For the first time in years, I wished I was back in a literature class. Or in a small lit discussion group. And all because of James Joyce’s “Dubliners.”
My co-worker brought in her copy for me to borrow. She warned me that the short stories might be difficult to read and digest quickly, given how I usually read. So I did my best to read each short story slowly. By the third story, “Araby,” I found myself opening Google and searching for the Cliff Notes version for each story once I finished reading to ensure I didn’t misinterpret anything.
Some short stories were easier than others to understand. One of my favorites is “Eveline,” which is about a young woman hoping to escape her father’s abuse by marrying Frank, who is moving to Buenos Aires. She is intent on leaving but at the last moment, when the ferry was about to pull away, she freezes. The passage caught me, and I read it once, twice before I could move on to the next story.
No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish! ‘Eveline! Evvy!’ He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition. (23)
There were many stories where I was disgusted with the characters. In “Two Gallants,” two men run a con to get maids to steal from their employers. In “Counterparts,” a man named Farrington fails to complete his job because all he wants to do is go to the pubs and drink, his frustration at the night building to the point of the story ending with him beating his son. In many of the stories, the characters are not likable, but that is not Joyce’s intent.
Many of the stories focused on entrapment and the inability to break from the routine of their lives. Some, like Farrington, don’t realize the routine but they are frustrated nonetheless. There are others, like Eveline, who strive to break out of their trap only to remain in the cage. Many of the characters learn nothing and do not grow. In that way, Joyce created realistic characters and settings that went against the Victorian way of life. It’s not wonder publishers in 1914 were hesitant to back such a collection.
While some were difficult to muddle through — names were thrown in and difficult to keep track of, and some terms I had never heard before — I immensely enjoyed the setting descriptions and the way Joyce wrote characters’ thoughts and emotions.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. when we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played until our bodies glowed. (15)
From “The Boarding House”:
Going down the stairs his glasses became so dimmed with moisture that he had to take them off and polish them. He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step. (42)
One day, I’ll go back and reread some of these short stories. Perhaps I’ll find new meaning to them, or find a new detail I missed the first time around. I wish we had read one or two of these in my high school english classes. These stories would be good to dissect and examine with a small group of people. Maybe I’ll read a few on my flight to Dublin in three months.
All in all, a wonderful collection of stories, best digested over a longer period of time.
…I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad. — An Encounter, p. 9