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Free Book Summary-Dubliners by James Joyce-Study Guide/Synopsis
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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS

SETTING

"Dubliners" was originally a collection of twelve short stories written by Joyce in 1904, at the age of 22. He later added three stories to the earlier set: "Two Gallants", "A Little Cloud" and "The Dead." The last is considered among his best works. Every one of the stories is set in the city of Dublin considered the hub of Irish life and society. Joyce’s declared intention was "to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the center of paralysis." Thus, the city is seen not in a loving or sentimental way, but as a force which ‘threatens or smothers its inhabitants’ human potentialities.’

Two powerful influences in Irish life, which Joyce considers the chief causes of that ‘paralysis’ are the Roman Catholic Church and British colonial rule. He sees them as stunting and repressing all that was potentially strong or dynamic in Irish life. Joyce peoples this collection of stories with a wide range of characters: a young adolescent boy, middle-aged alcoholics, clerks in city offices, a college lecturer, a laundry maid, a young businessman-but most belong to the lower middle and middle classes, a few to the working class. What they all share is the emphasis on stagnation and lack of commitment-in public and private life. It is written in a bare, bleak style, which is amazingly mature for a man of just twenty two years.


THEMES

Major

Moral Paralysis

This is the dominant theme throughout, and is revealed in the actual physical paralysis of Father Flynn, and recurs in the inability of many of the characters to take decisive action. Far from seeing the capital city of Dublin as a nucleus of dynamic change, Joyce saw it as a ‘center of paralysis.’ Here he foreshadowed several modern writers, who see the absence of a unifying belief or an accepted ethical code, as a major affliction of modern life. However Joyce’s toughness consists in the fact that while pointing this out, he does not lean on ‘past glories’ as an alternative.

This is the dominant theme, since Joyce’s whole aim is to present Dublin as a center of ‘moral paralysis’ towards which aim, he draws almost clinically precise portraits of Dubliners afflicted by this moral disease in all aspects of their lives: moral, emotional, professional, artistic, religious and political.

Alienation

Though alienation in city life is a favorite theme of the modern writer, Joyce has depicted characters already weakened by foreign rule and an oppressive religion. Hence, the additional factor of urban alienation leaves them morally crippled. Thus they are isolated from each other, from their families and most dangerously even from a strong sense of selfhood.

Every Dubliner in the collection suffers from a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. The more intellectually inclined brood over it and are introspective; the less equipped rush headlong into drink or are paralyzed into inaction. Thus Joyce took up this all pervasive theme of the twentieth century at an early stage.

Minor

Inability to love

Moral paralysis spreads its tentacles into the deepest recesses of the mind hence strong and passionate feelings seem to elude Joyce’s Dubliners. They hover on the threshold of relationships afraid to commit themselves and the fear drives them back into themselves to certain loneliness and spiritual death.

This too flows out of the two major Themes. The characters, lacking self-confidence and awareness are unable to form deep, committed relationships. Either they cut themselves off from fear of involvement or exploit their families. Emotionally too, the Dubliners are paralyzed and starved.

MOOD

The atmosphere throughout the volume of fifteen stories is one of gloom and pessimism. In fact, this is so universal to all the stories, with the possible exception of ‘The Dead’ that critics have called ‘Dubliners’ a ‘fragmentary novel.’ The landscape in most of the stories reflects this shadowy aspect with references to ‘the vermin-like life’; ‘the gaunt spectral mansions’; ‘the bleak alleys’ and houses with ‘blind imperturbable faces.’ Yet there is never a sense of wallowing in melancholy, as Joyce with youthful ruthlessness probes sharply and precisely into the nature of the Dubliners’ malaise.

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