Wednesday, 21 February 2001

James Joyce: The Dubliners (1914)

Edition: Granada, 1977 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 762

All of Joyce's writing is about Dublin, and the people who live there. It is perhaps most obviously the theme of his only collection of short stories, particularly given their title. Because of the references to people still living in 1904, it took ten years for the stories to be published; this may seem a bit of a strange reason today, as there is nothing really defamatory here. (Characters do make disparaging remarks about Edward VII, in the context of Irish nationalist politics, so this may have been what frightened the publishers.)

The attitude of the stories to the city in which they are set is complex, and generally fairly ambivalent. The various people in them by no means share a single outlook. Generally, though, there is a tension between the attraction of the familiar, that of the truly estimable aspects of the city, and the feeling that it is a place which limits those who live there. Several characters aspire to leave, but then change their minds; or regret not having left in their youth. This latter is what happens in A Little Cloud, in which a journalist meets a friend once again who has lived in London for some years; while on the one hand regretting missing out on his friend's fashionable life, he on the other notices that it has coarsened and vulgarised him.

It is not just Dublin itself which inspires such conflicting emotions. There are relationships in many of the stories which also contain tensions, mainly through husbands and fathers who become violent when drunk. Clearly, Joyce is not the first writer to have attempted to portray this sort of situation, but he does so with a realism that was new and with a mastery of technique which is breathtaking.

The stories in The Dubliners generally concentrate on character and background rather than plot, but they are so well written that even when virtually nothing happens in a story it is still not just interesting but gripping. Like all Joyce's writing, the stories are minutely observed and words are chosen with great care. They are also deliberately arranged, the age of the protagonists gradually increasing through the collection until the final and longest story, The Dead. Of all his great writing, The Dubliners is the most accessible, and forms an ideal starting place for the reader new to Joyce.

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