James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) was not an initial commercial success. It sold just 379 copies in its first year of publication, and 120 of those were bought by Joyce himself. Yet Dubliners redefined the short story and is now viewed as a classic work of modernist fiction, with each of its fifteen short stories repaying close analysis. Here are five of Joyce’s very best stories from Dubliners.
‘The Sisters’. The opening story in the collection, ‘The Sisters’ is unusual in that it is told in the first person, by a young boy whose friendship with a recently deceased Catholic priest, Father Flynn, starts to concern him as the narrator picks up rumours and whispers about the priest’s behaviour and reputation. Did Flynn do something wrong? Joyce doesn’t tell us – but the boy’s dreams and nightmares suggest that he may have been aware of something improper concerning the priest’s actions but, being only a child at the time, he had repressed it. It is significant that this opening story from Dubliners focuses on a young boy’s experiences, since the arrangement of the collection’s fifteen stories sees the average age of the stories’ protagonists gradually increase, until we reach late middle age in the final story (below).
‘Eveline’. ‘Eveline’ focuses on a young Irish woman of nineteen years of age, who plans to leave her abusive father and poverty-stricken existence in Ireland, and seek out a new, better life for herself and her lover Frank in Buenos Aires. Will she will ever get on that boat and leave Ireland behind, though? This story offers a clear example of the ‘paralysis’ that Joyce felt was crippling Ireland in the early twentieth century.
‘Araby’. A boy realises he has feelings for his neighbour’s sister and watches her from his house, daydreaming about her. When they eventually talk, she suggests that he visit a bazaar, Araby, on her behalf as she cannot go herself. The boy plans to go and buy her a present, and heads to Araby accordingly. This story examines the ways in which we come to terms with adulthood’s disappointments and how life is governed as much by anti-climax as it is by drama and excitement (indeed, perhaps more so?).
‘A Painful Case’. By this stage of Dubliners, we’re into the ‘middle-age’ stage of life: Mr James Duffy lives on his own in Chapelizod on the outskirts of Dublin, and leads a rather solitary, soulless existence. That is, until he meets a married woman at a concert and they strike up a friendship and she makes a pass at him. A powerful blend of tragedy, disappointment, and the solitary life versus the life of communion and love, ‘A Painful Case’ contains a fine example of the ambiguous epiphany which concludes so many of Joyce’s best stories.
‘The Dead’. The concluding story in Dubliners, and the most famous, ‘The Dead’ is almost the longest, and qualifies almost as a ‘novella’ as much as a short story. Focusing on a party which Gabriel Conroy and his wife attend around New Year, ‘The Dead’ homes in on the little events that occur at the party – the conversations, the dances, the speeches, the snide remarks – which gradually reveal not only the state of Gabriel’s own life but the state of Dublin, and Ireland, as Joyce saw it. The snow-filled ending is a far cry from Scrooge’s affirmative change of heart at the end of A Christmas Carol, although Gabriel, having discovered a secret his wife has been keeping since before they were married, certainly experiences a momentous epiphany at the end of the story.
Image: Hardwicke Street, Dublin in c. 1912, via Wikimedia Commons.