Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dubliners by James Joyce

This semester I have been lucky enough to take a seminar class on James Joyce. We spent the semester reading and discussing as much Joyce as we could, and it was absolutely wonderful. Now that the semester is over, I want to tell you all about Joyce, starting with his early collection of short stories, Dubliners.

Dubliners is, at first glance, an unassuming book. It is written in a largely realistic style, with none of the experimental stylistic elements for which Joyce is famous. Despite that, Dubliners is a truly unique book with just as much depth, detail, and resonance as the best full-length novels. The returning themes of paralysis, alienation, and political oppression are so embedded in the characters, dialogue, and action that they never feel preachy or overdone. Since Joyce returns to many of these themes in his later novels, Dubliners is a perfect introduction for anyone interested in tackling Joyce for the first time. Its emotional honesty, thematic resonance, and beautiful writing make it a worthwhile book for any reader.

Though Dubliners is a collection of short stories, these stories are all connected by setting and theme, as well as a few recurring characters. The city of Dublin, with its many pubs, shops, dirty streets, and busy port, is practically a character, and the gravitational pull it has on the characters holds together the collection, making it a unified and coherent whole. The stories are also connected by theme, the most striking of which are isolation and paralysis. Many of the characters in these stories are lonely or disengaged from society, trying but unable to make meaningful connections with other people. In many stories, a character seems to have a chance at escape from their lonely or unfulfilling life, but at the crucial moment find they themselves unable to act and end up remaining exactly where they were. Some realize the chance that they miss, while some are unaware of having a chance of freedom, and still others are even unaware that they are trapped. Dublin, and the paralytic unhappiness that Joyce saw there, seem for most an unbeatable force.

Dubliners was one of my Classics Club books.
Despite all of that, Dubliners does have some brighter moments. Many of the stories end with epiphanies, in which the characters have realizations of either good or bad things about themselves, Dublin, or humanity. These epiphanies are written in the most beautiful and luminescent prose, and whatever their subject, were always rewarding to read. In fact, all of the writing in Dubliners is detailed and beautiful, meaning that despite the depressing subject matter, I never once got bored. Joyce is not only a talented writer, he is also a subtle one. Each word and phrase is carefully chosen to contribute the the mood, theme, or characterization, meaning that each story has nearly infinite reread value. Of course, Joyce uses his craft so well that I often didn't even notice it, making the stories that much more enjoyable to read.

While of course some stories are better than others, all of the stories in Dubliners are of at least good quality, and most of them are really great. Despite the overall high quality of the book as a whole, there is one story that stands out from the others as truly exceptional. "The Dead" is the last story in the collection, as well as the longest. It starts out quietly enough, with a middle-aged man named Gabriel going to a Christmas party held by his two elderly aunts. The rest of the story chronicles Gabriel's thoughts and actions at that party. It could be argued that not much happens in this story, and yet the ending, with Gabriel and his wife talking back at their home, is by far the most moving epiphany in Dubliners. This story shows Joyce's skill at writing better than any other. Somehow, Joyce manipulates the seemingly-mundane elements of the story to create a conclusion in which even simple phrases become charged with emotion and meaning. Though I don't usually comment on my own feelings in reviews, I feel the need to tell you all that this story moved me to tears and left me utterly speechless. Even now, as I think over the story, the phrase "Snow was general all over Ireland" gives me chills. If the only thing Joyce ever wrote had been "The Dead," he would still be a great writer. It's that good.

"The Dead," with its perfect structure, subtle descriptions, and moving ending, is a truly great short story on its own, but it gains so much more from being placed at the end of such a well-written and honest collection. The themes and images from the earlier stories only enhance and expand the ideas in the last story, while that story serves as a coda and a commentary on the others. The conversational nature of this relationship, and the relationship of any story to any other story or to the whole, makes reading Dubliners truly worthwhile. Whether you've already read it twenty times or you've never picked it up before, reading Dubliners will be a rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Rating: 5 Stars.
Recommendations: Read it, and if you can't do that, at least read "The Dead." I promise you won't regret it.

Stay on the lookout for my upcoming reviews of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.


3 comments:

  1. Great review! I've never read James Joyce, but I put this book on my Classics Club list, hoping without any real reason that it would be a good place to start. I'm so relieved to read that you think it's a good introduction to his work! The stories sound wonderful, and I'm really looking forward to reading this.

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  2. I also loved The Dead! :-) I haven't read the whole collection yet, but I own it.

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