Most Dubliners share the same trait: they are paralyzed and prevented from living fulfilling lives. Various characters recognize their inability to move forward, but most do nothing about it. Instead they blame other people for their own faults or pretend that there’s nothing wrong.
Eveline is an example of a paralyzed Dubliner. She lives a challenging life, caring for two children and her drunkard father who withholds money. She is charged with caring for the household as well as working. When she meets Frank, he is different and can offer her a way out. She sees him as a pathway to a new life, one in which she will be respected as a married woman and not need to worry that her father will abuse her. However, although she has the opportunity, she cannot leave Dublin. Her promise to her mother, her guilt at leaving her father, and her fear all play a role in paralyzing her. In addition, she never mentions that she loves Frank but instead thinks about how she must escape and he will save her. Her epiphany that she cannot leave comes at the expense of her future; she condemns herself to the same life that her mother led, which is what Eveline swore she would never do.
Little Chandler is another example of a character who has the epiphany that his life is unhappy, but he cannot recognize his own fault. He is jealous of his friend Gallaher, who has escaped Dublin and seems to be living the exciting life of a bachelor. Gallaher is successful and brags about his prowess with women. After seeing his old friend, Little Chandler compares his own life to that of Gallaher. He has not become a successful poet, he has an infant son with whom he has no rapport or patience, he has a wife with whom he has no connection. He stares at her picture and notices only her “cold eyes.” His child cries and instead of soothing him, Chandler shouts at him. He feels there is no possibility that he can become a poet because he is tied down with a family. While “tears of remorse” are in his eyes at the end of the story, those tears most likely reflect regret for his own inadequate life. He takes no responsibility for his own role in how his life has turned out and blames his family for his paralysis.
Even the wealthy Dubliners are paralyzed, although they have the financial means to help themselves. Jimmy wastes his days spending time with his friends, racing cars, eating fancy meals, and playing cards. Although he is well-educated, he does not have a job and relies on his father’s money. He loses a great deal of money to his friends in the card game, and he trusts them to calculate just how much he owes them. He does nothing with his life, and there is no indication that he will change. Instead of realizing his faults, Jimmy chooses to push his epiphany away: “He knew that he would regret in the morning, but at present he was glad of the rest, glad of the dark stupor that would cover up his folly.” Jimmy will remain the typical paralyzed Dubliner.
One character who appears about to break free of his paralysis is Gabriel. He spends much of his time in denial, going through the motions of life, as Dubliners do. But his wife’s story of her first love, Michael, forces Gabriel to reevaluate his life. Michael’s passion for Grete caused him to risk and lose his own life, just so he could see her one last time before she left. Gabriel realizes he has never felt that kind of passion for anyone; that kind of love is not what he shares with Grete. Gabriel worries about his aging aunts who will one day become “shades,” and he recognizes that everyone will die. He has another epiphany that life is meant to be enjoyed, to be lived “in the full glory of some passion.” He reflects on his friend’s earlier comment that he should explore Ireland and realizes that it might be time to do some exploring. His final epiphany that “the living and the dead” are the same is Joyce’s final message. Dubliners do not live, they merely breathe. Gabriel seems determined to do both from now on.
While it is beyond the scope herein to consider all the stories of James Joyce's Dubliners, (the stories through "Araby" have expressed epiphanies while the others have epiphanies reserved for readers), a number of these stories can be considered.
This first story introduces the motif of paralysis. Under British rule, Dublin is the site of paralysis; Dubliners are ineffectual failures. With social and spiritual imperfections, they want to change, but are paralyzed in their efforts and are, thus, ineffective. In this story, a boy's epiphany occurs as he learns about Father Flynn's lurid desires. In performing the rituals of religion, such as holding the chalice, the priest cannot hold on to the chalice and is, thus, paralyzed in his function as a priest,
...there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself.
The third story moves to one about adolescence in Joyce's "stages of man." In his infatuation of a friend's sister, a teen confuses the spiritual with the secular in his "Araby" of passion and imagination and is paralyzed in his lust. His epiphany comes on his entry to the bazaar, perceived as exotic, but really banal; likewise, Mangan's sister is not enchanting, but common:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity....
The fourth story about a young woman who considers leaving her abusive home to go to America with her sailor boyfriend, Eveline's paralysis comes as she feels committed to caring for her little brother and is unable to board the ship. When "A bell clanged upon her heart," Eveline has her epiphany, realizing she will not go.
The eleventh story in the collection, the narrative centers around mature life; and, so, the epiphany is realized in a more complex manner. In the given moments of real life and place, psychological, social, and moral realities reveal themselves. Mr. James Duffy, who lives an ascetic life, is paralyzed in his asceticism and strict life. But, after meeting Mrs. Emily Sinico, discovering in her a companion with whom he can share his love of books, music, and politics. But, when she becomes emotional with him on one occasion, he breaks off the relationship in his disillusionment that theirs is not the ideal he has imagined. Duffy, afraid to reciprocate her touch is paralyzed in his fear.
When Mrs. Sinico dies, Mr. Duffy reads of her death in the papers where it is described as a "painful case." As he sits "living over his life with her...evoking two images, he new conceived her, he realised that she was dead, that she had ceased to esist, that she had beome a "a memory" just as his life would be the same. Then, his epiphany comes at the end: "He felt that he was alone." The literal lines expand into the symbolic situtation of the story as one of a diminished life.
- "The Dead"
This story combines all the "stages of life": moving backwards from these phases, the main character, Gabriel argues with an Irish nationalist about his British sympathies, he misunderstands his wife, he is unsure of his personal direction, he hopes for a passionate night in the hotel, and he learns of his wife's childhood love.
In the dark, Gabriel's epiphany of admiration of his wife is yet partial; this incomplete recognition may lead to a paralysis/ignorance: "His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world."