James Joyce was one of the most celebrated and influential English-language writers of the 20th century, and his later works of fiction, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), are generally regarded among the most challenging (and, for many, rewarding) works of literature produced in any language. All of his fictional writing drew somehow upon the circumstances of his own life, and, despite a self-imposed exile that lasted most of his adult life, his fiction always took place in the city of his birth, Dublin. In fact, Joyce has rendered Dublin so powerfully on his pages that generations of readers have been drawn to the city to experience a place they have already, in a sense, come to know.
Dubliners is a short-story cycle, but unlike other such cycles, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), for instance, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, its stories are not linked by recurring characters, but by theme and setting, two elements that are intimately related in this collection. Joyce’s initial intention, as he explained in a letter to the publisher Grant Richards, was to hold a mirror up to Dublin, to present as realistic a portrait of the city as possible by depicting Dubliners of various ages and from various walks of life. That portrait is, generally speaking, a disparaging one, but the negative tone is not consistently maintained throughout. By the time the volume concludes, with “The Dead” a story written slightly later than the others and which differs markedly from his earlier writing, a more sympathetic note is sounded, and we may glimpse there the far more generous vision that would characterize Joyce’s later comic masterpiece, Ulysses.
The title of the volume immediately draws our attention to the importance of the setting-both place and time unites these diverse stories. Joyce creates a panorama of Dublin by presenting a series of portraits of Dubliners in the grip of a moral paralysis he believed to be the city’s overwhelming attribute. As he indicates in a 1906 letter to the publisher Grant Richards, 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…I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform whatever he has seen and heard.
While there are no recurring characters in Dubliners, Joyce does appear to have envisioned the collection as a single work that would expose the city’s crippling moral paralysis. His examination of Dublin’s condition was carried out according to a plan he laid out for the publisher Grant Richards. Each stage of life, from childhood to maturity and public life was to be represented by one of four groups of stories in the collection. The first group, which Joyce described as “stories of my childhood,” would comprise “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby;” the second group, stories of adolescence, would contain “The Boarding House,” “After the Race,” and “Eveline;” the third group, stories of mature life, would be “Clay,” “Counterparts,” and “A Painful Case;” the final group, stories of public life in Dublin, would contain “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace.” Three stories were not yet included in this plan, but their placement in the volume and their subject matter would lead us to place “Two Gallants” among the stories of adolescence and “A Little Cloud” among the stories of mature life. “The Dead,” while having a strong thematic link with the preceding stories, is still so different from them in terms of its structure and its tone that it is probably best not forced into a scheme devised before its completion.
Discussions of Joyce’s earlier fiction, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, frequently center on those moments in which characters achieve an “epiphany” or sudden revelation. The term, which Joyce used to describe some of his earliest prose fragments, means, literally, a showing forth. In the Christian calendar, the feast of the Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem to worship the newborn Christ; the epiphany is the showing forth of Christ to the three kings. For Joyce, the word has a broader meaning, standing for a moment of insight, when a truth is suddenly revealed. Most of the stories in Dubliners do feature discernible epiphanies: the young boy in “Araby” clearly has a poignant moment of insight about his world as the bazaar lights dim, for instance, and Gabriel Conroy undergoes a terrible self-examination in the final moments of “The Dead.” In other cases, such as that of Maria in “Clay,” the insight eludes the character and falls instead to the reader. Either way, another instance of Dublin’s paralysis stands revealed.
In a 1905 letter to Grant Richards, Joyce related his surprise that “no artist has given Dublin to the world,” despite its antiquity, its size, and its status as the second city of the British Empire. Dubliners, an attempt to fill this void, certainly casts a critical eye over its subject, but that Joyce wanted so badly to “give Dublin to the world” indicates that his aim goes well beyond merely excoriating the city of his youth. That Joyce’s attitude toward the city is a complex one is hardly surprising. He did, after all, feel compelled to leave the city for good, only to devote a life-long self-imposed exile to writing about the place in the most painstaking detail. Dubliners, then, is a powerfully ambivalent volume, characterized at least as much by Joyce’s frustration with the shortcomings of the city and its inhabitants as his sympathy for and powerful attachment to them both. The volume is not uniformly generous toward all of the Dubliners contained therein: he certainly does ridicule the pretensions of Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” for instance, and the vain politicians of “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” among others; however, the sympathetic notes struck in stories such as “Araby,” “Clay,” and “The Dead” overwhelm the satirical ones heard elsewhere in the volume and are more indicative of the direction Joyce’s work will take in the future, particularly in his great human comedy, Ulysses. Dubliners suggests how profoundly individuals can be shaped and influenced, both for good and ill, by the places they inhabit. The stories themselves are full of characters who are in various ways stifled within Dublin’s social, political and religious institutions. However, those same institutions left an equally deep mark on the author, a Dubliner who left, but carried the city always in his imagination.
1. Only the first three stories in the collection, the ones dealing with childhood, have first-person narrators; the remainder are told in the third-person. Why do you think this might be the case?
1. The titles of the stories are not always straightforward descriptions of their contents, but they are often suggestive and worthy of careful consideration. Consider how one or more of the less obvious titles (such as “The Sisters,” “A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” or “The Dead”) influences your sense of the story’s meaning.
One well-known American work that bears comparison with Dubliners is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a collection of short stories based on the author’s experiences in his home town of Clyde, Ohio. Like many of his contemporaries, Joyce is indebted to the work of the Russian short-story writer (and playwright) Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Virtually all of Chekhov’s short fiction is available in translation. Two good recent collections are Early Short Stories 1883-1888 and Later Short Stories 1888-1903 (ed. Shelby Foote, Modern Library, 1999). Finally, Katherine Mansfield, a contemporary of Joyce’s from New Zealand, also owes much to Chekhov. Readers who enjoy Dubliners will very likely want to look at some of her work, especially Bliss and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922).