Dubliners is not a collection of short stories that were written at various periods and with various themes. It is clearly meant to be a unified work of art. Joyce said that he chose Dublin as the setting because it was “the center of paralysis.” Yet he also stated that his purpose was to depict “the eventual spiritual liberation of my country.” Such a “liberation” could occur only if the Dubliners were to shed the myths about Ireland and face their true situation.
The stories of Dubliners are cunningly arranged. The first three stories clearly constitute a unit; they portray the life of a child in Dublin and are filled with disillusionment and a recognition of failure. “Araby” describes a failed quest as a nameless boy promises to go to a bazaar called Araby to buy a gift for a young girl. The boy is a dreamer who ignores daily life to dwell upon his beloved. It is significant that he invests her with religious imagery when he speaks of a “chalice” he is protecting. He also does not see her clearly; she is always a brown shape to him, and he worships his idea of her rather than her true self.
On the day of his planned visit to Araby, his uncle is late, and it seems that the boy will not be able to go. Finally, the uncle enters, drunk, and gives him money. It is late when the boy arrives at the bazaar, and he finds not the magic and mystery of his dreams but a woman flirting with two men at a counter. He hears a voice announce that the light is out—a metaphor for the extinguishing of his quest. The epiphany is very harsh: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The boy feels ashamed of his earlier dreams; he, like the other Dubliners, is incomplete. His dreams have been smashed and he is filled with self-loathing.
The next stories deal with young and mature people in Dublin. They suffer from a paralysis of the will as well as a failure to fulfill plans or complete escapes or projects. In “Eveline” the main character has found a beau, Frank, who wishes to take her to Buenos Aires against the opposition of her father. She sits in a dusty room and weighs the claims of both sides. Most of her meditation deals with her father and her home. It is a familiar if grim place; the father is a drunk who makes Eveline give him all the money she earns at her job. She can recall only a few positive images of her father. In contrast, Frank is “very kind, manly, open-hearted.” He loves music and will give Eveline an honorable place as his wife. Eveline seems to decide between the two when she thinks of the fate of her mother: “that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.” In panic, she chooses Frank; he will save her. At the end of the story, however, she cannot answer the call of Frank to join him on the ship. She remains in a state of paralysis between Frank and her home. Her fears of being drowned and her obligations to her family overcome the freedom promised by Frank. She cannot escape Dublin and is described as being “passive, like a helpless animal.” “Eveline” is a quintessential Dubliners story. The dream of a fuller life is betrayed by fear and paralysis of the will.
The last group of stories deals with institutions: “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” with politics, “A Mother” with the musical world of Dublin, and “Grace” with religion.
The last story in the collection, “The Dead,” seems to stand alone as a kind of coda. The story itself is very detailed in its presentation of a middle-class and educated world. The protagonist, Gabriel, is Gabriel Conroy. The reader hears Gabriel’s inner thoughts as he meditates on Ireland and his place in it. He is an inner exile in Dublin who takes his vacations on the Continent, writes a review of a British poet, Browning, and has little use for the Irish Literary Revival of language and culture. The structure of the story is the destruction of his aloofness and egotism.
The first of the assaults on Gabriel’s egotism is with the servant Lily. Gabriel makes social conversation with Lily primarily, it seems, to enhance his own image. He pretends to be genuinely interested in Lily and manages to offend her. “’O, then,’ said Gabriel gaily, ’I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?’ ” Lily is angered and complains of men who fail to meet their commitments. Gabriel is embarrassed at this outburst and later feels that he has used the wrong tone with her.
The next assault on Gabriel is made by Miss Ivors. Miss Ivors is a nationalist and criticizes Gabriel for writing his review in a pro-British journal. She also criticizes him for going to the Continent to learn foreign languages when he has his own language to learn. “O, to tell you the truth,” Gabriel suddenly responds, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” Gabriel is especially upset because Miss Ivors has criticized him in front of other people.
The last confrontation is the most important and is with his wife, Gretta. After the party is over, Gabriel has romantic feelings about his wife. She, however, seems to be distant and tired. He draws her to him, but she resists his advances. Finally, she reveals that she was thinking not of Gabriel but of a young man she knew in Galway. Gabriel tries to belittle this relationship but does not succeed. Instead, he suddenly begins to realize who he is and what his relationship with his wife has been. He now sees himself as a “ludicrous figure” who has idealized his “clownish lusts.” When Gretta reveals that the young man, Michael Furey, died for her, Gabriel’s egotism and his world are destroyed. He feels that some “impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him.” Gabriel then passes through stages to reach his final state. He becomes a prophet who announces the death of his aunt, Julia Morkan. He begins to shed “generous tears” as he thinks of the death of Michael Furey. Furey had died for love, and although Gabriel has never felt love before, “he knew that such a feeling must be love.”
The last movement of the story is very difficult to interpret. Gabriel recognizes that it is time “to set out on his journey westward.” That journey can be interpreted as either toward life or toward death. A journey to the west is traditionally associated with death, but all of the positive characters—Gretta, Furey—come from the west. In addition, Gabriel feels his own identity and all of Ireland “fading out into a grey impalpable world.” The last sentence speaks of the snow falling “like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” The ending of the story is seen in positive terms by some critics as a figurative rebirth for Gabriel. Others see it as the destruction of Gabriel and the world of Dublin, literally a last judgment. Still others see it as ambiguous, making it impossible for the reader to decide whether the ending is positive or negative. Yet another interpretation is that Gabriel is a prophet who points the way to the eventual “spiritual liberation” of Dublin through the love that he, Gabriel, recognizes but cannot feel. Thus, the ending signifies a cleansing of society in order to rebuild it on new principles.