JAMES JOYCE’S DEVIL By Dirce Waltrick do Amarante
Atualizado: 17 de fev. de 2022
JAMES JOYCE’S DEVIL
By Dirce Waltrick do Amarante
In 1936, while still writing Finnegans Wake (1939), his last book, on which he worked for about 17 years, Joyce wrote a short story for his grandson Stephen, who was then four years old. The story, sent by letter to Stephen, told the story of a certain devil who made a pact with the mayor of a small town in the French countryside called Beaugency. Joyce did not give the story a title, however it became known as “The Cat and the Devil”.
A children's tale by an author who was born in Ireland, cradle of horror classics such as Bram Stocker's Dracula (1887) and Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891), whose protagonist is the devil, almost imposes that it reads like a traditional gothic narrative. But, in Joyce’s tale, for all the characteristics that the text presents, classical Gothic literature gives place to comic Gothic literature, as we will see.
According to Noël Carroll, the horror genre, which crosses many forms of art and many media, gets its name from the emotion it provokes in a characteristic way, or rather in an ideal way. This emotion constitutes the horror's identity mark.
The emotion mentioned by Noël Carroll, concerns the character's feeling – also of the reader/spectator – when coming into contact with the “Other”, with the stranger, with monsters or with terrible beings, who are seen as violations of nature, so repulsive and repugnant that they often provoke in the characters the conviction that mere physical contact with them can be lethal. Therefore, the character's affective reaction to the monsters in horror stories is not simply a matter of fear, that is, of being terrified of something that threatens to be dangerous. On the contrary, the threat is mixed with disgust, nausea and repulsion. And this also corresponds to the tendency that novels and horror stories have to describe monsters with terms relating to filth, degeneration, deterioration, slime, etc., associating them with these characteristics. In other words, the monster in horror fiction is not only lethal but also – and this is of utmost importance – disgusting.
In fact, in horror stories, monsters are depicted as impure, filthy beings who are often in a state of putrefaction or decay, are made of dead or rotten flesh, or chemical residue, or are associated with harmful animals, diseases or creeping things, as Noël Carroll observes, which is why they are as dangerous as they are creepy. It is worth remembering that the word “horror” derives from the Latin “horrore”, which means to stand or bristle, and from the Old French “orror”, which can be translated as bristle or shiver. According to the scholar, it should be noted, however, that the original conception of the word linked it to an abnormal physiological state (from the subject's point of view) of felt agitation.
But, if in classic gothic monsters provoke disgust and dread, in comic gothic, according to Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, the strange and the supernatural are used, we could say, not to frighten and terrify, but to amuse, stimulate and excite the curiosity.
In the short story “The Cat and the Devil”, by James Joyce, the figure of the devil seems to provoke much more laughter than fear.
Unlike beings in classic Gothic tales, the Joytian devil does not cause repulsion or disgust, since, as the text suggests, he is handsome and vain, dressing with care, with the same care, in fact, as the mayor of the small French town, who is the devil's opponent, gets dressed: “he dressed himself and came to call on the Lord Mayor of Beaugency, who was named Monsieur Alfred Byrne. This Lord Mayor was very fond of dressing himself too”.
In Joyce’s tale, moreover, the devil is a naive being, so naive that he is passed over by the town's mayor. In a pact with the devil, the mayor promises him a citizen of Beaugency, but when he fulfills his promise, the mayor gives him a kitten. The devil, despite howling, takes the pussy with him, for whom he shows great appreciation, speaking now not in English, as in the rest of the story, but in French with an Irish accent: “Viens ici, mon petit chat! Tu as peur mon petit chou-chat? Tu as froid, mon petit chou-chat? Viens ici, le diable t’emporte! On va se chauffer tous les deux" ("Come here, my kitten. Are you scared, my love? Are you cold, my love? Come here, the devil carries you! Let's warm up, both of us close together" author, as the others that follow.) In this way, in addition to being naive, the devil proves in the end to have a good heart, going against the natural disposition of the evil geniuses.
It is also worth remembering that the devil does not speak like a normal person. As Joyce himself insisted on stressing at the end of the story, “the devil mostly speaks a language of his own called Bellsybabble which he makes up himself as he goes along but when he is very angry he can speak quite bad French very well though some who have heard him say that he has a strong Dublin accent”.
In Joyce's tale, the grotesque image of the demonic being is then replaced by a ridiculous image, as happens, by the way, with the image of monsters in the so-called comic gothic.
Although monsters and supernatural beings are a necessary condition in horror narratives, it is known that this condition is not sufficient. Monsters and supernatural beings exist, as Noël Carroll reminds us, in all sorts of stories – like fairy tales, myths and odysseys – that we are not inclined to identify as horror. Thus, an indicator of what differentiates the horror works themselves from the monster stories in general are the emotional responses of the human characters in the stories to the monsters that harass them, remembering that the audience's emotional responses accompany those of the characters. As mentioned before, in works of pure horror, monsters are seen by the characters and the public as abnormal beings, as disturbances of the natural order, but in other works, monsters are perceived with a certain naturalness, that is, "they are part of everyday furniture”, as the same scholar affirms, as these creatures are no more extravagant than a lion or a snake.
Certainly, in Joyce's tale, the devil threatens no more than a wild beast, especially if he has a shrewd mayor as his opponent. His presence, therefore, does not cause horror (the horror accompanied by nausea and panic), it just frightens the characters: “All the people ran down to the head of the bridge and looked across it. There was the devil, standing at the other side of the bridge, waiting for the first person who should cross it. But nobody dared to cross it for fear of the devil”.
Finally, with regard to the comic gothic, one can think, on a first reading, that his texts are just for entertainment; however, scholars opine, they also deal with profound questions concerning belief and identity, while allowing their readers a range of impartiality provided by the use of the comic.
Regarding the issue of identity in “The Cat and the Devil”, it is much more a cultural identity than a gender identity (male and female). The devil embodies the figure of the foreigner or the exile, who speaks a language of his own: bad French, with a Dublin accent. That's why he doesn't make himself understood.
Thus, Joyce’s tale takes up a central theme in the writer's work, which is the condition of the expatriate, his social and political conflicts. “The Cat and the Devil” does not differ, in this way, from his work for adults and perhaps it is, deep down, more of an attempt to tell a little of the history of his country, this time to his grandson. Not without reason, the mayor of the tale is named after a real character in Irish history, Alfred Byrne, the first mayor of Dublin after the independence of Ireland in 1922, which until then had been a British colony. Before becoming mayor, Byrne was often the mediator between the Irish people and the British government.
According to Richard Ellmann, Joyce believed that “we all create, at least in part, the situations we suffer and the spirit that makes us prone to suffer. All of us, exiled from the promised land, return to it in vain”. Thus, “The Cat and the Devil”, as a comic gothic text, also has political connotations.
To conclude, it is known that comic gothic dialogues with works of classical gothic, but this does not always happen nor is it mandatory in this type of literature.
CARROLL, Noël. A filosofia do horror ou paradoxos do coração. Campinas: Papirus; 1999,
ELLMANN, Richard. Ao longo do riocorrente: ensaios literários e biográficos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1991
PUNTER, David (Org.). A companion to the gothic. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1999
 Two other stories by Joyce for children are: “The Cats of Copenhagen” and “The Monkeys of Zurich”, all of them, as well as the first, were already translated by me in Portuguese.