Dubliners is a work of its time, a collection of fifteen short stories “as intricate and carefully crafted as a lyric poem” that contributed to the establishment of the genre in modern literature. Written between 1904 and 1906, the collection bridged the gap between the blend of opulence and decadence of the fin de siecle writers, and the fragmented prose of the high modernists. Each story is told in a style of ‘scrupulous meanness,’ a stark, pared-down style that faithfully represents ordinary and sometimes tragic moments in time, and offers an accurate portrayal of the prevailing social conditions in the Irish capital. The collection is ‘static’, allowing “the paralysis of Dublin society to ‘betray’ itself, rather than analysing or denouncing it openly.” Joyce claimed that:
My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.
Although many of the stories were published individually, and indeed, can be enjoyed as such, for the purpose of this essay I will examine how the theme of paralysis binds them together as a book. Furthermore, I will argue that Joyce’s choice of vernacular English over the formal prose of his predecessors made the form accessible to ordinary people, allowing them “one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.” Although written for an Irish populace, and aimed towards the spiritual liberation of his country, I will suggest that Dubliners presented themes that were relevant to English speakers apart from the Irish and that, in so doing, Joyce made a significant contribution to the genre and its universal popularity.
Dubliners originally came about in the Summer of 1904, when George Russell commissioned James Joyce to write a short story for his weekly paper, The Irish Homestead, “something simple, rural?, livemaking?, pathos? [pathetic] which would not shock his readers.” The resulting story, ‘The Sisters,’ inspired the tone of the entire collection, which Joyce claimed he was presenting “to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life.” In encapsulating these different stages of life, Joyce intended to paint a verbal portrait of his city – brown, faecal, corrupt – one that offered an antidote to “the world of faery” espoused by Irish literature and he contended that spirituality would be achieved by looking at Ireland as it really is. He argued that, “it is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories,” and he maintained that by seeing themselves represented thus, the Irish would reach “a moment of anagnorisis whereby they would be able to pull themselves out of the state of paralysis in which they existed.” That the featured city was Dublin and that Joyce chose to represent it as his main protagonist was ground-breaking, since no writer had previously presented it to the world, despite it being the second city of the British Empire.
The period from April 1906 to the summer of 1907 was a particularly frustrating one for Joyce, in no small part due to his continuing quarrel with his prospective publisher, Grant Richards. Dubliners had now grown from a projected series of ‘ten epicleti’ to the fourteen that included, as the final story, ‘Grace’. Richards’ unease was born out of Joyce’s flagrant contravention of contemporary modesty, with works like ‘Grace’ that included swear words: “Then he has a bloody big bowl of cabbage before him on the table and a bloody big spoon like a shovel.” Indeed, throughout Dubliners, Joyce calmly uses provocative language to address matters which, in the first decade of the last century, were seldom mentioned in literature, and he steadfastly refused to omit or alter any of them. Issues such as bullying, drunkenness, masturbation and suicide are dealt with, alongside the exploitation of those with little by those with much. Undoubtedly influenced by Jonathan Swift, Joyce suggested to Richards that he would better understand Dubliners in relation to Irish satire. McCormack and Stead assert that:
“it is not extravagant, to hear behind Joyce’s defence of his nicely polished looking glass for the Irish, Swift’s definition of satire as ‘a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.’”
Certainly, together with his contemporary, Ezra Pound, Joyce was presenting situations and language that were new and controversial. His rejection of traditional literary subjects in favour of the unconventional was deemed experimental, avant-garde and even “the moment of modernism, when Joyce modernised himself.” Nevertheless, his prospective publishers and printers were less receptive to his innovative style, fearing a backlash that could see them imprisoned for publishing material that could be considered as ‘obscene works’. Indeed, one of the great ironies of Dubliners is that, by dint of the quarrel with Richards, Joyce himself was paralysed, unable to make any headway in the publishing world.
In an act of mimesis, ‘Grace’ imitates Joyce’s frustrations at not being understood by those in control of his literary future. In satirising the police officer, he establishes the conviction that Dublin’s paralysis is exemplified by those in power and that it extends out from them to the powerless.
The constable, a young man with thick immobile features, listened. He moved his head slowly to right and left and from the manager to the person on the floor, as if he feared to be the victim of some delusion. Then he drew off his glove, produced a small book from his waist, licked the lead of his pencil and made ready to indite. He asked in a suspicious provincial accent:
- Who is the man? What’s his name and address?
The constable, in spite of being a police officer of the lowest ranking, represents authority by dint of his uniform. By its very nature, authority gives a person, an organisation or a country the right or power to enforce rules and give orders. Because of his ineptitude, the constable makes a mockery of those powers he seeks to represent. His facial stasis reflects the intrinsic paralysis of the Dubliners, and, in characterising him as an obtuse provincial youth, Joyce is denigrating the status of those who wield power, suggesting that they, too, are incompetent and ineffective. Certainly, for him, Grant Richards represented the authoritative face of the publishing world that remained closed to him.
The power that Joyce exhibited over language and the way he manipulated it in various ways throughout the collection certainly increased the sense of unease amongst the publishing world. Furthermore, the individual stories amply demonstrate the sordidness that is generated in the lives of the Dubliners, often in the form of sexual depravity. According to McCormack & Stead, “the style of Dubliners embodies (even as it tries to purge itself of) the sordidness it depicts.” In the case of the ambiguously titled ‘The Two Gallants’, there is an allusion to prostitution, whilst in ‘The Encounter’ the strange man is “shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black” that blasphemously resembles the “ancient priestly garments” of ‘The Sisters’ Father Flynn. This subtly connects the two stories, and also associates the strange man’s lewd behaviour with the Roman Catholic Church. To publishers who feared charges of libel and obscenity, the man’s perverse sexual predilections, which include paedophilia and homosexuality, would have been too much to risk. Hence, publication of the collection was deferred some eight years, until 1914.
Dubliners is characterised by epiphanic moments – the “revelation of the whatness of a thing.” Indeed, this motif is central to the collection, since it is revelation, not plot, that drives the stories. Furthermore, it is compatible with the premise that it should act as a “nicely polished looking glass.” Borrowed from the Christian festival celebrating the revelation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi, the term refers to sudden intuitive leaps of understanding. They were “always brief sketches…but always very accurately observed and noted, the matter being so slight.” For Joyce, the creative process was marked by a series of such related moments of insight and understanding. Since these epiphanic moments are unveiled by both the character who experiences them and by the reader who perceives them, the whole process, in turn, becomes an epiphany for him. McCormack and Stead assert that:
Each character holds himself scrupulously above the crowd only to display, in a sudden revelation, his (or her) disengagement as a more perfect repetition of that sordid paralysis each tries to escape.
Dubliners can therefore be seen as a sequence of multiple epiphanies that offer a revelation of the city in its intellectual, moral and spiritual paralysis. In ‘The Dead,’ this can be evidenced in Gabriel’s contemplative mood after the party:
Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.
Written after the others, in 1907, ‘The Dead’ is the longest story in the collection and encapsulates the themes that Joyce had developed throughout. Here, Gabriel is aligning himself with his native Ireland and the snow is a metaphor for his personal frigidity or paralysis. Following the challenge to the integrity of his marriage, his self-assurance has been undermined, yet this reflective moment is epiphanic, portraying his acceptance that he was not Gretta’s first love, and the realisation that he has never felt love at all. In this image, Gabriel also considers his mortality, and how his life intersects with death and the dead. At the party, Gabriel had argued that “were we to brood upon them [the dead] always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living.” Yet here he realizes the futility of his argument, and the lack of feeling it exposes in his character. Gretta cannot forget the pain of losing Michael Furey, and her suffering illustrates that the dead are part of his life, and the lives of those around him.
Throughout Dubliners Joyce uses various narrative techniques to aid his depiction of the city and its people. In ‘Eveline’ he uses the narrated monologue to allow the protagonist’s voice to colour the apparently omniscient narration:
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Once Eveline’s head is leaned against the curtain, her thoughts and feelings take over, in a technique known as ‘free indirect discourse.’ This enables the reader to become more involved in the story and to empathise more closely with the protagonist’s emotions. This is also used in ‘The Sisters’ to bring the young narrator’s thoughts and feelings to the fore, and is manifested in the ambiguity between his speech and thought representation:
Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind, for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: I am not long for this world, and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true.
Here, the prophetic voice of the priest is italicised to distinguish him from the narrator, and emphasises the fact that this phrase comes from the boy’s memory. This construction, together with Joyce’s rejection of speech marks and his inclusion of dashes to indicate dialogue, makes for the stark, pared-down style that he sought to achieve. This technique was a precursor to the ‘stream of consciousness’, where interior monologues trace the character’s fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings – a practice he brought to fruition in his epic, Ulysses.
‘The Sisters’ presents Joyce’s fundamental understanding of Dublin’s social reality and introduces Dubliners recurrent pattern of ingenious entrapment. The theme of paralysis is evident from the outset, embodied by both the priest’s infliction and by Joyce’s inflection: “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.” This opening sentence is stultified, delivered as it is in a straightforward yet somewhat constraining fashion. Joyce’s choice of language is arbitrary, moving as it does between the symbolic and the literal, and raises immediate questions about his meaning. A literal translation of ‘the third stroke’ would refer to the medical condition, whereby a sudden blockage or rupture of a blood vessel in the brain results in loss of consciousness and paralysis. However, symbolically, it refers to the striking of a clock – and suggests that Father Flynn, and therefore Ireland, is caught in a time warp. This is further evidenced by the narrator’s fascination with the word ‘gnomon’, one interpretation of which is the column or pin on a sundial that casts a shadow indicating the time of day.
In ‘The Sisters’, the subject of the story, Father Flynn, is strangely absent from the title, and he is further diminished, incapacitated even, by the young narrator who fails to name him in his opening monologue. Instead the priest languishes amongst the living dead, only referred to in passing by the boy’s uncle. In contrast, the narrator’s social paralysis is absolved with the incapacity of his mentor and this sudden freedom is evoked by his repetitive use of the personal pronoun, some thirteen times in the initial paragraph. This foreshadows his later lamentation that the priest’s passing is only “a sensation of freedom, as if I had been freed from something by his death.”
Joyce’s love of language, and the rhythm and sound of words in the mouth are apparent throughout Dubliners. Although largely written in the vernacular, the individual stories exhibit a musicality that belies the sordidness of their subject matter. The following passage is intricately constructed and exhibits a poetic, incantatory quality more resonant, perhaps, of Yeats in ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree.’ Here, the young boy is preoccupied with language – how it sounds and what certain words mean:
Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.
The words ‘simony’ and ‘paralysis’ suggest a connection between the priest’s infliction and the controlling force of the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, Father Flynn is both the subdued and the subduer and he thus becomes a metaphor for the general paralysis with which Ireland was inflicted.
Joyce’s fondness of idiom is apparent in several of the stories. Not only does his word choice reflect the balance of ‘scrupulous meanness’ that he was endeavouring to obtain, but it underlines the theme of paralysis that he weaves throughout the collection. This is exhibited in the way that he manipulates the English language to depict how it would be spoken by the Dubliners. In ‘The Dead’, “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Here, she is contrasted to the middle classed Misses Morkan who, paralysed by the repetitive nature of their lives, can only “[peer] down over the banisters…calling down to Lily to ask her who had come.” In ‘Grace’, Mr Power assures Mrs Kernan that he and his friends will “make [Mr Kernan] turn over a new leaf,” one that is not paralysed by alcohol addiction.
One of the most contentious and complicated stories in the series, ‘Grace’ considers the fall, repentance and rehabilitation of Thomas Kernan, from lavatory, to bed, to church. Here, Joyce transgresses generic convention to create a story that mirrors the progress of Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. This is the most ‘novelistic’ story in the collection, apart from ‘The Dead’. Not only is it longer than the stories that precede it, but it also uses techniques that are more familiar in the novel. These include the splitting of the story into three separate scenes, and the use of a truly omniscient point of view. Once again, Joyce uses free indirect discourse to allow the reader into the thoughts and minds of Kernan, his wife and some of his friends. Yet, in the characters of Kernan, Power and Cunningham, Joyce also draws on the Victorian custom of choosing characters names that reflect their personalities. Tom Kernan’s name is a derivative of the name ‘kern’ which is an Irish infantryman. The ‘underdogs’ of the army, the infantry usually consists of working class men who are trained as foot soldiers. The name therefore reflects Kernan’s dwindling social status in comparison with the burgeoning career of his friend, Jack Power. The influential and intelligent Martin Cunningham displays the “natural astuteness” implied by his name and it is to him that the plot to coerce Kernan into repentance is entrusted. Furthermore, ‘Grace’ is connected with Ulysses, and this, asserts William York Tindall, is affirmed by the reappearance there of Power, M’Coy and Cunningham. Such interconnections, he claims, help to assure the unity of Joyce’s works, “making them seem parts of one great work, as similar interconnections help to assure the unity of these fifteen stories.”
Joyce’s linguistic skill is, perhaps, nowhere more surprising than in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee room’. Written in 1905, this was Joyce’s favourite story, and, in spite of its seemingly Nationalist agenda, its greater concern is with language. An innovative feature of this story is the radical use of dialogue, rather than narrative, to tell the story. The vernacular – much of which is in Irish slang – that is used by the men tends towards gossip, hence, the narration becomes instable and it is difficult to ascertain the difference between fact and fiction, which perhaps also mirrors Joyce’s perception of Irish politics:
O, he’s as tricky as they make ‘em, said Mr Henchy. He hasn’t got those little pigs’ eyes for nothing. Blast his soul! Couldn’t he pay up like a man instead of: O, now Mr Henchy, I must speak to Mr Fanning…I’ve spent a lot of money. Mean little shoeboy of hell! I suppose he forgets the time his little old father kept the hand-me-down shop in Mary’s Lane.
At no point during the story do we learn anything concrete about the Nationalist candidate, Richard Tierney or his politics. Despite lamenting the ‘good old days’ when Charles Stuart Parnell, ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland,’ gave Irish nationalism its voice in British Parliament, the men represent very different political viewpoints, even though they all seem to be canvassing for Tierney. Although this suggests some kind of consensus, it is one born of apathy, not of conviction, for the men believe that nothing will change. Indeed, the most active aspect of the story is the regular sound of corks popping – “pok” – although even the corks are described as tardy and apologetic. Furthermore, Joyce seems to be mocking the men for their duplicity, since, despite canvassing for a nationalist candidate they talk of welcoming the English king, who is described as a “good sportsman”. In place of a conventional climax, the story finishes with a lengthy recitation of a poem by Joe Hynes. The poem is in iambic tetrameter, a meter that makes a direct appeal to the emotions, but the rhyme scheme is irregular, an inconsistency that serves to emphasise the betrayal of the poem’s subject, the Nationalist, Parnell. The Conservative, Crofton, comments that the poem was “a very fine piece of writing.” The politeness of his response indicates that, even though he is not a nationalist, he acknowledges that Parnell was an important figure. Furthermore, it suggests that his ‘Conservatism’ is not strong enough to provoke him to counter the ideas represented in the poem.
In ‘The Dead’, Joyce again links language with the theme of national pride. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Ireland had undergone a dramatic cultural revival. Struggling to define what it meant to be Irish, a movement began to reinvigorate the national language and culture. There was renewed interest in Irish literature and people were being encouraged to learn Gaelic, which many had forgone in favour of the English language. Ultimately, this cultural revival offered the Irish a greater sense of pride in their identity. Written at a time when Irish Nationalism was thus at its peak and the search for national identity and purpose was raging, Gabriel’s altercation with Miss Ivors brings attention to the validity of the Irish language and the right of the Irish to use it. Here, Miss Ivors challenges Gabriel on his keenness to travel abroad and challenges his opinion that the languages of Europe are more cultured than his native language:
- And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
- Well, said Gabriel, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.
- And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with – Irish? Asked Miss Ivors.
- Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.
Joyce contrasts the language and values of the West of Ireland against those of Britain to create the tension that is outworked in Gabriel Conroy. In this story, the West of Ireland symbolises Irish Nationalism, a force that, through Joyce’s choice of free indirect discourse, we can identify Gabriel’s dislike. This, as he suggests in his speech, goes against the traditions of Irish hospitality.  This is further supported by Miss Ivors’ provocation, which sets Gabriel up as the antithesis of everything Irish. The pair, then, represent two different attitudes to Ireland – Gabriel is cultured and sees little of value in his nation, turning instead to the more sophisticated cultural traditions of Britain and Europe, whereas Miss Ivors explores her native culture by leaning towards her own Irish traditions. This includes holidaying in the West of Ireland where she is free to use her limited Gaelic. When she calls Gabriel a ‘West Briton,’ Miss Ivors is, in fact, accusing Gabriel of being a cultural traitor, someone who primarily identifies with England. This judgement appears to be at least partly true since, in his after-dinner speech, Gabriel plans to quote from the English poet, Robert Browning. When he finally makes his speech he criticises the new generation that “is growing up in our midst,” which includes people like Miss Ivors. Gabriel’s paralysis can thus been seen as partly due to his denial of his fellow Irishmen and his attraction to the English. Ironically, perhaps, ‘The Dead’ has become widely regarded as one of the greatest short stories in the English language.
A defining feature of Dubliners, is the technique of chiasmus that Joyce uses to symbolise the paralysis by which the whole collection is connected, and to further support the argument that all of the stories are inextricably linked. In ‘The Sisters,’ it is used to convey the repetitive nature of the boy’s excursions past Father Flynn’s house, and represents the treadmill on which Joyce’s characters find themselves. In ‘The Dead’, that treadmill becomes literal as Gabriel regales his audience with the tale of his grandfather’s horse, Johnny, who, used to working in a mill, approached “King Billy’s statue and…began to walk round the statue…Round and round he went.” In addition to this, the statue, which is of King William III (William of Orange) also symbolises the deadlock between the Protestant and Catholic factions at The Battle of the Boyne (1690). For William, the war was about maintaining Protestant and British rule in Ireland yet, despite his victory over James II, he is now immortalised in stone, paralysed. In the retelling of this tale, however, Gabriel treats the inherent paralysis of his family somewhat flippantly and apparently enjoys the effect it has of drawing him into the centre of his crowd.
Throughout the collection, Joyce also reflects upon religion being a societal convention of the Irish, rather than a personal faith built upon devotion to and relationship with God. In ‘Grace’ the institution of the Roman Catholic Church comes under close scrutiny, and the underpinning beliefs of its congregation are questioned:
“Religion for her was a habit and she suspected that a man of her husband’s age would not change greatly before death…She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen, but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.
Unlike her husband, who converted at the time of his marriage, Mrs Kernan considers her religion to be her right, since it was conferred upon her by her upbringing. Hers is not a boundless, living faith, but a habit, distinguishable only by the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that she displays in her home, and by the fact that she attends communion on the first Friday of each month. Her religious apathy has paralysed her, and she is bound by her limited knowledge of a canon that should set her free.
Furthermore, Catholicism becomes the focus of the story in its representation of theological issues from the viewpoint of its characters. This is particularly manifested in the discussion, in Kernan’s bedroom, of papal infallibility. Here, Catholicism is constructed from the point of view of the Dublin middle classes. Often erroneous, the serious tone of their discussions about papal infallibility invokes a sense of irony, which is heightened when it is revealed that an Irishman, John MacHale, first resisted, and then submitted to the authority of the Pope.
In the final part of the story, the narrative concerning Kernan comes to an end, since he has ceased to be the focus of the story. Attention is now given to the priest’s sermon on redemption, and, in a deeply ironic twist, concerns itself with the idea of spiritual accountancy. Here, ‘Grace’ looks at how the pious religious attitudes of the professional classes has become a business opportunity for spiritual profit. Christianity has thus become corrupted through the institution of the church, and this has been furthered by Kernan and his friends who seem to misunderstand almost everything about their own faith.
In an accusation levelled at himself, Joyce declared that, in Dubliners, it seemed he had been unnecessarily harsh towards the city and its inhabitants.
Nonetheless, Dubliners fulfils its premise by allowing the Irish that one good look in his nicely polished looking glass. Just as Eliot, in ‘The Waste Land’ urges the healing of the mythical Fisher King so that the land may regain fertility, Joyce urges the healing of Dublin’s paralysis so that she may be lifted out of her spiritual and physical malaise – metaphorically raised from the dead. Whether he succeeded is still open to question, however, his fundamental understanding of Dublin’s social reality and his ability to show the city in a new way, in all its vulgarity, proved to be an important source of his creativity. Thus, Dubliners is not merely a group of individual stories that accord to the various stages of human development, but it is a work that follows the development of a city and its potential revival. In that, it is an honest portrayal of Irish history, politics and religion, and offers a satisfying alternative to the formal prose of Joyce’s predecessors. Furthermore, the originality of Joyce’s style and his introduction of colloquial language into literature not only influenced other writers but paved the way towards modernity and the fragmented and experimental prose of his own later works. This undoubtedly establishes him as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.
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