Published in 1914 after 10 years of argument with publishers over charges of "obscenity," these stories were once described by Joyce as "a chapter in the moral history of my country." Their collection in one volume offers a unified vision across the Joycean literary landscape, where a claustrophobic and "paralyzed" Dublin spirals outward to a wide ranging, boundless universe.
All the stories are beautifully crafted with characters that are sketched in with such a preciseness that the reader feels at home with them straight away. The reader is never surprised with the actions (or in many cases inactions) that they take; they are a product of their times and those times are superbly caught by the author. Catholic Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century was smarting under English rule and while a Nationalist uprising was just around the corner the middle class characters that inhabit Joyce stories seem as wary of the Nationalist as they are of English rule and while the political situation does not dominate their lives it is in the background to many of the stories, however Joyce is interested in the way people behave within their own community and his insights into the human condition are just as relevant today.
Missed opportunities or a failure to follow a dream is a theme that predominates, but in many of the stories it would seem to me that the characters are better off not chasing that dream. The events in their lives lead many of them to an epiphany of some sort, it could be a crossroads, but the tragedy is that some of them only realise this after the opportunity has passed them by. There are no risks taken, characters are content to live the lives that they are born into, conventions are followed and you have to say that many of the choices made are inevitable and may even be the right choices.
In "An Encounter" an adventurous young lad is curious about a strange man, who the reader can see could be a paedophile. In "Eveline" a young domestic is given the chance to run away to Argentina with a man who she may love. In "Araby" a teenager is desperate to get to a local Bazaar to buy a present for a girl on whom he has a crush. In "A Painful Case" James Duffy a confirmed bachelor meets a married woman whose company he yearns for and whom he finds intellectually stimulating. Many of the stories touch on situations that many of us will have come across; if not in our own lives then in the lives of friends or acquaintances and we cannot help but be drawn into the consequences for the characters in Joyce's stories.
Once the reader is used to the idea that the stories seem to follow a natural course he can let the prose do it's work; which is to capture the milieu of middle class life, to enter into the thoughts and feelings in such a way that there in no feeling of intrusion. Joyce is a master of non manipulation; their is no preaching, no moral stance, people behave as they will with few surprises; it is left to the reader to appreciate what he has just read and to follow his own reaction to the events that take place. There are few writers that can tap into my thoughts and feelings the way that Joyce can in [Dubliners] and [A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man].
The first story "Sisters" starts with the death of an old priest about whom there may be something untoward and the effect on a young lad who has grown close to him. The last story "The Dead" continues the grand theme of the march towards death by invoking the dead in the actions and thoughts of a party of friends gathering for a Christmas celebration. This masterful story brings many of the other stories into focus with a symbol of a snowfall that appears to deaden the lives of Joyce's characters; some marvellous prose completes the story:
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. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward 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"
After all the realism of the earlier stories Joyce's final lurch into the metaphysical world has the power of contrast that juxtaposes all that has gone before. A five star read.
This time reading Dubliners, I was struck by the “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and, as ever, “Araby.” But also “The Boarding House,” and “A Mother.” Yet standing apart from all of them is “The Dead.” It is so much more complete, so much more complex, so much more human and humane, and sadder. It truly is the culmination.
Highly recommended, every time you read it.
In the subsequent stories he portrays other things besides death that unbalance us, leaving us faltering and disconnected: loss of innocence, exposure to illness or madness, first love, rebellion, intoxication, dull routine. Through these episodes we may gain insight that promises to guide us towards living our lives more fully, but insight alone is not enough. Positive change requires action but these characters are doomed to paralysis: they sentence themselves to understanding the truth of their chosen lot while doing nothing about it. Some stories hit painfully close to home, triggering my own regrets about opportunities I've passed on or the risks I didn't take.
This collection has more unity than just its theme: there is also the locale of the title with which the theme is closely associated. These tales are meant to describe the plight of Dubliners and the Irish in general as a downtrodden lot. Some of the stories such as "Two Gallants" speak to this more directly than others through symbolism and mood. I still find them universally applicable. There's also a subtle aging in how the stories are ordered, the first being that of a child, up to the last about man who has been married for several years. Every age must contend with the same choice placed before them, to live or merely to exist. It isn't impossible to make the right choice, only improbable because our greatest obstacle is ourselves.
I am so happy I picked up this book to read, finally, having purchased it back in March. It amazes me how simply language can be used perfectly to tell a story. I kept wondering to myself if these were actual people he knew or saw in the streets around him, making up stories about the men walking down the street, or the kids on the ferry during school hours, or the lady at the quay staring at a ship setting sail.
Review written in August 2014
The Dubliners is a collection of 15 stories set in Dublin Ireland. Together they can be seen as a novel. The first story was published in 1904. The last in 1907. Some of these stories were apparently quite controversial at the the time. I read a little background material before tackling this. Doing so made me wonder if I could really appreciate this a century after they were written. I was ready for bleak. Stories I've read set in Ireland such as McCourt's [Angela's Ashes] have more than convinced me of the overwhelming crushing poverty and sadness for endless decades.
Bleak is what I got, but not overwhelming; more just like a great melancholy laying over many stories. Some are frankly depressing, almost enought to make one cry. These are small snapshots of moments in ordinary people's lives. I thought most of them were quite good. The writing is beautiful. As for my trepidations of not being able to fully appreciate these in their time, I think it was a little true. I wasn't quite sure what was going on at times and with the dialogue between characters. Other stories were 100% understandable. Someone with a depth of knowledge of the times and Irish history would probably get more from these stories, but I had no major problems other than being unfamiliar with a word here and there and some sensibilities. The stories really grew into something bigger than the pieces and my appreciation got ever larger. Very fine stuff here. I'm glad to have finally tackled Joyce. He is without a doubt a storyteller. Quite a good read.
Deeper reading is rewarded. The Sisters closely read transports the reader to the temples of ancient Egypt. And invites reflections on the varying position of religion in society through history.
At first glance, they're pretty depressing, realistic portraits of life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. But a closer reading reveals rich underpinnings of symbol, allusion, even allegorical contexts. And the reader who persists, getting through all the stories to the last one, "The Dead," will be rewarded with a final vision of Irish hospitality and celebration, closing with a sense of equanimity (though not everyone reads the final passage this hopefully).
Joyce never fails to disappoint.
This is one of those books that I could not put down, had a profound affect on me emotionally at times, and yet, I doubt there is any one moment or character that will stick with me. In a way, that's the genius of it in that it perfectly captures the prosaic life of the middle class. In the end, one begins to lament the meaninglessness of his own life and the fact that most of our lives are not really worth telling stories about. Joyce celebrates this commonality in a moving way by telling it to us straight with little flourish, which would serve to make it maudlin. Come to think of it, I guess this book might just stick with me a little longer than I thought.
I’m not going to try to talk my way around it: I hated this book. It was extremely tedious. Rarely did any of the fifteen stories gathered within capture my attention in any way; more often than not, I found myself distracted and daydreaming, and had to keep snapping my focus back to the page. I finished the book yesterday and can properly summarise exactly zero of the stories for you. I can tell you virtually nothing about the plots they contain, let alone the thematic weight they are supposed to carry. This is not to say that they are bad or useless or pointless; merely that whatever literary heft they have was lost on this reader. Dubliners, just so we’re clear, is not written in the same deliberately confusing modernist stream-of-consciousness style that Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are. It’s a perfectly normal, ordinary style of writing. It’s just very, very boring.
I’m not a stupid or crass reader. I have read, enjoyed, appreciated and even loved the works of Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey, to name a few. But I hated Dubliners, and if that makes me a philistine then so be it.
Dubliners, Joyce’s first masterpiece and only collection of short stories, carries in its pages all of the self-assured sophistication and willingness to break rules Joyce was famous for, but a much lesser degree of the “obscurity” he would pioneer in his next books and take to its fullest extent and conclusion in the dream freakout of Finnegans Wake, which would famously be called obscure by Ezra Pound, who wrote The Cantos . Dubliners is one of the greatest collections of short stories in the English language, if not the greatest collection. Centering around Joyce’s idea of the epiphany, or moments of great reflection, introspection, or realization, each story centers on the moment when a given character’s true self is brought out. It may be somewhat hard to understand and slow going at first, but once you catch on to what Joyce is doing – I caught on about half way through – then you will be hooked.
“Two Sisters”, the first story, starts the collection on a dour note. A boy in mourning over his mentor, a priest named Flynn, isn’t sure how to deal with the ramifications of his first brush with mortality. Spiritually connected with the last story, “The Dead”, this story with its abrupt ending (mid conversation) shows that Joyce is not about to hold your hand through this collection. You’re going to have to dig in and find the purpose of the story yourself- there is no moral help, no conventional use of plot, and no tropes, allegories, or indicators.
And that’s just the tone of the stories as they go through. The narrator doesn’t help you with anything and the characters are left to voice themselves and moralize on their own. To give you a little more information, “An Encounter” is about two boys’ acquaintance with an old lecherous pervert, “Two Gallants” details a couple of con men who find a maid willing to steal from her employer, “A Painful Case” is the realization of a man who rebuffs a woman that he has condemned her to a life of loneliness and isolation. These are the types of stories you can expect to find within the world of Dubliners.
These are all great stories and each has its own unique, individual flavor, but the crowning jewel of the set would have to be “The Dead.” At around 15,000 words, some would consider this to be a novella, but its themes and materials are actually inextricable from the rest of the collection. It really is the consummation of all of the other stories, an intensification of what is happening throughout the rest of the book. It also breaks the most rules. First off, the story tricks the reader by starting out with a focus on one of the minor characters in the story. In fact, not only is the focus on the door maid Lily, but even her thoughts are exposed right from the beginning sentence which starts, “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Since the story takes place in a sophisticated upper-crust party, it was obviously not the case that she was literally run off her feet. The narrator was simply using the kind of words she herself would have used to describe her situation, and so a kind of deep penetration into her thoughts was achieved.
This is, of course, strange and unusual, because Lily is not the main character of the story, as I have stated. She is merely a side character. The main characters of the story are a husband and wife named Gabriel and Gretta Conroy. But this isn’t the only act of trickery the author participates in. Even the setting is illusory as events shift from the party to the place Mr. and Mrs. Conroy are staying at with little or no connection between the two on first glance. Close reading is rewarded, though, as the connection becomes apparent on the second or third read of this amazing short story. Unfortunately, it is impossible to discuss all of the aspects of the works of Joyce in a relatively small space for readability, but hopefully my evaluation can serve as a roadmap and a help to you on your travels through this complex, rewarding book.
Keep note that this is the first Joyce book to be written and as such should be the first Joyce book you read if you should ever decide to take an endeavor through Joyce’s world. I can imagine plenty of people trying to start with Ulysses and just getting lost. It’s important to pick up the ideas of what James Joyce is doing early on as he builds on these and adds to them as he progresses.