This is the second time I read Dubliners and I have appreciated it more this time. I think this is partly due to the fact that I have now lived longer in Ireland and am more aware of certain Irish issues. Dubliners is a difficult collection because of all its references to Irish politics and culture, religion in particular. And because these are short stories written in a style of “scrupulous meanness” (a term coined by Joyce), those references are sometimes quite obscure, thus the amount of footnotes to explain them, which make the reading process more difficult (for instance, some will tell you that such a street is part of an upper-class area). To be honest, I did not read them all and have probably missed on some levels of meaning and interpretation. I am not feeling guilty about it because, at least, I enjoyed reading the stories, most of them anyway.
The collection is divided into four sections: childhood, youth, maturity and public life. The last story, “The Dead”, is usually excluded from this division and is often seen as Joyce’s step towards longer works of wider scope. All stories are about people living in Dublin and their misery (in one way of another); yet, if I am not mistaken, Dublin is not named once but referred to by the names of street and landmarks.
One of the themes I enjoy most is the relation the characters have with their native country. Many of the characters dream of escape (from the mundanity of the Dublin life), but are tied to their country for various reasons. I enjoyed discussing this with my students. It is something still prominent in Ireland: Irish people tend to moan about life in Ireland and want to leave, but as soon as they have set foot on foreign ground, they go looking for the nearest Irish pub; their heart is still in their native country and quite often they return home. This tension is palpable in Dubliners and is probably mostly felt in those moments of epiphany (moments of realisation), a term that has become associated with this collection.
For instance, in the story “A Little Cloud”, Little Chandler meets an old friend of his. They use to study in the same place and would have thus had the same opportunities in life. They did not follow the same path: Little Chandler remained in Ireland while Gallaher escaped and went to live a life of adventures in London and other fashionable places in Europe. During their encounter, it is obvious that Little Chandler looks up to Gallaher and envies his life of adventures and freedom; however, he soon realises that Gallaher is showing off and tries to bring to the fore the fact that his own life is a success: he has a job, a wife and a kid. When going back home, it is a harsh return to reality. His wife is annoyed with him because he did not bring back tea (the nagging wife?), she goes to the shop and leaves him with their sleeping baby. He sees a picture of her:
“He looked coldly into the eyes of the photograph and they answered coldly. Certainly they were pretty and the face itself was pretty. But he found something mean in it. Why was it so unconscious and lady-like? The composure of the eyes irritated him. They repelled him and defied him: there was no passion in them, no rapture. He thought of what Gallaher had said about rich Jewesses. Those dark Oriental eyes, he thought, how full they are of passion, of voluptuous longing! . . . Why had he married the eyes in the photograph?”
He then considers the rest of his house with negativity and wonders if it is too late for him to escape. The child wakes up and starts crying, his shouting at him to stop increases the screaming, until his wife comes home. She blames him for making the child cry, thus making Little Chandler feel even worse about himself:
“Little Chandler felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child’s sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes.”
This is how the story ends. I found this story painfully sad. It was actually physical and, at times, I was reticent about starting another story as I was dreading what I would read in it. These are not light-hearted stories.
Melody at Fingers & Prose recently reviewed this collection and was disappointed. She came to the conclusion that she did not feel connected to the stories. I can understand that and I think this might be because they revolve so much around Dublin life at the beginning of the century and focus on types from the “submerged populations” as Frank O’Connor would say. On the other hand, most of my students liked them and felt connected. As for me, I enjoyed many for them for the reasons I have mentioned. I think they are well-written, but they are hard work and this can be off-putting at times.
I also discussed “The Sisters” and “An Encounter” in a previous post.