…I read The Dubliners for the first time when I was 19 and had just finished school. I had a few months before I’d start university, and I was going on a trip to Ireland with the YMCA. In preparation, I suppose, my father gave me The Dubliners. After all the exams and related reading on existentialism, biology and such, my reading fare at the time was mainly science fiction of all sorts, some fantasy, some poetry, and comics. That may have been part of the reason why Joyce’s stories did not, at the time, blow my mind. I also didn’t really pay as much attention, I guess, or maybe it’s just been too long to remember, so I decided to reread the book. I’m glad I did.
If you haven’t read it — or would like to reread it — you can do so for free, online: Project Gutenberg has the full text here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2814
So what’s this book? It’s about Dubliners — the stories in this book revolve around the lives of a number of middle-class people who live in Dublin. These characters live in Joyce’s day, as far as I could gather, and deal with the political and social issues Ireland was grappling at the time.
By introducing a number of different characters and letting us see the world from their perspective, Joyce illustrates how easy it is to be an outsider in this society: not feeling strongly enough about Irish nationality can get you frowned upon almost as much as being Jewish. And one thing you definitely do not want to be around these folks is English. Yet while everyone praises the good old Irish traditions, Irish hospitality especially, not everyone is happy to live where they do.
In “The Dead,” our main character inadvertently causes a scene at a dance when he declines an invitation to travel in Ireland. He explains he’d rather cycle in Belgium or France for a change of scenery and to brush up on his language skills, which upsets his nationalist dance partner. In her mind, he should be exploring his own country and brush up on his Irish Gaelic skills. After her upset whispers and, then, exclamations, draw the attention of the other guests, she leaves when the evening is still young, and insists on walking home by herself through the snow.
Joyce’s honest, no-frills approach to describing life in the city didn’t make him particularly popular with his printer: when the story “Two Gallants” was to be published, the printer refused to do so because it might be considered vulgar (source). This was very much a concern for the printer since he could be held liable (and be fined) for printing vulgar materials. What is it that makes this story (among others) “vulgar”?
Well. It’s about two men; one of them tells the other about the woman he has met (calling her “a fine tart”), and that he’s going to try and get money from her. He’s not given her his real name, but instead left her under the impression that he is a man of class. This motivates her to not only pay his tram fare to and from their dates, she also brings him cigarettes and cigars. She is only a maid, so she is likely stealing these (and other) things. Comments his friend: “That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit” (50).
It’s obvious that this isn’t a first for him, or for his friend — they’ve made a career of conning women. He goes off to meet her while his friend walks a few streets, has dinner, and then goes to meet him again. When he returns she has given him a gold coin. While the maid may have some real interest in him, maybe romantic hopes, but probably also hope of a secure future (since she only needs to help him out until he’s back on his upper middle class feet and then might marry her out of gratitude), he has no concern for her feelings or the morality of what he is doing. He’ll drop her once she ceases to be profitable, as he has others. Really not that scandalous a story for today’s reader — but in the early 1900s, even allusions to sex (like his concern that she “might get in the family way”) could apparently cause a stir.
So, in general, about Dubliners, I’d say it is an interesting collection of stories that paints the picture of a society in turmoil — virtually everyone is concerned how others see them, what others think of them or say about them, and virtually everyone is constantly in the process of pinning down who or what they are. Take the main character in “The Dead” for example: at home, writing the speech he has been asked to give at the dinner, he feels confident about his writing, his oratory, his allusions to poetry. Once they get there, he suddenly feels his speech is inappropriate, too educated for the guests, and that they will laugh or sneer at him for including things they’re not familiar with. The scene with his nationalist dance partner doesn’t help his confidence — in fact, it only makes him more confused. When he does give the speech, however, he has regained some sort of equilibrium, at least long enough to do his duty.
Then there are relationships, marriages of love, marriages of convenience, marriages entered into under illusions, even marriages of spite. What will the people think?! Family feuds (brothers not speaking to each other), motherly trickery to get her daughter married off, there’s lots going on here. Joyce shows us alcoholics, violent parenting, social and political constraints, all in straight-forward prose. No flowery turns of phrase; in fact, there’s dialect and slang, there’s even a passage written to recreate the sound of someone who’s just bitten off a piece of his tongue. This is not your dignified, old-school literary prose. It’s the Dublin middle class of his time, warts and all. In many ways, these stories translate to our day, almost a hundred years later and in a different country: there are some universal principles of how societies work, and with his character sketches, Joyce illustrates a good number of them.
James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence wrote at about the same time, and I’ve read short stories by both of them now. I meant to write about Lawrence and give him his own post but, to be honest, I wasn’t terribly impressed. He is rather long-winded and his stories, at least in the volume I ended up with, were all quite depressing: death in the war, spouse abuse, child abuse, rape, you name it. Not sure how he got away with it all, when Joyce had to argue with his printers to get his stories out, which are a lot less scandalous. Maybe the laws weren’t as strict in England? Remind me to look into that some time. 🙂 Lawrence is also represented, in my reading pile, by two novels, so we’ll see how that goes.
The other Joyce book on my list is, of course, Ulysses. It’s a bit daunting, seeing how l-o-n-g it is, but I’m sure it will be worth it. If you’re more visually inclined, you can read Robert Berry’s comic-style interpretation of Ulysses right here, on the James Joyce Centre website: http://jamesjoyce.ie/category/ulysses-seen-graphic-novel/