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During his construction of Ulysses, James Joyce was asked to submit a short story to a Dublin newspaper. Joyce wrote, ‘I am writing a series of epiclets-ten-for a paper. I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.’ Dubliners is a compilation of fifteen short stories about the lives of the Irish and the struggles they face due to a history of cultural ‘paralysis.’  Each story can be read as its own separate entity, but when read together; they create a larger whole or gnomon.

Dubliners is arranged with much thought and eloquence as a collection. The first story, “The Sisters,” sets up the rest of the book perfectly. In this story, a Catholic priest, Father Flynn has just died. The young boy and narrator had been the priest’s companion. The boy reflects upon the death of the old man and the things the man had taught him in their time together.  Flynn had an obsession with the words paralysis, gnomon (story within a story), and simony which play out in the rest of the text. Joyce chooses the juxtaposition of a friendship between a boy at the onset of life and a man at the brink of death in order to exhibit the importance that the wisdom of age may bestow upon a person. The young boy is receiving his first real lesson; appreciate the things you have while you have them-especially life.

Each story follows another in chronological order, exemplifying the life stages of a person from life to death. Despite the fact that the stories describe different people, the protagonists progressively age as the reader moves further along in Dubliners. In addition, when Dubliners begins, nature is beginning a new year. If the readers looks closely, the seasons move on from spring, summer, autumn, until finally at the end it is winter. It is the tiny thought out details which make this text one of the best.

There are repeated themes within the stories which send Joyce’s message about the paralysis of Dublin and issues plaguing Irish culture. The Catholic religion looms over many of the characters. Worries about committing sins, GUILT, and remaining in unhappy marriages are all blamed on religion. There is a suggestion of a rhetoric of fear and silence among the people. The Irish live in a society where much goes unspoken until it is too late. The last words of Eveline’s mother in “Eveline” warn her daughter: ‘After pleasure comes pain.’  Ready to escape Ireland with her bethrothed, Eveline cannot. Her mother’s words bring fear,guilt, she is paralyzed.

Due to years of oppression through colonialism-mostly British-the Irish are poor. Not only do they live in poverty, but the ramifications of little freedom and hopelessness in the country has led to alcoholism, abuse, and the feeling of worthlessness among its citizens. In “Araby,” for example, the small boy wants to go to the Araby bazaar. He waits until nine o’clock for his careless, drunken uncle to come home, only for the man to toss him barely enough money to pay for the train to the bazaar. When he finally arrives he must pay the entry fee, and hasn’t enough money to buy anything for the girl he likes.In addition,the people working at the concessions are British and he feels inferior. The poor little soul leaves the event solemn, thinking he had been ‘derided by vanity’ for having wanted to go in the first place. Only a child, he already feels he doesn’t deserve the smallest things out of life. Where will he go from here? Does he have a way out or will he perpetuate the cycle? The psychological instead of plot driven writing approach Joyce takes with his characters to create a unique situation for each of them allows the reader to understand that despite their paralysis each person deals with it differently. At the same time, it is easy to see how the similar cultural barriers they all face may lead to their immobility in life-the story within a story.

The last story of the book, “The Dead” becomes representative of the conclusion of all the other stories. This story deals with the secrets people carry with them all their lives. Gabriel and Gretta are a married couple but when she confesses to him about her broken heart from years before, he finds there are things about loved ones that people may not want to know. There are experiences and pain of others that we cannot relate to. This story communicates the transience of life, shadows, grayness, and loneliness. It is the winter of Gabriel’s life as snows fall outside the window below him. His paralysis is the tendency to keep the past alive. Is he truly dead or only dead at heart?

The closing of “The Dead” is one of the most captivating and praised in literature.  The inevitability of life coming to an end and the existential  questions: what is the point of trying, striving, living at all, brings this last story and the preceeding stories together with grace and elegance. Joyce is one of the few authors to take the world around him and dig down to it’s core, while still remaining true to his groundbreaking, unparalleled style. Yes he is negative, but his characters are fighters and living such a difficult existence, I don’t know that you can ask for more.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

Read: extensive biography James Joyce by Richard Ellman

James Joyce Centre

Film: The Dead(1987)