ACIS Logo Gendering Paralysis: Norah Hoult and the Influence of James Joyce

Norah Hoult’s short story collection Poor Women!, written in 1928, seems, in many respects, to be a response to James Joyce, and in particular to his own collection Dubliners. Like Ulysses, Poor Women! is meticulous in narrating the characters’ various perambulations around town. Reference to sites like the Hippodrome and Westminster Bridge, and locations like Oxford Circus and Elephant and Castle, pepper the stories. Written in the shadow of Ulysses, Poor Women! could easily be experimenting with the methods of Hoult’s close predecessor Joyce. But more importantly, Hoult shares with Joyce’s canon the tendency to represent characters whose lives are marked by paralysis and self-deception. As in many of the stories in Joyce’s own short story collection, Dubliners, published in 1914, Hoult’s women suffer from erroneous or inflated self-perception undergirded by insecurity. Unlike Joyce’s characters, however, Hoult’s do not reach a moment of paralyzing self-realization so much as a return to gendered self-deception. “Violet Ryder‚” for example, scorns her mother and feels superior until her encounter with the Major, just as Mr. Duffy in “A Painful Case‚” feels superior to his would-be lover until her untimely death. Whereas Duffy questions his decisions, however, Violet’s self-delusions reassert themselves, and she stubbornly returns to a narrative of victimization and entitlement. Similarly, whereas Gabriel in “The Dead” recognizes his impotence and failure, seeing his “own identity fading out into a grey impalpable world‚”[1] Ethel in her eponymous story abandons her sense of despair to reclaim a sense of entitlement and ungrounded hope. If Hoult’s characters engage these same questions of self-deception, aggrandizement, and despair, then, they ultimately reject the hopeless but nonetheless honest enlightenment procured by Joyce’s male characters for the promise of a deluded, gendered lie. In this respect, Hoult’s collection intimates a gendered response to Joyce’s earlier collection: if both address the challenges and paralysis of a stultifying middle class existence, would emphasizes the ways in which women’s upbringing or social circumstances severely curtail their options for self-actualization or enlightenment. [1] “The Dead‚” 223.

Published on: March 31, 2020