Introduction

Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce, first published in 1914. They form a naturalistic depiction of Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century.

The stories were written when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences. They centre on Joyce’s idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character experiences self-understanding or illumination. Many of the characters in Dubliners later appear in minor roles in Joyce’s novel Ulysses.[1] The initial stories in the collection are narrated by child protagonists, and as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. This is in line with Joyce’s tripartite division of the collection into childhood, adolescence and maturity.

In Dubliners Joyce rarely uses hyperbole, relying on simplicity and close detail to create a realistic setting. This ties the reader’s understanding of people to their environments. He does not tell readers what to think, rather they are left to come to their own conclusions. This is even more evident when contrasted with the moral judgements displayed by earlier writers such as Charles Dickens. This frequently leads to a lack of traditional dramatic resolution within the stories.

It has been argued [3] that Joyce often allows his narrative voice to gravitate towards the voice of a textual character. For example, the opening line of ‘The Dead’ reads “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” She is not, in this instance, “literally” run off her feet, and neither would Joyce have thought so; rather, the narrative lends itself to a misuse of language typical of the character being described.

Joyce often uses descriptions from the characters’ point of view, although he very rarely writes in the first person. This can be seen in Eveline, when Joyce writes, “Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne“. Here, Joyce employs an empiricalperspective in his description of characters and events; an understanding of characters’ personalities is often gained through an analysis of their possessions. The first paragraph of A Painful Case is an example of this style, as well as Joyce’s use of global to local description of the character’s possessions. Joyce also employs parodies of other writing styles; part of A Painful Case is written as a newspaper story, and part of Grace is written as a sermon. This stylistic motif may also be seen in Ulysses (for example, in the Aeolus episode, which is written in a newspaper style), and is indicative of a sort of blending of narrative with textual circumstances.

The collection as a whole displays an overall plan, beginning with stories of youth and progressing in age to culminate in The Dead. Great emphasis is laid upon the specific geographic details of Dublin, details to which a reader with a knowledge of the area would be able to directly relate. The multiple perspectives presented throughout the collection serve to contrast the characters in Dublin at this time.

 

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