Robin Tell's Reviews > Dubliners

Dubliners by James Joyce
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Dec 29, 11

bookshelves: literary
Read in December, 2009

I suppose I've always intended to read Joyce; it's terribly daunting but seems inevitable, too, that I must follow the man all the way through to Finnegans Wake. I have a copy. Untouched. Another remnant of the days when I thought I was on Earth to prove some kind of a point.

But I'm still awfully curious, and this year I finally dipped a toe in. Dubliners came first and seemed easiest to start with, and I'd read a story or two of it already. And indeed it is pretty conventional, even self-consciously spare in style.

And it is masterful and instantly absorbing. If I were a more serious student of literature I suppose I would know to what extent Joyce is following the narrative mode of the extant literature in his world in 1911, and to what extent he is using narrative devices that are familiar to me only because later writers imitated him. Writing is a sequence of choices, details named amid an infinitude of details omitted, and no matter how terse, flat, and neutral the style, Joyce continually manages to reclaim your attention with virtually every phrase, wasting nothing. Here is part of a character introduction, from A Painful Case:

His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.


The stories often seem principally to be character sketches, or exercises in placing ultimately regrettable behaviors in their context to explore and explain them. An ambitious youth goes to foolish excesses in order to live for a night in the style of cosmopolitan foreigners. A conniving matron bullies her daughter's beau into a marriage he doesn't want. A mousy, straitlaced man, suddenly feeling trapped in a dull and shameful life, commits a minor, real, mean act, immediately regretted; the next story puts this into perspective with the narrative of a day leading up to outright cruelty.

These things pervade the book, in fact. Dublin is dull and shameful; Dubliners long to leave but cannot. And through all the impediments of church and class and poverty that dog them all, drunkenness recurs again and again, prominent in nearly every story. A bit of reading outside the borders of the text tells me that Joyce, terribly particular about every detail of his writing, intended the book as a moral indictment of the people of Dublin and of Ireland as a whole, and that in fact he left Dublin forever within a short time of the book's publication, settling in France where he wrote the rest of his works. So in an important sense this book isn't meant for me, and it's hard to know how much Joyce was leaning on images and phrases that Dubliners of his day would have found familiar, beyond the occasional Irish word or idiom that I can't quite follow. And it is largely a condemnation, in the end, of the city and its people. I can't say whether he meant the book--his parting shot to his native country--to shine a light on Dublin's problems and inspire people to improve them, or if he thought his countrymen hopeless and just had to tell them how much they vexed him.

At last in The Dead the narrative looks more or less directly at this underlying discontent. Gabriel Conroy is not so unlike Joyce himself: an urbane, cultured writer with one foot out of Ireland and a clear discomfort even with visiting it for the holidays. He is a subtle and likable character, sympathetically portrayed. But when a young woman calls him out for his alienation from his own country, he is too easily rattled; so deep is his discomfort with his home that he cannot stop himself from exclaiming "I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!" Why, she asks him, and then: "of course, you've no answer." Indeed he hasn't.

Does Joyce? Is he putting himself on the spot, here, and admitting that he doesn't really have an answer either? Or if he described his own book as a moral index of his country, should we take its chapters as a proxy answer for Gabriel Conroy: that he, and his author, are sick of Ireland because everyone there is mired in poverty and alcohol and the parochial concerns of their little lives? It's difficult to tell here whether Joyce judges the conversation in favor of Gabriel, who seems evasive and troubled in his conscience, or Miss Ivors, who may be impolitic but who has Gabriel sussed. What is clear, from Joyce's own life, is that Gabriel is the one he must identify with. In his Dublin, every character either longs to escape "dirty old Dublin" or is plainly presented as small-minded in some way. They're all sick of it, and Joyce can't quite spell out why. At least not clearly enough for this reader, a hundred years later.

All that said, it's an excellent read, one of those cases where the canons of the ivory-tower literati are so powerfully vindicated that I fret whether I should just accept their judgments every time. Dubliners is so powerful and assured that I have to give it five stars just for the execution of it. But the message--I guess the message might just not be meant for the likes of me.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Arthur (new)

Arthur Great review of the message, Robin, but I think you're also saying that, like me, you are so spellbound by the telling, you can't argue with the tale. Joyce's love and hatred for Dublin bounce against the corners of your brain like a coin with two sides, coming up heads sometimes, tails as often, with each reading. And the last three pages of The Dead bring me to tears every time I read it aloud, like the endless endings if Finegans Wake and Ulysses, incantations as inexplicably moving as Beowulf or Pearl.


message 2: by Arthur (new)

Arthur Drat -- dunno how to edit yet but that's FINNEGANS. Sorry, Jim.


Robin Tell That's it exactly, Arthur. And I shall take that as some encouragement in going on to read the others, thank you!


message 4: by Arthur (new)

Arthur Robin, great, and you must! Ulysses might be my favorite book of all time, followed possibly by The Lord of the Rings, both epics, both by brilliant authors in love with the sounds and meanings of words, both inspired by ancient bards, both obsessed with an urge to create their own languages, but each, oddly enough, often dismissed by fans of the other. They are the north and south poles of my book world.

FWIW, I would urge reading Ulysses first time through with a cheat sheet by your side, such as Harry Blamires' fantastically handy _The Bloomsday Book_. This will save you endless hair-tearing by cuing you in on what's actually happening in the book, page by page. Do this just once and the entire book yields up its treasures for life. Now I dip into it like the Bible, just letting it open to any page it chooses, whenever I need a lift. WAY too many book-lovers I know have given up on Ulysses out of fear to cheat, and have deprived themselves of sooo much pleasure.


message 5: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted What a great review. I have just written a tiny one which compares to these wonderful insights like a molehill to a mountain. The writing style (of the reviewer) is also very polished. Thanks Robin.


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