James Joyce wrote the stories that eventually became Dubliners between 1905 and its publication in 1914. It is one of our first works (if not the first work) of modernist prose. It takes us from childhood to old age, following characters in their struggle with daily life in Dublin, Ireland. The stories tell of mundane lives, something one would not often think to give importance to. Yet, Joyce puts us in the minds and relates their struggles of love, death, regret, and more. He tells us what it means to be human, to be unspectacular, to hope and to fail. We are told to question the meaning of life and death in the first and last story; to see why one would hold onto comfort and routine when adventure and love were waiting in Eveline, then what consequences this could hold in A Little Cloud and Counterparts, but also what consequences there could be if one left their routine as in An Encounter. He gives meaning and personality to the average individual more than any writer had done previously. Dubliners is a collection where not only are the individual stories great, but as a singular work they expound and enlighten the others, making a perfect collection even if certain stories may not be perfect. There are few books I would consider necessary to read – and this is one of them.
The Individual Stories:
This is the story that began it all. It is the first true purely modernist story that had ever been told, but to the contemporary reader, it will appear somewhat normal. Why is it considered so experimental and innovative when, to us, it reads as simply a child meditating on the death of a priest and friend? Because that intense meditation, that look into a child or person’s realistic psychology, is something that had not been done to that extent before. Yes, one can point to Dostoevsky or some other philosophical writer, but those are deep meditations on philosophy rather than what a person like you or I would really think. The other “realists” (i.e. Anton Chekhov or Thomas Hardy) reached their audience through literary means and, although I am in no way criticizing those writers, Joyce, in all his brilliance, had decided that there was a better way to touch, move, or impact an audience.
So instead of churning out another story of “literary” suffering, something where a character reaches some epiphany through symbolic means or experiences phenomena only seen in books, he gives us a true-to-life suffering, a questioning of life and the meaning or purpose of death through the eyes of a child. He reaches no conclusions on what this death means to the narrator or to anyone around him, but those thoughts of death feel so pure and nostalgic and terrifying that it brings us to a superior conclusion than if it were all laid out on the floor for us. And with all that already, Joyce ties in themes of Catholicism, with a corrupt preacher possibly representing the corruption of the church in Ireland, with themes of education via the narrator and the priest’s relationship, and to themes of insanity, revelation, and childhood. It is a beautiful opening story, one that would be the best work by almost any other writer, and shocking that it pales in comparison to what is to come.
In this story, Joyce tackles the disillusionment of adventure and of our fascination with the unknown. It begins with the children’s obsession with the Wild West, Western stories, and Native Americans. These images and stories, and the children’s boredom with what they consider a normal life, lead them to skip class and go on an adventure of their own. Two of them make it, our narrator and his friend Mahony. Through their travels in Dublin, the narrator begins to see Mahony’s bad side – his temper, his hyperactivity, and his aggression – and although none of his bad traits are all that scary or harmful, it begins to seem like the narrator dislikes him and is only going on with him for a chance to fit in – a chance to experience something he would not get otherwise.
Then comes their moment of realization while caught up in the new experiences. An old man approaches and sits beside them. His comments begin with literature but quickly move onto sexual thoughts about young girls. He walks off to masturbate (it is hinted at but not explicitly stated) and comes back with his new mental clarity to begin ranting about whipping and beating children who misbehave. The children’s adventure has turned into a nightmare. It calls back to mind their obsession with the Wild West – how the real trek West initially had the same sense of awe and novelty, but only ended in something that far more horrifying and destructive.
The first perfect story of the collection – a child’s coming to terms with the unfairness and disappointment of life. The narrator has a first childhood love with a friend’s sister and promises to bring her back something from Araby, a Middle-Eastern bazaar temporarily set up in Dublin. His infatuation with her is palpable, and the reader feels every ache, worry, and instance of awe that he experiences. When it comes to the day he is to go to Araby, nearly everything goes wrong: his father forgets and comes home late, most of the shops are closed when he finally arrives, many lights in the bazaar are not working.
He comes to the entrance of a stall and he sees items he would like to buy for his friend’s sister, but the Eastern entrance is guarded by two large vases, seemingly like the guarded gates of Eden. Like the same allusion, he is unable to enter. In the stall, he sees the flirtation between a woman and two men, possibly mimicking the discovery of sexuality in the Bible, but also mocking his seeming inability to keep his promise to the one he loves. Every event stalled his dream, even if they did so without meaning to, and in the end, he comes out empty-handed and filled with hate.
The second perfect story – Eveline, a 19-year old living with an abusive father, is ready to sneak away and leave Ireland with her newfound love. Eveline captures the feeling of despair to a tee. It gives us a character who would rather be stuck in their own ever-repeating daily routine, being beaten by her father and working only to give away her money, than to leave and possibly achieve a better life. The fear of the new and unknown is too much for her, and in a few passages, we can see her convincing herself that life at home is not as bad as she often makes it out to be.
This convincing comes in the form of her promise to her mother to keep the house together, the idea that her father, while at times abusive, is sometimes loving and caring, and the thought of leaving behind her brother to be the only one making money for the family. She creates each of these reasons and allows them to take over that one reason she gave herself to leave. In the end, she refuses to board the boat and leaves her lover as he calls out to her – she gives him “no sign of love or farewell or recognition.” She may very well have felt love, may still feel it in fact, but it seems the only way she can keep on living without hating herself for allowing this moment to pass is to put up a wall, steel herself against what she truly wants, and pretend that staying is what is best.
After the Race:
Out of the first five stories, this one sticks out for not being as purely bleak but also for being a little more on-the-nose allegorically speaking. It follows some friends, who have just placed in a car race, that are now celebrating, drinking, and gambling the night away. These friends come from different nationalities – the main character being from Dublin and the others being American, French, Hungarian, and French-Canadian. At the end of the night, these friends play a long game of cards lasting until morning and the main character (the Dubliner) ends up losing much of his money to the Frenchman and the American.
The story seems to be commenting on these other countries taking advantage of Ireland – playing friends and then taking their money for their own good. This, to me, would work if it laid in the shadow of the story, but it felt almost a bit too at the forefront of things and too steeped in its own unrelatable history. The story itself was great, and Joyce was able to give us the sense of elation these characters would have been experiencing and especially how the main character, in the glory of this great elation, is not yet fully troubled by his losses in the card game.
A man in his twenties, who has spent his life wandering and sleeping with women and never staying put, now contemplates what his life actually means. He and his friend are wandering once again while his friend divulges some stories about the women he has so easily picked up. Now they make a bet. His friend goes off to woo another woman they see on the streets while they plan to meet back up in a few hours to see if it went as planned. As our protagonist sits down in a restaurant to eat and wait, his thoughts are revealed. He ponders his regrets of not yet having a home, of not finding lasting work, of simply wandering these streets looking for something to provide those brief moments of happiness that are so quick to fade.
He leaves the restaurant and wanders once again as he waits to meet back with his friend. This wandering, seeing people he knows, and thinking about his friend’s possible success, erase these previous meditations on the pointlessness of his life. His friend later success then fully erases those thoughts. But it leaves the reader to wonder: if this continues, will his walks after his moments of pondering become less and less effective at erasing his struggles? Will they provide fewer moments of brief happiness, and will he go on with them anyway because they are all he is used to?
The Boarding House:
After suffering mental and physical abuse from her ex-husband, Mrs. Mooney is now running a successful boarding house and has raised her two children. Her daughter, Polly, now nineteen years old, has been involved with a man in his mid-thirties who is boarding at her establishment. We get insight into all three of these characters’ mindsets, something unique to the collection so far. Mrs. Mooney seems to resent the man, Mr. Doran, as he is taking advantage of her daughter. She constructs a plan to make the two of them marry so they do not suffer the shame that would ensue if anyone were to find out about their involvement. Even knowing this is what she thinks she is doing, it is hard to imagine that this act simply comes from saving them from shame. Looking back at her own past, does she actually see some good in Mr. Mooney, and is simply trying to save her daughter from the type of life she had? Or is she resentful of her daughter, and just continuing the cycle?
Mr. Mooney contemplates his life and what it would mean if the community found out about the scandal. He has worked hard to attain his position and to keep it – and this discovery would lead to a loss of all of that. But then he shuffles through thoughts. Maybe a marriage with her could end well. Maybe it would, at least, provide some happiness. And finally, Polly herself, well, she feels a bit more one-note, unfortunately. She sobs that they will be found out, but really all she wants is to stay with him. In the end that is likely what she will get, and so finds peace. It is possible that her youth and naivete led to this simpler mindset, but a little more complexity with her would have made this story far more powerful.
A Little Cloud:
Somehow, when I first read Dubliners however long ago, this story must have passed me by, as I have very little memory of it. Yet, this time, up to the point in the collection where it comes, it has become my new favorite story of the book. It is a simple story about regret, fantasy, and jealousy. Little Chandler, a man of thirty-two, idolizes his friend who has taken off to London to pursue something better with his life. Chandler feels stuck in mediocrity and purposelessness, thinking Dublin is somewhere that he is stuck and cannot achieve what he wants. His meeting with his friend solidifies this feeling when he hears about the exploits and grandiose achievements he has experienced since leaving Dublin. However, there are subtle lines of dialogue between them that reveal his friend may be longing for Chandler’s style of life – staying home in peace with wife and child. The story ends with Chandler’s frustration reaching its peak as he screams in his newborn child’s face, causing a “paroxysm of the child’s sobbing”. It is a frustration that, while a horrible act, can be felt and understood and sympathized with, and his own tears at the end further strike at his struggle.
This story not only hits every event with such power and purpose, leaving moments open to interpretation but keeping it as thematically tight as it could possibly be, but Joyce enters Chandler’s head to such a realistic degree that he becomes one of the most fully-formed characters I’ve ever read in literature within less than twenty pages. His self-questioning and fantastical images of what his life could be, all give as much complexity to Chandler as a character one has spent a long novel’s worth of pages with. Not only is this a perfect story, as I’ve said with two of the previous ones, but one that elevates the short story to a higher level than should even be possible.
Counterparts almost seems like the literal counterpart to A Little Cloud if Chandler from the previous story had aged a bit, found a job, and still had that resentment of his meaningless life. The new character, Farrington, initially garners the reader’s sympathy, working at a job where he is verbally abused by his superiors. Then he sneaks out for a beer when he should be working and it is hard to decide whether this is a momentary action brought on by the recent tirade against him or if the tirade is more a result of him putting off work to fuel his drunkenness. As the story moves on, his anger is revealed in bursts – his thoughts while being yelled at by his boss, his own tirade against the bartender after his loss at arm wrestling, and finally, beating his child after coming home drunk.
The resentment has built over the years, and whether or not Joyce had Farrington in mind as an older version of Little Chandler, one could easily imagine Farrington having once had that less harmful and more naïve form of resentment. Without a change, constantly moving through life stuck in something he despises, drunkenness has entered his life and the only other release he finds is violence on those who can do nothing to stop it. An interesting piece I read suggested that his wife, who is also labeled as abusive by Joyce, has gone off to the chapel late at night, abandoning her child, and using religion in the same form Farrington uses the pubs.
On the surface, Clay feels far happier than the stories that came before it. With some digging into Irish culture and into the more subtle passages of the story, it is revealed to be one of Joyce’s bleakest. The blindfold game they play at the end is a traditional Halloween game in Ireland where a bowl of water, a ring, and a piece of clay are placed on a table. The blindfolded person picks one – if it is the water they will soon be traveling overseas; if it is the ring they will soon be married; and if it is the clay, they will be dead within the year. The family decides to play with a prayer book instead of the clay to signify Maria getting into the convent, but one of the young girls plays a joke and swaps out this book for some clay which, as we see, is what Maria picks.
This gives significance to the previous moment in the book where Maria forgets the plum cake on the tram. It is a moment of forgetfulness not brought only brought on by her talk with the man, but by her mind fading. This fading is once again shown when she repeats the stanza of the song at the end. Joe’s tears are not brought on by the beauty of the song as he himself states, but instead, show his realization that the clay omen is a true sign of what is coming.
A Painful Case:
And speaking of Clay being one of the bleakest stories in the collection, along comes A Painful Case to take that title. This story follows Mr. James Duffy as he becomes friends with Mrs. Emily Sinico, a woman whose husband is rarely ever home. Their friendship secretly flourishes until a moment of clear flirtation forces Duffy to break things off. Four years later, he reads of her odd death, a seeming suicide, and how her life in the past years was one of purposelessness and sadness.
These last few pages after he reads the article are a perfect whirlwind on the mental state of grief and questioning. The narrator begins with an internal rant deeming her unfit to live as he clearly copes with her death’s relation to their parting ways. He not only realizes then that he could have saved her, but that he is now utterly alone in the world and has lost the one he truly loved. His emotions range widely from anger to loneliness to wonder – they are written of and transitioned between with some of the most astute writing Joyce had yet produced.
Ivy Day in the Committee Room:
I was almost positive upon beginning to reread this collection that Joyce could do no wrong. I’m sure that at the time it was more meaningful, but Ivy Day in the Committee Room simply does not resonate in our time. The story follows some campaigners for running politicians as they accuse each other behind backs. None of them truly seem invested in the politician they are campaigning for and instead are interested in the money they are making. In the end, they remember Parnell, a politician who they all seem to love, and in a single moment, they forget the different politicians they support and remember what it was like to have someone who truly cared.
While this seems like a decent story it is unfortunately bogged down with a massive number of cultural references that wouldn’t make much sense to someone outside of Ireland and even possibly outside of the time the story was written. It is riddled with the names of politicians, events, places, ideas, etc., that all require referring to the notes at least two to three times per paragraph. The story is just simply not universal enough to merit reading on its own, but it luckily does benefit by adding to the ideas of the stories around it.
After the twelve previous stories, I found it challenging to get into the mindset of a more satirical piece. When I did realize and got into the feel of it, the story really opened up. A Mother is a hilarious work, critiquing the high society and their self-importance. It gives us a character, the mother, and shapes her as someone we would expect to see in our modern world. She is the definition of what we would today call a stage mom – controlling her daughter behind the scenes and manipulating the event, no matter how much it harms everyone else, in order to ensure her daughter is paid adequately.
The story has one of the funniest lines in the collection I’ve read yet, equating the mother’s love for her husband to that of the General Post Office, and qualifying her appreciation of him with his abstract value as a male. Despite this story being a bit less serious, the mother is almost a more fully realized character than those of the more serious stories. She is controlling and obnoxious of course, but it doesn’t lead to the reader hating her. We can get in her mind and understand her faults and her reasons for acting this way. The way the characters react to her is equally comical as we see their exasperation and exhaustion take hold.
While this story is much better and more comprehensible than Ivy Day in the Committee Room, I still feel like this one is stuck in its time and harder to connect with than the others. Grace is a criticism and satire on the Catholic church and its followers that can easily be mistaken as a religious piece written by someone advocating for its importance. A group of men manipulate their friend into attending a Catholic retreat with them, hoping that the sermon will lead him to forgo his alcoholism and become a better husband and person. He eventually agrees and while at this retreat hears the preacher discuss how God’s grace can help one put things right.
The criticism comes in the dialogue – when speaking to their friend, the men try to discuss religion yet constantly misunderstand quotes, history, and the differences between sects; when the priest speaks at the sermon, he explains what he calls one of the most difficult passages in the Bible by dumbing it down to the simplest lesson one can imagine getting from Catholicism. This is all compounded by the symbols Joyce leaves lying around, suggesting that our character’s life will not, in fact, be much altered by this retreat, signifying another failing of the Catholic Church.
The third perect story is almost as good as a story can get. I had in the back of my mind, since the first time I read it, that maybe I only thought it was the best story because of the high praise it has always received. I was proven wrong – that praise is earned dozens of times over. The early moments of the story give us a world of celebration. They are celebrating life and rebirth, singing beautiful songs, dancing with one another. The table is set so as to dazzle and awe every attendant. After all these scenes of life and joy, Joyce interestingly focuses on the meat at the table – the dead animals from the goose to the pig and the cow – as some foreshadowing for the final moments of the story.
With this all in mind, with us being elated at these characters’ happiness, we are given the perfect, melancholy scene of Gretta at the top of the stairs, a scene that urges Gabriel’s lust. Even to him, the reason for his lust is unfounded. He simply cannot comprehend why, after so much time, this passion has been revived. It could be that look in her eyes of longing, of her own passion, of remembrance; but the thing that is certain is it is not a look he has seen before. It creates her anew.
The final act doubles down on this melancholy. Gabriel learns about Gretta’s life before their life together, reminding him of all he does not know about her despite their years and experiences together. She has loved and lost without his knowledge and now, as when on the staircase, is once again created anew in a more dejected light. The pulling and pushing away of his emotions is rapid – he feels the lust that leaves him quickly upon entering their room, and with her kiss, it is renewed, yet with her story, it withdraws again. He realizes that he, like Furey, will die, as will his Aunt and his wife. But, when he dies, will he die for someone or for some reason? He sees the snow now falling on the living and dead alike, possibly wondering if it matters, because, no matter how one lives or dies, we will all be blanketed by the Earth in the same manner both now and at the end.
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