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Having intended for Dubliners to be a tableau of the city and its people, both to themselves and to others, James Joyce connects his stories as the "stages of man." For, he has planned three stories each devoted to childhood, adolescence, mature life, public life, and married life. The final story, "The Dead," combines all these categories.
As a city, Dublin endured much decline by the early twentieth century, the historical setting of Joyce's work. This stagnation is reflected both in the status of the city as it dropped to the fifth in the United Kingdom ratings, although it was the second largest, and in the condition of its inhabitants, who were often poor and unemployed. Examples of this can be seen in the "ragged girls" and "ragged boys" of "An Encounter" and the "rough tribes from the cottages" in "Araby." Because of the widespread poverty, those who were employed, even if in a servile position, clung to this grim work. For instance, in the story "The boarding House," Mr. Doran avoids the trap of marrying a woman he does not love lest he should lose his job in disgrace. Farrington in "Counterparts" gets violently drunk after he is made to offer an "abject apology" to his superior at work because he cannot afford to lose his job since so few are available.
With its stories that center on characterization, Dubliners focuses on the lower middle class, shopkeepers and tradesmen, clerks, bank officials, functionaries of one kind or another, and salesmen. Their homes are rented rooms and houses in unfashionable areas of the city. Some even exist on the edge of cruel poverty, such as the skivvy in "Two Gallants" and the caretaker's daughter in "The Dead." And, while the population of Dublin was predominantly Catholic, the 17% Protestant minority of unquestionable loyalty to Great Britain included the ruling elite who composed the upper levels of society in the city. Thus, money plays a distinctive role in this collection of stories. For instance, Maria in "Clay," who only has two half-crowns and some "coppers" [pennies] in her purse when she leaves for her evening visit, spends money in pathetic extravagance:
At the thought of the failure of her little surprise and of the two and fourpence she had thrown away for nothing she nearly cried outright.
Out of this poverty and British oppression, Dubliners has the themes of powerlessness, imprisonment, and resentment weaved together as men are often emasculated in their abject apologies to superiors, or through the necessity of holding a demeaning job. The female characters are often repressed, abused, or exploited. In "Clay," Joyce writes, "so Maria let him have his way," while in "Eveline," the main character is abused by her father and possesses no self-esteem: "She prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty." Thus, so often in Dubliners the protagonists are caught in circumstances beyond their control, and they surrender pathetically to them. Victims of self-deception, as in "Araby," they are misdirected often in their greed, religious servility, and desire for social acceptance (as Gabriel is in "The Dead"). This paralysis, a term used for the surrender to religious and social control characteristic of his countrymen, is what Joyce wished to expose in his monumental work, Dubliners.
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