Review of Dubliners,
by James Joyce
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/22/05
ago I got into an argument with a drunken professor over James Joyce. My
contention was that no scholars had ever looked into the role that Joyce’s
syphilis had in the breakdown of his narrative abilities. Most have taken for
granted that all of the dashing of Joyce’s style from Dubliners, his
first published fiction, through Finnegans Wake, his last, was by choice.
I disagreed and argued that there were too many ‘rough spots’ in the musical
prosetry to have been left on purpose. I argued that while it could be stated
Joyce was a great writer, for his moments of brilliance in A Portrait Of The
Artist As A Young Man, and Ulysses, are undeniable, it was untenable
to claim him a great novelist, as, by Finnegans Wake, his work is utterly
unreadable. And for those who claim they enjoy the book and understand it, I
merely point to the fact that no two scholars have ever remotely come close to
agreeing on the work’s aim, intent, and meaning in more than vague assertions
and oblique themes. It is, simply put, a mess.
Yet, the professor argued that no one ever proved Joyce had syphilis, although he went blind in one eye, and died because of it, and two of Joyce’s wives admitted it. Still, the professor hung to his tale, as if he had inspected Joyce’s genitalia personally. Not to mention continuing the delusion that Finnegans Wake was written to be read drunk, and other such nonsense.
However, despite the later failings, I’ve long proclaimed that Dubliners is Joyce’s greatest literary achievement. I’d read the book first in the mid-80s, then the early 90s, and just a while back. While I stand by my initial assessment that it’s Joyce’s best work, with age, and my own forays into fiction, I see that it is not as good as I once thought, although it still has moments of greatness.
The book is fifteen short stories that were mostly written in the years 1904-1905, and were dubbed by Joyce as being ‘epiphanies’- moments of sudden insight. The key to that term, however, is that the epiphanies are meant to occur within the reader, not to Joyce’s characters.
I will now summarize each of the fifteen tales, and then comment:
Sisters is the tale of an anonymous child narrator, who opens the tale by
telling of the death of an old man, a friend of his, from a stroke. The boy, who
lives with his aunt and uncle, is eating supper, one evening, when a boorish
family friend named Cotter stops by and starts talking of dead Father Flynn, the
boy’s friend, who was taken under the priest’s wing. That night the boy, in
bed, mocks and scorns Cotter, and dreams of the priest. The next day the boy
goes to the priest’s deathbed home and reminisces of their friendship. But, he
is scared to go in and see the body. He wants to mourn, but feels stifled by
something- perhaps a part of him hates his friend? That night, his aunt
accompanies him to the wake, and he meets the priest’s sisters, and has a
snack They speak of his growing insanity, due to, they believe, his breaking of
a holy chalice, but which sounds all too like syphilis, which Joyce suffered
from. The tale ends in the middle of one of the sisters’ speaking of the
father being found babbling on in a confessional booth, perhaps of a sexual sin?
This first tale is a good one, but its abruptions and rather odd structure are too much for it to be a beloved tale. It is more or less a writing exercise that succeeds in painting a mood. It is a prose tone poem, of sorts. Its narrator’s full grasp of things, or not, is an element that makes the tale worth a reread. The depth of his understanding of what really went on with the priest is an X Factor that sticks in the mind, for the childish reactions he has to things, especially Cotter, suggest he is telling his tale as a child, not an adult narrator in reflection. Or not? Would a child be capable of thinking this?: ‘Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word ‘paralysis’. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word ‘gnomon’ in the Euclid and the word ‘simony’ in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.’ The age of the narrator sticks in the reader’s mind as a query, especially as he also withdraws from interpretation at the end of the tale, an interesting move, because Cotter none too slyly suggests that Father Flynn’s problems with young boys were all too familiar to the modern reader, thus the narrator’s anger toward Cotter takes on an added, possibly sexual, dimension.
This theme is explored further in An Encounter, the story that stuck with me the longest over the years. Another nameless young boy opens by telling of his pals Joe and Leo Dillon, and their love of boy’s magazines. He describes his play times with his peers. Then, one day, he, Leo, and a kid named Mahony, play hooky, and go looking for all the trouble their combined eighteen pence can buy them. They decide to meet at a bridge, but Leo no-shows, and Mahony declares that the two of them can split the money. Mahony turns out to be a hell-raiser- chasing girls, and picking fights with smaller boys- until the two bys decide to eat lunch by the river, where they watch ships go by. After boyish bullshitting, the two tramp through rougher parts of town, and Mahony terrorizes a cat. To avoid being caught playing hooky they decide to head home, and want to hop a local train. There, they meet a strange old man, who asks them of their literary reading, then if the two boys have girlfriends. Mahony says he has a trio, while the narrator admits he has none. Then, the old man goes off and masturbates in public. The two boys decide to go by pseudonyms. When the man returns Mahony takes off after the cat he harassed earlier, and the narrator is puzzled by the sick sadosexual ideas he hears the man has about Mahony. The narrator then leaves the man, and calls Mahony by his pseudonym, and is relieved when the other boys returns to his side, although a bit penitent ‘for in my heart I had always despised him a little’.
The dominant theme is escapism, for the poor boys. Be it from their poverty, the strictures of school, and later from a possibly abusive situation. Yet, the two boys are very unaware of much of what they encounter- be it the class and religious differences inherent in their encounter with the poorer girls and the two smaller boys who defend them, or the pedophilic sinistry of the man at the train tracks. Yet, the narrator is aware enough to pity the bullied, the cat, and appreciate the old man’s initial seeming respect for the boys’ minds, as well as feel guilty that he secretly loathed Mahony, even as the larger bully’s presence provides escape from whatever fate may have befallen him alone with the man.
The third tale is Araby. Another nameless boy has a crush on his pal Mangan’s sister. He stalks her until, one day, she asks him if he’s going to the Araby festival. She can’t, so the boy resolves to get her a gift. He thinks of nothing but the festival and relies on his uncle to give him money to go. But, his uncle comes home late, yet the boy goes, anyway, but is disappointed that all the possible gifts he could get are too expensive, and the fair is closing. He chides himself as ‘a creature driven and derided by vanity’.
This is, of the first three tales, by far the weakest. It has some nice moments, but little occurs. As for being epiphanic? One might more accurately term this tale a small insight- that frustration is one of life’s gnawing realities. It is also the last of the early childhood tales, and last told from a first person perspective, as well as an anonymous one.
The next tale is Eveline. The title is the lead character- a nineteen year old woman looking out an apartment window, lost in since-gone reveries. She will soon be leaving Ireland, and has mixed emotions of leaving her job and family. She wants to marry a sailor named Frank, who has a home in Buenos Ayres, yet her father does not approve of him. Then, at the train station, as she is to leave with Frank, she freezes up, and demurs. Impassively, she glares blankly as Frank, and her own future happiness, are subsumed in guilt and duty to family.
This is a weak, and rather transparent tale, awash in melancholy. There are some nice moments, but little sympathy is held for Eveline, as she is not the brightest bulb on the tree, and easily manipulated. Her mother wasted her own life, then urged Eveline to do the same. The girl is haunted by her mother’s pseudo-Gaelic gibberish, ‘Derevaun Seraun!’, nonsense which symbolizes her and her daughter’s lives. Eveline is, ultimately, a coward, and rightfully damned.
Another weak story is After The Race. An auto race is over, and the Irish have been cheering the French. Four young men of different European nationalities, go party-hopping, then meet an American, who they gamble with, and lose. While the tale is rife with political symbolism none of the characters are compelling, and little more than stereotypes. The Irish character, Doyle, is a buffoon and loser, and utterly powerless to the whims of others.
The next tale is Two Gallants. Corley is telling Lenehan sexual tales. Corley is a boaster, and Lenahan a rube. Corley is to meet with a prostitute, then have her engage Lenehan later. Corley goes off to get laid, and later meets up with Lenehan. Whether or not he got laid is at issue, for when asked, by Lenehan, Corley shows he still has a gold coin in his palm. That Corley smiles suggests he paid the girl, screwed her, then stole the coin back.
This tale is unrelentingly dull, and neither character has a redeeming quality. It’s a pretty one-note and cardboard story that could have packed a greater emotional punch had there been some depth and layering.
The next story is The Boarding House. Mrs. Mooney owns the house, and has had a hard life. Now, though, it consists of vicarity- mostly off her boarders’ lives. Her daughter, Polly, at nineteen, is sleeping with a boarder- Mr. Doran, in his mid thirties. Mrs. Mooney aims to confront him over marrying her daughter. He is conflicted over his affair with Polly. Polly wails to him that her mother knows all, and wants to see him. As he heads downstairs he leaves Polly and encounters her hotheaded brother. A bit later, Mrs. Mooney calls her daughter downstairs, for Mr. Doran wants to speak to her.
Clearly, Joyce has little positive to say of sexual relations- they are either base, as in the early anonymous boys’ tales, and Two Gallants, or are a rigid trap- one to be avoided, as in Eveline, or narcotized into, as in this tale. Mrs. Mooney is a practical woman, though, and is only feigning her shock at her daughter’s sexuality in order to trap Mr. Doran into marrying her, for fear of having his fornication exposed. While the tale works as a social essay, it does little to give insight into the characters, who are, in a sense, mere pawns for Joyce to pontificate against.
A Little Cloud is the eighth, and exactly middle, story in the book. A small man named Little Chandler reminisces of an old pal named Gallaher, as he waits to reacquaint with him, years after Gallaher left for fame as a London journalist. He also dreams of being a poet. Their reunion is not what he expects, and he feels belittled in light of Gallaher’s success. At home, Chandler rues his existence, even when his wife comes home. His impotence, in the face of his infant son, is total.
The major point of the tale is that Ireland is a damned isle- success only came to Gallaher after he left it. Chandler is, in a way, a male Eveline, with a decade or two on her. He is what she is doomed to become, trapped in a social role that kills slowly, but effectively.
The next tale is Counterparts. A scrivener named Farrington is abused by his boss, and goes out for a drink. He is then called back to do work on a case involving a woman his boss is hot for. Complications arise and the boss abuses Farrington in front of the woman. Farrington then goes out to drink and spins a tale of his standing up to his boss, when he really folded his tent. He then is humiliated in the bar. He takes out his frustrations, at home, on one of his sons, as the child begs for mercy.
Farrington is another prisoner of Ireland- this time of its work situation. He constantly loses- on the job, in social scenes, and even to his son, whose mere boyhood seems a threat to the father. Like Chandler, he is doomed, but even further down the road to hell. The story is a solid one, but by now the whole weight of the book’s depressing tone has started to work against the appreciation of the whole. In a sense, the book starts taking on a negative synergy, in that the individual tales are better, when averaged out, then the whole as a work.
Clay is the next tale. Maria works at a laundry, and going over to her friends’ house for Halloween, yet sad that two of them, the brothers Joe and Alphy, are estranged. At Joe’s house she broaches reconciliation, but Joe will have none of it. They share a moment of tears when Maria sings an old song.
While Maria is certainly one of the most effectively drawn characters in the book, and the rare good person, her tale is rather banal, and rotely told. While there are suggestions that death is looming for Maria, this tale really goes nowhere. It is another of Joyce’s tales told seemingly to just evoke mood- be a tone poem.
The next story in the collection is A Painful Case. Middle–aged Dublin suburbanite James Duffy leads a small but ordered life, including work at a bank. One night, at an opera, he is smitten with a married woman- Emily Sinico, and they begin an amorous relationship. Her husband unwittingly encourages it by thinking Duffy is interested in their daughter, not his wife. She makes a more intimate move, and Duffy withdraws, and they end their friendship. Some time later he reads of her death in a train accident. He then withdraws from the world and into himself.
This is love sans sex, and its rejection. Duffy is a weak, little man who elicits little sympathy- but that’s the strength of the story, for it is about how is own lack of empathy for others is turned inward. Thus, epiphany.
Ivy Day in the Committee Room is the next tale. Old Jack and Mr. O’Connor are plotting the election of Richard J. Tierney, but mostly bullshitting. Then a Mr. Hynes comes in and the three men argue politics. They do all agree on one thing, that Irish nationalist hero Charles Stewart Parnell was, indeed, a hero. Other intrigues occur, but of little relevance a century on. Hynes ends by reading a poem on Parnell, and all the men agree it’s good.
This is the worst tale in the book, because its characters are undeveloped and any meaning is lost without a knowledge of that era’s politics. Basically, the story is a long lament of the present and a yearn for days of yore, when giants like Parnell lived. Failing that outcome, beer is all that’s left.
The tale A Mother is next. Mrs. Kearney has set about planning for a series of concerts, including some for her daughter Kathleen, but they are poorly attended, and one is cancelled. Mrs. Kearney argues her daughter should be paid for all the concerts she was contracted for. Haggling and intrigue ensue, and the concert is ruined.
This is, like its predecessor story, very dependent upon the times, and the Irish Revivalist movement of a century ago, which it lampoons. Mrs. Kearney’s shortsightedness ends up costing her daughter a career.
Grace follows next in the collection. Tom Kernan has been in an accident at a bar, and part of his tongue bitten off. Taken home by a friend he spends a few days in recovery. Later, he is at a retreat and argues over religion.
Not much occurs in this tale, save for Joyce’s need to now hit religion, after tackling politics and the arts in the prior two tales. Here Joyce parallels religion with alcohol, as panaceas to Irish ills that never seem to work.
The last story in the book is the most famous, and at forty-eight pages is considered by some a novella, although it clearly has truck with the rest of the stories in the collection. The Dead is arguably Joyce’s finest extended piece of prose writing. There is a holiday party, and two sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, and their niece Mary Jane live on an old house on Usher’s Island. Gabriel Conroy, the spinsters’ nephew, and newspaper columnist, and his wife, Gretta, arrive, and Gabriel is taken with Lily, a servant girl. Freddy Malins, a drunk, is cut off from liquor. Gabriel is tasked over his conservative political opinions by a Miss Ivors. This haunts him. She then leaves. Gabriel is asked to carve the goose they’re serving. Later, he is to give a speech. It is a banal sentimental speech, but many at the dinner party are moved.
Later, Gabriel and his wife go to their hotel, where she admits a past love, a memory brought on by a song sung at the party, Gabriel feels slighted that he is in some way comparable to a slight teenaged boy, who died. She tells the dead boy’s tale and weeps herself to sleep. Gabriel is angered, then thinks of deeper things- like death, then sees the snow covers all, even death. The end of the tale is one of the most famed passages in English literature: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead’. The dead the title refers to most cogently, incidentally, are the living dead- those who have not achieved what Gabriel does by book’s and story’s end.
In a sense The Dead is a recapitulation of all the other stories’ themes and a summation of what Dubliners is about. It touches on poverty, politics, religion, sex, family, joy, drinking, art, and alcohol. It is worth noting that sisters and death figure prominently into the two bookend tales- The Sisters and The Dead. But of more not is the failure to communicate- Gabriel’s lust-filled condescension to Lily, his misinterpretation of her genial chiding for a personal belittlement, and then his memories of his wife opposed to hers of a former lover, the dead Michael Furey, whom he envies, despises, and respects. The snow at story’s, and book’s, end aptly symbolizes and augurs the isolation of the characters and the reader as he/she will be at book’s end.
It is legend that Dubliners originally consisted of twelve tales, and
that Joyce later added Two Gallants, A Little Cloud, and The
Dead, after the original dozen were done by 1905. I don’t think that sort
of knowledge really matters since the three tales are rather uneven in
relationship to each other, so give no idea of Joyce’s growth nor stagnation,
and certainly not a hint of his later fracturing of narrative, which was already
being hailed as Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man was already being
serialized in The Egoist magazine when the book finally hint print,
almost a decade later in 1914. Thus, his greatest work was unfairly overlooked
by the critics of the day.
They were generally dismissed as trifles, save for The Dead, although, when the critical tide turned, it turned far too much in the other direction, with virtually every one of the stories being hailed as a masterpiece. They’re not, although by contemporary standards the tales are indeed innovative and excellent. The stories vary greatly in approach, but their tone is too similar, that is- consistently dour, which augured the summation of Joyce as the favorite writer that nobody reads.
Also, there is a tendency, in the lesser stories, for Joyce to get stuck in minutiae of the day that means little now, as well as superfluous dialogue designed to add color, yet only adds fat. Another problem is that in order to show the inertia and decline of Irish culture into paralysis, around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Joyce’s stories are essentially without much real conflict- thus their lean into ‘epiphany’. It also makes tales like Ivy Day in the Committee Room, laden with political references as arcane as a John Dryden poem, and little real character development, simply not good. In attempting a slice of Dublin life of the day Joyce sometimes falls prey to the fallacy that to be ‘real’ he has to show characters doing dull things, or simply describe things too matter-of-factly, rather than letting the epiphanies speak for themselves, by brushing away the ‘ordinary’ excess. Dramatically, the stories are rather predictable- what separates them from lesser writers’ tales is how the expected is unleashed and described.
In short, while the argument that Joyce was a great writer, but not great novelist, sticks, the idea that he was without anything to say is demonstrably false. It’s just that he did not have a whole lot to say, nor did he have anything particularly new to say. But, he said it, at his best, better than most. It is the fact that Joyce attempts more than contemporary short fictionists, and that this collection is not a mere collection, but a narrative movement, or symphony, with a purpose, that makes the book glow all the more brightly in contrast to the dreck that populates today’s fiction. What most astonishes me, though, as I grow and age, is how little it takes for a person’s reputation as an artist, to be founded on. James Joyce was a great writer, but tales like After The Race, Clay, Ivy Day in the Committee Room, A Mother, and Grace- fully a third of the book, are simply not good stories, for reasons mentioned earlier. Not acknowledging that does no good, and only casts the reader and critic in the role of the sciolist professor I encountered.
It is only by acknowledging failures that the structures that go under a great work of art- its scaffolding- can be considered and applied by others. To not do so is to keep up the curtain that denies that greatness is achievable now, the same sort of lie that Gabriel Conroy’s world finally lost in the snow.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 3/05 Hackwriters website.]
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