Joyce’s “Paralysis” Theme in Clerks
Irish author James Joyce was interested in people’s eagerness to leave Dublin and their simultaneous reluctance to do so. Joyce’s novel Ulysses is the most obvious illustration of Dublin’s monotonous lifestyle. Characters spend most of their time betting on horse races and drinking in pubs. Also, in the Dubliners short story “Eveline,” the eponymous character must make the decision to leave Dublin with a man against her father’s wishes.
This reluctance to leave one’s circumstances is deemed “paralysis” in Joyce studies. The paralysis at the end of “Eveline” is more or less literal, as she stands frozen between the promise of boarding a ship with her fiancée and remaining loyal to her family. Joyce’s writings on metaphorical paralysis pose important questions. Do we actually have agency when choosing where we will go in life? Are Joyce’s characters victims of circumstance or are they too passive (as Joyce describes Eveline in the last line of the story) to make a decision? The answers, of course, are not easy.
Another work that poses these questions and illustrates this complicated internal conflict is Kevin Smith’s 1994 cult classic Clerks. Clerks is about a twenty-something named Dante, who hates his job at the Quick Stop convenience store. Dante, however, does not do anything to change his position. Several aspects of Clerks show the dangers of passivity and the unacknowledged control that people have over their life situations.
Initially, we are sympathetic to Dante and his plight. But, it is during a conversation with his girlfriend Veronica that we see Dante has chosen not to continue on with his education. Veronica serves as a very supportive partner that Dante takes for granted. She tells him he “should be going to school” and that he has “so much potential that’s going to waste in this pit,” but Dante does not listen (Smith). The fact that Dante refuses to budge from his lot in life shows how he is “in deep” in life as a clerk. We can see this in Joyce’s Ulysses, as the characters who compulsively visit the pubs never question if there is more to life. Similarly, the characters in the pub do not take kindly to Leopold Bloom, who is an outsider in Dublin. This can be tied to Dante’s refusal to listen to anyone telling him to leave his job.
Dante and his friend Randal have a debate about Star Wars during one iconic scene of the film. Randal states that the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi was not operational when the Rebel Alliance destroyed it. This would have resulted, Randal says, in innocent construction workers dying. A contractor in the Quick Stop overhears their conversation and argues that workers know what they’re getting into when choosing to take a job.
This exchange is highly significant because it highlights the two thematic perspectives that dominate the film. The laborers working on the Death Star are meant to parallel Dante. Randal’s statement that the workers were innocent casualties aligns with Dante’s willingness to blame his surroundings. (This is ironic, because Randal later labels Dante as being too passive in life.) When the contractor wins the debate by stating that the workers knew the risk involved, the audience becomes aware that people know what is in store for them when choosing work. Dante likely knew that working as a clerk would trap him in a monotonous existence, but that does not stop him from blaming the job itself once it becomes too much for him. Indeed, his continued cries of “I’m not even supposed to be here today” imply that he is blaming fate rather than taking responsibility for his actions (Smith).
How does this relate to Joyce’s writings on paralysis? In “Eveline,” Eveline uses the pressure from her father to justify remaining in Dublin. Similarly, Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses feels the need to help his siblings during his return to the city. Eveline and Stephen are tied to their family, and this is a common pressure for characters in literature. The difference is that Dante in Clerks remains loyal to his menial job at the Quick Stop for no real reason. Therefore, it is harder to understand Dante’s motivation. It is likely that he fears failure if he steps outside the boundaries of his job. This is probably because of the problems he has undergone throughout his life. It is important to sympathize with Dante because of his difficult life, but it is also important to recognize that Dante’s inactivity is the cause of his continued difficulty.
Clerks is a cautionary tale to avoid letting fear of failure trap people and prevent them from progressing through life. This message is also conveyed in Joyce’s writing as his characters struggle to live their lives while remaining loyal to their surroundings. While Joyce’s work might seem antiquated by today’s standards, the thematic elements of his work are still relevant to contemporary life, as seen with the unambitious Dante.
Joyce, James. “Eveline.” Dubliners. New York: Viking Press, 1961. 36-41. Print.
—. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1986. Print.
Smith, Kevin. Clerks. Miramax, 1994. Film.
(Image courtesy of http://www.ign.com/articles/2004/08/30/clerks-x-10th-anniversary-edition)