James Joyce’s story “After the Race” was published and set at the beginning of the 20th century, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In practice, this political arrangement meant that Ireland was ruled by England, and English exploitation had left much of Ireland impoverished. The Irish capital of Dublin, in fact, had some of the highest inequality in the world. Given this dire situation, Irish unrest over English rule was increasing, and Irish Nationalists increasingly pushed for some measure of—or even complete—independence from England. In sum, in these early years of the 20th century, Ireland lagged behind much of the Western world politically and economically. “After the Race,” which is set during the real-life Gordon-Bennett automobile race of 1903, portrays the international capitalistic competition in which Ireland found itself left behind. The purpose of the race was to show off the cars (and the manufacturing might) of France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States through the means of a race across Ireland. In the story, Joyce uses the six named characters to represent six different countries: Jimmy Doyle for Ireland; Charles Ségouin for France; André Rivière for Canada; Villona for Hungary; Routh for England; and Farley for the United States. The story follows Jimmy and his relations with the other men through their day, which concludes with a game of cards that leaves Jimmy hungover, regretful, and indebted to his companions. Jimmy’s experiences with these men capture the secondary status of the Irish, even the relatively wealthy Irish such as Jimmy and his family. Jimmy’s poor decisions and financial losses, which are set against the background of the poverty and inertia that paralyze the Irish, make clear how the Irish economic and political situation, combined with Ireland’s own sense of inferiority as a result of this situation, ensured that, in competition with other Western nations, Ireland is doomed to lose.
The setting of the automobile race in Ireland establishes the background of poverty, inaction, and self-accepted inadequacy that prevent the Irish from achieving economic and political progress. Ireland does not figure among the competitors of the automobile race, which illustrates that, while still under English rule, Ireland did not possess the resources and independence needed to be an industrial power in its own right. It is merely a “channel of poverty and inaction [through which] the continent sped its wealth and industry.” In this competition from which Ireland is excluded, Joyce portrays the Irish as spectators that take no action to change things. As the Irish watch the cars from more powerful countries, they “raise the cheer of the gratefully oppressed,” suggesting that the Irish have resigned themselves to an inferior status. The victories of the French imply that they are the global industrial leaders. With no Irish cars, the Irish spectators root for “the cars of their friends, the French” (historically, the French occasionally came to Ireland’s aid). Their support of the French indicate that the Irish contribute to the country’s paralysis by settling for association with a more powerful country.
Jimmy Doyle’s decisions reflect the Irish’s inaction and sense of inferiority, both of which further ensure Ireland’s failure to achieve any significant progress.Jimmy is one of the riders in Ségouin’s car and reflects the general Irish public’s submissive support of the French. Even though he has money, he demonstrates the same passivity. Jimmy is excited by the fame he gets from being seen with his continental European acquaintances. To him, the Irish make up “the profane world of spectators," and his association with these more powerful Europeans sets him apart and validates him. That he needs such validation, though, is a sign of his insecurity. Jimmy’s relationship with Ségouin further betrays his feelings of inadequacy and reveals how his financial decisions affect the greater fate of Ireland. Ségouin leverages Jimmy’s sense of inferiority by convincing him that “by a favour of friendship the mite of Irish money was to be included” in the venture. By agreeing to invest, Jimmy shifts Irish money into a foreign country, ensuring Ireland’s economic failure.
Joyce uses the card game to symbolize that Ireland, for a variety of reasons, will lose when competing with other countries. Jimmy unwisely engages in the card game while being extremely drunk. The narrator says that “it was his own fault” that he loses, which suggests that Joyce blames Jimmy (and, therefore, the Irish) for entering into a capitalist game that, given his incapacities, favors the competitors and puts Irish money into the pockets of other nations. Because he is drunk, “the other men had to calculate [Jimmy’s] I.O.U.’s for him.” This dubious behavior suggests that these men may be taking advantage of Jimmy’s weakened state, by which Joyce illustrates the exploitation of Ireland at the hands of foreign countries. When Jimmy realizes that “the game lay between Routh and Ségouin” (who come from England and France, the apparent leaders in the capitalist competition) he musters excitement for them, though “he would lose, of course.” He, like the Irish fans lining the road at the beginning of the race, resigns himself to being a losing spectator.
Standing in contrast to Jimmy’s craving to be among the continentals is Villona, the poor yet talented Hungarian. In 1904, when the story was first published, Hungary was not fully liberated from Austria, but they had secured parliamentary and financial independence in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 (although this arrangement did not actually secure the freedom desired by many Hungarians; they would not have total independence until 1918). Through Villona, Joyce is indicating the path that the Irish should take: political and economic independence from their English rulers. Unlike Jimmy, Villona never seems concerned about the other men or their obsession with capital and industry. Significantly, he does not engage in their card game, instead playing piano before heading outside to usher in the new dawn. This dawn that Villona welcomes is, as the story puts it, the “grey light” that lifts the “dark stupor that would cover up [Jimmy’s] folly.” The contrast between Jimmy’s and Villona’s situations—Villona greeting the dawn; Jimmy wishing to hide from it—emphasize what Joyce implies are the different trajectories of their lives and countries: independence and promise for Villona and Hungary; dependence and economic ruin for Jimmy and Ireland.
Ireland at the Beginning of the 20th Century ThemeTracker
Ireland at the Beginning of the 20th Century Quotes in After the Race
At the crest of the hill at Inchicore sightseers had gathered in clumps to watch the cars careering homeward and through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth and industry. Now and again the clumps of people raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed.
Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money. These were three good reasons for Jimmy’s excitement.
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, whose imagination was kindling, conceived the lively youth of the Frenchmen twined elegantly upon the firm framework of the Englishman’s manner. A graceful image of his, he thought, and a just one.
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: