Critical Essays Themes in Dubliners


Even before its London publication in 1914, James Joyce's Dubliners caused considerable controversy due to the material in the stories that was obvious and accessible, available to even the most casual readers and reviewers. The collection all but overflows with unattractive human behavior: simony, truancy, pederasty, drunkenness (all of them in the first three stories alone!), child and spousal abuse, gambling, prostitution, petty thievery, blackmail, and suicide. The use throughout of the names of Dublin streets and parks — and especially shops, pubs, and railway companies — was seen as scandalous, too. (In the past, fiction writers had almost invariably changed the names of their short-story and novel settings, or discretely left them out altogether.) In fact, including these details delayed publication of the book by years, as potential publishers and printers feared lawsuits by those businesses mentioned by name. Disrespectful dialogue about the king of England, and even the use of the mild British oath "bloody," were thought by many to go beyond the bounds of good taste — and they did. In contrast to his status-conscious character Gabriel Conroy, James Joyce rejected good taste — one of the characteristics that mark his art as Modern.

A precedent existed for Joyce's warts-and-all approach, in the nineteenth-century French school of writing known as Naturalism, but no writer had ever been quite as explicit, or as relentlessly downbeat, as Joyce in Dubliners. To this day, despite a more liberal attitude in art and entertainment regarding the issues dramatized in the book (premarital sex, for instance, is hardly the taboo it was when "The Boarding House" appeared), many first-time readers are distracted by the unsavory surface details of nearly all the stories. This distraction can prevent them from appreciating Dubliners' deeper, more universal themes. It can be difficult to see the forest in this book for the blighted, stunted, gnarled trees. Of course, the forest is no fairyland, either. For Joyce's three major themes in Dubliners are paralysis, corruption, and death. All appear in the collection's very first story, "The Sisters" — and all continue to appear throughout the book, up to and including the magnificent final tale, "The Dead."

James Joyce himself wrote, "I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that . . . paralysis which many consider a city." Joyce believed passionately that Irish society and culture had been frozen in place for centuries by two forces: the Roman Catholic Church and England. The result, at the turn of the twentieth century, was one of the poorest, least-developed countries in all of Western Europe. And so images of paralysis recur throughout the collection obsessively, relentlessly, and without mercy. In the first line of "Sisters," and thus the first of Dubliners as a whole, it is revealed that Father Flynn has suffered a third and fatal stroke. Later, the unnamed protagonist of the story dreams of a gray face that "had died of paralysis," which is that of Father Flynn himself. This sets the tone for much of the material to follow.

The main character of "An Encounter" wants "real adventures," but is waylaid on his quest for the Pigeon House by a stranger who masturbates — a kind of paralysis because it is sex that does not result in procreation or even love. The Pigeon House itself is symbolic: A pigeon is a bird trained always to return home, no matter how far it flies. In "Araby," although the boy ultimately reaches the bazaar, he arrives too late to buy Mangan's sister a decent gift there. Why? Because his uncle, who holds the money that will make the excursion possible, has been out drinking. Drunkenness paralyzes too, of course. Eveline, in the story that bears her name, freezes at the gangplank leading to the ship that would take her away from her dead-end Dublin life. All three characters venture tentatively outward, only to be forced by fear or circumstance — by Ireland itself, Joyce would say — to return where they came from, literally or metaphorically empty handed. Indeed, characters in Dubliners are forever returning home, bereft: Think of the protagonists of "A Little Cloud," "Counterparts," and "Clay." The bereft Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead" never makes it home at all.

Yellow and brown are the colors symbolic of paralysis throughout the work of James Joyce. Note, for instance, that the old men in Dubliners' first two stories show yellow teeth when they smile. Joyce's other image of paralysis is the circle. The race cars in "After the Race" conjure images of circular or oval tracks on which starting and finish lines are one and the same, and indeed, the story's protagonist seems stuck in a pointless circuit of expensive schools and false friendships. In "Two Gallants" and "The Dead," characters travel around and around, never moving truly forward, never actually arriving anywhere. Lenehan in "Two Gallants" travels in a large and meaningless loop around Dublin, stopping only for a paltry meal and ending near to where he began. He is an observer, not an actor — and an observer of a petty crime, at that. In one of the most memorable images in the entire book, Gabriel's grandfather in "The Dead" is said to have owned a horse named Johnny who earned his keep at the family glue factory "walking round and round in order to drive the mill." One day, according to family legend, the "old gentleman" harnessed Johnny to a carriage and led him out into the city. Upon reaching a famous statue of King William, however, the horse could not be made to proceed onward, instead plodding dumbly in an endless circle around the statue. Gabriel acts this out, circling the front hall of the Morkans' house in his galoshes, to the delight of all. Conventionally, the circle is a symbol of life with positive connotations, as in wedding rings and Christmas wreaths. In Dubliners, however, it means an insuperable lack of progress, growth, and development. It means paralysis.

Joyce's second great theme here is corruption; that is, contamination, deterioration, perversity, or depravity. Because corruption prevents progress, it is closely related to the theme of paralysis — and indeed, corruption is almost as prevalent in Dubliners as paralysis. Again, Joyce introduces his theme at once. In the second paragraph of "The Sisters," the unnamed narrator mentions simony (the selling to its members by the Roman Catholic Church of blessings, pardons, or other favors), of which Father Flynn has apparently been guilty. The two stories that follow reiterate the theme. Certainly, perversity and depravity exist in "An Encounter," just as the narrator's unarguably pure love for Mangan's sister in "Araby" is contaminated — and effectively paralyzed — by his uncle's drunkenness. In fact, a subtheme of Dubliners' first three stories, as well as "A Little Cloud," "Counterparts," and "A Mother" is the corruption of childhood innocence — seen in the former stories from the child's point of view, and in the latter from the perspective of the corrupting adults.

Corruption returns in various guises throughout the book. In "The Boarding House," Mrs. Mooney hopes to earn money from the young woman living under her roof, and thus gives Polly "the run of the young men" there. In "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," the canvassers work for money, rather than out of enthusiasm on behalf of the candidate they support, and some of them in fact seem contemptuous of that candidate. "A Mother" returns to the theme of corruption, as the concerts staged by Holohan are patriotic in nature (a celebration of Irish culture), and yet Mrs. Kearney's only concern is the money promised to her daughter. Finally, in "Grace," the purity of Christian faith in God clearly has been corrupted by the institution of the Catholic Church — then further corrupted by types like Kernan's friends, who seem to mean well but misunderstand almost everything about their own faith. By discouraging him from drinking, Kernan's friends have probably saved his life, but they have done so by means of a sort of parody of real religion.

Joyce's third and last major theme in Dubliners is death. He links this theme closely to the prior two, and without much effort, as paralysis often precedes death, and corruption could be defined as resulting from a kind of spiritual or moral death. Once more, Joyce introduces his theme from the get-go: The events of "The Sisters" are caused by the death of Father Flynn, whose corpse the story's boy protagonist eventually sees face to face. Deaths are also implied in this story, and in "Araby" — those of the boys' parents, absent from both tales. Thereafter, death follows death in Dubliners: Dead is the priest who last lived in the house in "Araby"; Eveline's mother in "Eveline"; Mrs. Mooney's father in "The Boarding House"; Maria, perhaps, in "Clay" (the title of which symbolizes death itself); Mrs. Sinico (by suicide) in "A Painful Case"; Charles Parnell in "Ivy Day"; and finally Michael Furey and the other inhabitants of the churchyard in which he lays buried in "The Dead." Those are only the actual deaths in the book; add spiritual and moral deaths, and Dubliners grows as crowded with corpses as the Hades episode in Homer's Odyssey.

Paralysis, corruption, and death: In Dubliners, Joyce paints a grim picture of his hometown and its inhabitants. Keep in mind that he blamed the sorry state of affairs on outside forces — England and the church — rather than the Irish themselves. Looking back, the writer himself found the book insufficiently sympathetic to Dubliners' best qualities (hospitality, for example). He would address this deficiency in his masterpiece, Ulysses, which itself began as an aborted Dubliners story. Before that, however, he would tell the tale of a Dublin youth who vows to escape the paralysis, corruption, and death endemic to Dublin, a character based on Joyce himself whom he called Stephen Dedalus. Dedalus would be the main character of Joyce's thematically similar next book and his first novel: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.