by James Joyce
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Many of the stories in Dubliners have something to do with money; this might not sound particularly special, because what in the world doesn't have something to do with dollars? Several of these stories, however, treat money as a symbol of something else, and allow us to see bills and coins as something more than a way to buy the world a Coke.
Gallant Gold Coins
Take "Two Gallants," for example. As we get in to the story, it's pretty clear that the one thing both Corley and Lenehan really want is… women. Not money. They talk about women, they see women, they go on dates with them or dream about being married to them. But, at the end of the story, the secret that Corley reveals after his date is, surprisingly, something else entirely. When he opens his hand, "a small gold coin shone in the palm" (Two Gallants.90).
Now it's got to be a symbol because we don't really know what Corley used the coin to do or how he got it: we only have some educated guesses. But we know it should have something to do with women, since that's what the story is about. Well, what does a man with money do when he wants a woman but can't one? He goes to a prostitute. There's some hint that Corley's small gold coin is the change he's received after paying for sex.
The fact that he's excited about the coin and shows it off to Lenehan symbolizes the way that money gives Corley power over women, and an ability to control them that he wouldn't have otherwise. When he opens his hand to reveal the coin, it's like showing off a prize. He's got a coin in his hand now, and as long as he has money, he'll have women in the palm of his hand, too. It's pretty gross, and it's yet another reason that Corley isn't really a "gallant" at all.
But when we look at this as a story about the kind of exchanges that take place between men and women versus the kind that take place between men when they talk about women, that gold coin takes on new significance. If it's a contest between those two groups, the all-men side seems to win the prize at the end because they come away with the gold coin. It's a symbol of masculine pride and the weird, creepy, almost disgusting way that these "two gallants" treat women. Like objects, basically: things to show off in the palm of the hand.
Benjamins in "The Dead"
Money doesn't fare much better in "The Dead," at least at first. Remember how Gabriel forces Lily to take a tip for helping him out with his coat in "The Dead"? She doesn't want it at first, and says, "Really, sir, I wouldn't take it," but Gabriel insists (The Dead.26). It doesn't help matters at all, because Gabriel still feels like he "failed with the girl in the pantry" (The Dead.29).
Later in the story, though, the characters talk about how the monks at Melleray don't even require a "donation" from visitors to the monastery. Here, it's the absence of money that makes the place so amazing. And just like the monks, Gabriel will soon be reminded of "the descent of their last end," and the strange connection between the living and the dead. Money is definitely on the side of life, of movement, and of consumption, and because Joyce wants to draw more attention to the past and to the dead, he shows us ways that money isn't always effective.
Near the very end of the story, money comes up one last time. Gabriel tries to make small talk to Gretta and tells her that he respects Freddy Malins because "he gave me back that sovereign I lent him and I didn't expect it really" (The Dead.107). Gabriel doesn't even want to tell this story, and he only does because Gretta's in such a weird mood. But, as it turns out, the story impresses her, and she kisses him and says, "You are a very generous person, Gabriel."
So here's an example of how everything's okay with money, right? Not so much. The kiss makes Gabriel suddenly excited, but Gretta's mood hasn't exactly changed. He gets his hopes up that she wants to be with him, and that he has been "master of her strange mood," (The Dead.108), but instead she's just about to launch into her story about Michael Furey. The money story was a distraction, just as Freddy Malins himself was. "The Dead" isn't about happy drunks and "good chaps"; it's about the "shameful consciousness" you get from other people being around you, and from not knowing what they're feeling. Money can't buy you love—and it really only distracts you from it.