My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce is a short story collection focused on the city of Dublin and various characters who best represent the Irish city and its cultural history. Joyce completed Dubliners in 1907 but had to wait another seven years for the book to be published, impressive when you consider that Cambridge did not have a Chair of English Literature until 1910, while Divinity, Civil Law and Greek (1540), Moral Philosophy (1683), Music (1684), Chemistry (1702), Astronomy (1704) and Modern History and Arabic (1724) had much earlier dates of conception into Cambridge University than its own native language and literature (see Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Cambridge lectures published in On The Art of Writing). We will discuss Arthur’s lectures at Cambridge and Joyce’s 1939 masterpiece Finnegans Wake another time, but let’s continue diving into Dubliners—which, as mentioned—begins to set a precedent for literature written in English at a time when studying such literature was a novel idea for many universities.
There are fifteen stories in the collection and total 152 pages, making this a light but provocative read over the course of one or two afternoons or one story a day for two weeks. From the beginning story “Sisters” about two sisters who mourn for a priest who has recently died until the ending story “The Dead” about Gabriel attending a New Year’s Eve party and the aftermath which haunts his soul in the early hours in his hotel room with his wife, the stories give readers a clear example of the kind of male role models found throughout Ireland in Joyce’s childhood.
The first four stories—“The Sisters”; “An Encounter”; “Araby”; and, “Eveline”—illustrate, however, the much needed improvement on Joyce’s craft at such an early age and lacks the control and power that readers wait for in the last three stories: “A Mother”; “Grace”; and, “The Dead”.
In the first four stories, Joyce is prone to dangling modifiers and mawkishness (mere trifles) found in young writers, but he corrects such behavior by the end of his first book, creating a collection of vivid stories that show the sad state of commoners in Ireland around the turn into the 20th century, and these stories best represent Joyce’s childhood.
Some have considered Dubliners as one of the best collection of short fiction, and I too admit that at the time I might also may make such a claim, but to make such a claim while moving quickly into the 21st century would be half-hearted and would be foolish of one who has read widely and deeply to half-prophesy against all the literature and other collections that have been written since 1914. The more likely question then is to ask, “Is it art?”
But Dubliners is not a reflection of Joyce as a whole man, nor him as a boy, but a reflection of his abilities and the attributes of his male psyche and character as late as the start of World War I; from then on the world and its populous would most certainly have changed from within and from without. The Universe is change, wrote the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Indeed.
As one example, “An Encounter” is a story about two schoolboys who skip school to see the sights of the city only to end in an abandoned field talking to a homeless man about “sweethearts” and how “every boy has a little sweetheart” and suddenly the man “stood up slowly, saying that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slowly away from us towards the near end of the field” where the man proceeds to masturbate in the open, and the boy-Joyce can neither answer his friend nor raise his eyes when Mahony exclaims, “He’s a queer old josser” (p 13).
If “The Sisters” is about friendship and religion (the boy-Joyce and the priest) then “An Encounter” is about friendship and sex (the boy-Joyce and the strayer), both much older male figures who don’t have exactly what it takes to make a solid role model.
“After the Race” is by far one of the better stories in the lot of fifteen by Joyce, and provides another male figure for the boy-Joyce gone wrong, as does “Counterparts”, which is story number nine on page 55 and shapes a nice climax to the collection which will end with Joyce as a young man in the idea of Gabriel, also the name of a Biblical angel—and angels are desperately needed in a collection of stories that provide example after example of the sordid despair of humankind’s depravity to inflect pain and anguish on one another.
“After the Race” begins with one of those passages the reader knows by heart was written by the writer after the fact, after the story has been completed and the writer takes the opportunity to backtrack and seek to work a smoother transition into in medias res—and Joyce does do this, and despite the opening being extremely beautiful it does not match the tone of the rest of the story. We will see this by story’s end, but now for the opening:
“The cars came scudding in towards Dublin, running evenly like pellets in the groove of the Naas Road. At the crest of the hill at Inchicore sightseers had gathered in clumps to watch the cars careering homeward and through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth and industry. Now and again the clumps of people raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed. Their sympathy, however, was for the blue cars—the cars of their friends, the French” (p 24).
Now compare the opening passage with later lines and passages from the story:
“The car ran on merrily with its cargo of hilarious youth. The two cousins sat on the front seat; Kimmy and his Hungarian friend sat behind” (p 25).
“They drove down Dame Street. The street was busy with unusual traffic, loud with the horns of motorists and the gongs of impatient tram-drivers” (p 26).
“A torrent of talk followed. Farley was American. No one knew very well what the talk was about” (p 27).
“Cards! Cards! The table was cleared. Villona returned quietly to his piano and played voluntaries for them. The other men played game after game, flinging themselves boldly into the adventure” (p 28).
Now one can easily distinguish between the master at his best in the opening passage on page 24 (despite the dangling modifier in the first sentence: is Dublin running or are the race cars?) and the craftsman struggling at his best in the following examples on each and every page until the last of the story on page 28. Joyce worked extremely hard on that opening but failed to give the rest of the story its due attention. Regardless, as I mentioned earlier, “After the Race” is by far one of the better and more positive stories of the collection, and far too often overlooked for the story “Araby”, which is praised in most university classrooms, probably because “Araby” comes in at story number three in the collection and consists of a romantic tale of a boy in childhood on an adventure to buy his sweetheart (as preluded in “An Encounter”) a gift.
“Counterparts” has one of the strongest narratives in the collection but once again likely illustrates the poor male role models Joyce had when he was growing up. Farrington is a low-class clerk who at the beginning of the story sells his pocket watch in order to skip out of work early for a few cold beers which later unfolds into a drunken night with his friends and colleagues hopping from one bar to the next in the cold winter night. And the end comes as swiftly and as unexpected as the one in “The Dead”.
Here, as underlined in my book when I first read the story, is the ending to “Counterparts”:
“He took a step to the door and seized the walking-stick which was standing behind it.
“‘I’ll teach you to let the fire out!” he said, rolling up his sleeve in order to give his arm free play [notice the writer’s lack of attention: ‘said’ is ‘rolling up his sleeve’? This is what we call a dangling modifier and can be easily fixed with: said he, rolling up his sleeve]…
“The little boy cried, “O, pa!” and ran whimpering round the table, but the man followed him and caught him by the coat. The little boy looked about him wildly but, seeing no way of escape, fell upon his knees.
“Now, you’ll let the fire out the next time!” said the man, striking at him vigorously with the stick [notice here the writer’s attention to detail: here Joyce gets it correct, and he is beginning to shift these small miscarries of the language more and more by the collection’s end]…
“Now, you’ll let the fire out the next time!” said the man, striking at him vigorously with the stick. “Take that, you little whelp!”
“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…” (p 63).
“Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.
Now notice that from the above stories we discussed these stories deal with poor male role models and at the end of the worst kind of role model—a drunk who beats his son over such a simple thing as letting the fire go out—we have the boy-Joyce seeking a woman’s protection through the Hail Mary prayer: “blessed art thou among women” and not “men”.
But the boy-Joyce grows up and is portrayed through the now married young man named Gabriel who returns to his hotel room with his wife, Greta, at the end of “The Dead.”
Greta has reflected on a past lover who is now dead and in the early hours of a new year Gabriel watches his wife cry for another man:
“The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling…
“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” (p 152).
But does this collection of scoundrels and spiritually confused characters constitute art?
Tolstoy would agree it does. How so?
In What is Art? Leo Tolstoy argues that three things are required for creating art, and they are as follows:
“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist; nor that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this feeling of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.
“If a man is infected by the author’s condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work—then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art…
“The presence in various degrees of these three conditions—individuality, clearness, and sincerity—decides the merit of a work of art, as art, apart from subject matter” (p 82-83).
Joyce might agree to this definition of art since he believed one of the best short stories ever written was Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, and Joyce called the story “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows.”
Do we have individuality in Dubliners? Absolutely. These fifteen stories percolate with Joyce’s Irish identity as well as the countless other characters who populate this collection of short fiction.
Do we have clearness? I believe we do, and certainly not Joyce at his best, but the writing as illustrated is clear and vivid and compels the reader to lose herself inside these pages of death, heartache, true mortality and the clearness of how bad everyday people can be. The collection is a depressing one, filled with stories of the worst kind of characters who are sexually depraved, morally corrupt, religiously bankrupt and traumatized youths who have to witness this grown-up world.
Do we have sincerity? At the end of “Counterparts” and “The Dead” readers see Joyce at his most sincere, treating the subject matter delicately and carefully.
Dubliners, then, by Tolstoy’s definition would be classified as a work of art. And I would not be the one to disagree. The collection of short fiction has stood the test of time: 101 years, in fact. And the collection will likely continue long into this century as a sharp edge of glass giving us a portal into the past: of how things were, of how things are, and of how things should never be in the years to come before our deaths.