Social Sensitivity

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.

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