Nearly a hundred years since it was first published in 1914 this collection of fifteen stories or ‘epiphanies’ remains powerful. In each Joyce depicts some aspect of damaged humanity as the collection moves towards its powerful consummation in ‘The Dead’. As the excellent, if severe, essay by J.I.M. Steward emphasises Joyce’s style is one of ‘scrupulous meanness’: he spares no one their sorrow, be they temperate and kind or coarse, ignorant, and drunk. All are caught in the social and political paralysis that so exercised Joyce and which is foreshadowed in the form of a stroke victim on the very first page. A kind, trusting, and generous but ugly woman destined to be an old maid is loved by all but meets with misfortune in a harsh city full of men who do not desire her in ‘Clay’. In ‘Eveline’ a girl wrestles with the possibility of love and obligations owed to the living and the dead and ultimately falls backward into the dark. It opens thus,
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Joyce’s language is so precise and pared back, and yet so dense and resonant and rhythmic that it is a joy to read despite its lapsarian tone. Decline, decay, angst, and exhaustion are all contained in three taut sentences.
A sudden loss of innocence, a moment when the world opens out – never for the better – for a character or the reader is characteristic of each story. In ‘An Encounter’ a young boy sheds his innocence when approached by an old but impotent pervert. The story is full of play and of freedom until the old man becomes too free and frightens the boy away, his world changed. Indeed, the structure of the whole collection is one of maturation: youth, maturity, and middle age, and the shadow of death, with that shade extending back to pall each person occupying Dubliners’ pages. Joyce everywhere implies that religion is no protection against this decline even when it serves as a useful tool for an ‘us and them’ mentality. Priests come off badly throughout: in ‘The Sisters’ an elderly priest dies having lost his faculties and perhaps his integrity, a symbol of the Church in Ireland; in ‘Grace’ an unsympathetically portrayed Jesuit preaches to a gathering of businessmen, reducing a deeply human parable to a symbol of profit and loss for the consumption of a corrupt class. Poverty and shallowness of sentiment run throughout, particularly in the consecutive stories ‘A Painful Case’ and ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ wherein want of feeling is explored to the full and loneliness and regret tinge the latter story’s mercenary canvassers’ apathy and idealisation of the past.
Throughout drink and perceived injustice lead to resentment and violence of feeling and action. In ‘Counterparts’ a resentful clerk seethes with a sense of emasculation at the hands of his diminutive but dominating employer. He metes out an unwarranted beating to his son whose plaintive cries serve only to emphasise the irrelevance of religion and the lost world Joyce feels Dublin and Ireland has become.
The boy uttered a squeal of pain as the stick cut his thigh. He clasped his hands together in the air and his voice shook with fright.
“O, pa!” he cried. “Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….”
Undoubtedly the most powerful story in Dubliners is ‘The Dead’, at least in part because it draws in the threads of those which precede it, the shadows of those who have gone before hovering over a middle-class gathering in every sense. Memory, loss, age, and crude but sincere sentiment surround a highly literate but alienated school-teacher who comes to understand his isolation from his wife of many years. The final passage of ‘The Dead’ in which this realisation comes emerges from Joyce’s naturalism and consummates the social dissection of the whole in a symbolic identification of the human condition.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.
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