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.
Dubliners, then, emerged from the author’s dissatisfaction with the city of his birth, and his hope for the book was that it might show the indifferent public a necessarily unflattering portrait of itself.
Joyce’s early years in Dublin, the years during which he wrote much of Dubliners, coincided with a pregnant pause in the political movement toward the Home Rule of which Irish nationalists dreamed. The downfall in 1889-1890 of the Irish Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the wake of a public scandal (he was named as co-respondent in a successful divorce suit and subsequently married the divorced woman, Parnell’s long-time mistress, Katherine O Shea) appeared to have foiled once again the cause of Home Rule. A series of bills had been introduced beginning in the mid 1880s, culminating in the one that was passed finally, but not implemented, in 1914. At the time of the scandal, there appeared at least some possibility that a bill would be passed.
For many nationalists, the political vacuum would be filled in part by a rediscovery and celebration of Irish culture; the Irish Literary Renaissance associated with such figures as W. B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and J. M. Synge gathered momentum at this point. There remained, however, much bitterness and frustration in the wake of the apparent failure of the nationalist cause. That cause would be powerfully and violently re-ignited by the Dublin rising of Easter 1916, but prior to that date, a sense of futility regarding nationalist aspirations is often in evidence in Irish writing. W. B. Yeats’s “September 1913” (addressed, like Joyce’s stories, to the public of Dublin, it was printed in The Irish Times) contemptuously compares Dublin’s middle classes with the great nationalist heroes of a Romantic Ireland that is dead and gone. Another poem, “To a Shade,” addresses one of those heroes, the ghost of Parnell, bidding him not to walk the streets of the city that is unworthy of his presence. Joyce’s disparaging portrait of Dublin as a city gripped by paralysis may also be viewed in light of the volume’s broader historical moment. The paralyzed capital, and the nation that Stephen Dedalus, the central character in Joyce’s Portrait, perceived as a series of entrapping nets would be, in Yeats’s famous words changed utterly by the political events of the coming years.