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Friday, January 17, 2014

A Lesson in Relational Contracts from James Joyce

JoyceThe main character of James Joyce's short story, "A Mother" (beginning on p, 103 of the link), is a naturally pale woman with  an unbending manner who made few friends at school.  She became Mrs. Kearney out of spite, Joyce tells us, when her friends began to loosen their tongues regarding her impending spinsterhood.  Hoppy Holohan had been attempting for nearly a month to arrange a series of concerts for the Eire Abu Society, but he had no success until he came across Mrs. Kearney, who then "arranged everything."  

She did so because she desired that her daughter, Kathleen, perform as accompanist at the Society's concerts.  Once Mr. Holohan approached her, Mrs. Kearney "entered heart and soul into the details of the enterprise, advised and dissuaded: and finally a contract was drawn up by which Kathleen was to receive eight guineas for her services as accompanist at the four grand concerts." 

The relationship sours as soon as the concerts begin.  Wednesday's concert is poorly attended.  Thursday's concert is better attended, but the audience "behaved indecorously, as if the concert were an informal dress rehearsal."  Moreover, as Mrs. Kearney noted, and Mr. Holohan conceded, "the artistes" were not good. But the real conflict arose over a decision by the "Cometty" of the Society to reduce the number of concerts from four to three.  Mrs. Kearney attempted to protest to Mr. Holohan that any such decision did not alter the contract, and her daughter would be paid for all four concerts.  

 We none of us can help our natures, and Mrs. Kearney's frosty and haughty disposition, coupled with Mr. Holohan's well-intentioned ineptitude combine to form the equivalent of Chekhov's gun introduced in Act I which must be fired in Act III.  When Mrs. Kearney threatens that her daughter be paid in advance or she will not perform in the final contract, Mr. Holohan attempts to disclaim all authority and refers her to the elusive Mr. Fitzpatrick.  

One Mr. O 'Madden Burke was to write a notice of the concert for The Freeman.  Joyce describes him as "a suave, elderly man who balanced his imposing body, when at rest, upon a large silk umbrella. His magniloquent western name was the moral umbrella upon which he balanced the fine problem of his finances. He was widely respected."  After a few rounds of haggling over Ms. Kearney's pay, Mr. O 'Madden Burke declared that "Ms. Kathleen Kearney's musical career was ended in Dublin."

There are dangers in insisting that contractual promises are irrevocable.  

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