The Half-Reaction

2nd-Place Winner in the Syracuse James Joyce Club James Joyce Essay and Short Story Competition

Note: Includes the preface explaining the link between this story and James Joyce’s work that was a necessary component of submissions to the competition



The principal way in which “The Half-Reaction” relates to Joyce’s works is in its depiction of its central character, Mr. Lisbon. He is somebody whose life, like those of the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners, has slipped into a state of monotony and drudgery.

 In many ways, he resembles the title character of “Eveline,” who has sacrificed any hope of having a more meaningful life in order to devote herself to caring for her father. Similarly, the reason that Mr. Lisbon persists in teaching at the high school despite the fact that he perceives this lifestyle as unfulfilling is to provide these students, who have grown up in a narrow-minded small-town environment, with the motivation and encouragement they need to pursue fulfilling lives themselves and avoid ending up like him The self-sacrifice present in both cases is also motivated by fear. Although the title character of “Eveline” determines to leave her father behind for a more exciting and fulfilling life with her lover, at the last minute she refuses to go, held back by the same kind of paralyzing fear of the new and unexplored that holds Mr. Lisbon back from achieving anything great or rewarding in his life–he never tried to have a relationship with the student he met in China whom he might have loved, for example, and he also did not persist in academia despite his initial lack of success in the field. Even when he thinks that he is thinking of breaking the monotonous pattern of his daily life, he isn’t thinking hard enough—“moving down the subway line to Cambridge,” where he already has spent a large part of his youth, is not exactly a radical change, especially when compared to his decision as an adventurous student to move across the world to teach English. He seems to blame his lack of innovation on being only a high school teacher, without realizing that it is the person and not the profession that makes a discovery. The real problem is that he is so consumed with pattern and order, as evidenced by his obsession with keeping his environment neat and orderly, that he fears taking on anything that would be unplanned, outside of the predictable.

Consequently, Mr. Lisbon never innovates, but rather is always the passive receiver of new information and ideas. For example, he is portrayed as passively absorbing the ideas of other people, journalists of magazines and newspapers, concerning how to understand the shifting character of modern China, but there is nothing to indicate that he has any original thoughts about the matter himself. This resembles Mr. Portico in “A Painful Case,” who is extremely well-read and considers himself an intellect, yet never is able to himself successfully produce anything of true intellectual merit.

Furthermore, Mr. Lisbon’s inability to achieve recognition in his career reflects Little Chandler’s own chagrin upon meeting an old successful friend in the story “A Little Cloud” and being reminded of his own failure to achieve the literary success he dreamed of in his youth. Indeed, Mr. Lisbon takes pride in test-making, which he doesn’t realize is ultimately only busy work; although the questions on his test may be original, the ideas and theories they represent are simply taken from the textbook from which he teaches. Even writing a textbook, the only method he can think of through which to achieve recognition in his field, is essentially just fitting the ideas of lots of other people neatly together into one instructional book.

Finally, this story also shares in common with much of Joyce’s Dubliners certain techniques of style. For instance, it uses the third-person limited narrative voice. The emphasis on Mr. Lisbon’s eyes at the beginning and end of the story is reminiscent of the significance of eyes in Joyce’s “The Dead,” although their meaning is different. In “The Dead,” the presence of eyes and eyeglasses arguably suggests a path to enlightenment and a life that transcends banal, ordinary existence. Mr. Lisbon’s eyes, however, are described as resembling “stagnant” water precisely because he seems to be unable to transcend the meaningless, systematic manner of living into which he has bogged himself down. At the end of the story, they become a little watery, representing the beginning of an effort to break free from this paralyzed state. This movement toward a life of fulfillment could be thought as the beginning of a chemical reaction, with the success of the student with whom he has just spoken acting as the chemical that initiates the reaction. He quickly wipes this free-flowing water away from his eyes, however, suggesting that he is once again through his own actions condemning himself to a life of stagnation. Thus, the reaction that was started is only half-completed; Mr. Lisbon has not been chemically changed. In other words, he will continue to live out his featureless existence, subconsciously shunning anything at all that might actually lead him to break out of his daily habits and accomplish something memorable or at least achieve a life of fulfillment.

The Half-Reaction


Everything about Mr. Lisbon was gray—the hair that curled down gently over his ivory forehead, the middle-aged teeth that peeked out from between his lips whenever he smiled, and even the frigid irises, two pools of stagnant gloomy water, hidden deep within the immense cave-like network of his eyes.

Now that class was out for the day and the high school was quiet at last, there was only one student left in his black-and-white checkered classroom. As she continued to drone on about how she had been admitted to three out of the eight Ivy League schools, his eyes quietly drifted over her, standing still before his desk absent-mindedly twirling her blonde ponytail with one finger. Though pleased for her success, Mr. Lisbon still frowned slightly when her free hand brushed against the papers on his desk, setting them askew. While she spoke he diverted his attention from her for a moment and rearranged them so that they formed four piles of five sheets each. Just to be safe, he moved his little container of silver paper clips out of her reach as well.

She was talking now about how much fun she was expecting to have at college, leaving this sticky old town. At these words, Mr. Lisbon’s gray teeth peeked out of their cavern as he smiled loosely, thinking about the informal games of football he and his friends used to play during free time between classes at Harvard. But football memories covered in sweat and grass gradually drifted out of sight as his mind tentatively recalled how, after graduation, he had picked up and moved to post-Cultural Revolution China to teach English, hankering for a chance to experience life outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts–distant, long-ago images now, already vanishing at the seams, representative of a China that didn’t even exist anymore, at least according to the reports he was always reading in the Economist and the New York Times. It was almost thirty years since he had spoken their lively tonal language–falling, rising, flat…

Just like the tones of the Chinese language, Mr. Lisbon’s memories rose, fell, and flattened rhythmically, and just so, his initial vague images seemed to spiral downwards to one specific point in time–eating lunch with a female student of his. Ahead of her time, or perhaps simply outside of it, she never ceased telling him how she was going to help China’s society enter the world scene again as it began to recover from the Cultural Revolution, single-handedly if she had to. If she hadn’t been so earnest in her goals to accomplish everything from bettering the lives of Chinese peasants to improving communication between China and the United States, she would have been laughable; but Mr. Lisbon couldn’t help but remember the way that her eyes used to look, as though they were gazing at a point far-off in the future, and her voice used to quiver as though it was too impossibly small to support the weight of her words.

Words, words…the student talking with him now looked like every other female student who attended this damned small-town high school. She wore an itsy-bitsy denim skirt, those black spandex leggings that left the feet bare which were getting more and more popular these days, foam flip-flops, and brightly-painted pink toenails. She was talking now about how she wanted to do research in astrophysics. He smiled at her politely while the thought rattled around in his mind that ten years from now the idealistic student of astrophysics standing before him would be nothing more than a disgruntled mechanical engineer. Without warning a sudden tinge of glee gushed through him which, embarrassed, he quickly repressed by glancing past the student at the metallic-gray Bunsen burners resting quietly on those monstrous black lab tables at the back of the classroom.

Nevertheless, his mind continued to wander as she chattered on. He wished she would leave, for he had just remembered that he had an entire folder of tests waiting to be graded, and then he had to write the chapter nine exam on acids and bases for next week. Test-writing, contrary to the thought of most science teachers, was an art. A test had to be fair while still being tough, its questions forcing students to think to the greatest extent possible without surpassing what they were likely, at this level, to know how to do. At the very least, he had to continue writing such beautifully-crafted tests just to keep up with the reputation he had acquired at the high school for his fair but challenging class.

After grading tests, he could finally go home for the day to his little gray apartment, a strikingly neat affair of straight lines, vacuumed floor-to-floor carpeting, and iron-pressed white shirts all hanging in a row within his closet. Even though he hadn’t thought of her in so many years, Mr. Lisbon was surprised to find himself wondering what that carefree student he had taught so long ago would think if she could see his apartment. Probably she would tsk-tsk as she sauntered through his various aseptic rooms, carelessly trekking mud along his rugs with her shoes. Would she believe he was just a high school teacher now?

He glanced at the acne-coated student, watching her dry lips move, wondering why he was here. His mother had always told him he should be a professor, working alongside the greatest minds of his time, but here he was, teaching high school students who barely knew the difference between electrons and protons. How could it be helped, though, that nobody ever had been willing to give him tenure? Echoes of “Needs to publish more” and “Has yet to make significant contribution to field” bounced around the inside of his skull like rubber balls.

But was he really too old to hope to make an important achievement? He knew he had the brains to discover something fantastic and original about chemistry. He would have to leave this town, of course, this stifling small town where the biggest question was what to wear to the Fourth of July parade. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? He would just pack up as usual and head out the doors of the school, courteously saying “good-bye” and “have a nice day” to all of his colleagues until he got back to his apartment. Then he would take all of his belongings and move down the subway line to Cambridge, because the intellectual stimulation there was abounding. The student before him did not really care about learning; she was just looking for a prestigious name to tack on to her job resume. But now he was a real scholar, and he would prove it to everyone at this school. He could even write a textbook of his theories superior to the one he used in his classes. He had tried once, but had always gotten stuck with the chapter halfway through on electromagnetic forces. Those days were behind him, though. Perhaps he would never win the Nobel Prize, but he could at least write and publish a textbook. That would be something.

“I really have to thank you, Mr. Lisbon, for what you’ve done for me,” the student began in her high-pitched gritty voice, apparently reaching the climax of her monologue. “If it wasn’t for the way you challenged us in class, and also the way you told us all about China and helped us see how many opportunities are actually out there, I don’t think I ever would have been motivated enough…” She inadvertently brushed against his paperwork again and he stood abruptly to his feet, his small, tiny-waisted figure outlined against the stark whiteboard behind him.

“That’s great. Look, I’m very sorry to have to do this,” he interrupted her briskly, “But I’m quite busy today. Why don’t you come back tomorrow afternoon and you can finish up what you were saying then?”
The student didn’t immediately move but rather stared at him in apparent disbelief, mouth agape. As the second hand of Mr. Lisbon’s classroom clock continued to tick away the silence, however, she regained her composure and, head down, picked up her books, mumbling a quick “sorry” before padding out of the classroom.

Mr. Lisbon watched her leave, frowning, and once she had turned out of his sight swiftly moved to reach that folder of still-clean exams, waiting to be marked up by his notorious red pen.

He graded the first test by writing his comments and corrections with rough, quick strokes and dashes, like a fencer madly thrusting at his opponent. Throwing aside this first exam, a solid C, he got halfway through the second one before slowing down his pace considerably; eventually, his red pen stopped in its tracks, held poised between his two fingers in the air as he thought about the pained expression that had swept across that student’s face before she left. It was a far cry from the sloppy smiles students usually took on when conversing with him, happy to have the chance to talk about subjects that reached beyond the red-brick walls of their little houses.

Noticing that the ink from his pen was spreading into a large unprofessional blot, he quickly picked it up, glanced through the rest of the test, and dashed a quick A- at the top of the first page before moving on to the next one. As he began to look at this student’s calculations on the first problem, that student from the past jumped into his thoughts again—was she married? Did she have children? At the time that they knew each other, Mr. Lisbon already had a very serious girlfriend, whom he broke up with a few years afterwards for a reason he couldn’t quite remember…the student he had just rebuffed was dripping into all of his memories; a teary eye here, a quivering nose here, and over there that huddled frame scurrying out of his room.

When Mr. Lisbon arrived back at the apartment there would be bills to pay, and he had to get around to fixing that leaky pipe in his bathroom. Perhaps his brother would stop by with his children for dinner that evening; Mr. Lisbon enjoyed them, for he had never married or had children of his own.

As he adjusted his correcting arm into a more comfortable position, he accidentally toppled his container of paper clips all over the floor. He ignored the spill initially, though when he left later on that day he picked them all up.

When he locked his classroom for the day, his eyes were a little watery, so he dried them with his handkerchief. He then glanced through the little window on his classroom door as he locked it to make sure that everything inside was still exactly how he had left it. This was in order to avoid confusion when he was trying to quickly find things the next day like lab reports or freshly-graded tests. Afterwards, satisfied, he slowly turned and walked out toward the sunlit parking lot.