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.