Dubliners by James Joyce
I’ve always eyed James Joyce warily. You see, stream of consciousness and I do not get on at all. Well, okay, we got on fine in the film adaptation of A Single Man, but for the most part, I find the technique pompous and pretentious. I’m happy to work hard to dig deeper into the text, but when breaking ground takes an unusual amount of exertion, I’m a little miffed. (All of this, by the way, comes from my encounter with Faulkner in high school. Please feel free to recommend me something that will prove me wrong.) So the very concept of Ulysses puts me off, but luckily, I didn’t have to read Ulysses for my Irish Literature class—I just had to read Dubliners.
Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories, but not in the usual sense of an author’s myriad writings being collected—this is one complete manuscript. In these short stories (which also include his novella “The Dead”), Joyce, moving from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, examines small but significant moments in lives lived in Dublin (hence the title) around the turn of the century. Girls ponder leaving home; boys fail to impress beautiful girls; mothers meddle to the detriment of their reputations; and married couples fail to connect, among other things.
Coming to Joyce after fearing the specter of his stream of consciousness fiction for so long, I was pleasantly taken aback by the efficiency of his prose here. There are some beautiful turns of phrase, to be sure—in “An Encounter”, the narrator describes his taste for the “unkempt fierce and beautiful girls” of American detective fiction (9), and a woman in “Two Gallants” is described as having “Frank rude health” (37). But for the most part, it’s spare and, to be totally honest, unflattering. Even the most beautiful women have problems; unable to break a promise even as it eats away at her, or completely unaware that the narrator is madly in love with her. (I do enjoy the way Joyce writes about love, although its possessive qualities in “The Dead” can be a little frightening. But then again, I hear Joyce’s personal writings on love are downright horrifying, so I think I’m getting off easy here.)
Joyce’s focus here is rendering these lives without idealizing them, and exploring the psychology that drives these people, as well as the impact the smallest of events can have. “A Painful Case” is, perhaps, the most poignant of these, focusing on the meticulous introvert Mr. Duffy and his wonderful friendship with Mrs. Sinico, which he brutally ends after she gives him an innocent display of affection. Four years later, he learns of her descent into drink and her death at the hands of a train, and realizes the damage he’s done to her and to himself, cutting him off from the rest of the world. It’s these failures that Joyce is interested in; both failing something and being a failure. “Counterparts”, where a man stands up to his boss but suffers humiliation during the drunken revelry, ends in his failure as a father, as he beats his son. “The Dead”, which is much better than the frankly bone-dry film adaptation of it led me to suspect, focuses on a failure to connect to those around them. Perhaps I’m just sensitive to this topic after my four viewings of The Social Network, but it makes this almost hundred-year-old text feel human, and that’s important, too. Our trappings may change, we may have more and more opportunities to connect, but we’re still fallible in so many different ways. That sounds very depressing, but in a way, Dubliners is very depressing; it holds a window up to then-contemporary life and points out how unflattering it is. (Unflattering is really the right word for this collection, except it’s not always a bad thing. Unflinching has something too heroic about it.)
Ultimately, I wasn’t blown away by Dubliners, although I was pleasantly surprised. While I think I’ll definitely try and take on Ulysses in the future (famous last words), I don’t think I’ll revisit Dubliners unless it’s to revisit “The Dead”, which really manages to drive the point of the entire collection home poignantly. I will say that Joyce, naturally, has an amazing sense of place and giving the reader the right detail to orient themselves in Dublin; it’s part of that unflattering reflection into the world and making these characters real people. I may not want to come back and visit, but it’s still firmly a place on my literary map of the world.
Bottom line: James Joyce’s Dubliners is an unflattering (in both good and bad ways) look at then-contemporary Dublin life, focusing on small moments with enormous impact and the inner workings of the mind. I won’t revisit, but Joyce’s Dublin is worth a visit.
My mother gave me her copy of this book.
- Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993. Print.