<i>Parable of the Plums</i>

Parable of the Plums

In Brief

Figure of speech. After finishing his tale of the two old women on Nelson's pillar, Stephen is asked for a title and offers two: "I call it A Pisgah Sight of Palestine or the Parable of The Plums." Calling something a parable will make most people think of the homely stories that Jesus tells in the gospels, which appear to have derived from Hebrew traditions. But the term originated in Greek rhetorical theory as parabola, a brief story that illustrates some concept, usually a moral one.

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Parabola (puh-RAB-uh-luh, from Greek para- = beside + ballein = to throw) suggests "throwing together" two unlike things, specifically an idea and a simple story that illustrates it. Since parables have a didactic purpose, they have much in common with fables, the difference being that parables depict realistic human experiences. They also are close kin to metaphor and simile and to the narrative form that extended metaphors can take: allegory. Roman rhetoricians, often using synonyms like similitude, comparison, or exemplum, emphasized this metaphorical element. The Rhetorica ad Herennium says that "Comparison is a manner of speech that carries over an element of likeness from one thing to a different thing. This is used to embellish or prove or clarify or vivify."

Jesus tells parables to make a single instructive point, not as allegorical narratives from which many different meanings could be drawn. Rhetorical theorists advance the same view. In The Elements of Rhetoric (1882), Canadian professor James De Mille writes that "The parable may be defined as a fictitious example designed to inculcate moral or religious truth. It is similar to the allegory; and indeed it often happens that it is difficult to assign some pieces with certainty to the one or the other. There is, however, an essential difference between them. The allegory sets forth a story which shall impart moral instruction of a general character; the parable is a story told for the sake of illustrating some special point. The former is many-sided, the latter is single in its aim; in the one the moral follows from the narrative, in the other the narrative is made up expressly for the sake of the moral; in the allegory the story itself is full of interest, in the parable the moral quite overshadows the story."

If Stephen's little story is indeed a "fictitious example," it is difficult to say what instructive point he expects his listeners to take from it. That even in old age virgins remain sexually frustrated? That Ireland will forever remain frustrated in its desire for independence? That biblical models of leadership like Moses remain relevant in modern times? Parables typically do not explain their meaning, but they do usually allow a listener to reliably infer it. At the end of Aeolus, MacHugh and Crawford respond to the sexual element: "Onehandled adulterer.... That tickles me"; "Tickled the old ones too...if the God Almighty's truth was known." But other forces are certainly working in the tale.

It may be that Stephen considers his little story a kind of down payment on a longer, more open-ended narrative––probably not an allegory, but perhaps a realistic narrative with diverse symbolic suggestions like Ulysses. Or it may be that he is thinking of the more inscrutable parables told by Jesus. Many of his parables feel decipherable, but some are baffling, and it appears that he may have intended these to be obscure. In Mark's gospel he says to his disciples, "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: / That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them" (4:11-12). In other words, some of the little stories are designed to keep people out of the circle of the saved, not to bring them in.

Surely many of Joyce's readers feel about as enlightened after hearing Stephen's Parable of the Plums as the schoolboys in Nestor feel after hearing his unanswerable riddle. As he prepares to tell the boys his riddle, Stephen thinks of the influence Jesus has wielded over European culture, and then he recalls one of the master's sayings: "To Caesar what is Caesar's, to God what is God's. A long look from dark eyes, a riddling sentence to be woven and woven on the church's looms." Jesus was a riddler, then, and if Stephen is thinking of him again when he tells the newspapermen a "parable," it may be that he does not wish for its meaning to be easily found.

JH 2023
The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668 oil on canvas painting by Rembrandt van Rijn held in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.