Dubliners is roughly organized into a framework chronicling a human life: we begin with younger protagonists, and then move forward into stories with increasingly aged men and women. Although this is a broad generalization, the stories also tend to increase in complexity. "Araby," "An Encounter," and "Eveline," for example, are fairly simple and short tales. "The Dead," the final tale of the collection, is nearly three times as long as the average story in Dubliners. It is also the richest of the stories, weaving together many of the previous themes of the book. Joyce's portrait of Dublin life moves not only across a small range of classes (the poor and the middle class) but also across the different periods of a human life.
Poverty and Class Differences
Poverty is one of the most pervasive themes of the novel. Joyce usually evokes it through detail: the plum cake Maria busy in "Clay," for example, is a humble treat that costs her a good chunk of her salary. Characters rail against their poverty. Lenehan in "Two Gallants" sees no future for himself, and sits down to a miserable supper consisting only of peas and ginger beer. Farrington of "Counterparts" stays in a hateful job because he has no other options. His misery is such that he ends up spending far more than he can afford on booze. We catch glimpses of slums, as in "An Encounter," when the two young schoolboys see poor children without fully comprehending what their ragged clothes imply about the small children's home conditions and prospects in life. Dublin's poor economy is also the reason why characters must fret about keeping even miserable jobs. Poverty is never pretty in Dubliners. For every gentle, poor soul like Maria, there are numerous revolting characters like Corley and Lenehan of "Two Gallants." Joyce explores the negative affects poverty has on the character.
Colonization and Irish Politics
Dublin is a defeated city, the old capitol of a conquered nation. At the time of the stories, she is even more so: the Irish political world is still suffering from the loss of the nationalist movement's greatest leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Joyce does not exactly write to rally; his appraisal of the state of Irish politics and the effects of colonization on the Irish psyche are both quite bleak. Nor does he agree with many of the policies and cultural initiatives embraced by some nationalists: he was no fan of the Irish language movement, and he was unimpressed by a good deal of the Irish art being produced in his period.
Defeat, Powerlessness, Stasis, Imprisonment, and Paralysis
These five themes are closely connected. The colonization of Ireland is paralleled by the sense of defeat and powerlessness in the lives of individuals. In many stories, characters are so trapped by their conditions that struggling seems pointless. In "Counterparts," for example, Farrington is allowed one moment of triumph when he publicly humiliates his tyrannical boss. But for that one moment, Farrington is made to grovel in private, and he knows afterward that his life at work will become even more unpleasant.
Joyce conveys this powerlessness through stasis. In Dublin, not much moves. At times the paralysis is literal: note Father Flynn in "The Sisters." At other times, the stasis is a state of life, as with the frustrated Little Chandler of "A Little Cloud." This feeling of stasis is closely connected to a feeling that Dublin is a kind of prison.
Many characters feel trapped. We begin with a paralyzed priest in "The Sisters," followed by frustrated schoolboys trapped by Dublin's tedium in "An Encounter," followed by a boy without the means to indulge his fantasies in "Araby," followed by a young woman crushed by the stifling conditions that entrap her at home in "Eveline" . . . most of the characters are is some way imprisoned. The entrapment is often caused by a combination of circumstances: poverty, social pressure, family situation. Sometimes, the imprisonment comes from the guile of another character, as with the hapless Mr. Doran in "The Boarding House."
The frustration caused by this stasis, impotence, and imprisonment has a horrible effect on the human spirit. Often, the weak in Dubliners deal with their frustration by bullying the still weaker. Mahony of "An Encounter" picks on small children and animals, Little Chandler and Farrington, in two back-to-back stories, take out their frustrations on their children.
Longing for Escape
The natural complement to the above themes. Its first expression comes from the boys of "An Encounter," whose dreams of the American Wild West provide an escape from the tedium of Dublin. Unfortunately, most of the characters are unable to escape. Eveline finds herself too frightened to leave Ireland; Farrington finds even alcohol unsatisfying; Little Chandler realizes he'll never find the focus to be a poet. The greatest barrier to escape is sometime psychological, as it is with Eveline. Escape is also a central theme of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As an Irish writer who lived most of his adult life abroad, Joyce was obsessed with the liberating effects of fleeing Ireland, and he transfers that obsession, in one form or another, onto many of the characters in Dubliners.
Dubliners has some profoundly lonely characters in it, but the theme of isolation does not end there. Isolation is not only a matter of living alone; it comes from the recognition that a man or woman's subjectivity is only their own, inaccessible to all others. Failed communication is common throughout the stories. In other stories, conversations are striking for how little meaningful communication takes place. The supreme example of this theme in Dubliners comes in the dead, when Gabriel and Gretta leave the party. While Gabriel thinks about his life with Gretta and how much he desires her, Gretta cannot stop thinking about the young boy, her first love, who died for need of her. Husband and wife have been in the same room, but they may as well have been on different planets.
Mortality is another theme, a natural result of Joyce's stages-of-life structure. But the stories at the end of the collection, where the characters tend to be older, are not the only ones to deal with mortality. Dubliners begins with "The Sisters," a story about a young child's first intimate experience with death. Thus the collection begins and ends with the theme of mortality. The preoccupation with mortality puts a bleak spin on the themes of stasis and paralysis: although it often feels in Dublin like time isn't moving, Joyce reminds us that the steady crawl toward death is one movement we can count on.
Dubliners Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Dubliners is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The theme of isolation and miscommunication really comes out in full force after the party. Gabriel spends the journey home thinking of his wife and their many happy moments together. But he soon learns that she has been thinking of a love she had...