Dubliners is the most accessible, easily digested, and widely read of Joyce’s works. This evocative novel – and it is a novel – was not the result of a career, but the launching of a career and it is a technical and imaginative melting pot where Joyce first learned how to craft a story, control a plot, carry a theme, and develop realistic characters. The double-edged city of Dublin was the setting for nearly all of his works and he desired to make it the literary capital of the new century. Writing to Grant Richards (15 Oct. 1905):
I do not think that any writer has yet presented Dublin to the world. It has been a capital of Europe for thousands of years, it is supposed to be the second city of the British Empire and it is nearly three times as big as Venice. Moreover . . . the expression ‘‘Dubliner’’ seems to me to have 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.Dubliners was composed in the years prior to 1905 and Ireland did not become an independent nation until 1922 after the Anglo-Irish War, so Joyce’s works were composed at a time when his nation remained a colony of the British Empire, and whilst the Roman Catholic Church still had a significant influence upon the religious, social, and political spheres. James Joyce held those two forces responsible for Dublin’s apparent backwardness and political inferiority. After centuries of foreign invasion, Joyce believed that the Irish people had learned to subjugate themselves. It was precisely this self-subjugation, this self-oppression, that frustrated Joyce most, and he believed that his writing could in some modest way change the way the Irish saw themselves. The author was a potential nationalist, had some sympathy for the abstentionist politics of Sinn Féin, and would’ve happily identified himself as an Irish Nationalist if it ‘did not insist on the Irish language.’ He also believed that before any positive political or religious revolution could occur, the Irish people had to indulge themselves in some sobering self-reflection. This perhaps goes some way to explaining why the novel clearly focuses on those persons of the lower-middle-class. It is replete with them and altogether ignores the more upper-class Dubliners. We find alcoholics and the social inept, perverts and tricksters and scammers, and the self-destructive. All seem to be ensnared, unable to breakout from their Dantesque underworld. ‘There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke’. So begins the opening chapter of Dubliners the allusion to Dante’s Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate (‘Abandon every hope, who enter here’) from Canto III of Inferno
But there was no accident in this. Every word, every turn of phrase, every characterization was fitting to its place; a means to an end. Joyce explained:
‘I have written it [Dubliners] for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform, whatever he has seen and heard. I cannot do more than this. I cannot alter what I have written’.And so every individual, but essentially constituent tale adds to the overarching effect. And if every phrase is correct and in its place, then so to (we might suggest) is every omission correctly placed (if you get my drift!). Every tale in Dubliners has an ambiguity that makes it complex. It’s as if Joyce is simply not telling us something important about each of our characters and so it is difficult for us to figure out exactly what is happening. But we might well ask whether or not we are supposed to understand. To what extent are we supposed to be capable of seeing the full picture? Joyce handicaps us; we are sentences to the same degree of paralysis that his characters all share. All are paralyzed; none are free. ‘Paralysis’ is not merely related physical movement, but, in this case, more so related to the spiritual, social, cultural and political spheres. The end result is a warning against Ireland’s historical lassitude.
Returning, if I may, to that all important opening statement: ‘There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke’. One can but wonder at Joyce’s use of ‘the third stroke’. Are we talking time (as in clocks chiming)? Is the ‘passage of time’ an issue that we need to refer to? After all, ‘time’ and ‘paralyses’ are related. To some extent, paralysis might be where one is defeated by ‘time’; where ‘time’ lives in the ascendant. But then, ‘the third stroke’ might equally refer to illness – a cerebrovascular event – often leading to the onset of paralysis. A ‘third stroke’ might be a killer. Either interpretation is left hanging in the air for Joyce continues:
‘Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being’.These three words are clearly outwith the parameters of a single, 10-page, chapter. ‘Paralysis’ is something that we’ve already touched upon whilst a gnomon might refer to mathematics, geometry – and the inclusion of Euclid would certainly help travel that particular road – but it might equally refer to the stylus on a sundial that measures time by means of shadow. Technically, ‘simony’ is the selling of material goods for spiritual benefit. But the term carries clear connotations that imply the debasement of both spirituality and organised religion. It might also refer to the degradation of one’s intellect. In Dubliners, simony is a pervasive motif. For example, in ‘Araby’, the boy confuses romance with business (and the girl is expensive: ‘I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity’), other victims of simony would be Mr. Doran (‘The Boarding-House’), Corley (‘Two Gallants’) and Mrs. Kearney (‘A Mother’) who ruins her daughter’s prodigious career by trying to sell her talent. But ‘paralysis’ is an even more prominent motif. We open with the paralysis of the priest, we see Eveline Hill (‘Eveline’) so terribly fearful of leaving home, Little Chandler (‘A Little Cloud’) by his perceived responsibilities, Farrington (‘Counterparts’) is a ‘victim’ of alcoholism and trapped by his illness, and Mr. Tierney’s crew ( ‘Ivy Day’) by a ‘blind’ nostalgia for by-gone days. And then we have Mr. James Duffy.
HOWEVER . . . before turning our attention to Mr. Duffy: we need to be aware of one other theme: epiclesis. Joyce wrote Constantine Curran, in July 1904:
‘I am writing a series of epicleti – ten – for a paper. . . . I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.’[Source]The term epicleti is derived from the Greek Orthodox liturgy referring to the moment in the sacrifice of the Mass when the bread and the wine are transformed by the Holy Ghost into the body and blood of Christ. The mundane realities (bread, wine) are thus altered and legitimated as spiritually significant. If at all, how does this apply to Mr. Duffy?
If I may confess: reading this particular extract from Dubliners was my choice. I have, since first reading this novel some years ago, been strangely intrigued by the situation of Duffy and his ‘shock’ upon reading the ‘painful case’. What can we make of this man?