“Talk of contracts”: Gift-giving vs. Reciprocity in James Joyce’s “A Mother”


Concordia University, Irvine


This essay measures the extent to which gift-giving fails in an economy of reciprocity. Reading James Joyce’s story “A Mother” in terms of Derrida’s notion of the gift as “absolute loss,” I consider the implications of an economy of loss for Joyce’s notion of sacrifice. Thus, I argue that the absence of an economy of sacrifice integrating “absolute loss” engenders the zero-sum game at the heart of Dubliners. I depart from other readings of the short story in the context of an economy based on the ideal of balanced reciprocity, since these versions deny the pure gratuity of gift in its connotations of sacrifice and loss. While such theories form a good starting point for analyzing the “moral economy” of Dubliners, they tend to overlook the fact that the only means to counteract the paralysis resulting from reciprocity is through the suspension of the economy of exchange.

Keywords: Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, exchange, reciprocity, paralysis, loss, profit, James Joyce, Dubliners, gift, class, usury