James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, from Dubliners (1914), touches on the issue of narcissism, one which is central to the “problems of living” that many clients who come for therapy experience.
Narcissism can be defined as an excessive amount of love and admiration toward oneself but in a psychological context it has a more specific meaning. It refers to a psychological condition characterised by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy and unconscious deficits in self-esteem.
Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” fits this label. He’s in his mid-40s, a teacher and a journalist, happily married with children. He’s well-regarded as a teacher and a journalist and is his aunts’ favourite nephew who is to give the after-dinner speech at their annual Misses Morkan’s dance party. But he’s also preoccupied with what other people think of him and appears a bit bewildered by his own emotions and his effect on people. He appears too wrapped up in himself and whether or not he is highly regarded and so is unable to empathise with others. He is over-familiar with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, and she takes offence. Dancing with a fellow teacher, Molly Ivors, he’s perplexed that she teases him about being a “West Briton” (an Irishman who looks to Britain rather than his native Ireland). She’s effectively accusing him of not being sufficiently Irish and not taking take enough pride in all things Irish but he comes away from the encounter irritated and perplexed.
His marriage to Gretta is a happy one up to a point but the party provides an example of the miscommunications between them. When Molly Ivors invites him to holiday with them in Galway (perhaps to make up for the teasing), he says he’s going cycling in Europe instead. Gretta is delighted by the idea of going to Galway but Gabriel says coldly that she can go alone if she likes.
Later on the cab drive home and back at their hotel he longs for intimacy with Gretta but she’s full of regret for her first love, of whom she was reminded when one of the guests sang “The Lass of Aughrim”. He feels slighted and sees “himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught sight of in the mirror”.
However, in a moment of epiphany (which Joyce is famous for), Gabriel appears to be able to transcend some of his own narcissism to empathise with Gretta and to feel some of the sorrow that she experiences. After Gretta has cried herself to sleep Gabriel is left wondering about the living and the dead. He looks out at the snow which “was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furley was buried …. he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and falling faintly, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.
Bill Tucker, who includes this story in his “How People Change”, identifies narcissism as the central issue of the story.
Narcissism is the central issue in the psychological treatment of many patients, usually but not necessarily men, coming in mid-life to treatment for long-standing problems in love or work, sometimes accompanied by specific physiological symptoms. Like Gabriel, such men are unaware of their insensitivity to emotional issues and find themselves genuinely bewildered by the intensely negative responses they continually evoke. Like him they tend to be overly sensitive to slights and to indulge in constant monitoring of how they are perceived, with what we might incautiously compare to a teenager’s degree of self-consciousness. Gabriel is warmly regarded, but he does not feel connected to any of the other guests.
I wondered what a client like Gabriel Conroy might be like on the couch. In some ways he would be an ideal patient – intelligent, articulate, insightful and observant. He would classify as a high-functioning neurotic. Narcissistic patients tend to drone on at length about minor things (a bit like a blog!) but he is also observant enough to be able to apply insights to his own relationships and could make good use of therapy to connect with a rich, inner emotional life.