(D) about “Grace”: A Comparison of the Workings of Grace in James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor

Mention in the diary of Stanislaus Joyce pins the attendance of John S. Joyce at a Gardiner Street retreat at Saint Francis on September 29, 1904.

If a “gentleman” were to suffer a moral slip, he might tumble headfirst into the muck of Dublin’s Inferno. He might bite off a piece of his necessary tea-tasting tongue for sins of blasphemy, drunkenness, pride, and greed. In the convalescent bed of Dublin’s Purgatorio, better Virgils replace the evil companions who deserted him after his fall (“Was he by himself?” asked the manager. “No, sir. There was two gentlemen with him.” “And where are they?” No one knew;….”). In Dante’s Comedia, Virgil, Beatrice, and Saint Bernard guide the Florentine poet through instruction, healing, and cleansing. Dublin’s guides take another track to salvation, encouraging Tom Kernan’s recommitment with manipulation, more alcohol, and misinformation. After a show of halfhearted remorse, a sinner like John Joyce (one model for Tom Kernan) might boast that he was “not such a bad fellow after all” (Stanislaus Joyce 226). With tutelage, Kernan’s offending tongue restores, and he is once again capable of emulating the legendary Blackwhite, a traveler capable of convincing a client that black was white (Jackson and McGinley 138). In Dante’s Purgatorio, gluttons in upper Purgatory starve and meditate on temperance. Dublin’s Purgatorio is less demanding. Carl Niemeyer suggests that Kernan’s guides are themselves flatterers worthy of Dante’s Eighth Circle of Inferno

Dante and James Joyce were introduced into Catholicism in infancy, baptisms being an accident of birth. Subsequently, they underwent indoctrinations into the Faith they inherited. By contrast, Tom Kernan and the candidates that come to Flannery O’Connor’s river for Baptism are mostly adults accepting Baptism but with a bargain in mind. Kernan converts in exchange for permission to marry a Catholic. Preacher Summers’ congregants baptize in the hope of miraculous healings. There is nothing Summers can say to discourage their hopes. In neither case is Baptism the product of “Grace.” Neither does baptism “save.” For Catholics, Baptism is insufficient to save (in most cases). It is unlikely for either Catholics or Protestants that salvation can be a transaction. But the child Harry-Bevel belongs to neither of these classes. He rejects the imposed Baptism he accepted to please Mrs. Connin as he rejects the name he inherited at birth. Bevel is able to find salvation only after he resolves “not to fool with preachers anymore but to Baptize himself” (O’Connor “The River”).

John S. Joyce one inspiration for “Grace,” attended a Gardiner Street retreat at the urging of Matt Kane. Stannie Joyce tailed them out of curiosity and amusement. Although the accident that begins the story comes from the elder Joyce, the character of Kernan is a composite, including one-time Joyce neighbor and tea-taster Dicky Bird Thornton. It was John S. who fumbled with his lit candle [perhaps his hands were shaking] (Stanislaus Joyce 125-128). Ellmann also reported in attendance in the shrieving party were Charles Chance (whose wife was the prototype for Molly Bloom), Tom Devin (who would inspire Power), and another named Boyd (Ellmann 133). Kane/Cunningham, M’Coy/Chance, and Devin/Power are bound together in the words of Torciana by “drink, bad business and perfunctory though no less devout religious observance” (205). “These were “men of the world,” or “good practical Catholics,” as Kane’s alter-ego Cunningham in Ulysses will be called “a good practical Catholic.” The meaning is Cunningham can be useful for collecting donations. This small praise is a signal of simony. Simony is also a specialty of theatrical Fr. Purdon, a fund-raising throwback to the pardoners who sold indulgences to build Saint Peter’s Basilica and incited the Reformation.

Hugh Kenner tells us that in “Grace,” mercies begin 

“with an act of disinterested charity” by the two gentlemen in the toilet. A “crescendo of edification” follows, but the story ends in a “pervasive preoccupation with unsupernatural detail, notably with social nuance” (Kenner 11-12). In Ireland, modernism and materialism exacerbate Dublin’s Jansenism, while Protestant Calvinism weakened the Catholic view of grace, ritual, and redemption. These influences focused the “faithful” on external trappings and practices without commitment to or even understanding of salvation. Once seated in a church pew, Tom Kerner doesn’t know where to place his decent but dented silk hat, symbolic of Jansenism. As for Mrs. Kerner:

She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her Faith was bounded by her kitchen, but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost (James Joyce).

The foundation of Catholicism is a broad, standardized, intellectually intricate theology supported by the concept of grace and with sacramental rites informing every life event. The Kerners and all the characters of the story practiced Catholicism-Light. Light in demands, rich in visible symbolism without great interference in the pursuit of vices. 

O’Connor’s characters are less interested in appearances and orally declare they are ready for salvation. These Methodist and Baptist worshippers are prepared to expose themselves as grotesques in professing Faith and proposing bargains to their God. One example shows “an old woman with flapping arms whose head wobbled as if it might fall off any second” (O’Connor “The River”).

Kernan’s guides through the afterlife are pretenders to God’s favor. They use the appearance of success and informed spiritual leadership to manipulate the bewildered man. They ply Kernan with more alcohol while he, ironically proud of his escapade, is desperate for the company of other drinking men. M’Coy is a sycophant and flatterer, a corpse collector who makes ends meet by pawning other people’s luggage. In the employ of the Coroner’s Office, M’Coy had a “professional interest” in the gentleman’s case. Jack Power is somewhat more dangerous. He is well-intentioned but works for the Royal Irish Constabulary. Deep in debt for the expense of keeping both a wife and mistress, Power is prone to bribery and is paid to betray his countrymen to the Crown. Martin Cunningham may be the most compromised of all. A functionary of the police courts, Cunningham is anxious to be thought of as a good Catholic but willing to manipulate and misinform in securing that reputation. In O’Connor’s Divine Comedy of the American South, Harry-Bevel’s Guides include Mr. Paradise, more pagan than Virgil and as much a demon as a noble spirit. Paradise is a proponent of simony and appears successively as a man, a pig, and a monster. Mrs. Connin is devout but an active participant in the bargaining for miracles and carfare. She is the child’s Beatrice. Harry-Bevel’s need for her approval coerces him into the baptismal farce. Finally, Preacher Bevel Summers stands for Dante’s Saint Bernard. Summers’ theology is vague. He denies the promise of miracles, all the while reminding the congregation that the miracle show is what has drawn them to the river.

French Jansenism included the belief that God’s grace was irresistible. The philosophy concluded that the favored show worldly evidence demonstrating God’s grace. There was little support for Jansenism among the Irish poor. Still, those closest to the Protestant government might be drawn to Jansenist principles, at least for the sake of professional expediency. These would include M’Coy of the Coroner’s office, Power of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Cunningham of the Courts. Converted but uncommitted, Mr. Kernan cares little for Catholic theology. If beeswax candles were dangerous for his shaking morning-after hands, he would merely eliminate them from his practice. He would, however, have a “gentleman’s” appreciation for the vestments. They echo his commitment to the “dignity” of his professional calling. “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters.” Later in Ulysses, he sports violet gloves. Professionally Kernan maintains an office that he no longer needs, employs the prestigious London address of the broker he represents, and ritualizes the five tasting bowls for tea. Appearances declare Kernan to be a “gentleman” and a recipient of divine approval. Harry-Bevel, neglected by his habitually hungover parents, forages through his home to feed himself. But his father forces the boy’s arm into the sleeve of a tartan plaid coat and misbuttons it. The coat marks Harry as a scion of a great house, although he can’t move his arms for his father’s disinterest in dressing him. Crypts within the hollows of the coat, like the mysteries of masonic rites served for secreting away borrowed handkerchiefs and stolen stories of salvation.

Kernan had not been inside a church recently, so his religious mentors will not test his tolerance severely. His missionary companions are joined by Fogathy, the grocer and wine merchant who enables Kernan’s reckless borrowing and his alcoholism. Together they form a quincunx around the penitent. And there, like Dante with Virgil, he witnesses the assemblage of Dublin’s other great sinners. The five of his company plus seven other sinners described: moneylender, taker of bribes, political king-maker, pawnbroker, nepotistic candidate for town clerk, false witness (the absentee reporter who appears in “A Mother”), Poor O’Carroll who fails to repay any of his debts, and a seeker of political favors. Together they mock the twelve spirits of light in Paradiso (Torciana 216-218). Some Dubliners are actively engaged in their sins even during the retreat (like the man who would buy Fanning’s political favor). In “The River,” Reverend Bevel Summers’ congregation is equally compromised. They are there to bargain for a miracle, healing, or to gawk at a magical performance by the boy preacher.

The Oconee River, Milledgeville, Georgian Kernans guides to the afterlife mislead him around the hypocrites’ bolgia with the circular logic of Infallibility. For good measure, they display some Loyolan legerdemain about Jesuit orthodoxy and further mangle Malachy’s forged prophecies (likely 16th-century inventions designed to elect an unctuous Italian cardinal as pope) (Scholes and Litz 167.10, 485). Now floating on a cloud of what Burgess calls “provincial mock-piety” (43) and after mustering at M’Auley’s Grocer, Wine Merchant, and Tavern, the unit would march on to Gardiner Street. There Fr. Purdon assumes command of the ambush.

Purdon is modeled after Father Vaughn, master fund-raiser, fulminator, and friend of the practical Catholic. His sermon is “a manly, no-nonsense sermon asking little, forgiving much” (Burgess 42). He focuses on a puzzling parable. A steward, soon to be dismissed, forgives debts owed to his master to gain new friends. The pardoner’s advice is “make friends with ‘the mammon of iniquity,'” equating God’s grace to the grace period allowed to debtors (Tindall 40). The inexplicit message to the men of the world is there is no need to reform just yet. Acknowledge the debt and pay the interest in accordance with the best accounting practices. Kain points out that in “Grace,” every rogue is allowed to retain the title of gentleman under a symbolic silk hat (137-139).

Across a half-century, at an ocean’s distance, and under the umbrella of the Reformation, similar theological dramas play out. The Methodists and Baptists of Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia practice their religions enthusiastically. These Protestants practiced without Catholicism’s broad, centralized theology. Only Baptism exists as a sacrament among Georgians that Dubliners would recognize. Grace is not generally accepted; a simple declaration of belief saves souls. Despite admirable simplicity, humility, and zeal, simony exists in Georgia too. On the River Liffey, donations and penance without contrition buy delayed salvation; belief buys miracles and magic in Georgia. None of Bevel Summer’s congregation allows the difference between redemption and healing (Sexton 4); every member of Joyce’s shrivening party believes that forgiveness can flow without reform. Among the characters of these stories, only Harry Bevel changes. Power will not give up his mistress. M’Coy will continue to cage luggage. Cunningham will still spread a hypocrite’s gospel. And Mrs. Connin will continue to expect miracles on demand if only Mr. Connin will believe.


I gratefully acknowledge the assistance and permission of the Georgia College & State University, The Flannery O’Connor Collection, The Estate of Mary Flannery O’Connor, and The Flannery O’Connor Foundation. Particular thanks are due to the curator of the collection, Nancy Davis Bray, and her entire team.

Works Cited

Adams, Robert Martin. Surface and Symbol: The Consistency of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 15, 178-181, 217-218.

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Illustrated. Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Kindle Edition. 11 Sep 2021.

Burgess, Anthony. ReJoyce. Second ed., W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 1965, pp. 43–44. 

Coulthard, A. R. “Flannery O’Connor’s Deadly Conversions.” The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 87–98. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26669841. Accessed 5 Sep 2021.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York. 1983, p. 133.

Kain, Richard M., “Grace,” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays, edited by Clive Hart, Viking Press, 1969, pp. 134-152. 

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Enhanced Media, 2016, 28-29 AUG 2021.

Joyce, James. “Grace,” James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with Annotations, edited by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 135-156.

Joyce, James. James Joyce’s Dubliners: Text and Criticism, edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, Penguin Books, 1996, p.485. 

Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, edited by Richard Ellmann, Da Capo Press, 1958, pp. 42, 225-228. 

Kenner, Hugh. Joyce’s Voices, Dalkey Archive Press, 2007, pp. 11-14.

Kinney, Arthur F. “Flannery O’Connor and the Fiction of Grace.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 27, no. 1, 1986, pp. 71–96. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25089718. Accessed 6 Sep 2021.

Niemeyer, Carl. “‘Grace’ and Joyce’s Method of Parody.” JSTOR, National Council of Teachers of English, Dec. 1965, http://www.jstor.org/stable/373107 2 Sep 2021.

O’Connor, Flannery, “The River,” The Collected Works, Literary Classics of the United States, 1988, pp. 154-171.

Tindall, William York. “Dubliners.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959, pp. 38-40.

Torchiana, Donald T.” ‘Grace’: Drink, Religion, and Business as Usual,” Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 205-222.

Wood, Ralph C. “The Catholic Faith of Flannery O’Connor’s Protestant Characters: A Critique and Vindication,” The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 15–25. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26669834. Accessed 6 Sep 2021.

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