Dubliners Study Guide

In 1905, the young James Joyce, then only twenty-three years old, sent a manuscript of twelve short stories to an English publisher. Delays in publishing gave Joyce ample time to add three accomplished stories over the next two years: "Two Gallants," "A Little Cloud," and "The Dead" were added later. Although the stories were powerful, revolutionary work, Dubliners was not published until 1914. The delay was due to concern about the frank sexual content (which, by today's standards, is quite mild) and some of the charged political and social issues addressed in the collection.

Dubliners is the first-born of Joyce's central canon (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake). Though now considered a masterpiece, its delayed publication altered its public reception. Though Joyce was astonishingly young (twenty-five years of age at the time of the completion of "The Dead"), the collection never saw print until he was thirty-three years old. By that time, Joyce was already publishing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in serial form in The Egoist. The stream-of-consciousness experiments of Portrait and Ulysses attracted for more attention than the more straightforward narrative style in Joyce's short stories. For many years, the magnificent accomplishment in Dubliners was eclipsed by Joyce's experimental novels.

Dubliners is a powerful work in its own right, containing some of the most finely wrought short stories in the language. None of the tales show the marks of a sloppy young writer: tone is distinctive and powerful, emotional distance is finely calibrated, and Joyce moves easily between terse, bare-bones narrative and meticulous detail. There is no stream-of-consciousness; in fact, protagonists (including first-person narrators) at times nearly withdraw from the narrative, leaving the reader alone with only the basic facts of the story. Although some readers have complained that the autobiographical Portrait tends toward self-indulgence, in Dubliners Joyce proves his ability to enter the souls of people far removed from himself. His acute grasp of character is everywhere, and is often displayed with a remarkable conciseness and precision.

The Dublin Joyce knew was a city in decline. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Dublin had been the second city of the British Isles and one of the ten largest cities in Europe. Charming architecture, an elegant layout, and a bustling port made for a dynamic and agreeable urban life. But later in the century, Belfast had outstripped her as the great city of Ireland, and the economy was in shambles. Formerly fashionable Georgian townhouses became horrible slums, with inadequate sewage and cramped living conditions. Her ports were in decline, and chances for advancement were slim for the lower and middle classes. Power rested in the hands of a Protestant minority. Not surprisingly, Dubliners dwells heavily on the themes of poverty and stagnation. Joyce sees paralysis in every detail of Dublin's environment, from the people's faces to the dilapidated buildings, and many characters assume that the future will be worse than the present. Most of the stories focus on members of the lower or middle classes.

This portrait of Dublin and its people is not always a flattering one. Joyce never romanticizes poverty, and explores how need and social entrapment adversely affect character. He sees his hometown as a city divided, often against itself, and the aura of defeat and decline pervades every tale. He is often deeply critical of Irish provinciality, the Catholic Church, and the Irish political climate of the time. But the collection is called Dubliners, not Dublin. Joyce does not merely write about conditions. The real power of Dubliners is Joyce's depiction of the strong characters who live and work in this distinctive and bleak city.