The Dubliners (partial)

The Dubliners is a collection of short stories written by James Joyce, depicting life in Dublin. My knowledge of Ireland, Irish history and all that entails is shocking, so I was expecting these to be hard to understand (context wise). Joyce’s aim to convey ‘truth’ landed him in trouble with publishers down the line, his realism and attempts to ‘write a chapter of the moral history of my country’ offended a lot of the Irish people. They are said to be written in four different sections; Childhood, Adolescence, Maturity and Public Life. Some of my intial thoughts on six of them.

The Sisters follows a boy and the death of Father Flynn, who he had spent some time with. ‘Old Cotter’ disapproves of the relationship they had, saying it would be better for ‘a young lad [to] run about and play with young lads of his own age’. Opinions that education may be ok but not that important are expressed by Cotter and the boy’s uncle alike. The boy’s visit to the mourning house reflects upon the Latin he has been taught by the Father, and an awkward period of time is spent in the room downstairs with the man’s sisters.

The style of this piece is very realistic, and I found it easy to imagine both the setting and the boy’s feelings whilst experiencing all this, as vivid as if you were watching it before you. The sisters lament james’ passing, commenting on how much they did for him whilst maintaining ‘he was no great trouble to us’. Speculation is made upon when his mind turned, and the Father as being ‘crossed’ and ‘a disappointed man’. It is said that the breaking of a chalice was the beginning of the trouble for him, affecting his mind. This story ends with the revelation that ‘there was something gone wrong with him’ when he is found alone in a confession box, laughing. This story comments on the positions of those in the church, their perceptions and responsibilites in society as well as their effect upon the young.

An Encounter starts with preoccupations with the Wild West, and this being stifled in school. Three boys decide to have a real adventure; ‘real adventures do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad’. Skipping school, Leo, Mahony and the protagonist make plans, although Leo doesn’t turn up. after walking the river, eating currant buns with the labourers for lunch and using the ferryboat, the boys buy some food, and eventually end up in a field overlooking ‘the Dodder’. Abandoning their initial plans to visit the Pigeon House, they end up in an exchange with a man who passes by.

The man tells them of his childhood being happy, but not realising it at the time, ‘sentiments which bored [them] a little’. Talking of books and then enquiring how many sweethearts each boy has, he begins talking of how nice girls are, and then walks off to a distance. Mahony chases a cat and the old man tells the main character that he ought to be whipped, contradicting his earlier conversation by saying ‘if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart …he would give him such a whipping’. Finally the boys escape the man’s clutches and run home. Themes of childhood, working class, age and male attitudes are clear in this one; there were bits I didn’t fully grasp probably but hopefully I will be enlightened in our classes!

Araby follows the admiration of a young boy for a certain young lady following his encounter with her; after which her image is never far from his mind. The opening contains a vivid, detailed description of everyday life for the people in his house; the seasons, playing outdoors, and the bustle of childhood play. The object of the boy’s affection laments that she is unable to go to Araby, a bazaar. He promises to bring her something if he goes, and after a long wait for his uncle to come home (he has forgotten) he is finally able to go at 9pm. Full of hope he gets the train and pays an expensive entry fee, only to find the bazaar at closing time. A disappointed creature, he is filled with ‘anguish and anger’.

Motifs of desire, family and general depictions of what working class life and leisure would have been like are shown here. The hopes of a young boy are easily crushed and he feels the magnitude of the situation much more keenly than if he was perhaps greater in years.

Eveline is a character who has cared for her brothers since her mothers’ death- with an abusive, controlling father she was thrilled to meet and fall in love with Frank, a sailor. She dreams of her departure with her that night, leaving her past behind to become his wife, and live in Buenos Ayres. ‘Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too’. Yet standing in the crowd by the boat, she lets him step on alone, and finds herself in ‘all the seas of the world’, which stop her from following. ‘She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition’ are the chilling final lines.

This piece left me reflecting upon the power and control which fathers, abusive fathers particularly and patriarchy can have, and the feeling of being trapped and tied down even though choices could be made to escape. Family duty also plays a role, with a dead mother and brothers she loves, but her final decision seems to be in a moment of panic, as Eveline declares ‘it was impossible!’. Probably echoing her fathers’ thoughts rather than her own.

The Boarding House focuses on the boarding house matron, and her daughter’s affair with one of the lodgers. Being aware of the situation, she bides her time before confronting her daughter and talking to the man in question in order to guilt him into marrying her. Concerns are raised by the man about the reputation of her family, should he marry her, and the daughter seems very distressed by the situation, lying on the bed and threatening to end herself, however the ending seems to conclude in a way which the matron had intended.

This focuses on Catholic guilt, the difference between religious life and everyday life and family expectations in Ireland at the time. Losing face and pride publicly is the alternative to marrying the daughter, but it appears he would prefer the latter. There seem to be hints that there is love forming in their relationship, and that they could indeed have a happy marriage together.

A Little Cloud follows Tommy as he meets up with an old friend who has moved to London, and is back for a visit. Tommy seems to be very envious of his lifestyle, harbouring secret dreams of getting published in London magazines or even experiencing the life there for himself. On his return home after a few too many whiskeys, his wife is upset and he is left in charge of his sleeping son, who wakes up screaming. A dramatic end as his wife returns home to a distraught child and he stammers his apologies and defences, tears springing to his eyes.

Ideas that marriage is putting one’s head in ‘a sack’ are expressed by the friend, and Tommy thinks to himself that in order to be successful you must leave Dublin, where nothing can ever happen. There are depictions of the poverty around, with poor children in the street, and dirty situations, as well as the prominent drinking culture. I found it hard to be sympathetic for him; although he may envy his friends’ life ultimately he is likely to be exaggerating, and the character is a gentler, kinder man than his brash London living party-type.

Counterparts focuses on the drinking habits of a man at the office, who slips out to get a few drinks in the day and is unable to complete his work. Meeting up with his friends after going to the pawn shop, he is defeated in an arm-wrestling match and ignored by a London lady who he takes a fancy to. Arriving home drunk, dejected and wishing he had more to drink, he takes his anger out on his son who has got up to make his dinner, but the fire is out.

Ideas of Catholicism are raised towards the end with the clash between the drinking culture and his wife who is at chapel, and the son who offers to say a hail mary for him if he stops beating him. Violence, anger and alcohol seem closely linked as there are various moments throughout the narrative where he is taken over by rage, and particularly in the ending takes it out on his family members, where he can get away with it. Struggling for money is apparent; whether this is a result of his job, his living conditions or his addiction to alcohol is questionable.


A reader’s report on Dubliners, in 1908 represented Dubliners as being restrcited to ‘very lower-middle class Dublin life’. He describes  them as ‘never enlivening, and often sordid and even disgusting… Most of the characters are too fond of drink, and nearly all are physically repulsive’. However Joyce’s writing is praised as ‘smooth-flowing’, and interestingly the writer doesn’t condescend to argue against the representation of life for these people in Dublin, although it repulses him as reading matter. Perhaps it would have revolted readers of the time, such a realistic representation of the personal and public lives of the grimy residents of Dublin. That in itself is not reason to censor the stories or for them to be unsuitable for readership; on the contrary they serve to illuminate what may be realistic situations for real people who have been left in situations of poverty. Their desires, whether for women, drink or escape show the social effect of their history.

Read it on JSTOR here

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