Monday, February 02, 2009

Poetic Prose


Rereading Dubliners was a real joy, particularly due to Joyce's command of language. The variety within the collection is due to Joyce's Irish experiences, which constitute an essential element of his writings. This early volume of short stories is a penetrating analysis of the stagnation and paralysis of Dublin society. The stories were written at the time when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences.

Many of the characters in Dubliners later appear in minor roles in Joyce's novel Ulysses. The initial stories in the collection are narrated by children as protagonists, and as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. They often focus on his idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character has a special moment of self-understanding or illumination.

Joyce's writing in Dubliners is neutral; he rarely uses hyperbole or emotive language, relying on simplistic language and close detail to create a realistic setting. This ties the reader's understanding of people to their environments. He does not tell the reader what to think, rather they are left to come to their own conclusions (in stark contrast to the moral judgements displayed by earlier writers such as Charles Dickens). The stories frequently demonstrate a lack of traditional dramatic resolution. It has been argued by some critics that Joyce often allows his narrative voice to gravitate towards the voice of a textual character.
For example, the opening line of 'The Dead' reads "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet." She is not, in this instance, "literally" run off her feet, and neither would Joyce have thought so; rather, the narrative lends itself to a mis-use of language typical of the character being described.

Joyce often uses descriptions from the characters' point of view, although he very rarely writes in the first person. This can be seen in 'Eveline', when Joyce writes, "Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne". Here, Joyce employs an empirical perspective in his description of characters and events; an understanding of characters' personalities is often gained through an analysis of their possessions. The first paragraph of 'A Painful Case' is an example of this style, as well as Joyce's use of global to local description of the character's possessions. Joyce also employs parodies of other writing styles; part of 'A Painful Case' is written as a newspaper story, and part of 'Grace' is written as a sermon. This stylistic motif takes a more prominent role in Ulysses (for example, in the Aeolus episode, which is written in a newspaper style).

The collection as a whole displays an overall plan, beginning with stories of youth and progressing in age to culminate in 'The Dead'. Great emphasis is laid upon the specific geographic details of Dublin, details to which a reader with a knowledge of the area would be able to directly relate. The multiple perspectives presented throughout the collection serve to present a broad view of the social and political contexts of life in Dublin at this time.

The final and most famous story in the collection, 'The Dead', was made into a feature film in 1987 directed by John Huston (it was Huston's last major work).

Dubliners by James Joyce. Viking Press, New York. 1975 (1916)
Ulysses by James Joyce. Vintage Books, New York. 1990 (1922)


Winston Björk said...

And you know "The Dead" was written quite some time after the other Dubliners stories and sort of lives a life of its own. Not only a film and musical, but also a few take-offs from fellow countryfellows, Edna O'Brian, Beckett, and Anne Pigone. The latter's mass sex-changed re-write called "The Ugly" is very strange indeed.

"—Oh really? Nothing to do with us? Wasn't it we who are shallow, cowardly, circumstantial? Phonies, fakes, hypocrites? Wasn't it we you meant?

—No, not you Gabby.

—What are we, Garett? We are what we see and smell and touch: that's our world. And beauty – it's our judge and our judgment. And it also happens to be how I make my living – our living I might add. I work on that shallow, superficial, skin-deep surface you are slamming. Appearances, packaging, that's my trade – and guess what: it's for real. Reality is on that surface. And all that da da da fire sermon shit is a bunch of pretentious hot-air crap; an abyss – a void. You can't go there and you can't live there. We ain't Buddhas, baby – we're consumers. We consume and then we die. In the profound words of the waitress: Enjoy! And for god sakes, stop moping about it.

She sat on the bed, plucking at a lone strand of hair on her thigh – an escapee from her last wax job. Garett stared at the ceiling. Tears now rounded his cheeks falling to his pillow. My poor darling, we are all circumstance – by birth, by fate. Of course it's not fair. Power's not fair. Wealth is not fair. Beauty? No way José. Only death is fair. Death trumps all and beauty, yes. But whats' the big deal, Garett? We're only snowflakes, butterflies with our little ephemeral moments of glory – our circumstantial, ephemeral moments. And then ...

She laid herself flat-out on the bed so close to her husband that she could feel his warmth but not touching, and closed her eyes. Slumberous flakes of snow, silver and dark, fell over her body, Garett's body, and all the sleeping and sleepless bodies of the Hotel Boulderado. It truly was snowing everywhere. Snowflakes from stars and moons everywhere falling like comets or dust or nothing. Falling on us all. Falling upon the beautiful and the ugly, the real and the counterfeit, the living and the dead."

James said...

The final paragraph of 'The Dead' is ample demonstration of Joyce's art.