Dubliners by James Joyce

All the living and the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the dublinersJoyce’s collection of 15 stories takes the reader through the various strata of Dublin society of the early years of the twentieth century. The prose is of a uniformly high standard, though some of the pieces are too fragmentary and unresolved to be fully satisfying. When Joyce does tell a story, though, he tells it excellently, making me rather regret that he didn’t use standard prose and story-telling techniques more often.

The sum of the collection is greater than its individual parts, however, so that even the shorter character sketches add something to the reader’s understanding of Dublin and its citizens. Despite the wide range of class and circumstance Joyce addresses, each one has a sense of total authenticity, of a deep understanding of how this society intermixes. There is a common theme running throughout, of people trapped, either by circumstance or because of decisions they have made, and many of the stories focus on a moment in the central characters’ lives when they become aware of their trap. Drunkenness, violence and the stifling stranglehold of the Catholic church all play their part in showing a society where aspiration is a rare commodity, usually thwarted. I understand some of the stories were considered shocking at the time for their language and sexual content. Given the relative mildness of them to modern eyes, this fact in itself casts another light on how socially restricted the society was at the time of writing.

The prose is somewhat understated, with Joyce relying more on the penetrating examination of character rather than any flamboyancy of language or stylistic quirks, and that works well for me. He achieves a depth of characterisation with few words, acknowledging his reader’s ability to interpret and understand without the need to have everything spelled out. Just occasionally, this left me floundering a little in the couple of stories where he is addressing contemporary Irish politics or mores, but I accept that’s my weakness rather than his. In the stories where he is addressing more fundamental aspects of human nature, I appreciated his rather sparing style greatly.

dublin

Overall, I found the fully developed stories excellent, while the ones that are primarily character sketches are interesting if not wholly satisfying. However, as a collection, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, the weaker parts being more than compensated for by the stronger.

* * * * *

Since it seems to be a Dubliners tradition to name favourites, here are a few of mine…

An Encounter – this story of two young boys ‘miching’ from school is primarily an oblique and unsettling description of their encounter with a man whom we would today describe as a paedophile. But what I loved about it was the young narrator’s recognition of his own ambivalent attitude towards his friend…

My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and halloed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.

* * * * *

A Painful Case – a man re-evaluates his life following the death, perhaps accident, perhaps suicide, of a woman to whom he was once close. This is a wonderful study of that high moral rectitude that can so easily slide over into hypocrisy, and seems to me to be something of a metaphor for the mechanical, unfelt religiosity of much of the society Joyce is portraying throughout the book.

What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!

* * * * *

James Joyce
James Joyce

The Dead – the longest and most developed story in the book, this ranges beautifully over the various guests attending an evening party, before finally focusing on one man who, in the course of the evening, falls in love with his wife all over again and then has the foundation of his marriage shattered by a sudden revelation. The writing in this one is superb, showing all the sense of community, all the close and distant relationships, that make up this society; but in the end reminding character and reader alike of the ultimate aloneness of the individual, of the unknowableness of even those closest to us.

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

* * * * *

Eveline – this is a beautiful story, full of emotional truthfulness, and my favourite in the collection. Following the death of her mother, a young girl fulfils the promise she made to her to keep the family home together, despite her father’s drunkenness and violence. But now she has met a young man, a sailor, who wants her to come away with him to Buenos Aires. She must decide between love and duty – but on a deeper level, her choice is between courage and cowardice – escape through the open door or remain in the cage. More than any other story, this one seems to me to sum up the major theme of the book, and broke my heart in a few short pages.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist…

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

“Come!”

begorrathon 2016

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69 thoughts on “Dubliners by James Joyce

  1. I’ve always liked The Dead, too, FictionFan. And I think you bring up a fascinating point about how this collection was received when it first came out, and how it’s seen now. It really is revealing, isn’t it? You’re right, too, about the characters. Joyce really did them well, didn’t he?

    • Yes, this one’s definitely all about the characters, even in the stories with more… well… story! Funnily enough, I’ve just been reading a review of Lady Chatterley where the reviewer was saying it was much tamer than she’d anticipated. How times change! I’m not convinced always for the better though…

  2. Absolutely stunning review, FF – in every way. I have literally just ordered this in paperback to enjoy in moments of contemplation and where inspiration is lacking. So… Finnegan’s Wake? 😉

    • Why, thank you! 😀 I hope you enjoy it – I think you will. And if you do, I shall start a campaign to get you to read more Toibin – I could see Joyce’s influence there, I think. Haha! It’s possible – only possible, mind – that I might be tempted…

      • I really fell out with Joyce after Ulysses and my aborted attempt at Finnegan’s, but just maybe I will give him one last chance with this one. Actually, I am rather tempted to have another crack at Finnegan’s. I just need to muster enough brain power…

        • This one is certainly more readable from my memory of the first eleven pages of whichever one it was I tried before. I do wish he had stuck to standard writing – he was so good at it. Modernism! Pah! What’s wrong with the old-fashioned ways, I say!!

    • It is, isn’t it? That whole story was brilliantly written – very short, but long enough to make me care…

      It’s been a better Begorrathon for me this year – and every single one was already on the TBR so no additions!

    • I read the first few stories many years ago and wasn’t very taken with them, but I found them much more interesting this time round. It’s one of the reasons I like to revisit books and authors I might not have admired much in the past – my tastes seem to constantly change…

    • I know – I’ve really enjoyed the Begorrathon this time round! Dubliners certainly worked better for me than my failed attempt at Ulysses, that’s for sure – but maybe I’ll give it another try one of these days…

  3. I read The Dead for a literature class and found it rather heartbreaking, but beautifully written. But it was a little beyond me at the time, I think. I’ve always been a little afraid of reading Joyce, but your review gives me courage!

    • I have a bee in my bonnet about literature classes – I often think they force the reader to analyse things so much that we forget to just relax and enjoy them. I’m sure there’s probably loads in this book that went over my head, but read just as straight stories they’re very enjoyable. Don’t know if I’d get on so well with Ulysses though…

  4. Sigh. I’m so glad you found this one way more pleasing than I did, FF. I tried — really, I did! — to read this but only succeeded in completing half the stories. I found them terribly depressing as a whole, and the more I read, the angrier I got at Joyce for skimming over a storyline while failing to complete the tale. It’s just my nature, I suppose, to want a story to have a beginning, middle, and ending, yet most of these tales didn’t have a satisfying ending. To each his/her own, right??!

    • I had the same experience the first time I tried to read these years ago, Debbie, so I know exactly what you mean. I did think the later stories were considerbaly better than most of the early ones. They seem to be more like actual stories. I’m with you – I reckon a beginning, a middle and an end is really an essential of a good story, but there were enough of those to make up for the ones that were merely character sketches. Yes, depressing, though – but with an occasional gleam of love or hope to lift them…

  5. Next, Portrait of the Artist! I was lucky, I had read the short stories before I tried Ulysses, which seemed to me to follow on from them, more than Finnegan’s Wake did Great review of one of my favourites.

    • Hmm… I can’t remember if I ever read that back in my voracious classics-reading days – I’ll need to check the blurb and remind myself. Yes, I think I might have been willing to give Ulysses a bit more of a chance if I’d read these first – maybe I’ll try again… someday!

  6. The Dead! The Dead! The Dead! So glad you enjoyed it! The way Joyce slips into different POVs in this story is nothing short of masterful. And the last paragraph! It is sublime.

    And yes, Eveline breaks my heart. To choose the familiar cage. Anguish.

    • I can’t remember if I ever read that one back in my youth when I voraciously read my way through loads of the classics – I must check the blurb and remind myself of it. I enjoyed these a lot, but I’m still not sure I could cope with Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake…

  7. I really liked The Dubliners, Portrait of the artist…, and adored Ulysses, and I have had Finnegan’s Wake (and two guide books of how to read it) untouched on my shelf for about two years, waiting for its moment. I really hope it does change my thinking in fancy ways and make my brain super, although part of me does fear he was just off his trolley at that point and it could just be pseudo genius drivel. I read due to his poor sight he wrote it on big cards in crayon, which presents all kinds of fun Crayola-inspired imagery.

    • Haha! I’m voting for pseudo genius drivel! I did try either Ulysses or Finnegan at one point – can’t remember which – and made it to page 11. I’m now trying to pluck up my courage to try again – but I think I’ll detour through Portrait of the Artist first. Why can’t these people just be satisfied with writing normal stuff?? Modernism!! Pah!! Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to do blog posts in crayon though…

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! I found it got more enjoyable the further I read and got used to his style – one to read as a collection, I think, rather than to dip in and out of…

  8. I’ve always been a bit daunted by the prospect of reading Joyce, but your experience gives me some encouragement. Perhaps it’s just a question of choosing the right one. Great review!

  9. Joyce. Hmm. That’s a girl’s name. Wonder how he felt about that.

    Awesome review, tho! I think Eveline would’ve been my fav, too. Would’ve been neat to see what decision she made in the end.

        • Hypnotist? Neurosurgeon? Alien invader? Boy Scout?

          Well… I shouldn’t really… but since it’s you! Well, she decided that it was totally unfair of her father and her sailor to make her decide, so she put them both in a big box and tossed them into the sea, and ran off and became a coal-miner instead! #GoFeminists

          • Nah. They’re all wrong. It’s another chap. Rats.

            *laughs* See, she’d have no problem if she just decided she didn’t love the brute. Women are there own worst enemies. Plus, she’d never survive in a mine. *laughs at the idea*

            • Ah, the Pied Piper! I see!

              Well, but perhaps he looked like Rafa, in which case obviously she’d be in love with him. That’s how men trick women, see – sweet little smile and a kisscurl. Fatal! Oh, she would! Women could do any of these tough jobs – we’re just not daft enough. That’s why we let the men do them… *eats chocolate and relaxes*

            • Yes! That’s it.

              Yes, but see that’s the trouble! Kiss curls and smiles are a warning, I’d say. It’s better to have a scowl and no smile, I’m thinking. *nods* Hahahahahahaha. Of course. If I was in a mine, I’d dig out some precious gems.

            • The problem is that some men are gorgeous when they scowl too – look at Rafa! It’s a problem! Personally, I think they should all wear sacks over their heads… *nods decisively* Ooh, you should – and then send them to me for… safe-keeping!

            • Well…well…well…just don’t think they’re gorgeous anymore! But I do see it’s something of a problem. Maybe. Fooey to it, I say. *laughs* If you promise to keep some for me.

  10. Aside from the last quote, I found myself skimming the Joyce quotes without choosing to do so. The something about his writing style that drives me to distraction. And I took a class that focused on Joyce’s works for half a semester! Ach.

    • Ha! I began to enjoy his style after the first couple of stories, partly because I was so relieved it wasn’t stream of consciousness! But it’s funny how some writers and readers just don’t gel…

  11. Well I’m sold! The quotes along with your synopsis were all very appealing, I particularly like the sound of A Painful Case – I suspect that the sentiments expressed could be far more common than we’d like to believe.

    • I really enjoyed A Painful Case – I loved the way he wrote it from the man’s perspective and didn’t really judge him – he left it up to the reader to do that! There are several stories in this that I reckon you’d enjoy.

    • This is one that I tried to read when I was quite young and really found a bit dull. My response was very different now that I’m… ahem… mature! Definitely worth a re-read, I think!

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

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