Diagnosis—indigestion: Joyce, Gaddis, gender, and narratives of fraud

“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.”

—William Gaddis, The Recognitions

This, the opening line of The Recognitions, is a tidy summing up of some of the novel’s major themes: masquerades are enjoyable; masquerades are often indistinguishable from reality; masquerades are seldom safe; and women, like Camilla, are confined to coffins. It is also a prescient summary of criticism on The Recognitions to date, for despite the fact that our entry into to what Cynthia Ozick calls Gaddis’s “vast fiction about fabrication and forgery” is a cry from the grave of a woman, the subordination of a female discourse is largely neglected in criticism on The Recognitions. The strangeness of this neglect is heightened by who kills Camilla, and by where, in terms of literary ancestry, he comes from.

Camilla and her husband Reverend Gwyon, six years after marrying, sail for Spain (3-4). “[Seven] days out and half the journey accomplished…Camilla [is] stricken with acute appendicitis” (4). For a surgeon, appendicitis is an easy fix. Unfortunately for Camilla, the ship’s surgeon, Frank Sinisterra, is a counterfeiter masquerading as a surgeon; he is a fraud twice over. “He [diagnoses] Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and [locks] himself in his cabin,” condemning Camilla to death (4-5).

Sinisterra, from his general fraudulence to his doing away with the female, finds ancestors in the work of James Joyce. While it is true that “Gaddis is not,” as Ozick says, “a facsimile Joyce,” Joyce’s influence on Gaddis—and especially on The Recognitions—is undeniable. As Bernard Bernstock puts it, “The Recognitions is one of the most singularly original novels…and it manages to become just that only when Gaddis pays his full debt to James Joyce” (179). What “most impresses us in Gaddis’s debt to…the Joyce canon,” Bernstock says, “is…the basic theme of ‘the counterfeit,’” of the fraud (180). Bernstock sees Gaddis borrowing this theme predominantly from Finnegans Wake: “The renowned forger of the nineteenth century, known as Jim the Penman [and adopted] by Joyce as a prototype for his Shem, reappears in The Recognitions as…Sinisterra…. Gaddis [later acknowledges] that it is…Joyce [to whom this] allusion refers” (Bernstock 180).

Sinisterra also shares much with Gabriel Conroy of Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Gabriel is a far lesser fraud, but he is still a fraud; and like Sinisterra, his fraudulence expels women from the narrative. A review of Gabriel’s fraudulence shows it to be inextricably tied to his conceptions of women, particularly to the distinctions he makes between masculine and feminine intellects. When these distinctions are shown to be false by women and by the environment of the story, Gabriel is given to opportunity to recognize the fraudulence of his sexism. Instead, he moves deeper into it, embracing a fraudulent masculine discourse that, like Sinisterra, forces out the female.

It is critically accepted—by Bernstock and most everyone else—that Gaddis borrows a narrative of fraud from Joyce. It is less commonly accepted that this narrative of fraud is, at least to some extent, that of Gabriel Conroy; and is thus, like Gabriel’s narrative, inseparable from issues of gender. The Recognitions begins with a woman forced into her grave by fraud, but women and gender are given woefully short critical shrift. Establishing the extent to which Gabriel’s fraud is linked to his sexism and illuminating the ties between Gabriel and Sinisterra demonstrate that The Recognitions demands a gender-focused reading—one that both complicates and enriches traditional readings of the novel as a panoply of fraud and counterfeit.

On, then, to Gabriel and women. As we can see in his interactions with Miss Ivors and Lily, Gabriel condescends to women, whom he sees as intellectually inferior. Miss Ivors confronts Gabriel about a literary column he writes under a pseudonym for a “West Briton” paper—his tie to this paper indicates, she thinks, that Gabriel is not in touch with “[his] own [country and his] language [,] Irish” (187-189). From the outset of this confrontation, Gabriel is patronizing: he asks her whether she is sure she means to bring this up “with [him]” and not another; he attempts to “knit his brows…as if he [does] not understand”; he refuses to admit that he could be “ashamed” of such a deed; and he finally declares simply that “Irish is not [his] language” (187-188). Instead of giving Miss Ivors her intellectual due, Gabriel feigns incredulity. Gabriel is similarly condescending toward Lily. When he arrives at his aunts’ dance, Lily, “[opens] the door for him” (176-177). After welcoming him, Lily leads him to the pantry—where the men’s outdoor gear is being kept—and asks him whether “[it is] snowing” outside (177). This question is anomalous: Lily has been tending to the door all evening, opening it for guests and helping the gentlemen off with their “snow-[fringed]” overcoats—Lily knows quite well that it is snowing outside (175; 176). Gabriel, who has arrived later than most of the guests, is surrounded in the pantry by the other men’s many overcoats, which are either still snow-fringed or damp from melted snow. In either case, he can and should recognize that Lily knows it is snowing, and that she is thus either joking with him or making small talk. Rather than recognizing this, Gabriel answers in earnest that he “[thinks they’re] in for a night of [snow]” (177). He does not give Lily enough credit to connect snow on an overcoat coat with snow outside—he thinks of her as a low-class servant “girl” who cannot even properly pronounce his name; he thinks of her as a “child” (177). In his interactions with Lily and Miss Ivors, Gabriel does not allow himself to believe that women can be as knowledgeable as he is.

Miss Ivors and Lily each refute this notion, and when Gabriel is forced to confront their possession of knowledge, he is overrun by it. Mulling over Miss Ivors’s accusation, Gabriel first contemplates justifying his actions by telling her that “literature [is] above politics” (188). But admitting to himself that Miss Ivors is as educated as he is—that “their careers had been parallel…at the University and…as teachers”—he realizes that she will not accept a “grandiose phrase” (188). And this realization dismantles him, starting him “blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmuring lamely” (188). Gabriel’s encounter with Lily leaves him similarly unnerved by undermining his view of her as childlike and challenging his notions of male superiority. Immediately after he answers Lily’s question about the snow, he asks her questions of his own that query her intelligence indicate his faith in masculine intelligence. “[Do] you still go to school?” he asks first, and when Lily answers that she does not, Gabriel infers that a man is keeping her from school—that a man has, in effect, replaced her access to knowledge—asking whether “[he’ll] be going to [her] wedding” soon (178). Lily’s “[bitter]” response, that “Men” are “all palaver,” indicates that she has had experience with men; and their palaver, or idle chatter, far from enlightening her, has tainted her “with great bitterness” (178). Lily’s response “colours” Gabriel, and though a blush is usually not enough to permanently color a character, in this case Joyce seizes on Gabriel’s blush and intermingles it with other more permanent characteristics (178). In the objective-sounding descriptive passage immediately following the blush, Joyce exalts Gabriel’s color to the level of pseudo-permanence—the “high color of his cheeks” is listed alongside his being a “stout tallish young man” with “glossy black hair” (178). Gabriel’s female-induced coloration comes to constitute part of his “objective” character; he is plagued by his relationship to knowledgeable women.

Knowledgeable women are not all that challenge Gabriel’s sexism. The environment of the story—through the house, its keeper, its inhabitants and their history—mounts its own assault on Gabriel, first echoing his sexist prejudices then dismantling them, even associating Gabriel himself with femininity. Despite this, Gabriel persists in his sexism.

Much as Gabriel sets up distinctions between masculine and feminine intellects, the story’s first paragraph sets up a contrast between masculine and feminine spaces. The “[gentlemen]” remain “on the ground floor,” using a “little pantry” as a dressing room (175). The women, in contrast, dress in and congregate around a “converted…bathroom upstairs,” “gossiping and laughing and fussing” (175). Here, the house itself is a reflection of Gabriel’s interior view of men and women as naturally segregated by intelligence: men with their weighty minds remain below; flighty, air-headed women float up the stairs.

The portrayal of Lily as the house’s doorkeeper further echoes Gabriel’s notions of female inferiority. From the first sentence of the story, Lily is a submissive sexual being. We enter the story being told that Lily is “literally run off her feet” (175). To be “run off [one’s] feet” makes no straightforward sense. The image here is of Lily working so hard that her feet simply quit, severing themselves from her body at the ankles. Joyce intensifies to this nonsensicality with the use of the word “literally”: this sentence tells us that something that could never literally happen has indeed literally happened. “Literally” is thus emptied of its literal meaning and we are forced to look to the figurative to make sense of this image. We find much to work with. Lily is “off her feet,” or lying down. Despite existing in this potentially restful state, she is still “[running],” still active. To be active while lying down is suggestive of sexual intercourse, and this suggestion is reinforced by Lily’s subsequent suggestive actions—she “[helps men] off with [their overcoats]” and “[opens] the door for [Gabriel]” with “O, Mr Conroy”—Lily serves men, undressing them and opening to them (175; 176-177). Lily also provides Gabriel with an opportunity insult his wife Gretta and thereby begin to constitute his sexism the moment he enters the house. In response to Lily saying that “Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought [Gabriel was] never coming,” Gabriel blames his tardiness on Gretta, who, he says, “takes three…hours to dress herself” (177). In addition to indicting Gretta, Gabriel’s accusation also calls Gretta’s clothing into question, in a sense retroactively undressing and redressing her according to his wishes. From the opening of the story to the opening of the door, Lily, like the house itself, reflects and helps to establish Gabriel’s sexism.

The house and its doorkeeper begin by supporting Gabriel’s division between the masculine and the feminine, but the inhabitants of the house and the family’s history soon complicate this division. Women take on male characteristics, and activities associated with men, even with Gabriel himself, become feminized in a way that literally shakes the boundary between male and female.

In language and in life, women assume men’s roles. Kate, Julia and Mary Jane anxiously anticipate Gabriel’s arrival, moving “every two minutes to the banisters to ask Lily” whether he has come (176). When he finally arrives, Lily does not announce him. Rather, she announces Gretta, calling up to her mistresses, “here’s Mrs Conroy” (177). Lily uses Gretta’s arrival to signify Gabriel’s arrival; she substitutes a woman for a man. And much as women stand for men in speech, Lily and her mistresses stand for men in life. Lily does the heavy lifting in the Morkan household, the man’s work: she rushes about the ground floor, exhausted, tending to the guests while her mistresses loiter at “the head of the stairs” (175). Yet the mistresses play the role of a husband to Lily’s wife, supporting themselves and Lily financially: Mary Jane gives organ lessons to the children of “better-class families” and Kate “[gives] music lessons to beginners” (176). The mistresses are successful in saving their income, for though they once “rented” “the upper part” of the house from “the cornfactor on the ground floor,” they now appear to own the entire house (176; 175). Lily’s mistresses also act toward her as a domineering husband would toward a meek wife, refusing to tolerate “back answers” (176). This blurring of gender roles finds precedent in Gabriel and his aunts’ family history. Gabriel’s deceased mother “[chose] the names for her sons,” and she used her influence to ensure “Gabriel…his degree in the Royal University” and to get his brother Constantine a job as a “senior curate” (186-187). Gabriel’s mother was the predominant presence in his life and the lives of his siblings—this despite their father being an ostensibly powerful man, ostentatiously identified as “T.J. Conroy of the Port and Docks” (179). In this home and this family, women take the place of men in multiple ways; the male and the female are not as distinct as they seem.

The environment of the story feminizes even Gabriel—feminizes him through his feet. Gabriel is associated with a sort of “foot fidgeting” from the moment he enters the house. After verbally undressing and redressing Gretta, his first action is to “[stand] on the mat, scraping the snow from his galoshes”; and “He [continues] scraping his feet vigorously” until “Lily leads him into the pantry” (177). And at this point, the house makes Gabriel’s foot fidgeting female by moving it above him: “He [looks] up at the pantry ceiling, which [is] shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet” (177). The ceiling of the ground floor is, of course, the floor of the upstairs—it divides the house’s female-dominated upper floor from the male-dominated ground floor. Thus, as the pantry ceiling shakes, so too shakes the house’s boundary between the masculine and the feminine. This boundary is disturbed at a telling moment—precisely between Gabriel’s condescending answer to Lily about the weather and his questions that interrogate her intellect—precisely as he is constructing his notion of her as an ignorant “girl” (177). Gabriel’s first defining action, food fidgeting, is adopted by the women upstairs and, through the house, is used to destabilize distinctions between the masculine and the feminine—precisely as Gabriel tries to reinforce them.

Gabriel, confronted with the deterioration of the gender distinctions he subscribes to, refuses to recognize the falsity of these distinctions. Instead, he retreats further into them, perpetuating his sexist discourse and coloring himself a fraud. Though women have proven themselves intellectually adept, he dismisses them as “[insincere]” and “ignorant” (192). And he falls back on what is literally a masculine discourse: the speech he plans to give that evening over dinner (179). He goes to this masculine discourse in an attempt to get back at the “critical quizzing” Miss Ivors for her remarks, reviewing it, tweaking it to imply—at least to himself—that she lacks “hospitality [,] humor [and] humanity” (192). And he goes to this masculine discourse after finding himself “discomposed by [Lily’s] sudden and bitter retort” in the pantry (179). Gabriel encounters confident female speech, and instead of recognizing that his persistent sexism in its face makes him a fraud, he seeks confidence in his own speech, which, in his mind, demonstrates his “[superiority]” (179).

Gabriel’s gravitation toward his speech in these moments of tension points to a major connection with Sinisterra: each man’s fraudulence is in his clothing. Sinisterra’s clothes,

arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, [are] held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of [his] duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they [persist] as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes [appears] through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, [prove] to be of paper…. (4)

Sinisterra is a paper surgeon. His identity, like his clothing, is a farce, bound by string and cardboard, augmented with fake flowers. Gabriel’s sexism is similarly fraudulent, and similarly linked to his clothing. When Lily challenges Gabriel’s view of her intellect, “[casting] a gloom over him,” he tries to dispel this gloom by ensuring the propriety of his clothing, by “arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie” (179). And though Gabriel’s clothes are not made of paper, his masculine discourse is: like Sinisterra’s paper boutonnière, his speech emanates from his clothing, from a “little paper” that comes out of his “waist-coat pocket” (179). As the women and the environment of “The Dead” testify to, Gabriel, like Sinisterra, is a fabrication. His clothes may not be made of paper, but the sexist discourse he makes central to his identity is.

The fact that this discourse is fraudulent does not prevent it from doing away with both Miss Ivors and Lily much as Sinisterra does away with Camilla—Sinisterra boxes Camilla into a coffin, Gabriel boxes Miss Ivors and Lily into their own alternate discourses. Each woman disappears from the narrative by escaping into a discourse that is related to her confrontation with Gabriel: Miss Ivors through the language she chastises Gabriel for forsaking, and Lily through the servitude with which Gabriel identifies her. When Miss Ivors departs the dance, ostensibly because of her conflict with Gabriel, she does so with an Irish blessing, “Beannacht libh”; Miss Ivors escapes by entering into Irish, a language Gabriel defines himself against (196; 189). Lily’s departure is quieter: instead of asserting her own discourse, she is obscured into one—she is “covered” up by the “conversation” of the guests like the servant girl Gabriel pictures her as (198). Miss Ivors and Lily challenge Gabriel to abandon his sexism; he mires himself in it and forces them out of the narrative. Camilla challenges Sinisterra to rise above his fraud and be a surgeon; he locks himself in his cabin and forces her into a coffin.

Critics should acknowledge these similarities and their implications when discussing Gaddis’s narratives of fraud, primarily to give Camilla the voice in criticism that the novel’s first sentence implies she deserves. But also because a gender-focused reading of The Recognitions drawing on “The Dead” resonates with traditional readings of Gaddis in addition to complicating them. Gaddis begins where Joyce ends: on a hill, in a churchyard, amid “crooked crosses and headstones”—Gaddis begins with “the dead” (Gaddis 3; Joyce 223). The plight of women in Joyce, eviction from the narrative, is also Camilla’s plight; but for Gaddis, it is also everyone else’s. In the world of The Recognitions, we all begin where Camilla ends: in a graveyard, alienated from the living world by fraud. Acknowledging Camilla’s dilemma thus both rehabilitates a female narrative and adds to popular critical conception of the novel as, in Jonathan Franzen’s words, “the first great cultural critique” to diagnose the fraudulence that was and is “new and strange and wrong [in] postwar America”—Camilla’s death at the hands of the world’s fraud foreshadows our own. Her ghost haunts The Recognitions from the first sentence. It is time for us to give this ghost its due.


Benstock, Bernard. “On William Gaddis: In Recognition of James Joyce.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 6 (1965): 177-189.

Brooks, Helen. “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’” Comments in Seminar. Text as Context. Stanford University. 13 Feb. 2006.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the problem of hard-to-read books.” The New Yorker 30 Sept. 2002: 100+.

Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. London: Penguin, 1976. 176-223.

Ozick, Cynthia. “Fakery and Stony Truths.” The New York Times 7 July 1985, late city final ed.: 7-1+.


About this entry