Monday, January 24, 2011

Lives: Nora Barnacle

Nora Barnacle was the long-time girlfriend and eventual wife of James Joyce, and she is all over his writing. The two met in 1904, when Nora was twenty, and in addition to exchanging extremely dirty NSFW love letters with Joyce, she influenced many of his female characters, showing up as any woman who is quick-smart but anti-intellectual, who is passionate and very much of her body, who is pretty, vulnerable, sad, or from Galway--all of which Nora Barnacle was.

Apparently Nora was constantly complaining about Joyce's writing habits and style, calling him nonsensical, overly erudite, and snobbish to her sister in letters, and probably to his face, too. If you've read Ulysses, you will recognize Molly Bloom in Nora Barnacle.

She also shows up in Joyce's famous story, "The Dead," which I recently read for the first time. Set at a party, it is about (among other things) Gabriel, an ambitious literary-type Irish man and his feelings about his wife, Gretta, a woman from Galway who fits in easily with the people at the party, people whom Gabriel feels a little superior to, in spite of himself. Some events take place at the party, but the main "event" is Gabriel's intense tenderness for Gretta that comes over him at the end of the night, and his struggle to connect with her over it. Gretta confesses she's been thinking about a boy who once loved her, named Michael, but who died young, something that Nora Barnacle also suffered as a teenager.

It ends with this famous last sentence, which I had heard before, but never in context, so I got that old meeting a friend of a friend for the first time feeling:

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

I think that sentence must be used in every single English 101 class in America to demonstrate one of about ten devices it uses. But as beautiful as it is on its own, what it does to the rest of the story is even better, though I'm not sure what that is. What do you guys think? Why does he focus on the snow at the end?


  1. I love this. I think ending a short story well is so so difficult. Trying to think of other short story endings that leave an impression. Thoughts?

  2. i love the picture of her at the top. i like the big bow. also she has a great name. nora barnacle just sounds right together.

  3. The comment made about Nora by Joyce's father John Stanislaus Joyce was very apt. He said that she would never leave his son, because 'she would stick to him like a barnacle'