Dubliners by James Joyce [Book Thoughts]

Dubliners is a patchwork portrayal of 19th century Ireland through 15 stories that, together, form a larger narrative. A good introduction to Joyce.


Dubliners by James Joyce

James Joyce is an Irish author from the early 1900s. He produced only a handful of major works in his life, he made them count: all of his works tie together and collectively produce something that’s made him one of the most studied authors of the last 100 years. Dubliners is Joyce’s first published novel and begins the love-hate romance he shared with Ireland that runs throughout his work. Joyce and his wife left Ireland in their twenties to live in various European countries but all of Joyce’s novels take place in his land of birth.

And Dubliners in particular is all about Ireland and the Irish (Spoilers: Dubliners is set in Dublin. Who would have thought). Through 15 short-stories, Joyce paints us a picture of the city through the eyes of its inhabitants. In Dubliners we see children at funerals and young women caught up in scandals and old fools telling stories at pubs.
.  – I say . . . he’s a queer old Josser!
We see Dublin through the eyes of the rich, through the middle class and through the destitute.
.  – O, he’s as tricky as they make ’em
Each story is an important fragment of some character’s life and through the patchwork of disconnected events we begin to see the city in its entirety; its joys and its pains. There’s little moral judgement in the work but it’s hard not to see that every story has negative moral elements. Gossip, ignorance, hypocrisy, violence. Perhaps that’s what Joyce saw. Perhaps that’s why he left.

And speaking of Joyce: while each of the 15 fragments follows its own independent threads, together they form a wider story, an underlying narrative. The obvious sign of progression between the tales is age; with each subsequent story, the character is slightly older. But there’s also theme of evolving feelings towards Dublin as the story goes on. From awareness, to disappointment, to flight to realizing the city is holding him back. In fact, this progression seems to resemble closely Joyce’s own feelings shown in his later work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Perhaps on the outside, Dubliners is a portrait of Dublin in the early 1900s but, on inside, it’s a story of Joyce’s own mixed feelings towards the city he was born in but realised he had to leave behind. I have a theory about the last story in particular but since that would be spoiler territory I neglect to mention it here.

On prose style: I can’t say that I am a fan of Joyce’s prose in particular but he certainly has a style of his own. It’s third person but feels dirty in the sense that we’re still hovering on the edges of the characters’ consciousness. Joyce presents things as he believes they are without incriminating it with his own opinion and personality.

In closing: Dubliners is a patchwork portrayal of 19th century Ireland through 15 stories that, together, form a larger narrative. A good introduction to Joyce.

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