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.
1. ‘The Sisters’.
There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse …
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).
She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing …
‘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.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark …
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?).
4. ‘A Painful Case’.
He turned back the way he had come, the rhythm of the engine pounding in his ears. He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him. He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent …
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.
5. ‘The Dead’.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near …
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.
We have analysed this long story here.
About James Joyce
James Joyce (1882-1941) is one of the most important modernist writers of the early twentieth century. His reputation largely rests on just four works: a short story collection Dubliners (1914), and three novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Each of these works represents a development from the last, with Joyce’s writing becoming increasingly experimental, obscure, and challenging.
Like his fellow countryman, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, Joyce writes about the country he knew so well: Ireland, the country of his birth. But unlike Yeats, Joyce had no time for the romantic vision of Ireland encapsulated by the Celtic Twilight. Joyce said that he wrote the short stories that make up Dubliners in order to give Ireland one good look at itself in the mirror: his vision of Ireland is an unflinchingly realist ‘warts and all’ depiction of a country which, especially in those early works, seems gripped by a paralysis (a key word for Dubliners) that is partly a result of the country’s obsession with its own past and with Catholicism. It’s telling that Joyce spent much of his adult life living outside of his native Ireland, on the Continent, where he could absorb French literary influences which would be so important for his development as a novelist.
Image: Hardwicke Street, Dublin in c. 1912, via Wikimedia Commons.