a style of scrupulous meanness

Dubliners, by James Joyce

Dubliners is a portrait of paralysis. In the first story it’s a literal paralysis, the last illness of a dying priest. It extends beyond him though, to a much wider moral, political and national paralysis. Both the entire collection and each story within it is superbly written and observed. It’s a book with a mammoth reputation, that even so isn’t praised as much as it should be.


Dubliners consists of fifteen short stories, told from the perspectives of increasingly mature protagonists (moving from children eventually to married adults). Some are easily read by anyone, with only perhaps the odd word of period slang to cause any difficulties. Some (particularly Ivy Day in the Committee Room) are hard to follow without at least some knowledge of 1914 Irish current affairs (which I distinctly don’t have).

This isn’t a collection where you should read one story, pause for a few days then return later to read another, spacing them out and perhaps interspersing them with other books. While there are no real links from one tale to the next there is a cumulative effect here which is greater than any of the individual parts. Each story stands alone, each is exceptional, in combination though they form a masterpiece.

Joyce’s Dublin is a colonised city, an occupied city. It’s a provincial place, not yet the Dublin of international literary fame that decades later this book in part helped it become.

Lives here revolve around three key Ps: priests, pubs and propriety. By priests I don’t mean faith – the Church is simply another social institution that provides rules to live by but no vision to be inspired by. Over the course of the stories Joyce turns his eyes to religion, politics and literature among other things, but none of it offers any real escape from a timid and tawdry Ireland.

To an extent then this is state of the nation stuff, but if that’s all it were nobody would read it now. Who cares after all about the state of a nation a century past, before its independence, before it found its own identity? Part of Joyce’s brilliance is that he shows that a nation is simply its people, and here it’s his focus on his characters’ inner experience that makes this timeless. Well, that and the writing.

Joyce enters the thoughts of children, of drunks and scoundrels, of young men and women both, of mothers ambitious for their daughters and husbands jealous of their wives’ past loves. There’s a fierce interiority here, literature as a profound telepathy taking us inside another’s experience and through it illuminating something wider.

Often much of the content of a story is left unsaid. In one, An Encounter, two boys out for the day meet a man who seems more interested in them than is entirely natural. He leaves them briefly, the strong implication being that he goes off to masturbate nearby, then he returns and the conversation moves into uncomfortable territory:

He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him.

Nothing really happens. Once or twice as a child myself I met men like that. Men who seemed to have an odd interest in talking to me, and whose chosen subjects of conversation weren’t those you’d normally raise with children. One once worried me so much I went into the nearest shop and asked the manager to hide me until he’d gone. After a while he went, so I went on my way.

The Encounter opens with children playing wild west games and reading pulp western and detective novels. The two boys go in search of real adventure, the narrator saying that “The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”

Dublin though has no real adventure. Instead it has poverty, sectarian division, sailors who do travel to distant places but to whom the boys never speak, and a random pervert.

I could easily write 2,000 words or more just on An Encounter, and countless academics of course have. These are stories that are as rich as the time you want to give them – every one of them could easily have an essay written on it that would be much longer than the story itself. It isn’t necessary though, and arguably isn’t desirable, to approach them with antennae alert for symbolism and technique.

This quote is from the story A Little Cloud. In it a dissatisfied man with a young family meets up again with an old friend who’s made a success of himself in London since they last met.

He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.

I found that paragraph almost unbearably painful. There’s a whole marriage-full of needless incomprehension captured there. A popular theme in pre-pill literature was the writer’s (male writer’s, they were always men) fear of the pram in the hall; of domesticity as enemy to art and of wives who cared more about paying for the weekly shop than they did about literature or music or whatever. A Little Cloud explores that fear, but questions it too because that pram is an easy thing to blame.

Looking back at that quote, is it the wife that’s holding the protagonist back? He’s chosen family, there’s no sense here that his wife somehow trapped him. His friend made a different choice, chose adventure (overseas, again there’s no adventure to be had in Ireland). The protagonist’s wife isn’t why he isn’t living his dreams, rather he simply didn’t have the courage to live them.

Dubliners is full of these moments of private doubt and disappointment. The drama here is not some narrative arc (many, most, of the stories end without clear resolution), instead it’s born of the intensity of private emotions – emotions all the more intense for most of them never being expressed.

Joyce has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and many of these tales would work particularly well as audiobooks. In this excerpt, from the first story The Sisters, two women discuss a priest’s recent death:

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:

—Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world.

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.

—Did he . . . peacefully? she asked.

—O, quite peacefully, ma’am, said Eliza. You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.

—And everything . . .?

—Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.

—He knew then?

—He was quite resigned.

—He looks quite resigned, said my aunt.

—That’s what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and resigned. No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.

—Yes, indeed, said my aunt.

The awkwardness of the conversation, the skipping over words too sensitive to say (—Did he . . . peacefully?), the sheer banality of the sentiments expressed, it’s all of it utterly credible and utterly dispiriting because so credible. The story shows the priest as a learned man (not something you could assume of clergy back then, I’ve no idea as to now). This though is his congregation. This is what Ireland had to offer his education. There is no mystery here, no sense of some great beyond for which he was the gatekeeper. Just sherry in front rooms and the importance of things being done properly, whatever that might mean.

As I hope that quote also showed, there’s nothing stylistically daunting here. We’re not into the wilder experimental territory of Joyce’s later works. There’s depth, but accessible depth. Joyce’s descriptions are clean and matter of fact:

He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table on which lay a double desk. A bookcase had been made in an alcove by means of shelves of white wood. The bed was clothed with white bed-clothes and a black and scarlet rug covered the foot. A little hand-mirror hung above the washstand and during the day a white-shaded lamp stood as the sole ornament of the mantelpiece.

He’s also a master at capturing people or places in a single telling, but often also very funny, sentence or phrase. These are from a range of stories:

He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders of the company until he was included in a round.

The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.

More interestingly though, even when I didn’t understand the context of a story I often found I’d still understood the mood it was aiming for. I mentioned up front that the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room was hard to follow without a knowledge of then-contemporary politics. The story deals in issues of stillborn nationalism and the gap between current politicians and the semi-mythologised Charles Stewart Parnell who died in 1891. Parnell may well be a major figure in Irish history, but I barely recognised the name and had no idea what it meant to people in the 1910s or today.

Even so, take a look at the following paragraph:

The old man left the hearth and, after stumbling about the room returned with two candlesticks which he thrust one after the other into the fire and carried to the table. A denuded room came into view and the fire lost all its cheerful colour. The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address. In the middle of the room was a small table on which papers were heaped.

I wrote a note against that which simply said “Britain after Rome”. It reminded me of the dark ages, of the sense of civilisation having left and of barbarians making fires in ruins left by better men. I’ve read up since, and it’s fair to say that’s part of what Joyce was going for. He’s a good enough writer that even though I recognised none of his references, I still felt the significance of what he was trying to convey.

It would be easy to continue, but I’m already over the 2,000 words I said I could could spend just on An Encounter, so it’s time to stop. I’ll end with a quick note on editions. I have two, the Canongate one above with the Colm Toibin introduction and a Penguin Modern Classics edition.

If you’re studying Joyce, or you’re not from the UK or Ireland and want help with what may be a lot of obscure references, then you want the Penguin version. If you’re reading as I was for pleasure then you don’t, because it has such a density of endnotes that they become an interruption to the text. The Canongate was note free, which arguably is going too far the other way. Of the two approaches I prefer the Canongate, but the Penguin notes are very helpful even if there are far too many of them (at one point an endnote explains what RIP means, which I don’t think is that difficult for most readers).

The Toibin introduction in the Canongate is exceptionally good. It has some wonderful insights (“The characters in Dubliners were consumers before they were citizens.”) and is as beautifully written as you’d expect of Toibin. The foreword is legitimately available for free at the Guardian here.

Edit: I forgot to link to Emma of Book Around the Corner’s review, which is well worth reading and which comes with an excellent discussion in the comments. It’s here.


Filed under Irish fiction, Joyce, James, Modernist fiction

22 responses to “a style of scrupulous meanness

  1. This is my favourite James Joyce. I like your 3 Ps which actually fits with The Lonely Passion of Miss Hearne–except her booze came in brown bags and was stashed in her room (the P for propriety in play).
    Your backlog looks worse than mine.

  2. Brilliant isn’t it? It was a tricky post to write, but good to revisit the stories and think about them again.

    I really fancy the Lonely Passion, it’s only the UK cover that’s putting me off. I’m dead shallow, me. I’ll pick it up in a bit though, on kindle so I don’t need to look at it.

    The backlog’s shameful. The idea of putting the backlog up there was to let people know the next one or two reviews. I never expected there to be eight bloody books on it. At least The Stochastic Man should be easy to write up.

  3. A brilliant review of a brilliant book. Mrs. KfC just came home from a trek through Ireland and read most of these stories on her way home — I will be encouraging her to submit a more informed comment. It has been some years since I read The Dubliners but I remember it fondly –there are some wonderful characters presented here, never mind the history.

  4. Thanks Kevin and I hope she does (and I hope she enjoyed her trip). The characters are marvellous, as is the writing. As I say above, it’s not the examination of Edwardian Ireland we remember it for, it’s the sheer quality of the writing and the perception in it, the humanity.

  5. Sheila O'Brien

    Thank you for this wonderful review. As KFC has said, I bought the book in the Dublin airport mostly because I was already mourning the loss of Ireland in my life as I was leaving. It is a country defined by the sweetness of the people, and the poignant acknowledgement of so many sadnesses, from The Troubles to the Celtic Tiger failure, the effects of which are still being visited on the Irish today. Ireland is a place unlike any other I have ever visited, and your comment about the humanity of the country resonates with me very clearly. I have always been intimidated by the density of Joyce’s writing ( I have picked up Ulysses many times and been defeated by it). But the Dubliners is different. It is beautifully written, with so much of the brilliant content in the white spaces. I could only read it a story at a time. because the writing is so pure and so clear that I had to stop and reflect. I have finished it once, but will go back and re-read again. I suspect this may become one of those books that I read every couple of years, as I think I have only begun to scratch the surface of what is there.

  6. Sheila,

    Thanks for commenting. I know what you mean about how it bears re-reading. As I wrote this I found myself already tempted to do so. There’s huge depth in it.

    You’re absolutely write to talk about the brilliant content in the white spaces. To take two examples from above, nothing in the text says that the creepy man in An Encounter masturbates, it’s a silence in the text which suggests it. Similarly, nothing expressly says that the priest in Two Sisters was frustrated by his congregation, but we hear how educated he was and see how little interest in anything beyond the prosaic those remembering him are. The content lies not in what we’re told, but between it.

    I think people often try to start with Ulysses, which is insane because this is so much more approachable. For Ulysses I wonder if one needs to lock oneself away for the weekend (perhaps in a Norquay cabin…). I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m anticipating it will need immersion for decent chunks of time, like Proust or Tolstoy (not that I’ve read any Tolstoy yet).

    If you’ve not followed the link the Toibin piece I mention at the end is very much worth reading. Toibin’s a wonderful writer in his own right of course, and he’s very good on Joyce and Dubliners.

  7. Sheila O'Brien

    On our trip, one of our guides was a woman writing her PhD thesis on the impact of food imagery in Ulysses. She read us several passages which inspired her, and I must say, that although they were VERY dense, the writing was brilliant. I think maybe hearing it rather than reading it helped. Perhaps this is a case for a book on tape if there is a version read by an Irishman with a deep and resonant voice.
    I will follow the Toiban link. My edition is by O’Brien Press, and has the merest of glossaries in the back.
    thank you again – I loved your review.

  8. Sheila,

    I have Ulysses on audio – this edition: http://www.amazon.com/Ulysses/dp/B001DNNASW

    The man has a fantastic voice. You can listen for free a bit on the Audible website. You can get it free with a one month trial subscription (or pay over a $100 for it if free for some reason doesn’t appeal).

  9. Sheila O'Brien

    Thank you Max. I will pursue this for sure.

  10. Max: the cover is the first impression we get and I suppose publishers must spend some time considering choices, so it’s not too surprising if a cover impacts a choice. Are the NYRB editions then not over there? Or just certain ones.

  11. Sometimes before a writer is established, that writer will create a collection of short stories and put everything they’ve got into it. “The Dubliners” is that kind of book. It probably is not my favorite, that being Ulysees, but it’s a fine book. Some day I must get to ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. .

  12. Dubliners is one of my favourite books of all time even if I had to choose only ten and I’m wary to read people’s reviews. I’m glad to say you didn’t spoil it for me, on the very contrary, you wrote a wonderful review. I know what you mean, one could easily write 2000 words on each story. I also agree that this is one of those collections that should be approached like a novel, and read closely together. It may not be a novel but it’s a canvas. I read it at a time when I didn’t know a lot about Irish history, I think I was bareyl 20 but it spoke to me.
    I perosnally didn’t like Ulysses as much but I would like to get to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man one of these days.

  13. We have NYRB generally Guy. My guess would be that someone else has the UK rights to that particular book. I’ll pick it up at some point though.

    Anokatony, nice point. It does have that sense of everything having gone into it. Frankly you could write nothing but this and have a literary career to be extremely proud of.

    Portrait will be my next Joyce. This was the only one I’d read any of before (actually, I thought I’d read the whole thing before but it turned out I’d somehow only read some of the stories).

    Caroline, I’m glad I didn’t spoil it for you. That would have been a heavy responsibility to bear.

    I don’t know that much Irish history myself, and most of that only insofar as it forms part of British history. I could summarise my knowledge of Irish history broadly as follows:

    – Ancient kings, don’t know much about them and most of that is based on a comic character from 2000AD
    – Vikings settle Dublin a thousand years or so ago, sort of interesting
    – Cromwell – didn’t go well for anyone really
    – Potato famine, not really sure when though without googling it
    – Black and Tans – not the UK’s finest moment, not sure precisely when again
    – Easter Uprising and a siege in a post office (thanks Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing)
    – Troubles
    – Celtic tiger
    – Won the Eurovision Song Contest a lot for a while
    – Bailout
    – Err..
    – That’s it.

    As a rule few countries study the history of other countries save to the extent it impacts their own. I know more about 16th Century Italy than I do 20th Century Ireland, and probably more about what happened in Berlin and in the US in the 1920s than I do what happened in the UK or Ireland.

    It can be an issue when reading works that were topical in their day, like Strindberg’s Red Room for example. The odds on even an educated reader knowing much about say 19th Century Swedish politics aren’t great, even for Swedes I suspect let alone the rest of us.

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  15. Great review.
    I’m glad to read I’m not the only one lost in the political references; it’s not that obvious, then (Perhaps it’s 4 Ps, the last one being politics.)
    He has a wonderful style, I remember I was more than impressed.
    I should read it again, now that I’ve been to Dublin..

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  17. leroyhunter

    I’ll be interested to see what you make of the next one: hard to imagine someone not enjoying Dubliners, but Portrait is a different kettle of fish. I’ve seen it suggested that it’s actually more of a challenge than Ulysses, and there’s something in that.

    You’ve tackled some biggies recently Max, and done an admirable job. My impression of reviewing some of these works is that it must feel like lining up with a pea-shooter against a T-34 tank.

    Funny to see what events in Irish history have stuck in the mind (and the sources for them). It would be fair to say Irish history is not a tale of unalloyed happiness and glory (but what nation’s is?)

  18. I’m sorry I forgot to link to your review Emma. I’ve corrected that now.

    Ivy Day in the Committee Room is genuinely difficult I think in terms of references and so on, and Two Gallants turns on a sixpence at the end which if the language is proving difficult makes it also particularly tricky. Grace is one that needs endnotes I think, or at least which strongly benefits from them – it’s one of those where I most turned back to the Penguin edition for reference (for those who’ve not read Emma’s review these are all stories that were singled out there for difficulty and where having read this recently I can now better see why).

    I do think it would repay a rereading though. As I say above, there’s depth here, it repays effort. Still, it shouldn’t be a chore.

    Leroy, all going well I may get to Portrait before the year’s out, but I don’t know yet.

    There have been some biggies lately, and Prufrock is still on the review backlog (though as my favourite poem that shouldn’t be too bad to write about). It is slightly bizarre writing a blog review of Dubliners or anything in that league. It’s hard not to be aware of the weight of scholarship, almost none of which I have any familiarity with.

    Still, we shouldn’t be awed or frightened by these books. When they came out readers read and reacted to them. It’s difficult, but I think it’s worth trying to get back to their place, trying to read without the sheer weight of history bearing down on the page.

    Somehow I find that easier with books than music. I can’t listen to The Beatles without an awareness that they’re THE GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME TM (not that I’m actually particularly a fan of The Beatles anyway). I can’t hear them new, as their original audiences did. Joyce though, this, it did seem possible just to try to take it as a short story collection and see how I responded to it.

    That’s the thing with the biggies. If we treat them too much as a category in their own right we kill them.

    All countries have lousy histories. Ireland’s isn’t much worse than most others. Besides, all histories are partial. A history of Britain may dwell on Empire and industry, but a history of the British working class might feel very different and much less glorious.

  19. Thanks for the link Max and for the comments. It would be nice to have an edition with an introduction to each short-story, just to understand the context or the references. It doesn’t need to be a long essay, just basic facts.

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  21. Tredynas Days

    Excellent piece as always, Max. In my usual flighty way I’ve been posting about early stories by Cheever on my blog, then got diverted elsewhere, and had been mulling over the idea of posting on each story in ‘Dubliners’ in response to the centenary this year (2014) of its first publication. Now I see Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has started that very project, so perhaps I’ll just join in the discussion that will surely ensue. Meantime I bought somewhere second hand some years ago a very well illustrated and annotated paperback edition by Sinclair Stevenson 1995, ISBN 1-85619-780-8. As with some Penguin Classics the notes are sometimes irritatingly unnecessary, but by and large they are very detailed and illuminating (random example: on the significance of Dublin’s bazaars vis-à-vis ‘Araby’). Nice illustrations/photos, and good socio-political-historical context too. Edited by J. W. Jackson and Bernard McGinley.

  22. Tredynas, thanks. Sorry I missed your comment. I’d certainly follow a posting on the stories in Dubliners, or the discussion at Trevor, they’re worth discussing – so much depth.

    The Penguin edition would have been amazing if you were studying this or wanted to take your appreciation to another level. I wanted to read them though as works of prose, as short stories, and so for me they were too much.

    Emma’s idea of an introduction is a very good one. Just something to give a little context, though the Toibin introduction here really is excellent and worth the price of admission almost on its own.

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