James Joyce’s Dubliners is 100 years old this year. It’s a book that is often cited as the perfect short-story collection or as an easy entrée to Joyce’s more difficult works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or, more particularly, Ulysses. (Finnegans Wake is sui generis and really needs to be considered on its own merits.)
I hadn’t read Dubliners in many years — I may have been still a teenager the last time I delved into anything from the collection other than The Dead. I was pleased at how well I remembered the individual stories and delighted at how well they’ve held up — indeed, at how more powerful and nuanced they now seem to me.
The first couple, The Sisters and An Encounter are a bit open-ended and mysterious but there’s no denying the power of the language and the evocation of childhood confusion. In fact, the mystery of the pieces is what the stories are about — the unspoken things, the unclear things.
Araby, too, has that childhood confusion — mixed with a naive eroticism — is heart-breaking in its poignancy.
With Eveline we move into a more adult phase of life experience and, to my mind, the heart of what the collection is about. Joyce spoke of holding up a moral mirror to the people of Dublin and perceived a ‘paralysis’ at the core of life in that city. Eveline cannot make up her mind to leave her home, unhappy as it is, and elope with her sailor lover. Indeed, she may have good reason to vacillate but she also risks letting her best chance of happiness elude her grasp. It’s particularly of note that the story was written around the time that Joyce had entered into his relationship with Nora Barnacle and was planning his own self-exile in continental Europe.
I was a bit perplexed by After the Race and find it to be the least satisfying of the stories in the collection but the stories that follow, Two Gallants, The Boarding House, A Little Cloud and Counterparts are moving depictions of small lives that remain small because of that dreadful rigidity and conservatism of Irish social life — the petty frustrations that turn into petty cruelties and exploitations.
Clay is the story of Maria, a skivvy in a Magdalene laundry whose small life is hedged ‘round with sadness. A Painful Case is reminded me of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and the relationship between Stevens and Miss Keaton. Joyce is at his most pointed in this story. He says of Mr Duffy, one of the two main characters; “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” There is something comical about Mr Duffy — indeed, in all of these stories, a keen sense of the comical and absurd will be rewarded with many chuckles, even guffaws — but his own self-importance and lack of self-knowledge rob him of his chance of some kind of fulfillment.
Ivy Day in the Committee Room offers a glimpse into small-minded politics and small ambitions, couched in memories of great political possibilities that ended with the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, which is commemorated on October 6 — Ivy Day. A Mother recounts the often hilarious machinations of a stage-mother and the world of amateur dramatics. Grace, which was to be the final story in the collection is a humorous and pointed story of an attempt to reform a drunk by conning him into attending a religious retreat. As with other stories, it features several characters that also appear in Ulysses. The tally of attendees at the retreat doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of success.
Then we come to The Dead, a story that I read at least once a year and one that never fails to move me. (I should say here that when John Huston made a film of this story I was skeptical that it could be done with any success. It was a triumph, a wonderful movie. )
A few thoughts in closing: it’s easy to read these stories as serious literature, but be aware that there’s a lot of humor in here, even if the human sadness always seeps through. Joyce has great sympathy for his characters, though his gaze was all-seeing and, sometimes, harsh.