by James Joyce
Characters in "A Mother"
Mrs Kearney (Miss Devlin)
The Mother Superior
Well, everyone, here's the prime example of someone for whom everything starts out very well and ends up so, so badly. Her well-educated, popular, and talented daughter gets asked to play four concerts. That's great news, right? Then, a few short pages later, "Kathleen's Kearney's musical career was ended in Dublin, and Mrs Kearney's conduct was condemned on all sides" (A Mother.61, 74). How the heck did she mess it up so quickly? You'd almost have to try.
Joyce actually says that things were set in motion long before that fateful day when Hoppy Holohan limped over to the Kearney's house with a plan in mind. It all started with Miss Devlin's own childhood. She was "naturally pale and unbending in manner" and had few friends (A Mother.2). This inclination not only led to her choice to marry Mr Kearney, it also seems to describe her behavior when it comes to the four concerts. Especially the "unbending" part. Once she signs the contract for her daughter to be paid, she's so obsessively tied to it that nothing else seems to matter.
First of all, Mrs Kearney interrupts the whole concert to argue for her daughter's "rights." It's almost exactly like a parent who interrupts a kids' soccer game to yell at the referee. Not only is this painfully embarrassing for the kid, and it just makes a parent look like an immature blob of uncontrollable favoritism.
Remember that, almost to the very end, Mrs Kearney had some supporters in her fight to get her daughter's pay; by the end, though, "Mrs Kearney's conduct was condemned on all hands" (A Mother.74). In a lot of ways, Mrs Kearney is like the other paralyzed characters of Dubliners even though she's one of the most active, ambitious, and put together. She's so stuck to her ideal of what the concerts should be like and how her daughter should be treated that she won't budge. That's kind of "unbending" nature pretty much defines paralysis, right?
But why is this all such a big deal to her? Why does Mrs Kearney act so wildly after seeming to be such a rational person? After all, she does get married to the stable bootmaker rather than any of the boys her own age. And she raises her daughter in line with the most popular traditions of the time. Well, one way to look at it is that Mrs Kearney's behavior is a reaction to this very fact. Get this: she's crazy because she's so rational.
Of Marriage and Motion
Flashback to when Mrs Kearney was Miss Devlin, okay? She married Mr Kearney to shut up her friends, who had started saying that she was past her prime. There's a little bit of foreshadowing here, in that Mrs Kearney's other "contract," her marriage, has an odd motivation. Mr Kearney doesn't really make her happy. What really makes her happy is to tell other people that, "My good man is packing us off to" a nice countryside vacation (A Mother.6). She's, in a word, shallow.
And remember that the concert where she really displays the worst behavior is the one that Mr Kearney comes to. In other words, it's almost like she's completely fed up with having to act the way other people want her to act, and her hope of having his support just ends up making her more angry. She's the one who shuts up Mr Kearney, who seems to be trying (like everyone else) to reason with her. In the end, though, her "unbending" nature is more important than whether she's living for herself or for others. When she takes her daughter and husband away from the concert, and leaves with only half of the money, she's her own worst enemy.
If she had just calmed down and been a little more reasonable, the last concert totally would have been the best. The artists were at least a little better, and the crowd was big, even though it was raining. Her daughter's career might have blossomed, and she probably would have gotten paid eventually. Instead, in her impatience, Mrs Kearney ruins her daughter's chances and probably her own reputation. She's a little bit like Farrington in "Counterparts," in that the main thing we remember about Mrs Kearney is that she gets really, really angry and can't control herself.
Sometimes paralysis means being unable to move, and sometimes, as with these two characters, it means being unable to stop yourself, to break out of your bad habits. For all of you science nerds, these two characters demonstrate Newton's First Law of Motion, which states that, "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." Up to a point, external forces were the only thing determining Mrs Kearney's motion; once she decided to let loose, though, not even her husband could find a force strong enough to keep her reputation from spinning out of control.
Hop on Top
Hoppy Holohan must have been a favorite character for James Joyce, because he also shows up in Ulysses. Here, he doesn't come off in such a great light, as he's sort of a bumbling idiot. But what do you expect from someone whose title is "assistant secretary"? (Hey, at least it's not assistant to the secretary.) The fact that he had been "walking up and down Dublin for nearly a month, with his hands and pockets full of dirty pieces of paper," kind of tells us that he's not a very organized or efficient businessman (A Mother.1). And it's our first bit of foreshadowing that he and Mrs Kearney might not get along so well.
At first, however, his relationship with her is very friendly and cooperative, even though it's pretty unequal. Hoppy doesn't do contracts or details, but he's happy to let Mrs Kearney help out, as long as he gets plenty of drinks from her decanter. As the shows get closer, they work out all the arrangements, and there's no sign of a problem.
Hop the Flop
Maybe the two have been on different pages the whole time, though. When the concerts start, Mr Holohan's first reaction to the poor turnout isn't what Mrs Kearney wants to hear: "Mr Holohan did not know what it meant." After all of their work, it's one of the most basic details that was the big mistake, he says: "four was too many" concerts (A Mother.17). At this point, it's pretty easy to see why Mrs Kearney would be frustrated. Hoppy dropped the ball. What does he mean that four is too many? How hard is it to get people to show up for four concerts with the best talent Dublin has to offer?
Oh, whoops. Hoppy admits that the "artistes" aren't really very good, either, and it's like what? After all that, all of the months of walking around town, he couldn't even get some decent artists to sing and dance along with the great Miss Kathleen Kearney? No wonder Mrs Kearney "began to regret that she had put herself to any expense for such a concert" (A Mother.19). Mr Holohan is starting to seem like nothing but a fraud.
Drop It Like It's Hop
As Mrs Kearney gets more and more heated, though, Mr Holohan has two different responses. At first, he just tells Mrs Kearney to talk to his boss, Mr Fitzpatrick. He tells her that her daughter's paycheck just isn't his business. Now this is a pretty great move on his part because it's sure to frustrate Mrs Kearney. On the one hand, it makes him seem really weak and ineffective, and on the other it makes him seem like a total jerk.
It's like dealing with any sort of help line, when the first person who picks up can never really solve your problem. Are they conspiring against you on purpose in a grand scheme to make your afternoon miserable? Or are they just utterly inept? At some point, it hardly matters because either way you're still sitting around with a broken DVD player—or an aspiring daughter who isn't getting paid.
At the end of the story, Mr Holohan gets the last laugh. Emboldened a little by everyone else's condemnation of Mrs Kearney, he has the guts to talk back a little bit. When she threatens him, "I'm not done with you yet," he has the nerve to respond, "But I'm done with you" (A Mother.77, 78). It's a lot like Farrington's reply to his boss in "Counterparts" in that it's sort of unexpectedly witty and funny. You can imagine everyone standing around giving the short and limping Hoppy Holohan a high five for his final zinger. Plus, he also gets the last word on Mrs Kearney when he says in complete sarcasm, "That's a nice lady!" (A Mother.80).
Miss Kathleen Kearney
Talk about an overshadowed character. Even though Kathleen is performing in the "four grand concerts" (which turn out to be less than grand because of her mother), she only has one line of dialogue in the whole story. And we never, ever get to hear her thoughts.
Just like Old Jack in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," the fact that Miss Kathleen is overshadowed is probably the most important thing. She seems like a pretty healthy and very interesting young woman. Like her mother, she's talented musically. Unlike her mother, she's well-liked by people: "Soon the name of Miss Kathleen Kearney began to be heard often on people's lips. People said that she was very clever at music and a very nice girl and, moreover, that she was a believer in the language movement" (A Mother.6). That is, she's starting to be the talk of the town, but just at the moment when we might imagine that she'll take the spotlight and her character will become more important in the story, her mother steals it away.
And that's pretty much how it stays. Kathleen performs in the first three concerts without anyone ever mentioning how well she did, or how she really felt about them. These are the first concerts of her life, but the story is focused on Mrs Kearney's perceptions.
And when we finally hear her speak, in the closing pages of the story, it's not her finest moment. She sounds a little bit stuck up when she criticizes the poor old soprano, Madam Glynn: "I wonder where did they dig her up […] I'm sure I never heard of her" (A Mother.16). What's ironic about this line is that in a few minutes, and after half of her fourth concert, the young and aspiring Miss Kathleen will basically be in the same boat as Madam Glynn.
As Mr O'Madden Burke has it, owing to her mother's misbehavior, "Miss Kathleen Kearney's musical career was ended in Dublin after that" (A Mother.61). If she ever performs again, it'll be somewhere very far away.
Every other character in "A Mother" is minor, mainly because Mrs Kearney is so, well, major. The only facts we know about Mr Kearney are that he's older than Mrs Kearney, and that he's a very stable, if not a very romantic, husband. He treats his family well by saving for his daughters' dowries and taking everyone on vacation, but he's portrayed as otherwise sort of uninteresting.
When he offers to go to the final concert in order to keep an eye on things, Mrs Kearney gives the final word on his unimportance: "She respected her husband in the same way she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure, and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male." (A Mother.25) How romantic?
As the official secretary of Eire Abu, you might think this is a powerful figure. But he's really pretty lazy and has what Mrs Kearney calls a "vacant smile." He's not really there. His major role is to avoid Mrs Kearney's questions about her daughter's paycheck as long as he can (just like Mr Holohan), to make fun of the bad "artistes" at the concert, and finally to pay Mrs Kearney a little bit of money so she'll agree to let the concert begin.
All in all, though, it's what Mr Fitzpatrick doesn't do—which is act like a leader, or a responsible employer, or at least a decisive figure—that really frustrates Mrs Kearney and makes him a target of her anger.
Artistes (Miss Healy, Mr Bell, Mr Duggan, Madam Glynn)
Anytime an "artiste" shows up in Dubliners, you can be pretty sure this uppity French word is being used with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The musicians who perform alongside Miss Kathleen Kearney in the "four grand concerts" aren't that good. But to be fair, that's the opinion of a pretty inartistic man, Mr Holohan.
Still, we should take our word from Joyce, and when he describes them, he tells us that Mr Duggan is just a hometown boy who never really made it, that Mr Bell has an inferiority complex, and that Madam Glynn is washed up. Except for Miss Healy, the artists whom Joyce doesn't criticize are unnamed. They're just identified by their parts, like "first baritone" and "first tenor." What Joyce really emphasizes with the artistes is how Dublin society's idea of a good performance is relatively "mediocre" (A Mother.19).
The paragraph describing the first interval of the fourth concert gives us a glimpse into the performances, and even though it says the concert "was very successful," we can hear a note of irony in the newspaper-like description. Joyce doesn't say that "the first tenor and the contralto" are good, only that they "brought down the house" (A Mother.60). If we remember that this is the same crowd that whistled when it got impatient for the start of the concert, and that many of them came because messenger boys passed out flyers, we recognize that maybe they aren't the best or most sensitive audience to artistic excellence. Besides, when it's halfway over, it's not like anyone is breathless: "when it was ended, the men went out for the interval, content" (A Mother.60).
A side note here: James Joyce's idea of the purpose of art is a pretty significant contrast to these concerts. The last lines of Joyce's novella A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man describe the making of real art as something that happens inside oneself, not in a shabby concert hall. And it's not just something that can be scheduled like a concert series.
Here's how the main character of Portrait puts it: "I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Making art isn't about getting paid eight guineas; it's about the kind of intense work of creating something under great heat and pressure, like a smithy, or blacksmith's fire. That's not something any of these artistes demonstrate, and as a result, the whole atmosphere gives us the feeling of being in a really bad low-budget movie.
A secretary for the Eire Abu society, she's not much help to Mrs Kearney.
Mr Hendrick (The Freeman man)
Now here's a classy man, right? A newspaper reporter with "a plausible voice and careful manners," Mr Hendrick has a lot on his plate (A Mother.40). He doesn't have time to stay for the concert because, as he tells everyone, he has to get the scoop on an American priest who is giving a lecture.
He brags about this a little bit, and his whole appearance at the concert—just to tell everyone he can't stay—seems pretty narcissistic, which is confirmed when he sticks around a few minutes longer to receive the enthusiastic attention of Miss Healy. Even though he knows she just wants a good review of her performance, Mr Hendrick "was pleasantly conscious that the bosom which he saw rise and fall slowly beneath him rose and fell at that moment for him, that the laughter and fragrance and willful glances were his tribute" (A Mother.44).
On the one hand, it's the story's only moment of possible romance and it's a nice respite from the constant attention to Mrs Kearney's craziness, but on the other hand it's a little bit creepy that this older man enjoys her attention so much. If Joyce is creating an atmosphere of Dublin, even this relatively respectable newspaper reporter is part of the smog.
Mr O'Madden Burke
A man about town who comes to the concerts and pronounces the final verdict on the story—that Mrs Kearney's behaviors have ruined her daughter's reputation in Dublin. He is "a suave elderly man" who lets his name, which sounds very Irish, cover up the fact that he doesn't have a lot of money (A Mother.48).