Friday, December 30, 2016

Tales of Dublin

by James Joyce

“Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascent to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul's incurable lonliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own.”   ― James Joyce, Dubliners

Dubliners was Joyce’s first publication of prose and the only collection of his short stories published during his lifetime. Arriving two years before A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it contains stories that depict the Irish middle class at the height of the Home Rule period when the island was wrestling with its identity under British rule. Rereading Dubliners is always a real joy, particularly due to Joyce's command of language. The variety within the collection emanates from Joyce's Irish experiences, which constitute an essential element of his writings. Many of the issues faced by the characters in this collection highlight the concerns of many early 20th-century Irish: class, Catholicism, nationalism, modernity vs tradition, and infidelity. It is penetrating in its 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 when a character experiences 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 judgments 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 misuse 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'. This, the longest work in the collection, concerns a university professor who attends an annual party and dinner with his wife. Here he learns that his wife had been in love with a young boy named Michael Furey who had died tragically many years ago. The professor soon begins to realize that he had never, and would never, be as close to his wife as she had been to the dead young man. A short yet powerful tale, The Dead draws parallels between the loss of life and the loss of love, using the desolate backdrop of an Irish winter to emphasize the desolation of the characters. The story was later adapted into an acclaimed film by the legendary director John Huston.

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 combined effect of Joyce's magic with prose is a wonderful collection of stories that provide, in my estimation, the best introduction to his writing that a reader could wish for.

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Brian Joseph said...

Your analysis of the details of these stories is excellent James.

The stories in Dubliners may be my favorite Joyce. The writing itself seems simpler then in his other works. Yet it is powerful. As you mention, Joyce does not use a lot of emotional language, yet they are often emotional, at least under the surface.

Have a Happy New Years!

James said...


Happy New Year to you! Like you, I consider this my favorite Joyce work. The tales are moving and poetic - they demonstrate his love for Dublin and words.