All the living and the dead…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Joyce’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.
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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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:
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.