Literary Qualities

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.

Joyce told Grant Richards that he had written Dubliners, in a famous phrase, in a style of “scrupulous meanness,” his intent being to hold up to Dublin a relentlessly true image of itself. While the stories are remarkably pared down in style, their “scrupulous meanness” should not blind us to one of their most distinctive features: the manner in which they bring a distinctly Irish English to the page. One cannot read a line such as this one of Lily’s in “The Dead,” “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you,” without hearing its Irish lilt. Joyce’s influence on Irish writing in English during the 20th century was considerable, and it is not without reason that there have been so many recordings of these stories.

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