A collection of character sketches of people that lived in Dublin at the dawn of the 20th century, though the stories were designed as a collection which means they are not merely gathered together from disparate publications as some collections are, but were crafted together with the collection in mind. As one proceeds through the book the age of the characters increases, as does the quality of the writing and the poignancy of the stories. It isn’t meant as propaganda for or against Dublin as a city to visit or live in or Dubliners as a people but a straightforward representation of the people that live there, and perhaps some symbolic messages about life in general. With a few changes these stories could be about people living almost anywhere.
It is actually quite disappointing at first because they really are just stories, as if random snapshots were taken without a care for surprising or drawing in the reader. In general there is a sense of disappointment in all the stories. Passions are raised and sometimes resolved but often they are not. Joyce exposes the mundane and boring parts of life as well as the unseemly underbelly of humanity without dwelling on those parts explicitly. In some ways Louis C.K. is doing something similar in providing a look into the life of New Yorkers, though with much more absurdity, strangeness and humor in his work than Joyce ever tried to infuse into Dubliners. Joyce seemed to be after an honest telling, which for the highly religious city of Dublin was too much, evidenced by his difficulty in getting an uncensored version published (18 submissions to 15 different publishers over the course of 9 years).
You can get an idea of the shift in age and story complexity through both my ratings and crude summaries of the stories below (Spoiler Alert).
The Sisters ⅗ – A funeral for an old man/priest that taught some young girls, an ambiguous relationship for sure.
An Encounter ⅗ – Boys skip school to go to a ‘pigeon house’ and cause trouble. They never make it to their target and meet a strange man who shifts his demeanor and whom they determine is a kind of molester, or pervert. They escape his presence unscathed.
Araby ⅗ – A young girl convinces a boy to go to the market in Araby, which at her suggestion he really wants to do in order to impress her with a gift of some sort from the market. Because of his youth he is delayed in getting to the market and most of the vendors are closing up shop. His intentions are left undone.
Eveline ⅗ – A woman is trapped between a man she loves and a kind of arranged marriage. She wants to leave with her love to Buenos Aryes but ultimately cannot bring herself to go with him.
After the Race ⅗ – A group of men drink and spend money that they don’t have or shouldn’t spend until the morning light breaks through on them.
Two Gallants ⅗ – Two men (in their twenties I believe) chat and walk around town. One is clearly socially superior to the other, the other being more of a listener or voyeur. The confident man tries to buy sex while the other looks on. He kept his money, meaning he was unsuccessful or changed his mind.[Note: I just read an analysis of this story and I was totally wrong about it. Embarrassing how poor of a read I can be]
The Boarding House ⅗ – An attractive young woman works at her Mother’s boarding house. Her mother learns of her sexual activity with one of the guests, a man a few years older than her daughter who works for a company with a good catholic reputation. She uses the threat of public shame which could end his career and future employment possibilities, to convince him to marry her daughter properly. He is torn between his feelings for her and his bachelorhood but ultimately agrees to marry.
A Little Cloud ⅘ – Two men in their early thirties meet for the first time in many years. One named Chandler is of better birth and education than the other but has a less exciting life and a less interesting journalist career. The internal thoughts of Chandler and dialogue between he and his old friend is more engaging than that of previous stories. Their conversation at the pub ends with a feeling of bitterness between them. Chandler heads home. He is greeted by an upset wife, upset because he was late for tea and forgot to pick up coffee for her on the way home. She hands him their sleeping infant son and goes out to get the things she needs herself. He tries to read poetry while he holds his son but is ultimately unable to because the child did not continue sleeping and began to cry loudly. In trying to quiet the baby he only made things worse and when his wife came home she accused him of hurting the child and took it from him. She put all her attention on the crying baby and none on Chandler, who then fades into the shadows lamenting his situation drawing tears from his eyes. The baby is a little cloud hanging over him and his ambitions or desires.
Counterparts ⅗ – A large man working (in a law office?) as a letter writer and copyist/scrivener is frustrated with his boss who abuses him verbally. He leaves work frustrated and humiliated wanting to drink with his friends. He has little money so he pawns his watch and starts the rounds. He ends up in an arm wrestling match and is beaten twice, which deepens his negative emotions. He gets home and his wife is at church and his son has let the fire die (which slows his ability to cook a dinner for his father). He vents his anger on his son by beating him.
Clay ⅖ – A detailed description of a single woman working then getting food and spending the evening with friends. Intensely uninteresting story, but it was short.
A Painful Case ⅘ – The most interesting writing to this point in the book, for me of course. A Little Cloud touched me emotionally the most so far but this one had the most interesting descriptions of events. A man has a relationship with a woman, something between pupil-instructor and a romantic type of relationship. They were intellectually connected but at one point she got too close for his sense of propriety to tolerate, she was married. A while later as he continued on with his banal life, after having his instruction materials returned to him from her, he saw a report of her death in the paper (quite likely a suicide but reported as an accident with the fault on her). This caused him deep despair that is described very well. We can clearly feel his sense of loneliness, which is out of the ordinary for this generally emotionless man.
Ivy Day in the Committee Room ⅗ – A group of men ranging in age from somewhat young to middle aged to very old talking about politics, votes, and their general dissatisfaction with the status quo, wishing for a political leader from a time gone by. My first reading was really closer to a 2 or a 2.5 out of 5 but the poem at the end saved it. I wonder if many of these stores are more interesting on the second reading, having the framework of the story in mind might help one to appreciate Joyce’s many descriptive details.
A Mother ⅘ – A woman marries a emotionally and financially stable man and enjoys her life including the stability her husband brings her. She is quite involved with the local arts and one of her daughters, from her new husband I believe , is asked to be part of a concert series playing piano. The poor organization of the of the events rears its head and the Mother finds herself fighting for her daughter to actually be paid the wages she is due according to the contract they had signed. Her ‘overbearing motherliness’ causes her to be ostracized by the local organizers even all she was doing was making sure the organizers kept their word. It is a sad frustrating ending illustrating sexism.
Grace ⅘ – A man is injured from a fall that occurred while drunk. He is helped and eventually surrounded by male friends in his home. His circle of friends have organized a kind of spiritual intervention for him, he is a protestant by upbringing though a Catholic by marriage. His friends are hoping that a spiritual revival or renewed commitment to ‘renounce the devil’ will help him return to his old reliable upstanding self. He agrees to the brotherly ritual, but jokingly resists the last part which involves candles which he calls ‘magic lanterns.’ The priest gives a sermon aimed at men of the world that are not called to a spiritual or church life, which to me was quite an interesting view coming from clergy.
The Dead ⅘ – the longest of all the stories and the most interesting and emotionally engaging. It is a grand dinner party with at least two generations in attendance. There is dancing and plenty of dialogue between a range of characters, though a middle aged man is the main character and narrator. The differences between the youth and the aged are illustrated and the connection between them all is symbolized through both the shared meal, into which great effort was spent, and unavoidable death. Though the way the thought or presence of death enters the story is not until the very end, which is a disruptive moment—as death generally is.
I’m glad I’ve checked this one off my list but I cannot say on the whole that it was a deeply engaging, evocative, or entertaining read (though The Dead and a few other individual stories were evocative indeed). I would suggest reading The Dead for sure, the others are not necessary. I may visit it again later just because of it’s status in 20th century literature, and having gone through it once already I may catch deeper symbolic messages the second go-round.