Backstory: In December, Rick at Another Book Blog organized a bookish Secret Santa event. A group of bloggers agreed to read a book suggested by someone else, and then post a review to that someone else’s blog. I was lucky enough to draw CJ from ebookclassics, and suggested that she read Dubliners, by James Joyce. Here’s her post. — Carolyn O
Dubliners, by the Irish writer and poet James Joyce, is a collection of short stories depicting the lives of middle class men and women from Dublin during the early 20th century. Joyce writes each story starkly with little detail or background, and in a style he described as “scrupulous meanness”. This has often given readers the false impression that nothing happens in the stories. I laugh when I remember reading the first story, Three Sisters, because I was like, “That’s it?” It ended so suddenly.
However, Joyce is attempting to capture a moment in time when a character realizes something deeply important about themselves, whether good or bad, which is why the word epiphany is so heavily associated with this collection. My own epiphany was that it is not about what is happening in the story, but the emotions that are churning beneath the surface. Through the characters, the reader encounters sadness, regret, loneliness, confusion, anger, frustration and love of all dimensions. Some characters release their emotions loudly, publicly and towards other people. Others keep everything bottled up inside like acid eating away at their souls. But no matter where they go or what they do, the characters bring their emotions along with them like heavy baggage. Joyce said, “Dubliners is about how we are everywhere – it’s the experience of modern urban life.”
Truthfully, I found the stories sad and hopeless. That’s if I understood the story in the first place! I didn’t understand what some stories were about until researching the collection. So yes, someone did have to spell out to me that a story about a man falling down the stairs was about religion. I did relate to the twin themes of “being stuck”, and to me that meant either having some kind of obligation whether to family or a job, and “paralysis” or the inability of characters to make changes or move forward as a result. It made me think of how life just happens and sometimes people have toed the line so long, the habit is deep in every fibre of their muscles. Choosing the path of least resistance is automatic.
I have to give a special mention to The Dead which is supposed to be Joyce’s short story masterpiece. Tied in with the themes of “being stuck” and “paralysis”, the main character, Gabriel, gives a moving speech in the story about moving forward from the past to focus on the present. He said, “Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.” However, by the end of the night he is an emotional wreck, dwelling on whether it is better to die young and have no past, or grow old and be plagued by mistakes and bitterness. The contradiction being on the outside he openly encouraged letting go of the past, but on the inside was torturing himself with it.
Dubliners was my first experience with James Joyce and I have Carolyn from Rosemary and Reading Glasses to thank for making the introduction. Although I found the stories sad and even downright depressing, I cannot deny Joyce is a masterful storyteller and writes so poignantly about human experience and the tedium of everyday life. I didn’t connect with any particular character or story, but I could appreciate the emotions and themes Joyce wanted to write about. Sad stories won’t deter me from enjoying more of his work in the future. In fact, I had an epiphany that sad stories can sometimes be the best stories.
— CJ at ebookclassics