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Free Book Summary-Dubliners by James Joyce-Study Guide/Synopsis
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Major Themes

Moral paralysis

This is the dominant theme, particularly in the later stories such as "Two Gallants"; "The Boarding House"; "Counterparts", "A Painful Case", "Ivy Day in the Committee Room", and "Grace." The two Gallants of the ironic title are two sleazy idlers, of whom the dominant one earns extra money as a prostitute, preying on poor servant girls. His friend looks on admiringly, wishing he had the same flair. The two alcoholics of "Counterparts" and "Grace" have different personalities in the first case, violent and callous, in the second, passive and weak. The political workers in "Ivy Day" are dull opportunists who wax sentimental when thinking of a dead leader, without attempting to follow any of his principles. In "The Boarding House" a lodger allows himself to be manipulated into marriage with the landladyís flirtations daughter, as he is too gutless to refuse. On the other hand, Duffy in "A Painful Case" is too cowardly to enter a committed relationship with a sensitive woman, and condemns her and himself to a sterile life. This moral paralysis is chiefly attributed by Joyce to two sources-the repressive Church and the exploitative rule of the British.

The paralyzing effect of the Catholic Church is shown graphically in "The Sisters" where Father Flynn, the dead priest has been paralyzed for some time before his death. Perhaps it is suggested because "the duties of the priesthood was too much for him". Elsewhere its influence is indirect-as in "Eveline"- where Eveline backs out, at the last possible moment, of marriage to Frank, as she feels it is her "duty" to remain with her tyrannical father.

The sapping influence of British colonialism is shown more indirectly still. It reveals itself in the foolish sense of inferiority felt by Jimmy in "After the Race" where he is thrilled with European "sophistication" and tries to bask in its reflected glory. In a different milieu, Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud" is filled with discontent and frustration at the thought that his old friend Gallaher "made it" in London and Paris. By implication the lack of purpose and self-respect in the two drunkards, or the two "Gallants" arises from the same restricted society with no sense of dynamism.


This theme flows from the first. There is a deep sense of loneliness and isolation in almost every story. Though he groups all his characters under the title "Dubliners" they have no sense of identification with the city or with those around. Only Jimmy Doyle in the euphoria after the race is happy in the mood of public celebration on the streets. Farrington in "Counterparts" looks on the streets in a joyful mood after his "escape" from the office. This too is seen through a rosy alcoholic glow.

All the others feel at odds with their surroundings-Little Chandler steps through the dark streets fearfully and Duffy has the impression of hostility in the shadowy lover in the Park, who waits impatiently for him to leave.

While Eveline is alienated from herself, as she is unable to decide on something promising but unfamiliar, the two alcoholics are isolated from a more human existence. Farrington is reduced to a brutish level of behavior while Kernan has "lost" the ability to decide for himself.

Politics, art and religion are focused on in "Ivy Day", "A Mother" and "Grace." In all of them there is a cross commercialism and opportunism far removed from any commitment or sincerity to the work itself. Thus alienation from the surrounding society, from ethical values, and even from oneself, is a strong motif in "Dubliners." The concluding story "The Dead" reveals another variation on this theme. Gabriel Conroy the rather smug, affectionate family man suddenly finds that his "happy" marriage is illusory; that his beloved wife has been tied to her tragic and romantic past, even while living with him, and he has been unaware of this. The fundamental loneliness in even apparently harmonious relationships is exposed here.

Minor Themes

Inability to love

Part of the moral paralysis or a result of it is the incapacity to form deep and loving relationships. Thus, most notably Duffy in "A Painful Case", Eveline in "Eveline" and Bob Doran in "The Boarding House" are all involved in, but not committed to, love affairs. Both Duffy and Eveline draw back at the decisive moment and while Duffy tries to rationalize his decision, he cannot resolve it. Eveline being uneducated and inarticulate only clings to the iron railing of the ship, mutely refusing to join her lover. Doran doesnít even know whether or not he loves Polly, though he is sexually involved with her-she was a little vulgar; sometimes she said, "I seen" and "If I hadíve known." But what would grammar matter if he really loved her? He could not make up his mind whether to like her or despise her for what she had done. At its worst this inability to love descends to outright exploitation as in "Two Gallants" or "Counterparts."

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