Dubliners by James Joyce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The first of these stories, “The Sisters,” was originally published in 1904, when Joyce was 22, in the Irish Homestead, the weekly publication of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. A collection of 12 of these stories was to be published in 1905 by the London publisher Grant Richards, but the scandalized printer refused to set “Two Gallants,” and Richards finally abandoned the project. Joyce had worse luck with the next publisher, Maunsel & Roberts in Dublin, who were so scandalized that the printers burned the sheets already set instead of turning them over to Joyce. He finally, in 1914, took those 12 and 3 additional stories back to Grant Richards who published them. While working in a language school in Trieste, Joyce had had an opportunity to revise them and add the others, including the 15th, “The Dead,” which now closes the book. Thus what we have is a collection of a very young man’s impressions of pre-World War I Dublin, plus a vision based on memories of holiday hospitality and disappointments, perhaps a kind of longing, written from a great physical and cultural distance from that city.
They will bear re-reading. I confess I didn’t fully understand “Two Gallants” until I found other analyses on the Internet; I could see that the two scoundrels were up to no good, but just what were they hoping to acquire from the “tarts” they wanted to seduce? If I had caught the Dublin slang, I would have seen that these two self-satisfied, jobless but pretentious louts were less interested in getting sex (which they were happy to get, but hardly appreciated) than in tricking the girls to pilfer for them anything of value (expensive cigars, money) from the bourgeois households where they worked.
Besides the very vivid characterizations and dialogue, what most impressed me in this collection was the extreme reluctance of the characters to say outright what they meant. They prefer inuendo, which of couse also permits them to deny that they had suggested whatever. This inhibition is especially marked in “Two Sisters” where the young protagonist’s uncle gives ambiguous hints about some unmentionable disorder of the priest who has just died and who was a mentor to the young man. And in “A Painful Case,” Mr James Dufy’s intolerance of the expression of emotion causes him to break relations with the only person he knew with whom he could talk of the things that really mattered to him, music and his readings. This is a very sad story, and sadly plausible.
When someone does speak out, the consequences must be reckoned with; this is the case of Farrington the copyist in “Counterparts” who dares respond to his boss’s humiliating treatment with a momentary outburst of dignity, and suffers for it in a drunken night in which he ends up going home and beating his child. “The Mother” also does not hold her tongue, thereby probably ruining the career prospects (as a singer) of her daughter. And then there is Miss Ivors, a young woman in “The Dead,” who upbraids Gabriel Conroy for writing for a paper which is not sufficiently Irish-nationalist for her. But her remarks, though pointed, are also rather indirect, and as far as we know, she does not suffer for them, though Gabriel is sorely bothered.
Miss Ivors brings up the other theme that impresses me and other readers: the growing sentiment of Irish nationalism, also apparent in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” which closes with a poem on “The Death of Parnell”, maudlin and possibly meant for comic effect, but a reference to a hero of Joyce’s father and of the Irish home rule movement (died 1891, when James Joyce was only 9).
We took this litttle book with us on our recent (our first) visit to Ireland, thinking to reread its 15 stories. It was marvelous, to walk along St. Stephen’s Green, and Merrion Square, and the many other sites where Joyce’s characters trod, and hesitated, and fantasized, and sometimes got into drunken brawls. My surprise was that all these stories seemed new — either I had not read them in high school, as I believed, or else I read them with so little understanding (because of my youth, and because I had never been in Dublin), that they had disappeared from my memory. As I said above, they will bear re-reading, for technique — especially dialogue — and for understanding Ireland in the years preceding the great rebellion of Easter 1916 and the Irish civil war of 1922-23.