Book Review – Dubliners by James Joyce

First published, 1914

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A good while ago now, I heard that James Joyce is one of the more difficult authors to read. With his naturalistic, free-flowing, full-stop-avoiding style, he’s one of the great writers who a lot of people have pretended to read. I’ve yet to get on to Ulysses, but Dubliners is not a challenge of held breath and strugglesome rhythm, so there’s none of that to fear here.

The classic short story collection, Dubliners, contains fifteen stories from James Joyce, each depicting life in the early part of the twentieth century, in the Irish capital. It was a time of great change in Ireland and Joyce does not shy away from subjects including nationalism, religion and personal frustration.

I know others have had trouble with the fact that some of the stories just stop – with no particular conclusion. I rather enjoyed that, though. Certainly, I’m sure some of the stories will stay with me for a very long time to come. The last line of An Encounter, a story of two schoolboy chums, trapped in conversation with a stranger, is a personal favourite:

“My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahoney saw me and hallooed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.”
p22, An Encounter, Dubliners by James Joyce

Eveline, the story of a woman, locked in the domestic service of her family, desperate to leave with her lover and start a new life of endless possibility and, ultimately, finding herself unable to leave, broke my heart. A delight.

In Counterparts, we find a man stuck in a job that bores him, doomed to stay in an office where he’s thought lazy or a fool, with only the promise of a pint to keep him going. In A Mother, we discover a woman, intent on making sure her daughter is properly paid for her work, making things ten times worse for her offspring, ensuring she’s not only underpaid but never to be hired again.

These are stories of people, stymied by their lives, forlorn and reckless, tormented by their choices, but with some of the most beautiful language printed.

That said, there are a handful of instances where Joyce alludes to childhood games with unfortunate names, Jewishness in a stereotypical way (very common of the time) and Blackness. However, in his addressing of Blackness, the character seeks to unmask the racist attitudes around him. Whether he does so successfully is really up to the reader. I’ve said before that, although it can be painful to reconcile the language of the past with the morals and education of our time, I do think it’s important not to censor our past selves but rather, learn from them, to see how far we’ve come.

Sometimes, it’s very tempting to dip into the classics and I think Dubliners is an excellent place to start. There are some stunning turns of phrase in this collection, and I suspect it’s become a set text for language students for very good reason.