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NA318312 - JOYCE, J.: Dubliners, Part II (Unabridged)
A Painful Case • Ivy Day in the Committee Room
A Mother • Grace • The Dead
James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short stories about the lives of the people of Dublin around the turn of the century. Each story describes a small but significant moment of crisis or revelation in the life of a particular Dubliner, sympathetically but always with stark honesty. Many of the characters are desperate to escape the confines of their humdrum lives, though those that have the opportunity to do so seem unable to take it. This book holds none of the difficulties of Joyce’s later novels, such as Ulysses, yet in its way it is just as radical. These stories introduce us to the city, which fed Joyce’s entire creative output, and to many of the characters who made it such a well of literary inspiration.
Writing to his publisher, Grant Richards, in 1905, Joyce proclaimed “I do not think that any writer has yet presented Dublin to the world. It has been a capital city of Europe for thousands of years, it is supposed to be the second city of the British Empire and it is nearly three times the size of Venice. Moreover… the expression Dubliner seems to me to bear some meaning and I doubt whether the same can be said for such words as ‘Londoner’ and ‘Parisian’, both of which have been used by writers as titles.”
Joyce’s mission to “present Dublin to the world” remained central to his work throughout his life. The city is somewhat aggrandized in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, where it takes on a mythic quality (suitable for a modern day Odyssey and a World History), but here, in Dubliners, it is painted in the plain and often drab colors of reality. The fifteen stories, written at different times during the period 1904-1907 when Joyce was no longer living in Ireland, are meticulous in detail. We are given pub and street names, tram and train routes at every opportunity. The subject of these stories is not the city itself, however, but rather the lives of its citizens. Most of the characters and incidents described are based on characters and incidents remembered from Joyce’s early years in Dublin. The stories are arranged in a sequence roughly charting a development from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood and public life, with death as a principal theme of the first and last stories.
The theme of death returns in A Painful Case, the story of another ‘self-imprisoned Dubliner,’ James Duffy, and his strange relationship with the lonely Mrs. Sinico. Repressed emotion is nowhere more powerfully expressed than in this depressing tale of unfulfilled desire, with its tragic climax so coldly reported in the evening newspaper; and, in the closing lines, its poignant description of utter loneliness: “He could not feel her near him in the darkness, nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.”
By contrast, Ivy Day in the Committee Room appears very much to concern the
living — the cut and thrust of local politics — until the powerful ghost of Parnell is revealed lurking behind the idle banter. Music, particularly song — which plays such an important part in all Joyce’s writing — is central to many of these stories, and in A Mother it is the backstage at a concert in ‘The Antient Concert Rooms’ which provides the setting for Mrs. Kearney’s painful humiliation. Many of the details in this story came from Joyce’s personal experience as a promising tenor appearing in many concerts of this kind.
Originally, the longer story Grace was intended to close the collection with its wry examination of religious conviction — or in Tom Kernan’s case, lack of conviction. Who but Joyce would begin a final story, dealing with such an important theme, with a bloody mouth in a pub lavatory?
Finally, in The Dead, it is another ghost, that of ‘poor Michael Furey’, which exerts power over the central characters — Gabriel and Gretta Conroy. Here, in the longest and best known of the Dubliners stories, Joyce skillfully manages to lead the superficial events of a formal family Christmas reunion towards an unexpectedly personal and deeply moving conclusion. Indeed the ghost of Gretta Conroy’s dead admirer evidently loomed as large in Joyce’s own life as in that of Gabriel, since the scenario described by Gretta actually occurred in Nora Barnacle’s (Joyce’s wife’s) own courtship in Galway.
So simple are these stories, both in content and style, it is easy to forget how
innovative they were at the time of their publication. Joyce set his face firmly against what he saw as the romance and sentimentality of contemporary Irish writers, and produced something rather shocking. Here is a city full of small people with real failings — no high tragedy, little passion, and no dramatic revelation. Their speech is not poetically engineered, but the everyday speech familiar to all Dubliners — warts and all. Indeed the warts were so shocking to the printer and publisher, that it took eight years of legal wrangling before the book saw full publication.
What was so shocking? The frank inclusion of thoughts and actions considered too vulgar for literary purpose: a woman crossing and uncrossing her legs suggestively, a man discussing his sexual conquests with a chum, a peculiar old vagrant performing an unspecified act alone in the bushes — and several uses of the word ‘bloody’. Despite the protests of his publisher, Joyce refused point-blank to alter, for example, the line: ‘if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat: so he would.’
In a letter to Grant Richards he wrote: “The word, the exact expression I have used, is in my opinion the one expression in the English language which can create on the reader the effect I wish to create. Surely you can see this for yourself?”
Furthermore, he objected: “I seriously believe that you will retard the course of
civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass.”
Notes by Roger Marsh
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