, Sexuality and Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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