Saturday, 23 July 2011


Dubliners - James Joyce

In an newly persuasive argument against optical character recognition software here is a twenty five year old college essay on Joyce's Dubliners, a book so good it will even survive reading this. 

Dubliners is a book with a moral purpose. Joyce described it as 'a chapter in the moral history of my country'.  He saw himself as 'Stephen Hero', subversively fighting the paralysis endemic in his mother city.
However, he presents his moral guidance differently in Dubliners than in Stephen Hero or Portrait of the Artist . . . Rather than having a central character fight an epic battle with the paralysis surrounding
him, he shows pictures of the paralysed, and the aura which envelopes them. Of the three weapons of Daedalus, 'silence, exile and cunning', it is silence that is most telling in Dubliners. The characters are silent in the face of epiphany, silent in their failure to change. Joyce's own apparent silence also permeates the book, he doesn't appear to guide you, but in such a closely structured and controlled atmosphere, didactic comment is completely unnecessary.

The very first paragraph is an exposition on the method and purpose of Dubliners. The book shall be the gnomon of simony and paralysis, the shadow of the corpse. It shall light the candle of a new religion; the art of epiphany, self--awareness. Joyce filters this to us through the narrating voice. The boy who's voice narrates The Sisters gives us an important hint on this method. His first interpretation is wrong, the priest had died. Joyce is warning us to keep an eye on our narrators, rather than being the pseudo-deities of victoriana, they are Dubliners, part and parcel of the paralysis. We as readers must watch our own interpretations of the text; all we may be allowed to see is the shadow.

The book's vocabulary and landscape provide us with another pointer towards interpretation. Joyce called his style in the book one of "scrupulous meanness." Nothing is included as padding to he tales; every paragraph develops tone, the tone which is so central to Dubliners. The colours are sombre; the grey face of the paralytic, the green eyes of the old man in An Encounter, "the dull yellow light" brooding over the departees from the party in The Dead. The smells are rank; ashpits, offal, dead weeds. The images are of drooling paralytics, obsessive old men, an alcoholic who beats his children. The unsavoury face of Dublin shows itself. This atmosphere is seen perverting people, a vision heightened by the sequence of the stories, moving as they do from childhood through adolescence into maturity and then on into the public sphere.

The first two stories are dominated by the faces of two old men; the paralytic priest dribbling through his smile, and the old man whose obsessive gaze so upsets the young mitchers. Although Joyce has warned against reading symbolism into this book, the priest in The Sisters operates as a symbol of a dying church, sinking in a mire of rules and regulations , so silent that after his death Elizabeth can say "You wouldn't hear him in the house (when alive) any more than now." The receptacles of religion's collected wisdom are "books as thick as the Post Office Directory and as closely printed as the law notices in the newspaper, elucidating all these intricate questions." Their moral stance is based on a contract written in small print, demanding more the cunning of a lawyer than spiritual health. In The Sisters and An Encounter the young "hero" interprets or searches for signs. In both cases the signs signify something unexpected. They are either missing or misplaced. The candles for Father Flynn's deathbed have to be brought from the church, the green eyes of the dream sailor are found only in the clowning sailor and the 'old josser'. This difference between expectation and actuality leads to epiphany. We are being pushed behind the shadows, from suggestion to reality. This progression is examined in Eveline, the first adolescence story, in which the character fails to follow the suggestions of her own mind because of her lack of moral courage. She is paralysed, incapable of taking a decision upon herself. She experiences a personal epiphany but isn't able to make her self-awareness work for her.

The other stories of adolescence deal considerably with simony. The dominant image is of Corley showing Lenahan a gold coin under a street--lamp. The image is couched in religion, the gesture is like the exposition of the communion bread, Lenahan is a "disciple". These stories are full of intrigues and indecisiveness. In each story a character is talking of settling down, but they only stagnate. No positive move towards the realisation of their hopes is made. The only decisive step is where the mother sets up her daughter in The Boarding House. However, this decision is made without any sense of epiphany. The daughters' only contribution is one of silent complicity in the intrigue which is to ensure her marraige and financial gain. The only tie between characters is intrigue, more positive emotions simply don't appear.

Maturity is presented to us as an endless repetition. Chandler will never write, no matter how often he thinks about it: Farrington will continue to sidestep challenges and take out his frustration on the helpless: Maria will be unsettled by anything approaching sexual interest without being able to do anything about it: Duffy will always be sterile because of his excessive egocentricity. The dominant images are of Farrington writing "Bernard, Bernard" and "the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name". It is as if the characters have named everything with dead words, and are now unable to go beyond those words. They no longer have spaces and signs to wonder at and interpret. Everything has been named, if not understood.

In the stories of Public Life the dominant theme is that of people demanding Payment, even where it hasn't been earned. The wages received and\or desired are drink, money and Gods' grace. All are approached in much the same way. Much talk is made of contracts and agreements. Simultaneously there is a strong group instinct at work, which leads most of the characters to seek support and to constantly try to boost their social standing. In A Painful Case we see what happens when someone stands for the fulfillment of a contract rather than the expected "decent" act. You can see the ranks closing against the belligerent mother. In Ivy Day at the Committee Room the characters boost  their own social pride by judging absent people. There is talk of spongers, people lacking gentility and such innuendo as "Is he a priest at all?" Mr Henchy has an idea to open the bottles by placing them by the fire , of which he is inordinately proud. These bottles going "pok”  provides  an ironic background salute. Just as guns are reduced to bottles so are politics made personal. Canvassing is based on personality and social position. Old Ward is told that the candidate is "a big ratepayer" rather than that he is a nationalist. This depoliticisation is  completed by Mr Hynes poem, which reduces Parnell's confrontation with the Church to a distant mythical concept of failed heroism, swamped in bathos. After the reading, a round of applause releases the tension in the room and frees everyone to indulge in the false cameraderie they desire.

The book ends with The Dead, a story that was added after the completion of the other stories and is far longer and wide ranging than any of them. Its major theme is communication, which is a victim of paralysis in the whole of Dubliners. The whole party is a complex dance, with people stepping in and out at certain designated moments, the clumsy dancers being snubbed and some tender corns being stepped on. All this is highlighted by the anachronistic prudishness of the old maids and their inane chattering. In the mind of the main character Gabriel, comes a return to the reading of signs. He is mature enough to find a name for his sign, but he finds that he has named it wrongly. This leads him to a moment of epiphany when he realises that the ability to name and the ability to know are separate. We leave him being swallowed by space and silence and snow, like the crowd leaving the party. And in this space, silence and snow he sees the "descent of their last end, upon all the living and dead."


  1. Dubliners is my favorite book, bar none. The graphic description of man's inability to rise above her sufferings, how they were always rules out by expectations (in the case of Gabriel) and obligations (in the case of Eveline). And The Dead would always be the best for me in this collection :)

    1. It is also one of my favourite books, full of insights, wonderful writing and recognizable characters. It's also totally accessible in a way that Joyce's other books aren't. Have you seen John Huston's film of The Dead?