I’ve been working up a new course this spring in the contemporary short story. To get a sense of what makes for a good short story, I’ve gone back to ground zero – that is, I’ve been reading various acknowledged masters of the short-story form to see what their tips for writers are. When you try that on James Joyce, you get into deep water fast.
Joyce, who in 1914 published what is often seen as the first collection of modern short stories, Dubliners, had a solid Roman Catholic education, even though he was to rebel against the Church in his life and his writing. Early on Joyce applied what had always been a religious idea, the epiphany, to the art of the writer.
The word epiphany derives from two Greek words epi (upon) and pheineia (to show). In religious terms it means the appearance or manifestation of a god. The Epiphany in Catholicism (January 6) commemorates the baptism of Jesus, or the moment when the three wisemen, Gentiles that they were, understood the infant to be the Christ.
Joyce wants to import this sense of revelation into everyday life through literature. Here’s his take on the concept in his early work Stephen Hero, as the protagonist/Joyce stand-in witnesses a moment of flirtation between a young woman and young man:
He [Stephen Hero] was passing through Eccles’ St one evening, one misty evening, with all these thoughts dancing the dance of unrest in his brain when a trivial incident set him composing some ardent verses which he entitled a “Vilanelle of the Temptress.” A young lady was standing on the steps of one of those brown brick houses which seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis. A young gentleman was leaning on the rusty railings of the area. Stephen as he passed on his quest heard the following fragment of colloquy out of which he received an impression keen enough to afflict his sensitiveness very severely.
The Young Lady-(drawling discreetly) … 0, yes … I was … at the … cha … pel …
The Young Gentleman- (inaudibly) … I … (again inaudibly) … I …
The Young Lady-(softly) … 0 … but you’re … ve … ry … wick … ed .
This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.
This is Joyce’s fullest explanation of a literary epiphany, an idea that is often vague and somewhat mystical in his work. Fortunately, in time, the English professors of the world applied the term to Joyce’s own stories in Dubliners – and codified it into one of the essential elements of the short story. In this sense an epiphany is that moment in a story, usually the climax, when a character comes to a sudden realization that she did not have at the beginning of the story.
The blogger Dave Hood in a post titled “Ending a Short Story” elaborates on the idea and lays out the conventional wisdom about the literary epiphany as:
…less an intellectual than felt moment. It is the moment in the story when the character gains significant insight or life-altering revelation, at the end of the story. It is the instant of felt understanding by the reader.
Many contemporary short stories end with an epiphany.
True, so true. Thus an epiphany has morphed from the unexpected appearance of the divine – the word made flesh, so to speak – into a change in consciousness. Joyce’s radical idea has become the standard.
Tune in Thursday for part 2, in which we’ll take a look at how Joyce creates a series of epiphanies in his greatest short story, “The Dead.”