The stories in Dubliners are generally considered to have charm, delicacy, and some mystery and symbolical tension. Their style is controlled, deliberately simple, unpolished, not lacking in skill, yet in places the stories betray the ineptitude of the inexperienced, young author. Joyce was only twenty-two, and he had written only a handful of sentimental poems, when AE (George Russell) asked him if he wanted to contribute some stories to the Irish Homestead. AE sent him an example from the paper, a story called “The Old Watchman” by Berkeley Campbell. In response, Joyce wrote “The Sisters”, published on 13 August 1904, a rough and rather puzzling sketch of a young boy and a priest who dies, with very little plot and no real ending. It followed rather closely the basic setting of “The Old Watchman”, a moral tale of dissipation and death told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy.
Although Joyce was working on an autobiographical novel, he seized the opportunity to develop a new project: “I am writing a series of epiclet[s] – ten – for a paper. I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city” (Letters I 55). Epiclets (small epics) was a rather grand designation for the fairly simple tales he was writing. But Dubliners was to grow into a critical commonplace book of Dublin life. The stories followed each other in quick succession: “Eveline”, Joyce's original tale about exile and emigration, was published on 10 September; “After the Race”, on the rakishness of youth, perhaps another echo of “The Old Watchman”, appeared on 17 December. In November he was working on “Christmas Eve”, a drawingroom tale of bourgeois smugness (which opens with the sentence: “Mr Callanan felt homely”), but never completed the sketch, possibly because AE had asked to submit no more after complaints from readers. What they objected to is uncertain. AE had been careful to instruct Joyce to “write anything simple, rural?, livemaking, pathos?, which could be inserted so as not to shock the readers” (Letters II 43). The early stories do not yet have that “special odour of corruption” which, as Joyce was to say, floated over his stories (Letters II 123), and even their urban subject matter was not uncharacteristic for the Homestead; but the absence of an uplifting mood or other redemptive quality may have troubled the newspaper's readers. Joyce later speculated that the Dublin papers would not take his stories because they were a caricature of Dublin life.
This initial setback did not stop Joyce from writing more. “Christmas Eve” was recast as “Hallow Eve” in 1905 and then transmuted as “Clay”, and followed by “A Painful Case”, “The Boarding House”, “Counterparts”, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, “An Encounter”, “A Mother”, “Araby” and “Grace”. “The Sisters” he revised, filing off the edges and touching up the symbolism, adding the passage whose symbolism resonates through the entire collection:
He had often said to me: I am not long for this world, and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.
The words “paralysis”, “gnomon”, and “simony”, whose meaning is almost beyond the boy's grasp, add significantly to the mystery of the story but also to the undertone of grotesqueness and adulteration: there seems more than clumsiness behind the priest's breaking the chalice and his mentoring of the boy is looked at with some misgiving (“I wouldn't like children of mine, he said, to have too much to say to a man like that” [D 8]).
As Joyce gathered together his stories for publication, he arranged – and rearranged – the order in which they appeared to make them cohere structurally. The general plan was to group the stories into four categories: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and public life. On 3 December 1905 Joyce sent his manuscript to Grant Richards and the nine-year saga of getting Dubliners into print began. Richards initially accepted the book, on 7 February 1906, but when his printer began to set the newly completed “Two Gallants” and “A Little Cloud”, difficulties began; on the sample proofs of “Two Gallants”, he wrote: “We cannot print this”. Richards, alerted to possible liabilities under current censorship laws, apparently read through the manuscript again and, on 23 April, returned “Two Gallants” and “Counterparts” and asked for the excision of the word “bloody” in “Grace” and other alterations. Joyce refused, though quickly steered towards compromise. Nonetheless, putting pride before business sense, he remonstrated that the objections to his stories were trivial: “Why do you not object to the theme of An Enounter?” he asked (Letters II 137). Not surprisingly, Richards now comprehending the “‘enormity'” (Letters I 61) in the story demanded that it be scrapped too. The correspondence dragged on, until finally, in December, Richards broke the contract.
In the ensuing years, the manuscript of Dubliners did the rounds of eight other publishers, including Elkin Mathews, the publisher of Chamber Music, who suggested Joyce try Maunsel & Co. in Dublin. Joyce, however, had wanted an English publisher, and did not submit the manuscript to the company until February 1909. An enthusiastic George Roberts offered Joyce a contract in August, but when Roberts delayed publication, history repeated itself. Objections were raised and refuted, threats of legal action issued; Joyce even wrote to the King George V about “Ivy Day” for vindication, asking whether “in his view the passage (certain allusions made by a person of the story in the idiom of his social class) should be withheld from publication as offensive to the memory of his father” (the reply from the king's private secretary: “it is inconsistent with rule for His Majesty to express his opinion in such cases”) (Letters II 292). Just as Roberts agreed to go forward if Joyce would publish the book privately and pay the costs of printing, the printer refused to hand over the sheets and threatened to break up the type and burn all one thousand copies printed.
Another four years and several publishers later, Joyce wrote back to Grant Richards in desperation, offering help with the expenses if he would reconsider. Richards, probably to Joyce's surprise, accepted in November 1913. On 15 June 1914 Dubliners was published, without alterations to the text.
The response from readers ranged from hesitation to encouragement. Ezra Pound praised the book for returning style to English prose. Yeats liked it too but was more careful in his opinion; he called it “a book of satiric stories of great subtle[t]y” and “an original study of life” that indicated Joyce's potential as a prose writer, but he also found fault in that “there is not enough foreground, it is all atmosphere perhaps”. Most reviews were significantly above lukewarm; they showed appreciation for the mood and melancholy beauty of some of the stories (especially “The Dead”), but disapproved of the morbidity and despair, and those “aspects of life which are ordinarily not mentioned”. The reviewer for the TLS, with a tinge of irony no doubt, or a fair warning, wrote that “Dubliners may be recommended to the large class of people to whom the drab makes an appeal, for it is admirably written”.
The stories' reception, it is clear, reflected their author's intention. Joyce with his style of “scrupulous meanness” (Letters II 134) had not attempted to produce a series of inspirational tales. The city and the life he depicts are characterized by hopelessness, stagnation and desperation as well as feelings of resentment and subdued anger. In “An Encounter” and “Araby” adventure and romance are thwarted by the grim realities of the adult world. “The Boarding House” tells of Bob Doran whose one moment of careless passion leads him sends him into the snares of a domestic situation without future (he reappears as a pathetic drunk in Ulysses). “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, a story nostalgic for the leadership of Charles Parnell and Ireland's dream of political emancipation, and “A Mother” pit personal gain against higher motives of national integrity and self-determination. The lowest levels of depredation, however, are reached in “Two Gallants” and “Counterparts” but if anything because of the utterly wretched nature of their protagonists these two stories have pathos. No matter how despicable Corley's treatment of the slavey, his and his friend Lenehan's financial fix goes to the heart of the political and economic problems that plague the country.
The theme cuts right across several of the stories. Ireland needs more than rhetoric spouted by nationalist like Molly Ivors in “The Dead” it needs more than Home Rule and a new Parnell: modern Ireland must seek to sustain itself economically in order to be truly emancipated. Joyce intersperses the ineffectual political bickering in “Ivy Day” with a lamentation about the waste of resources and the lack of resourcefulness in Ireland: “Look at all the money there is in the country if we only worked the old industries, the mills, the shipbuilding yards and factories. It's capital we want” (D 147). The argument for economic self-sufficiency returns more than once in Joyce's writing.
With Dubliners, Joyce wanted “the Irish people” to have “one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass” (Letters I 64). The image barely masks the vitriolic intensity with which he expressed his abhorrence for Irish spiritual life, though the sentiment was, in the first place, provoked by Grant Richards' recalcitrance over publishing the stories. His intention had been to write the “moral history” of his country, and although claiming to have merely recorded what he heard and saw around him (Letters II 134), he later he felt he had perhaps been too negative. Having overlooked Ireland's “ingenuous insularity and its hospitality” of the Irish (Letters II 166), he planned a story about a goodly Jew Mr. Hunter to be titled “Ulysses” and, in the spring of 1907, began composing “The Dead”, a story with a broader spectrum that honours “the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality” (D 232).
The distinctive features of “The Dead” are the various and variable thematic strands that interact with each other on different levels and in variable configurations in a mode that looks forward to the mature writing. Sentiment and nostalgia, nationalism and modernism, the West of Ireland and the Continent, class consciousness and community, tradition and decay, life and death are just some of the themes in a story set during a Christmas dinner in the somewhat desolate house of the old Misses Morkan. The setting recalls the munificence of family tradition and of supporting the arts in Dublin, but the conviviality of the event is tempered by circumstances: the Morkan sisters' role as some of the city's prominent music teachers has diminished, their spinsterhood yet another example of Dublin paralysis. Gabriel Conroy, whose modern ideas about wearing galoshes in the snow stand him apart from the other guests, is all too well aware of the changes that have taken place. Worried that his after-dinner speech may be above their heads, he frets over the wording and their response, looks down on the simplicity of his hostesses, patronizes the servant girl, and quarrels with Molly Ivors over her propagandism:
– And haven't you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?
– O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!
When she denounces him as a “West Briton”, he is perplexed, not understanding that his cosmopolitanism is largely a posture. The story's ending, however, offers Gabriel a vision of the West of Ireland prompted by his wife's memories of her dead lover Michael Furey in Galway. Moved by her emotions, he drops his haughtiness and realizes “the time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (D 255), and watching the snow against the window he makes an imaginary journey.
Dubliners was Joyce's answer to the Irish Revival. He sought to redress the Revival's romantic idealism and its emphasis on a rural and Celtic subject matter with an urban, modern image of Dublin life. The city he depicted was a far cry from the pastoral beauty in Revivalist writing; he populated it with a plurality of subjects – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, people from all classes, the upright and respectable and the dissolute – who speak not Gaelic but the genuine language of the Dublin locality. He painted the grit and depredation of the city, the very picture of moral and spiritual paralysis, with characters who put personal gain before the greater good of the nation (the exact reverse of W.B. Yeats's Cathleen ni Houlihan). Yet in spite of Joyce's rancour, his portrayal of Dublin in the stories – as in Ulysses, where the city too is the real hero – is not without affection. Very few of the Dubliners in the book, it seems, could imagine themselves living elsewhere. Such is the irony that lies behind the stories.
Citation: Van Mierlo, Wim. "Dubliners". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 April 2006 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=5482, accessed 01 June 2023.]