Dubliners, by James Joyce
1914, 190 pp.
In my review of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was at pains to make clear that the book can be read and enjoyed simply as a novel by any general reader, without the crossword-puzzle burden of deciphering and scholarly puzzling which is so inextricably linked with the Joyce mystique. Certainly there are all manner of images and motifs which can be unpacked from that book, and to some extent they deepen the reader’s appreciation for Joyce’s work, but it is perfectly good to just pick up and read, and the professoriat have already done enough to scare readers away from actually reading Joyce, which is an intellectual and cultural travesty to which I have no interest in contributing. Dubliners, however, requires some careful exegesis: its fifteen stories are structured with such delicacy and enigmatic precision that some are nearly incomprehensible without thorough examination. Joyce doesn’t so much show or tell many of these stories as suggest them, in the way a skilled filmmaker will create an empty place in the frame and let the audience anticipate the image which will fill it. Dubliners is an intricate puzzle which is at once a concrete depiction of lower-middle class life in turn-of-the-century Dublin, and a meditative fugue on the various flavors of failure.
Joyce said that each story centers on his idea of an epiphany: a moment in which a character has a sudden rush of self-understanding or illumination. I think that is too broad a statement. Each story deals with a sudden realization of the scope of a character’s failure, their recognition of their insignificance and irrelevance in the world. Joyce presents here fifteen different and distinct flavors of failure and disappointment, each fully realized and precisely evoked. He tastes the subtle gradations of failure the way other people taste fine wine.
The first few stories are narrated by child characters, and as the stories continue they deal with the lives and concerns of gradually older people, shifting from children to siblings to parents and spouses. There are some stylistic developments: part of “A Painful Case” is written as a newspaper story, and part of “Grace” is written as a sermon. Hynes's poem in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” parodies (though sympathetically) Joyce's own first poem, written at age 9 in the style of Byron, on the death of Parnell, the famous Irish nationalist politician. There are two adolescent, first-experience stories, then two sporting stories, two stories about love, two stories about politics, two about religion, two about bachelor life, and four on petty clerks (two single and two married). The collection ends with festive life, with a story called “The Dead,” set in the winter, probably on the Feast of Epiphany. The first and last stories, “The Sisters,” and “The Dead,” form bookends to the collection as a whole, and are therefore worth considering at some length.
For such a brief story, “The Sisters” must be among the most widely-dissected pieces of writing in the English language. A cursory search returned no less than 57 peer-reviewed scholarly articles, some running to a length many times that of the story itself. My favorite title of the bunch was “Between Resistance and Complicity: Metro-Colonial Tactics in Joyce’s ‘Dubliners.’” The story was first published independently in 1904, under the rather significant pseudonym “Stephen Daedalus.” It is a brief account of the death of an old, crippled priest, seen through the eyes of a young boy who was his friend. The boy’s uncle drops repeated hints about an inappropriate relationship between the two, though the boy does not understand what he means, and at the end, as the boy first discovers death, his mother and he talk with the dead priest’s sisters, who seem to deal with the death superficially and meaninglessly, and mention that the priest had suffered a breakdown after accidentally breaking a chalice. The story rather trails off, leaving the reader wondering why a story about a young boy and a dead priest is called “The Sisters.”
Joyce wrote in a letter that the old priest in “The Sisters” was intended as a symbol of Irish life: priest-ridden and semi-paralyzed. The priest has an important effect on the younger generation, but dies and leaves the young to fend for themselves. "The Sisters" contains suggestions of improper sex, but we end the story blind to the reality, chained as we are to the narrow perceptions of the young boy. We never know the truth. The story opens with a male world, proceeds through ellipses and vagueness, ends in a female world, registering the contrast between the different social roles for the two genders. The men speak in half-sentences, the women in clichés, though the women are the dominant figures in the story. The dead priest’s sisters seem too wrapped up in themselves and the necessities of their self-centered adulthood to feel much of anything about their brother’s death, whereas the young boy who was only his friend, and that briefly, experiences the priest’s death as a pivotal moment. The story seems therefore to be slightly about the authenticity of youth contrasted with the falseness of adult society, and about the boy’s realization of that dichotomy. The failure here is not his, but that of the sisters, and the story is the boy’s realization of their failure. There is also the failure of the priest to succeed as a priest and uphold his assigned duties. “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him,” one of the sisters says. “And then his life was, you might say, crossed.”
It is difficult but worthwhile to follow Joyce’s thought process in the very first paragraph of “The Sisters,” which we know he substantially revised once he had conceived of Dubliners as a whole:
“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.”
A “gnomon” in Euclid is a parallelogram with one side missing, much like how paralysis restricts movement and sensation to one side. A gnomon is something like the geometric expression of a partial existence. It is interesting that Joyce limits the meaning to the Euclidian one, since a gnomon in general is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, and comes from the Greek for “that which reveals.” “Gnomon” and “simon” rhyme, (and “gnomon” sounds a bit like “no man,” but that be reading too deeply, if such a thing is possible with Joyce) and simony is the sin of selling religious offices, or making profit from sacred things. The story suggests that the priest in question was guilty of this. Simony was pivotal in the 1075-1122 Investiture Controversy, (until, of course, it was settled by the Concordat of Worms) and its practitioners were condemned by Dante to the eighth circle of hell, which Joyce, having a powerful affinity for Dante, would certainly have known. Finally, the word “simon” both does literally sound like the word “demon,” which is a “maleficent and sinful being,” and also comes from the name of Simon Magus, who turns up in the Acts of the Apostles and who was considered by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius as the origin of all heresy. Joyce, with his religious upbringing and Jesuit education certainly knew this as well. So we can follow the cognitive chain which proceeds thus: paralysis-parallelogram-gnomon-simon-demon. Taken tout court, it reads as an opening thesis: Ireland is paralyzed by and leads a half-existence due to its moral, physical, and spiritual heresies.
But heresies in what sense? In the sense that they are restrictive, repressive, self-generating, and are not a natural expression of humanity. They constrain humanity, producing self-centered adults like the two titular sisters, instead of authentic, feeling human beings. The moment of sudden, cruel realization at the end of "The Dead" seems to suggest we need greater awareness of them and how they hide reality from us, and perhaps further serves as a caution about their capacity to harm. All throughout Dubliners, Joyce’s unit of moral analysis is less individual characters, and more the city of Dublin as a whole, and therefore Ireland and Irish society as he knew it. Many of his characters live off the British presence, and many of the lives he depicts are structured by the necessities of British rule. These are not people who are free to live for themselves, but whose lives are curtailed by outside institutions: social mores, the state, the church, and the British.
Stanislaus Joyce wrote the following of “The Dead”: “Joyce works minutely for many pages, to create an ambiance of little bourgeois souls in all their noisiness, vulgarity, and innocuousness. When the festivity is almost at an end and the laughter at its height, a far away, barely audible voice of someone singing an old Irish air irresistibly calls back to a woman’s memory a truly romantic passion which had been extinguished by death; and the memory annihilates at one stroke her present happiness and that of the leading character in the story.” In its combination of naturalism and emotional insight, “The Dead” is certainly the best realization of Joyce’s technique here. It is often cited as the finest short story in the English language. I may dispute that claim, on the grounds that the story consists of forty pages of build-up as Joyce describes the party and the various insecurities of the central character, which seems on first reading to be going nowhere in particular. The cruel emotional reversal comes only in the last five pages, and while they are indeed magical pages, I am at a loss as to how Joyce determined that those preceding forty pages were necessary, rather than only thirty-nine of them, or indeed forty-one. The party rather goes on, is my point, and lest I be accused of Philistinism, I cannot help but notice that it is generally ignored in most scholarly analyses. Every other story in Dubliners seems chiseled out of ice, without a single superfluous word or a single scene whose purpose is open to question. It is certainly necessary for Joyce to establish that the central character in “The Dead” is insecure, bourgeois, and has trouble with social relationships, it just may not have been necessary to establish it four or five times.
So much for the structure of Dubliners. Joyce’s actual prose is gorgeous in these stories. He has a particular knack for the swift, memorable description, often of a character’s head. Take this example from “Two Gallants,” which features a pair of dubious characters who reappear in Ulysses:
"His head was large, globular and oily; it sweated in all weathers; and his large round hat, set upon it sideways, looked like a bulb which had grown out of another."
Or, this from “A Painful Case”:
"His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets."
Or, lastly, from “A Mother”:
“His conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard.”
His insight into his characters is so sharp as to be almost painful. The pathetic, jealous would-be writer of “A Little Cloud” considers his hopeful future: "He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notice which his book would get." He, of course, fails utterly, and is dismissed by a far more successful friend from his youth. The titular mother in “A Mother” is a composite of an empty marriage and failed ambitions: “She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret." Or finally, the husband and wife in “Counterparts” who seem to me to be living out the misery of alienation caused by the capitalist relations of production: "His wife was a little sharp-faced woman who bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk." Do you know these people? I believe I have met them in various places in the world, perhaps utterly unaware that they are living out lives James Joyce had already written for them.
Two central stories are particularly noteworthy, while I am running on at great length. “Clay” takes a bit of unpacking. It is the story of an old woman who goes to spend Halloween with the man who she fostered as a child. She works a menial job at a rescue mission for homeless women, and is teased several times about never marrying. She forgets the expensive plum cake she’d bought, and finally plays a game with the man’s children. Modern readers will have no idea what this game is, or what significance it entails until they learn that a traditional Irish Halloween game consists of a blindfolded person choosing one of several objects, each of which is meant to represent that person’s fate. One is a ring, signifying marriage, one is a prayer-book, signifying a spiritual life, and one is a lump of clay, signifying death. Since the game plays out from the old woman’s perspective, we do not see what she chooses, only her perception of the sad reaction of the other people. Only then does the title and the point of the story become clear. The story ends with the old woman singing a traditional song, but with mistakes: she forgets the verses which deal with suitors, marriage, and a happy life.
The second important story is “A Painful Case,” in which an intellectual, meticulous, and ambitious bank cashier befriends a lonely housewife, but ends their friendship when she impulsively touches his hand. Many years later he learns of her suicide and realizes he deprived her of her only human connection. This is the most straightforward story of the collection and requires little forensic work, so therefore is the clearest demonstration of Joyce’s flawless execution. This sort of realization has been enacted before (and since) in art, but never with this precision. (It also, interesting, features an early version of that old canard about inter-gender friendships: "Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.") “A Painful Case” seems to me to be Joyce demonstrating what he can do when he decides to color inside the lines.
Dubliners requires a lot of attention; more, I think, than Portrait did. It rewards that attention with a spot-on evocation of life in a specific time and place, with the deepest possible understanding of the universal sensations of failure, with the pleasure of watching a consummate artist perfecting his craft, and with the humanist empathy it provokes for its sad, flawed, miserable characters. It is a remarkable book, and had Joyce died immediately after completing it, he should still have been regarded one of the finest writers in the language.