Literature

James Joyce, Dubliners: Introduction and Analysis

Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories written by James Joyce and published in 1914. As we’ve remarked before, Dubliners is now regarded as one of the landmark texts of modernist literature, but initially sales were poor, with just 379 copies being sold in the first year (famously, 120 of these were bought by Joyce himself).

We’ve analysed a number of the most popular and widely studied stories in Dubliners in separate posts (see the links provided below), but in this post we want to provide a brief overview to each of the 15 stories. Joyce largely ordered the stories so their principal characters gradually get older, so we move from late childhood/early adulthood into young adulthood and then middle age, through to late middle age in the final story.

The Sisters.

Unlike many of the other stories in the collection, the opening story is told in the first person, by a young man recalling his friendship, as a boy, with a Catholic priest. The narrator gradually reveals that there was something odd about this priest – and was there, he wonders, something also strange, even sinister, about his friendship with him? As this very brief summary of the story would suggest, there is something odd in the story being given the title ‘The Sisters’, since the two sisters are actually not the central focus of the story.

We have analysed this story here.

An Encounter.

This is another boyhood story, narrated by a man who is recalling an episode from his childhood, and specifically his schooldays in Dublin. The boy recounts how one of his schoolfriends, Leo Dillon, introduced him and a number of other boys to the adventure and excitement of the Wild West, before the two of them played truant from school one day. They encounter a strange old man who seems to take an unusual interest in the boys’ love lives …

We have analysed this story here.

Araby.

This story is narrated by a young boy, who describes the Dublin street where he lives. As the story progresses, the narrator realises that he has feelings for his neighbour’s sister and watches her from his house, daydreaming about her, wondering if she will ever speak to him.

When they eventually talk, she suggests that he visit a bazaar, Araby, on her behalf as she cannot go herself. The boy plans to buy her a present while at Araby, but he arrives late to the bazaar and, disappointed to find that most of the stalls are packing up, ends up buying nothing. The story is marked by dead ends and anti-climaxes – but Joyce weaves a wonderful character study out of the narrator’s thwarted dreams.

We have analysed this story here.

Eveline.

This is another Dubliners story about young adult life, and especially about the desire to fall in love and escape Dublin for a new life.

Dreaming of a better life beyond the shores of Ireland, Eveline plans to elope with Frank, a sailor who is her secret lover, and start a new life in Argentina. With her mother gone, Eveline is responsible for the day-to-day running of the household: her father is drunk and only reluctantly tips up his share of the weekly housekeeping money, and her brother Harry is busy working and is away a lot on business (another brother, Ernest, has died). Eveline is tired of this life, and so she and Frank book onto a ship leaving for Argentina. But as she is just about to board the ship, Eveline suffers a failure of resolve, and cannot go through with it. She wordlessly turns round and goes home, leaving Frank to board the ship alone.

We have analysed this story here.

After the Race.

As its title suggests, ‘After the Race’ focuses on what happens after a motorcar race has finished, over the rest of the day – and throughout the same night. The protagonist, Jimmy Doyle, and his European friends walk around Dublin, go to dinner at a hotel, talk about politics and music among other things, and then catch the train to the harbour where they go to a yacht and proceed to get drunk dancing and playing cards.

The story ends with the arrival of a new day, at ‘daybreak’. But as so often, this brief summary of a Dubliners story doesn’t capture the suggestiveness of Joyce’s writing, or his attention to everyday detail.

We have analysed this story here.

Two Gallants.

In a letter to the published Grant Richards, Joyce called ‘Two Gallants’ one of the most important stories in Dubliners. It centres on two Irishmen, one of whom arranges to meet a woman he wishes to seduce, while the other reflects on his plans to marry a ‘simple-minded’ woman for her money. A powerful story about the loss of idealism among young to middle-aged Irishmen at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Boarding House.

‘The Boarding House’ focuses on Mrs Mooney, a married woman who has separated from her violent husband, a butcher, and set up a boarding house on Hardwicke Street in Dublin. She has a steady stream of lodgers staying with her. We discover that her daughter, Polly, who was known to flirt with the guests, had been taken advantage of by a man lodging in the boarding house. Mrs Mooney reasons that, having slept with Polly, Mr Doran should make reparation for damaging her honour: he should make an honourable woman of Polly by marrying her …

We have analysed this story here.

A Little Cloud.

Like ‘Eveline’, this is a story about escaping Dublin – or not escaping, as the case may be. The story follows Little Chandler, a man who stayed in Dublin and settled down, with the life of his old friend who went to live and work in London.

Counterparts.

A number of Joyce’s protagonists in Dubliners are failures, and Farrington, the protagonist of ‘Counterparts’, is a failure in every aspect of his life, thanks largely to his dependency on alcohol. In the course of a night out after work, he is rebuffed by a young woman and gets defeated in an arm-wrestling competition. Once again, Joyce explores the lives of quiet despair lived by so many Dubliners a century or so ago.

Clay.

Of the 15 short stories that make up James Joyce’s Dubliners, ‘Clay’ is one of the most enigmatic – which is saying something, since none of the stories offers up its meaning easily.

‘Clay’ focuses on Maria, an unmarried middle-aged Catholic woman living and working in Dublin. She joins an old acquaintance and his family as they celebrate Hallow Eve, i.e. Halloween. They then play a game in which the participant is blindfolded and has to touch objects in saucers in front of them; the game centres on the idea that the object one touches contains an omen about one’s future …

We have analysed this story here.

A Painful Case.

This is a story about the onset of late middle age, a time when people have perhaps left it too late to seek love and marriage – or, if they have these things, they will come to realise that they fail to live up to youthful expectation. ‘A Painful Case’ introduces us to James Duffy, a man who lives on the outskirts of Dublin, in the village of Chapelizod. He is a bachelor, his life somewhat clinical and sterile. One day, he befriends a married woman at the opera, who appears to harbour romantic feelings towards him. Has Duffy found love at long last?

We have analysed this story here.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

This is the most overtly political story in Joyce’s Dubliners, if only because it actually focuses on the conversations taking place between various political candidates in the wake of their canvassing efforts ahead of an election. Irish nationalism is discussed: the day referred to in the story’s title, Ivy Day, commemorates the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell.

A Mother.

By this point in Dubliners, we’re focusing on middle-aged Dubliners, many of whom are married or have children. This story focuses on a mother’s efforts to secure some concerts for her daughter, a talented pianist. Behind the story is Mrs Kearney’s own thwarted ambition: she had shown promise as a musician herself, but gave it up when she got married and became a mother …

Grace.

Another story, like ‘Counterparts’, which explores the effects of alcohol. Kernan is a salesman who has taken to drink, and who falls unconscious in a pub one night. His friends stage what we’d now call an intervention for him, persuading him to go to a Catholic retreat with them. The story’s title, ‘Grace’, points to this as another of the stories in Dubliners which engages quite closely with religion, specifically Roman Catholicism.

The Dead.

The most famous and widely discussed story in all of Dubliners, ‘The Dead’, which is almost long enough to be called a novella rather than short story, also concludes the collection. Its focus is a middle-aged man named Gabriel Conroy, who attends a party just after New Year with his wife. Irish politics, Conroy’s own insecurities, and a tragic tale involving his wife’s former sweetheart all intermingle in this masterclass of modernist fiction, with the story ending in an ambiguous epiphany Conroy experiences while watching the snow falling.

Dubliners: analysis

A key feature of James Joyce’s short stories, as with those of Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, is the epiphany: a realisation or revelation experienced by a central character in the story. This epiphany often provides a similar function to a plot twist or denouement in a more traditional (i.e., plot-driven) story: at the end of a detective story the mystery is solved and the criminal unmasked, for instance.

But epiphanies in modernist fiction, and especially in the stories of Joyce’s Dubliners, are frequently ambiguously poised between capturing genuine enlightenment (the protagonist has a life-changing realisation) and temporary change of mood (the protagonist thinks they have undergone a life-changing experience, but in reality, nothing has changed and they will probably relapse into their old habits the next day).

Dubliners is littered with such examples: for instance, James Duffy’s realisation that he has passed up perhaps his one and only shot at true love and passion when he reads of Mrs Sinico’s death in ‘A Painful Case’. Has he really come to learn something valuable about himself: that he is a loner and an outsider and that he has made a terrible mistake in spurning her when she was alive and showed an interest in him? Or does the language Joyce uses (including the slightly melodramatic phrase ‘outcast from life’s feast’, channelling what are presumably Duffy’s own words) suggest that he is performing the role of a loner and secretly likes it? The description of the night as being ‘perfectly silent’ refuses to tell us whether Duffy views this as a tragic void or as a return to the natural state of affairs to which he is accustomed (and which he secretly prefers): solitude and silence and safety rather than passion and feeling.

One of Joyce’s aims in writing Dubliners was to highlight the ‘paralysis’ of Ireland, and we see this time and again in the stories that make up the collection, from the mysterious illness that Father Flynn died of in the very first story, through to the emotional and social paralysis that appears to afflict Gabriel Conroy in the final story. The people of Dublin are held back, lacking in agency, trapped, unable to break free of the city. In these fifteen snapshots of Dublin, Joyce suggests some of the reasons for this lasting paralysis.

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