I read a few of the short stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners when I was studying Modernism at university but I am ashamed to say that I remembered very little about them. I am finding more and more frequently that some of the books I have read over the years have failed to leave a lasting impression on me, one of the reasons why I started this blog, so that I could engage more with what I’m reading, analyse my thoughts on it and hopefully interact with other readers to find out how they relate to it.
I don’t know why Dubliners didn’t stick at the time. I certainly remember being captured by his idea to represent his city in a series of snapshots of characters and events, fractured and mainly unrelated moments aiming to give a sense of Dublin as a whole. So much so, in fact, that I had vague notions that I could do something similar with a central character tying the collection together – a snapshot of moments from close friends and family to complete strangers, in order to try and give a more rounded sense of what character means. Four year later and those short stories are yet to materialise… But, I digress.
I came back to Dubliners after booking a weekend away to Dublin, particularly because of Dublin’s One City, One Book event, an initiative which “encourages everyone to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year” and had elected James Joyce’s work as 2012’s book. (You can read more about the initiative and this year’s related events here.) I started reading it while I was in Dublin and was immediately struck by its sense of place. There is no doubt that these stories take place in Dublin; characters walk its streets, visit its landmarks, discuss its politics and religion, and talk its language (using both dialectical and Irish phrases). I was there for only three days but had gained enough of a sense of the city to see how alive it is on these pages, itself a character in the lives of the people Joyce created in his stories.
There were a few which particularly appealed to me: ‘Eveline’, for its story of a dutiful but torn daughter, tied to her family and city and not quite able to follow her heart; ‘Clay’, with its kindly Maria, spending money she probably can’t afford on a gift which she then loses, is a poignant and touching account of a woman surviving on very little money and too little love as well I suspect; ‘A Painful Case’ shows a fickle young man, at first entranced by an older woman, who becomes disgusted with her decline into alcoholism after he ends their relationship; and ‘A Mother’, which comically portrays an interfering woman with higher aspirations for her daughter than can ultimately be realised, and her indignation when they cannot be fulfilled.
‘An Encounter’ and ‘Araby’ show the younger side of the city – optimistic but ultimately disappointed, while stories such as ‘The Boarding House’ and ‘Counterparts’ show men powerless and bowing to expectation, one marrying a woman to avoid a scandal and possibly losing his job after an ill-disguised affair, the other realising that he will have to apologise to his boss to save his job after publicly humiliating him. I found ‘Grace’ a little hard-going, I wasn’t able to engage with the characters in the same way as the others, although I’ll admit that I was suffering a mean headache and flicking back and forth between allusions and references I didn’t understand in the story and their explanations in the notes was not a task I found particularly easy at the time – that particular story required too much concentration.
My favourite story was undoubtedly ‘The Dead’, the concluding tale in Dubliners. The story centres on two elderly sisters preparing for their annual party, and what happens at the party from the perspective of their nephew Gabriel. The story is full of vivid characters and has the theme of Irishness at its core, as Gabriel is mocked by a female acquaintance, Miss Ivors, for his refusal to explore his own country and its language, despite his protestations that Irish is not his own language. Each year he makes a speech before the dinner and in the story he praises his aunts’ hospitality, a tradition particular to Ireland that he fears will be lost by the new “thought-tormented age” that Miss Ivors represents. I like to think that Gabriel is a bit of James Joyce himself, writing and presenting his country to the world. Gabriel sees his wife listening to music on the stairs and thinks “what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of[?]”, and that he would call the picture of her in that position “Distant Music”. Joyce is painting a portrait for us, drawing our attention to the symbolism contained within the story and the greater truths that each scene (or story) reveals.
Dubliners presents Joyce’s city in its naked state, the beauty of its buildings and streets, alongside the poverty of its people, the bad choices they make and their attempts to save the shame of revelation by conforming to what others expect of them. I read it in one sitting but it is a collection that can be dipped in and out of, the stories are comical, poignant and, overall, revealing about James Joyce’s Dublin, describing his stories as his “nicely polished looking glass” of the many real and not always palatable parts to Ireland’s capital.
NOTES ON THE EDITION
I have the Penguin Modern Classics edition – the notes are largely interesting and the introduction gives a sense of Joyce’s life and the trouble he had getting Dubliners published, and although the notes are perhaps a bit too detailed at times for my liking, I would recommend the edition for all readers as the notes do add interesting illuminations and explanations of unfamiliar references and Irish expressions.
Dublin was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2010. Have a look at their Dublin City of Literature website for more information on the city’s rich literary heritage.