Like many important artistic works of the early twentieth century (the paintings of Joyce's contemporary Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, or Louis Armstrong's music), Dubliners appears deceptively simple and direct at first, especially compared with James Joyce's later works of fiction: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. It is certainly his most accessible book — relatively easy to comprehend and follow, whereas the others mentioned tend to challenge even the most sophisticated reader.
It was in Dubliners that Joyce developed his storytelling muscles, honing the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship that would make the high modern art of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake viable. In Dubliners, he does not yet employ the techniques of mimetic narrative (characteristic of A Portrait) or stream-of-consciousness (Ulysses), but he paves the way here for those technical breakthroughs. Dubliners is somewhat comparable to Picasso's so-called Rose and Blue periods, in which the painter perfected his skills at realistic portrayal with paint before pioneering cubism and other abstract styles. Joyce even introduces characters (Lenehan from "Two Gallants" and Bob Doran from "The Boarding House," for instance) who reappear in his later books.
Mainly, Joyce worked and played in Dubliners at plotting and characterization, description and dialogue, and (especially) point of view (the technical term for who is telling a story, to whom, and with what limitations). What is amazing is that such a relatively immature work succeeds almost without exception. And just as Picasso's realist works have not only lasted but are actually preferred by many museum goers to his more difficult-to-appreciate later paintings, Dubliners is the favorite James Joyce book of many readers.
The setting of Dubliners is, logically enough, in and around the city of Dublin, Ireland. Though the capital city of Ireland, the Dublin in which Joyce grew up was a provincial place — far less cosmopolitan than a number of other Western European cities of similar size (Venice, for instance). Unlike France, Spain, and Italy, Ireland had never been a center of continental culture; unlike England and the Netherlands, it had never been a trade hub. Nor, in contrast to then recently united Germany, was Ireland yet industrialized. (In fact, the country would remain almost exclusively rural for decades to come.) It was a kind of third-world nation, really, before the term existed. Though Dublin was a genuinely urban locale, with electric lights and streetcars, competing daily newspapers and even a museum, the city remained fairly unsophisticated at the time when Joyce wrote about it.
To some degree, this was a function of Ireland's geographical remoteness from the rest of the continent in the days before radio and air travel (much less television and the Internet). It is an island off an island (Britain) off the coast of Europe, and therefore somewhat inaccessible. James Joyce himself, however, blamed two other factors for the backwardness of his home city: the Roman Catholic Church and the neighboring country of England.
According to legend, St. Patrick had brought Christianity to Ireland in the Middle Ages; ever since, most Irish have observed a rigorous and rather literal brand of the religion, one that is perhaps more superstitious than the Christianity practiced by French Catholics, for instance. In story after story in Dubliners as well as in the novels he wrote later in his career, Joyce holds the Roman Catholic Church accountable for the failure of the Irish to advance in step with the rest of Europe. He was particularly bitter about the way in which the Church often recruited intellectuals like himself to serve in the priesthood — rather than encouraging them to use their minds in the service of progress, as doctors, scientists, or engineers.
Joyce also blamed England for what he saw as Ireland's backwardness. On July 1, 1690, at the Battle of the Boyne, the Protestant forces of King William III of England had defeated the Roman Catholic Jacobites of James II, causing the downfall of Catholic Ireland. Until 1922, when British Parliament granted independence to the country (while retaining control of what is to this day the province of Northern Ireland, the inhabitants of which tend to be Protestant rather than Catholic), Joyce's homeland would remain, in effect, a colony of England. Joyce and many other Irish saw this era of over 200 years as one of outright occupation by an overtly hostile enemy.
The period during which Dubliners is set follows the brutal so-called Potato Famine of the late 1840s — for which many Irish held the British responsible — after which a movement for Irish independence (led by the nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell) occurred. This movement, however, failed ignominiously when Parnell was betrayed by his own countrymen, and in the Dublin of Joyce's novels, the defeat still stings. (For evidence of this, see "Ivy Day in the Committee Room.") The Irish Revival, a movement begun in the 1880s to foster understanding and respect for Celtic and Gaelic language and culture, is referred to in Dubliners as well (in "A Mother" and "The Dead"). From the very first story onward, the book is rife with examples, obvious and less so, of the treachery of England and the English, at least in the opinion of Joyce and his characters.
The stories of Dubliners are united by the city itself — Dublin is rendered in Joyce's book with a concreteness and specificity that was unprecedented at the time of its writing. The other aspect that unites these disparate works of narrative prose is shared themes. Though the protagonist of "Araby" and that of "Clay" could hardly be more different with respect to age and temperament (the same goes for the main characters of "Eveline" and "The Dead"), all these stories are united by the ideas that the tales dramatize: paralysis, corruption, and death. In story after Dubliners story, characters fail to move forward, tending rather to forge outward and then retreat, or else circle endlessly. They are stuck in place. Examples of corruption — that is, contamination, deterioration, perversity, and depravity — occur throughout. Finally, Dubliners begins with a death and ends with a death (in a story titled, logically enough, "The Dead"), with numerous deaths either dramatized or referred to in between.
All of this knits the book's many and varied stories together in a web of place, time, and meaning. Each successive story gains in momentum and weight by virtue of following those that came before. (For instance, Gabriel Conroy from "The Dead" is more completely understood if thought of as the grown-up protagonist of "Araby.") And after reading the book, it will be hard to think of one Dubliners tale without remembering others.