Themes and Characters

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.

The first three stories in the volume, the stories of childhood, depict a series of initiations, as a result of which innocent youths come to a recognition of the grayness and decadence of their world. The first story, “The Sisters,” is particularly grim in tone, focusing as it does on the death of Father Flynn, an elderly Catholic priest to whom the story’s young narrator had been devoted. Despite the priest’s advanced age and virtual incapacity, the boy was clearly very fond of him; the priest instructed the boy as to the rituals and mysteries of the Catholic Church, showing him the various vestments to be worn for different ceremonies, drilling him on questions of canon law and impressing upon him the significance of the rites surrounding the Eucharist and the confessional. Enchanted with the power and responsibility he believes Father Flynn possesses, the narrator is only barely aware of the frail man behind the vestments. With the priest’s death, though, comes further knowledge, which dawns upon the boy as he listens to the exchange between his aunt and the priest’s sisters. What we hear is a gradual but only partial unveiling of some dark secret of the priest’s, as platitudes give way to more suggestive remarks. He was a disappointed man who had once broken one of the chalices he had taught the boy to regard as sacred, an incident that seems to have affected his mind. Before the story fades out inconclusively (the final ellipses underscoring its lack of closure), the boy has heard of an incident in which Father Flynn disappeared and was discovered sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide awake and laughing softly to himself. What exactly this means, no one in the story ventures to say, beyond Eliza Flynn’s vague conclusion that there was something gone wrong with him; however, we know the impact upon the boy is a profound one. This is a Father Flynn he has never seen before: not the awesome practitioner of sacred rites, but a tormented, perhaps even insane man whose priestly dignity has been shattered, whose laughter in the darkened confession-box hints at some other, grimmer secret the boy has never even known existed.

“An Encounter” and “Araby” similarly portray young boys who fall from innocence: the eponymous encounter between the child narrator and a pedophile brings an abrupt end to what had been a youthful adventure, a day’s escape from school. The young narrator of “Araby” experiences his first love in the most high-flown romantic terms, imagining himself a questing knight in the service of his lady until he reaches the end of his quest, the splendid bazaar from which he will retrieve a gift for her, only to have its tawdriness pierce his romantic illusions.

The characters we see in the stories of adolescence are more in the grip of the general paralysis, but not completely so. What these stories tend to portray are the ways in which that paralysis advances, as the Dubliners they describe resign themselves to their disappointing adult lives. An emotional paralysis becomes literal in “Eveline,” as that story’s central figure finds herself unable, even at the very moment of her escape, to board the ship that would have taken her away to Buenos Aires with her fiance, choosing instead to return to a miserable life as daughter-cum-servant to an abusive father she fears. The well-traveled and experienced fiance, Frank, an Irish sailor, represents for Eveline the romantic possibilities that dreams of Araby held for the young boy in the earlier story, but this trapped Dubliner finds herself unable to move toward the promised freedom. “The Boarding House” is another tale of entrapment, in this case the entrapment of Bob Doran into an almost certainly unhappy marriage by his landlady, Mrs. Mooney, and her quietly colluding daughter, Polly. Striking similar notes, both “After the Race” and “Two Gallants” feature characters (Jimmy and Lenehan) whose thoughts are disquieted by the recognition that their lives are not and will never be as they would have wanted.

The stories of mature life all focus on characters trying to contend with the failures of their lives. Perhaps the most moving of these is “Clay,” in which the central character, Maria, copes by simply failing to see her life as it is, a pitiable strategy mimicked in the story’s style, which resembles that of a children’s story (“Maria was a very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin.”). The bright tone stands sharply at odds with the gloomy content of the story itself: Maria is an aging, lonely woman, separated from her feuding brothers and working, as a result, in a seedy Dublin laundry. As jolly as the narrator tries to make her life appear, it is not the life Maria wants. Her eyes sparkle with disappointed shyness when Lizzie Fleming jokes that she will choose the ring (signifying marriage) in the divination game to be played that night, All Hallows Eve. And when she sings her song, “I dreamt that I dwelt,” she significantly omits this second verse, which begins, “I dreamt that suitors besought my hand.” What the story’s strangely bright tone and children’s-story style suggest is the aging Maria’s own attempt to imagine herself in an idyllic girlhood awaiting a romantic release into a happy adulthood: the sad realities of her life are veiled by a barely-sustained fantasy (so that her eyes sparkle, but with a disappointed shyness rather than joy). She knows, but does not quite admit to herself, that she will not choose the ring; her true fate is signaled by the token she actually chooses and of which no one in the story will speak: clay, the token of death.

Fragile though they may be, Maria’s sustaining beliefs are left intact at the end of that story. In “A Painful Case” we witness the devastating effect upon Mrs. Sinico when her love for the selfish and emotionally stunted Mr. Duffy is spurned. Her suicide four years after, which Mr. Duffy recognizes as the outcome of the break-up, shatters his illusions about himself as a great or even a good man. The egotist who had once believed that in Mrs. Sinico’s eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature comes to recognize himself, too late, as an outcast from life’s feast. The remaining stories in this group, “A Little Cloud” and “Counterparts,” portray trapped and frustrated men who finally take out their frustrations on their own sons, brutally so in the case of Farrington in the latter story, implying in both cases a continuance of the debilitating legacy among the next generation.

The final group of stories, dealing with public life, expands the focus to a community in the grip of the general paralysis, with the stories exploring, in turn, political life (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”), cultural life (“A Mother”) and religious life (“Grace”). The corrupt politicians who gather on October 6, the anniversary of Parnell’s death (“Ivy Day”), are the nationalist leader’s sorry successors. Hynes’s hackneyed poem, “The Death of Parnell,” alludes to a fell gang of modern hypocrites who laid their leader low, but Joyce makes it plain that one would not have to look beyond this committee room to find a gang of hypocrites in the story’s present. “A Mother” paints an unpleasant picture of Dublin’s cultural life, contrasting the middle-class pretensions of Mrs. Kearney with the second-rate concert series in which she has involved her daughter. The Irish Renaissance too appears a sham here-less a cultural renaissance than a shallow fad, with the daughters of the wealthier families hiring Irish teachers so their daughters can send Irish picture postcards back and forth to each other. “Grace” depicts a city whose spiritual life is hopelessly corrupted by parochial and material concerns, culminating in Father Burdon’s description of himself during the retreat as a “spiritual accountant.” Mr. Kernan’s path toward redemption has tellingly little of the spiritual about it.

The final story in the volume, “The Dead,” is once again an exploration of Dublin’s woeful moral state, but Joyce is far more generous and sympathetic in his portrait of the Dubliner at the center of this long short story. Like Mr. Duffy in “A Painful Case,” Gabriel Conroy is shocked into a recognition of himself as an unhappy exile from life. However, Gabriel is a far more complex character than Duffy, and his pretensions are balanced by his good heart and sincere (if inadequate) love for his Gretta. Throughout the night of the party we see evidence not only of Gabriel’s sense of intellectual superiority, but also of his awkwardness and self-doubt, despite all of which he does his best to contribute to the success of the Misses Morkans annual gathering. Where Duffy’s self-recognition may appear merely pathetic, Gabriel’s is likely to strike us as tragic.

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