In “After the Race,” James Joyce explores the ways that capitalism affects his characters behavior and perspective. The story takes place on the day of the real-life Gordon-Bennett automobile race of 1903, an automobile race through Ireland whose purpose was to show off the quality of car manufacturing of the participating countries. Set against this backdrop of competition and consumption, “After the Race” follows protagonist Jimmy Doyle on the day of the race. After driving in his French acquaintance Charles Ségouin’s car, he and his companions—Ségouin, André Rivière, Villona, Farley, and Routh—spend the evening eating, drinking, and gambling. But this seemingly merry revelry is far less innocent than it appears. To start, Jimmy is not really friends with most of these men; in fact, apart from Villona, they seem to merely be his acquaintances. Jimmy, who is easily swayed by the appearances of things, values these men not for their character, but for what he can gain from them. He is not alone in this approach. Rather, the story is populated by characters who view the world as a series of potential transactions. From Jimmy’s father, who sells out on his Irish Nationalist politics in order become wealthy, to the shady Ségouin, who, the story implies, aims to ensnare Jimmy into investing in his not-yet-existent motor company, the characters of Joyce’s “After the Race” demonstrate how capitalism prompts people to commodify everything—and everyone—around them. But Joyce goes beyond merely observing this phenomenon; he condemns it, too. After a directionless day of carousing, Jimmy ends his night with debt and regret, through which Joyce makes it quite clear that, when participating in a capitalist society, one risks spiritual, if not financial, ruin.
Joyce illustrates how capitalism generates a society in which money and industry is of utmost importance, which encourages people to value others for their monetary worth. Joyce uses cars to represent industrial and economic power. Cars, and the money and commerce that they represent, take on a god-like role in this story; passersby gather “to pay homage to the snorting motor” and Jimmy uses the word “lordly” to describe the car he is riding in. With money being of critical importance, everything becomes commodified. This is particularly true for the characters’ relationships. Jimmy deems Ségouin “well worth knowing” because being seen with Ségouin gives Jimmy notoriety and provides him the opportunity to invest in the motor industry, in which he hopes to make “pots of money.” Ségouin uses his acquaintanceship with Jimmy to persuade Jimmy to invest in his business. Rivière, who is to be manager of Ségouin’s establishment, further encourages Jimmy to invest during dinner conversation.
In the story, Joyce insinuates several betrayals to illustrate that, not only does capitalism engender widespread commodification, but it also encourages people to sell out others and their own ideals in order to make money. Jimmy’s father had once been an “advanced nationalist,” which means that he advocated for the independence Ireland desperately needs to escape its poverty-stricken state. But Jimmy’s father “modified his views” and abandons Ireland politically, presumably so that he can make more money. Jimmy’s father became wealthy from his chain of butcher shops, which he started in Kingstown, a town with English sympathies. He also “secure[d] some of the police contracts,” which reveals that he is willing to work with the governing bodies (the police) that are in charge of upholding British law and rule in Ireland. Joyce also implies that Ségouin may be betraying Jimmy with his investment scheme. Ségouin hasn’t even started his company yet, but he nevertheless pressures his acquaintance to invest, going so far as to say that their “friendship” is the reason Jimmy has the opportunity to be included in the venture at all. Jimmy may also be deceived during the card game when, too drunk to even sort his cards, “the other men had to calculate his I.O.U.’s for him.” This suspicious behavior suggests that Jimmy’s companions may be abusing his drunkenness.
Beyond the immorality of capitalism, Joyce explores the amorality that capitalism spawns through Jimmy’s actions. Jimmy is seduced by the superficiality of capitalism, and it leaves him directionless and distracted from the real significance of things, which renders him inactive and paralyzed instead of making meaningful progress. Jimmy’s experience with the superficial allure of capitalism is represented through his relationship with cars. Instead of applying himself to his studies to acquire practical skills and intellectual enrichment, Jimmy squanders his educational opportunities to socialize with “motoring circles.” When he tries “to translate into days’ work that lordly car on which he sat,” he is distracted by the “style” and speed, and doesn’t consider the time, resources, and human labor that went into the machine. Rather than using his resources to make practical change for his native Ireland, he greedily invests his money with Ségouin, solely for the purpose of making more money for himself. This suggests two endless cycles: the rich becoming ever richer; and the redirection of money away from where it is most needed (such as the impoverished Irish). What Jimmy gets out of capitalism is reflected in his three sources of excitement when riding in Ségouin’s car: the feeling of “rapid motion;” “notoriety;” and “the possession of money.” These things are diverting, but shallow, and leave him “too excited to be genuinely happy.”
This vapid excitement carries Jimmy through the story and into the fateful card game with his companions. Drunk on both alcohol and the thrill of risk, Jimmy does not realize how much he is losing until it is too late. Only as the intoxication wears off does Jimmy realize that the game of capitalism is “a terrible game.” But he only acknowledges his monetary losses and, without reflecting significantly on his choices, it is likely that Jimmy will repeat his folly time after time. Through Jimmy’s failure, Joyce’s judgement is clear: one risks both spiritual and financial poverty when buying into capitalist values.
Capitalism, Commodification, and Amorality ThemeTracker
Capitalism, Commodification, and Amorality Quotes in After the Race
Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money. These were three good reasons for Jimmy’s excitement.
Jimmy set out to translate into days’ work that lordly car on which he sat. How smoothly it ran. In what style they had come careering along the country roads! The journey laid a magical finger on the genuine pulse of life and gallantly the machinery of human nerves strove to answer the bounding courses of the swift blue animal.
Near the bank Ségouin drew up and Jimmy and his friend alighted. A little knot of people collected on the footpath to pay homage to the snorting motor.
Jimmy, under generous influences, felt the buried zeal of his father wake to life within him: he aroused the torpid Routh at last. The room grew doubly hot and Ségouin’s task grew harder each moment: there was even danger of personal spite. The alert host at an opportunity lifted his glass to Humanity and, when the toast had been drunk, he threw open a window significantly.
Play ran very high and paper began to pass. Jimmy did not know exactly who was winning but he knew that he was losing. But it was his own fault for he frequently mistook his cards and the other men had to calculate his I.O.U.’s for him. They were devils of fellows but he wished they would stop: it was getting late.
It was a terrible game. They stopped just before the end of it to drink for luck. Jimmy understood that the game lay between Routh and Ségouin. What excitement! Jimmy was excited too; he would lose, of course. How much had he written away?
He knew that he would regret in the morning but at present he was glad of the rest, glad of the dark stupor that would cover up his folly. He leaned his elbows on the table and rested his head between his hands, counting the beats of his temples. The cabin door opened and he saw the Hungarian standing in a shaft of grey light: