Despite being a central character of "Grace," Mr Kernan isn't really a man of action—at least not during this story. In fact, "Grace" mostly tells us about what people do for him, and remembering all the ways he's the recipient of other people's help or good intentions is a good way of keeping track of Mr Kernan's story.
When it starts, he has already fallen down the stairs and been abandoned by his drinking buddies. He gets help first from three unknown men (who carry him upstairs), then from a cyclist and Mr Power (who get him on his feet and then back home), then from his wife (who puts him to bed and takes care of him), and then from his four friends (who convince him to go to a spiritual retreat). In the closing pages of the story, he listens to the sermon of a Jesuit priest.
But wait one hot minute. Why does Mr Kernan end up needing so much help? He's a man with a good job, a stable wife and family, and a lot of friends who respect him. We don't really learn a whole lot about the details of his "decline" (Grace.48): we only see the effects of it. And one of the most noticeable effects is that a lot of people, and especially his friends, try to reverse it. So in some ways, Mr Kernan's character is a great way for us to understand other people and the ways that they try to bring about "grace" for someone else (and fail spectacularly while they're at it).
In that way, Mr Kernan is a great mirror for everyone else in the story. Well, he's more like one of those mirrors that makes you look blurry and feel dizzy. Because everyone in the story acts a little bit differently around Mr Kernan than he or she would otherwise. So when we look at all the other characters, it's important to see how everything they do is done in relation to Mr Kernan and what they want to happen to him. In short, Mr Kernan doesn't do anything, except change the way a whole lot of Dubliners act and talk, and that's kind of important. It's hard to change a Dubliner, after all.
When it comes to just Mr Kernan, it's easy to see him as sort of a loser. He used to be successful as a businessman, and what's really sad is that he still dresses the part and acts like he's on top of his game. If you're putting together a play list for Dubliners, William Shatner's "Has Been" would be theme song of this story: poor Mr Kernan doesn't really believe that he's a "has been," even though everyone else kind of knows it.
On the other hand, maybe Shatner is right (isn't he always?), because "has been" only implies "might again." Reading between the lines shows us that Mr Kernan is on the right track.
In fact, you might say that Mr Kernan is a little bit like his hat. (Bear with us.) He always wore a hat, but at the beginning of the story it's just like him—crumpled and dirty at the bottom of the stairs. Someone else has to pick it up for him. By the end of the story, he's not wearing the hat like always, but that's because he's in church, right where he should be. "His hat, which had been rehabilitated by his wife, rested upon his knees" (Grace.295).
What happened in between to make this possible? There's no simple answer to that question. Mostly, Mr Kernan and his friends seem to just talk in his bedroom, and they talk about some particularly weird topics, like "papal infallibility" and the history of the Jesuits. It's not exactly your normal conversation, even for these old timey Dubliners. But while it doesn't seem like much is happening, if we look carefully at some of the things the characters say, it makes more sense that something's changing for Mr Kernan.
Which brings us to your daily update on the popes. The pope is the highest authority in the Catholic Church, and he's got a direct line to God. And, as Mr Cunningham tells us, he's "infallible," or utterly incapable of failure (Grace.239).
Why's this important? Well, what's crazy about this is that Mr Kernan, out of all of his friends, has a direct line to the pope. That's because John MacHale, the archbishop of Tuam, has looked him directly in the eye. And John MacHale was, at least according to Mr Cunningham's story, the archbishop who challenged the pope's perfection before eventually crying out, "I believe."
So, if you wanted to be really simple about it, you could say that God's connected to the pope, and the pope's connected to John MacHale, and John MacHale is connected to our heroic and injured drunk, Mr Kernan. Bet you didn't see that one coming.
As his name suggests, Mr Power makes a lot of things happen in "Grace."
He's a respectable man who is moving up the ladder in Dublin and trying, at the same time, to keep Mr Kernan from falling completely off of it. When he shows up randomly at the bar where Mr Kernan has fallen, he takes charge of the situation and gets Mr Kernan safely home to his wife. He might even have saved Mr Kernan from some jail time for public drunkenness. His next plan—to make an intervention into Mr Kernan's drinking by taking him to a spiritual retreat—pretty much makes up the plot of "Grace."
Who is Mr Power? Well, Joyce spells it out in one quick paragraph. He's "a much younger man" than Mr Kernan, and has a job "in the Royal Irish Constabulary Office in Dublin Castle" (Grace.48). He's rising up the ladder in Dublin's social circles, but "his inexplicable debts were a byword in his circle; he was a debonair young man." (Grace.48). So while he's doing well for himself, he's also not completely secure.
The major question seems to be, Can we really trust that Mr Power has the best intentions for Mr Kernan? Does he have any ulterior motives? Is he really as good a man as he seems?
On the one hand, he seems like a complete saint, since it's not really his job to take care of Mr Kernan, who only has himself to blame for his boozing. For Mr Power to take him home, and then to go the extra mile to try to turn his life around seems like selfless act. It's like Mr Power is one of the only truly good people in the whole story collection. Wow, more power to you, Jack.
And there's not any hard and fast evidence that this isn't true. Joyce never says, "but secretly, Mr Power was a big fat jerk." But that's not how ol' J.J. rolls. It's in the conversation with all the friends in Mr Kernan's room that we get a sense of Mr Power's real motivation, and it's in the final scene at the church that reveals even more about the man.
First, notice how Mr Power doesn't really like Mr M'Coy. That's because M'Coy uses his first name in conversation, which irritates him, and because M'Coy had basically deceived him trying to make his wife look really successful (see the M'Coy section below for more on this). But Joyce says that the reason he's mad isn't because M'Coy took advantage of him, but because M'Coy stooped to such a low level in order to get ahead.
In this way, Mr Power shows that he's a little bit obsessive about following the rules. Sure, he didn't have any reason to be involved in Mr Kernan's injury except that he's a friend. But he also doesn't have too much of a reason to be offended about M'Coy's exploits, except that M'Coy's a little bit of an enemy. So it's not just that Mr Power wants to help his friend: it's that he really enjoys making interventions and choosing sides.
That probably stems from the fact that he's pretty stubborn in his beliefs. Even though he's working hard to convince Mr Kernan to come to the retreat (with a lot of help from Mr Cunningham), he voices all kinds of hardline opinions in the conversation that threaten to undo his goal.
Most importantly, he's a Catholic and a conservative. When Mr Kernan mentions going to a mass with Crofton, Mr Power interrupts to say, "But he's an Orangeman, Crofton, isn't he?" (Grace.192). What's amazing about Mr Kernan's story is that he's talking about something spiritual for once, but Mr Power has to interrupt to make sure everyone knows that Crofton is a Protestant and not a Catholic. Sure, he makes up for it a minute later by agreeing that Protestants and Catholics have a lot in common, but it's not exactly the most benevolent thing to say in the moment.
Later, instead of acknowledging one of the most amazing stories that's traded in the conversation—that moment when Mr Kernan says John MacHale looked at him with an "eye like a hawk,"—Mr Power has to butt in (Grace.268). Because the occasion of this story was a speech by Edmund Dwyer Gray, Mr Power says, "None of the Grays was any good" (Grace.269). Then there's an awkward pause that Mr Power has to try to recover from, so he says, "Well, Mrs Kernan, we're going to make your man here a good holy pious and God-fearing Roman Catholic" (Grace.271).
What's really telling about this is that Mr Power's intentions aren't really pure. He doesn't really want to help Mr Kernan get over his drinking and get his family life back on track: he just wants him to join the same religious group as his own. He's not really helping him; he's trying to convert the guy.
Now this might not sound like a bad thing, but knowing what we know from the stories about Joyce's opinion of the Catholic Church, we couldn't really expect that "a spiritual retreat" was going to be a totally good thing. And here's why it's not: it's not really about "Grace," which is an undeserved gift of forgiveness from God; it's more about dogma and personal issues and misinformation. That is, it's all about power.
The sermon that the preacher gives in the Jesuit church really shows us that it's Mr Power, and not the other men, who need to have a spiritual renewal. Remember the metaphor that the priest chooses to discuss the scripture passage? It's all about money, and how, in order to be right with God, a man must let Jesus be a "spiritual accountant." That means that all the expenses have to be made known, and "tallied in every point," and that there can be no "discrepancies" (Grace.300, 302).
We don't have a detailed financial history of every person in this story, but we do know one important fact about Mr Power's accounts. He has a lot of "inexplicable debts" (Grace.48). The other person who has debts is Mr Kernan, who hasn't paid up his grocery bill with Mr Fogarty, but at least this is a bill that Mr Fogarty seems to have forgiven when he brings Mr Kernan and friends a bottle of whisky. Mr Power, on the other hand, has a lot of hidden money problems, and even though he's interested in fixing everyone else's woes, he might be the one person who needs most to say, "I will set right my accounts" (Grace.303).
Wow, what a man. Even though he lives with a drunk wife, and has pawned his furniture off six different times for money, he's willing to try his hand at reforming Mr Kernan. Brought on board by Mr Power, Mr Cunningham takes the lead during the conversation among friends to overcome Mr Kernan's doubts about the spiritual retreat.
He's critical of Mr Kernan's friend Harford, another drunk, and he tells very pious stories about "papal infallibility." It's hard to tell if he's really sincere about all of this, or if he's just excited by the mission of bringing Mr Kernan out of his sad state. And hey, if he can have some success with Mr Kernan, maybe it'll help him feel better out his repeated failures to reform his wife.
Just like with Mr Power, it's helpful to listen to the name here; Mr Cunningham is trying to be "cunning" in convincing Mr Kernan to come to the spiritual retreat. But his main tactics are pretty odd: talking to a non-religious man about the Jesuits and the popes, and doing so with a sort of false enthusiasm. If you had to guess who would be sitting with Mr Kernan "near the pulpit" at the actual retreat, it would be easy to guess Mr Cunningham. And that's exactly how it ends up.
Although he's not much of a talker, Mr M'Coy plays a key role in "Grace." He's almost as bad off as Mr Kernan in terms of morals, but somehow he's on the side of the friends who try to rescue him. It's an odd paradox, and one of the reasons why the story seems to poke fun of the idea of grace rather than advocate for it.
We know that Mr M'Coy hasn't had a stable career life, and that "his line of life had not been he shortest distance between two points." (Grace.77) It's another geometry metaphor, just like the one that compared the "arc" of Mr Power and the arc of Mr Kernan. The wildest thing is that his most recent job, in the office of the coroner, is said to make him "professionally interested in Mr Kernan's case" (Grace.77).
Now because a coroner only works to discover the cause of death for someone, this basically means that Mr M'Coy believes Mr Kernan doesn't have a whole lot of hope to survive his alcoholism. He's not really convinced that this intervention will work, at least on a certain level. Instead, he thinks that being around Mr Kernan will help him learn more about how people die from alcoholism. It's pretty morbid. But hey, that's your real M'Coy.
A grocer to whom Mr Kernan owes some money. Mr Fogarty shows up during the middle of the friends' conversation with some whisky from his shop, which seems like a particularly nice gesture, even if it seems a little bit unexpected. Mr Kernan is an alcoholic recovering from an injury he sustained while drinking heavily. Isn't whisky the last thing he needs?
Oh well. You were just trying to be nice, Mr Fogarty. And to give you some credit, you know your Catholic history better than the rest of them. As it turns out, his version of Leo XIII's motto is the closest to the actual (which is Lumen en Coelo, or Light in the Sky), and he's correct that it was an American and not John MacHale who was the second cardinal to disagree with the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Poor Mrs Kernan, right? She hates being married, she had children to try and change that (not a good call), and then she ended up with a drunk for a husband. Now there's a recipe for unhappiness if we've ever seen one.
What we know is that she's still an "active, practical woman" despite all of this, and that she has a little bit of spunk. After her husband's injury, she thinks to herself that "Mr Kernan's tongue would not suffer by being shortened" (Grace.72). (Basically, whatever it takes to shut him up, even a painful injury, might not be such a bad thing.) We don't get the sense that she really cares too much for her husband, but this hasn't kept her from renewing their vows.
There's a lot that's hidden about Mrs Kernan, but, like a lot of the wives in Dubliners, we don't get much of a chance to hear about her anyways. She only comes up to the conversation at the very end, and it's mostly to make jokes at her husband's expense. It's a little bit of much-needed comic relief after a long discussion of priests, popes, and politics, but again, it's a chance for Mrs Kernan to hide behind her humor. When Mr Kernan agrees to go to the retreat, "Mrs Kernan thought it would be wiser to conceal her satisfaction," so she makes a joke instead (Grace.275). It's almost like their relationship is so bad that if something makes her happy he's less likely to do it just to spite her. Awesome.
The bartender calls the police when Mr Kernan falls, and this "immense" constable shows up and starts asking questions, followed by a curious crowd. He can hardly believe what he sees—this unknown bleeding man lying in the filth of the bar's floor—but instead of helping him, he gets out his pen and paper and starts to write the story. It's not until the cyclist comes that the policeman really attends to Mr Kernan, and his main action is to call for some brandy for Mr Kernan to sip.
Later in the story, the friends discuss how Mr Power saved Mr Kernan from the policeman, since he could have been jailed for "seven days without the option of a fine" (Grace.99). At first, Mr Kernan says he thinks the constable was a "decent young fellow," but as the story goes on he gets angrier, and resents paying taxes to pay the salaries of such "ignorant bostoons" (Grace.105).
It's important to note that the constable's accent and the friends' comments reveal that many Dublin policemen came from outside of the city. Mr Kernan calls such people "omadhauns," and everyone laughs at his stories of their training drills, which reveals a little bit of prejudice on the part of these middle-class city dwellers towards their more rural counterparts.
Actually, "a young man in a cycling suit" who is the first responder to Mr Kernan (Grace.12), he's a Good Samaritan in that he doesn't really know Mr Kernan or have any reason to stop, and he doesn't accept any payment or even a drink for helping out. When Mr Kernan thanks him, he just says, "Don't mention it" (Grace.38). Share the road, kids. The life you save could be your own.
A drinking buddy of Mr Kernan's, Harford doesn't stick around to help Mr Kernan after his fall, and we only hear of him later when the story is being recounted. Mr Cunningham doesn't like Harford because he's known for abusing Dublin's alcohol laws. Only travelers were allowed to be served alcohol on Sundays, so Harford used to organize a group to "travel" just outside the city limits in order to pretend they were real travelers. Classy.
Harford is generally disliked because of his work, too. He's a loan shark, which means he lends money to people and charges ridiculous interest when they pay it back. It didn't help matters that he went into business with a Jewish banker. There was a lot of incredibly offensive anti-Semitism in Dublin at this time, so people called Harford an "Irish Jew" as an insult, and they said that his disabled child was an appropriate punishment for his dirty work. At the end of the story, Mr Cunningham points out that even Harford has come to the retreat.
He's the Jesuit priest who gives the closing sermon of the story, which provides commentary on all the characters—in a backhanded way, of course.