What significance does "dirt" have in Dubliners?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dirt in the Biblical sense represents death--"Dust thou art, unto dust thou shalt return"-- and in James Joyce's Dubliners there is often dust in houses that are on brown lanes, symbolizing the death of one's spirits. For instance, in the opening paragraph of the story of the same name, Eveline sits at the window at dusk and in "her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired." This passage suggests Eveline's dead-end life of duty and even physical abuse by her father.

In "Araby," the narrator describes his neighborhood, one of dust and dirt into which the children are born,

The career of our play brought us through the dark, muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark, dripping gardens where odors arose from the ashpits [a type of dirt].

Here the suggestions of dirt symbolize the physical poverty, as in "A Little Cloud" with the description, "[A] horde of grimy children," as well as the spiritual poverty of the Dubliners with the description of the muddy lanes and with the word "tribes" for the boys who run through "gauntlets. 

Also in "A Little Cloud," Little Chandler, who works as a clerk, but desires to be a poet, turns from his clerical, "tiresome writing" to look out the window of his office.

The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots....It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men....

In this passage, the dust is described as "golden" as Chandler perceives his hope to be a poet as a possibility. However, the word "dust" remains, hinting at the mediocrity of his life and the eventual dying of his poetic ambitions in "clay" as he reads a verse of Byron,

Within this narrow cell reclines her clay,
That clay where once....

It was useless.... He couldn't do anything....He was a prisoner for life!

Dust, ashes, dirt, clay--all these words signal the dead-end lives of spiritual and physical poverty of the residents of Dublin. Joyce's Dubliners is a "stages of man" collection that ends with the final story, "The Dead"--"Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return."

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