Internalized Inferiority: Panoptic Mechanisms in Joyce’s “Counterparts”

By Joseph Lacombe

Bleak though the ending of James Joyce’s “Counterparts” may be, Farrington’s rather realistic display of violence not only highlights the unconscious cycles of physical and alcohol abuse in early twentieth-century Dublin, but also underscores physical manifestations of the unconscious punishment of the self in perpetuation of what Michel Foucault would call the “panoptic machine” (217). I intend to examine this mechanism via the spaces of the office, the street, pubs, and the home as presented by Joyce in this story. I shall implement Foucault’s concepts of discipline and panopticism to explain Farrington’s feelings of inferiority and anger as the story progresses towards its vicious finale.

Such spaces encouraged productivity in a compartmentalized fashion.

Joyce’s short stories in Dubliners are rife with politics of power, opening up possibilities for critical engagement with Post-Structuralist systems at work within each story. Perhaps one of the most striking of these is “Counterparts,” which follows a day in the life of a disaffected copy clerk by the name of Farrington.

Eager to shun the panoptic gaze of his superior, Mr. Alleyne, Farrington shirks his responsibilities in the cellular confines of his office space to what he deems more comfortable spaces of obscurity: dimly lit pubs, alleys, and crowded streets. After cavorting about with other disaffected male counterparts and spending every last shilling he can muster or borrow on drink, Farrington sinks into the realization that he cannot actually escape, that the ultimate “disciplinary apparatus” (Foucault 173) functions through his own internalized sense of inferiority and impotence.

Farrington attempts to reestablish a sense of control by projecting his feelings of inferiority onto his unwitting son Tom in a savage beating for letting the fire go out. Meanwhile, Tom invokes the image of the Catholic Church and God as he offers to say a Hail Mary for his father—presumably to spare Farrington from the omniscient eye of both.

Michel Foucault’s seminal work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, charts the movement of institutional punishment from a punishment of the body to a more internal punishment of the soul, or the self. In order for such a mode of punishment (originally intended to function in the penal systems of France, but expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries to French and European society at large) to be possible, societal systems had to be structured in such a way that individuals could be isolated and disciplined in their daily practices at school, work, and even religious spaces.

The panoptic mechanism is self-perpetuating only if the individuals within it subscribe to it through internalized practices of fear.

Such spaces encouraged productivity in a compartmentalized fashion, or as Foucault writes, “the disciplinary space is always, basically, cellular” (143). These cellular spaces could then be monitored by a superior of some sort, be it a prison guard or a supervisor, for whom there was also some sort of systemic oversight. This speaks to Foucault’s concept of hierarchical observation, where each gaze from “above” would “form a part of the overall functioning of power” (171).

The concept of seeing those “below” from a powerful vantage, yet those “below” not seeing the observer, is one of the primary intentions of the Panopticon, which is “a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogenous effects of power” (202) wherein an individual is “carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies” (217). The panoptic mechanism is self-perpetuating only if the individuals within it subscribe to it through internalized practices of fear.

The mechanism is not restricted to consciously organized environments, however; once internalized by individuals in a society, it is ever-present throughout any and all spaces those individuals inhabit. Joyce’s Farrington is one of these individuals, and his internalization of it results in destructive outward expressions.

The panoptic mechanism functions in the spaces Farrington inhabits in “Counterparts,” starting with the offices of Crosbie & Alleyne, where he works as a copy clerk. The story begins with the disembodied voice of Farrington’s boss, Mr. Alleyne, calling for him via the tube to Miss Parker, who says, “—Mr. Alleyne wants you upstairs” (Joyce 82). Before we meet Mr. Alleyne, we know that Farrington is a subordinate who is physically positioned a floor beneath his superior, and this superior is, as Joyce describes him, “furious” with him for something.

At the beginning of the story, it is clear that an unseen observer has contacted Farrington for committing a wrongdoing. This both establishes a system of power within the office space and also establishes Farrington, who mutters “Blast him!” as he makes his way “with labour and vexation” (82) to his superior’s office, as a transgressor within that system.

According to Mr. Alleyne, his transgression is twofold, both grounded in wasting time and productivity. Farrington has a time limit by which to make a copy of the Bodley and Kirwan contract, and he has been taking too long of a lunch break. Farrington’s response to this is a “spasm of rage” followed by a “sharp sensation of thirst” (83). He hesitates, but ultimately returns to his lower position, or cell, to attempt to finish the legal copy Mr. Alleyne charged him with finishing by four o’clock; that is, until he cannot bear the thought of being imprisoned in that space any longer.

Farrington fooled himself into believing he beat the mechanism of power by delivering a witty retort to his boss.

Quickly ducking out past the chief clerk (another observer), Farrington makes his way to the first of many pubs, O’Neill’s shop. Here he finds solace with a glass of porter “safe in the dark snug” (84). There are continual references to darkness or obscurity on that same page, such as “gloom” and “Darkness, accompanied by a thick fog,” which coincide with Farrington’s retreat from the office for a drink. Even his face is described as “the colour of dark wine or dark meat,” which along with the other images seems to suggest a kind of peaceful obscurity, where he could avoid being seen by one of those in the panoptic tower of the mechanism.

This is not to suggest that Farrington actually escapes the panoptic mechanism altogether, as his growing internal anguish is not ultimately slaked by the many libations he downs throughout his multiple escapades. Yet every return to the office space proffers an opportunity for Farrington to become a spectacle at the behest of his superior, whether it is the chief clerk’s embarrassing reprimand of the five times he has left work that day or the “witticism” he gives in retort to Mr. Alleyne (87).

Finally, feeling all too “savage and thirsty and revengeful,” Farrington berates himself for his retort to his superior, thereby reassuring his place in the panoptic mechanism but once again fleeing to the pubs. After pawning a watch chain for six shillings, not a tiny sum for a man with family responsibilities at home, he sets out to spend it all on alcohol alongside his chums Nosey Flynn, Paddy Leonard, Higgins, and O’Halloran. On his way to meet them, Joyce writes how he passes through the crowd “looking at the spectacle generally with proud satisfaction and staring masterfully at the office girls” (89).

Farrington fooled himself into believing he beat the mechanism of power by delivering a witty retort to his boss. This is, of course, not the case, as over the course of his drinking, an encounter with a young London woman who ignores him, and losing an arm-wrestling match with a man much younger than him, Farrington grows increasingly self-doubting and self-deprecating, calling himself a “sponge” (91) and realizing by the end of the evening that after all of that drinking, he was not even drunk.

There is no escaping the panoptic mechanism for Farrington, especially not when the whole vault of Heaven is watching in judgment.

Once again, the image of the young woman from London comes to him, and “his heart swelled with fury” (93). Why that brief encounter with an Englishwoman should so upset Farrington seems at first to be nearly irrelevant, as perhaps one might first read Gabriel’s encounter with Miss Ivors in “The Dead.” Nevertheless, like that encounter, it is indicative of another power dynamic at work in Dublin, that being the historical subjugation of the Irish by the English, of which Joyce himself was personally familiar.

One might logically take this in the direction of Postcolonial theory, yet I suggest here that Englishness as a societal construct is not only a colonized nation’s influence in the story, but also another sort of observer in the tower, looking down upon the Irish; it is this image that Farrington has internalized, and his flashes of rage are exacerbated by the inferiority he feels towards his own Irishness in deference to Englishness.

Miss Parker (a traditionally British name) and Miss Delacour (a name both French and then English in origin), are two other figures with power over Farrington. Evidently, his flight to the streets and their many public houses did not succeed in banishing his own feelings of worthlessness and fear. Therefore, he must find another outlet through which he can reestablish his own miniature panopticon in an exercise of violent power: the home.

Three reversals are evident in the final two pages of “Counterparts” as Farrington arrives home. First, his preference for dark and dimly lit spaces up until this point is reversed entirely, as he proceeds to reprimand his son Tom for letting the fire go out. “Light the lamp. What do you mean by having the place in darkness?”(93) he exclaims, thereby not only attempting to reestablish his dominance through authoritarian demands (not unlike Mr. Alleyne), but additionally establishing this space as his to observe, his to enforce. As the boy lights the lamp, the reader gets the sense that he is now caught in the spotlight of his father’s tower.

He proceeds to beat his son for disobeying him, for failing to execute his father’s desire within that disciplinary space. Still, this reversal would not have taken place were it not for a second reversal already evident to the reader: his wife’s absence. Joyce makes it clear that “his wife was a sharp-faced woman who bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk” (93), and so her absence, as well as his drunkenness (albeit not to the degree he had hoped) allot him power at this time.

Therefore, he must find another outlet through which he can reestablish his own miniature panopticon in an exercise of violent power: the home.

The final reversal is that of physical dominance; Farrington is no longer a floor beneath his superior or within the gaze of others. Instead, he literally towers above Tom in his dim little cell, finally releasing his pent up frustration and shame into a burst of violence.

In the end, as he beats his son bloody with a stick, Tom cries out repeatedly, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you,” insinuating that this wretched victim wants nothing more than his father’s absolution in this moment of vicious abuse, an absolution that could only be granted by the ultimate observers: the Virgin Mary and God. These observers exist in an invisible tower, one that is so internalized that Tom’s fear of his father’s transgression supersedes the fear of his father himself.

There is no escaping the panoptic mechanism for Farrington, especially not when the whole vault of Heaven is watching in judgment. His inferiority and shame shall be evermore perpetuated in a cycle that will most likely reset upon daybreak, with the main character once again chastised by his superiors in the space of his cellular office.

Farrington’s fundamental helplessness within the internalized panoptic mechanisms at work in “Counterparts” could be read as symptomatic of trauma due to psychological subjugation in respect to many sources, including historical subjugation by the English and the perceived subjugation of men by the women in their lives. Yet Farrington’s helplessness is but another cell within the larger context of male characters in Dubliners.

In conjunction with feminist and post-colonialist approaches, Foucault’s concept of the panopticon could be an effective tool to elucidate other examples of Irish inferiority in Dubliners’ male characters and their futile attempts to assert themselves above overarching power structures.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. 1975. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York, Vintage-Random House, 1995.

Joyce, James. “Counterparts.” Dubliners, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 82-94.