Places Discussed

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*Dublin. Ireland’s capital city, which had a population of some three hundred thousand people in the early twentieth century. Joyce, who grew up in Dublin, once told a publisher that no writer had yet presented the city to the world, a situation that he hoped this book would rectify. Dubliners does indeed give a strikingly detailed picture of the city, with attention to its topography and the texture of its daily life.

In many stories, characters traverse Dublin on foot, and Joyce carefully records their movements, naming actual streets, bridges, public squares, churches, monuments, shops, and pubs along the way. In “Two Gallants,” for example, he creates a kind of verbal “map” of central Dublin, tracing the long, circuitous route that the aging Lenehan follows—first with his friend Corley and then alone—during a warm gray August evening. Lenehan’s wanderings give texture to the story, helping create a sense of Dublin as an actual place. He and Corley hear a harpist playing mournful music for a small group of listeners on Kildare Street. Later, Lenehan visits a shabby shop where he eats a solitary meal of grocers’ peas and ginger beer. Near the end of his wanderings, he watches the late-night crowds dispersing on Grafton Street, one of Dublin’s most fashionable shopping areas. Such details not only give the story a strong sense of place, they also allow Joyce to suggest the frustration and futility of Lenehan’s life as a “paralyzed” Dubliner; his route is essentially circular, his journey lonely and pointless. After eating his meager supper, he feels his own poverty of purse and spirit.

Joyce himself was an avid stroller and often spent hours with his friends roaming the streets of Dublin. His walking knowledge of the city is evident not only in Dubliners but in all his fiction, especially Ulysses (1922), a novel built around the wanderings of Leopold Bloom on a summer day in Dublin.

*North Richmond Street

*North Richmond Street. Principal setting of “Araby,” one of the three stories about childhood that open Dubliners. The Joyce family lived at number 17 on this street during the mid-1890’s, and Joyce incorporates many experiences from that time into his fiction. The unnamed boy narrator of “Araby” describes North Richmond as a quiet street, whose houses gaze at one another with brown “imperturbable faces.”

Joyce also evokes scenes of childhood play in the surrounding area—the dark and muddy lanes behind houses and the dripping gardens where odors arose from the garbage dumps. On Saturday evenings, with his aunt, the boy goes marketing in the “flaring streets,” jostled by drunken men and “bargaining women.” Such passages capture the rough, run-down character of north central Dublin in the 1890’s, a poor part of the city with crowded streets and dilapidated buildings. In “Araby” and in the other childhood stories—“The Sisters” and “An Encounter”—these gloomy surroundings weigh heavily on the sensitive young narrator. While he is not yet “paralyzed” by his environment, he feels a growing disillusionment with Dublin and its citizens.

Committee room

Committee room. Wicklow Street center of political campaign operations for Richard Tierney in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” A few campaign workers and other men gather here, mainly to escape bad weather and to wait for the bottled stout that Tierney has promised to send. The room is dark, cold, and gloomy, warmed only by a small coal fire that needs constant tending. When one of the men finally lights two candles, the “denuded room” comes into view, its walls bare, apart from a copy of an election address. Joyce uses the bleak room to mirror the dreary lives of his characters, most of whom are poor, unemployed, and cynical about Tierney and municipal politics generally. Those who support the Irish nationalist cause seem ineffectual, more interested in drinking stout and talking sentimentally about their dead political idol, Charles Stewart Parnell (a real person), than in working to end British colonial rule in their country. The fading fire in the Committee Room seems to suggest the dim prospects for political renewal in Dublin.

Morkin house

Morkin house. Home of Kate and Julia Morkin; a dark and gaunt house on Usher Island, a quay running along the south side of the River Liffey, that is the main setting of “The Dead.” Joyce modeled this house on the residence of his great aunts at 15 Usher Island. In “The Dead,” the final story of Dubliners, Joyce somewhat softens the harsh picture of Dublin given in earlier stories. He makes the house of the Morkin sisters a symbol of what he came to regard as a notable Irish virtue: hospitality. The sisters open their house for a lavish Christmas party, with music, dancing, drink, and an ample supper. Nevertheless, for Gabriel Conroy, the story’s protagonist, the house becomes a stifling place. Nervous about the speech he must give and flustered by his unpleasant encounter with Miss Ivors, Gabriel twice imagines being away from the house, outdoors in the snowy night, enjoying the outdoor coolness and being able to walk alone. Like many of Joyce’s Dubliners, he feels trapped and longs for escape. At the end of the story, after learning of his wife’s girlhood love, Michael Furey, Gabriel recognizes his own self-deception and self-centeredness. Joyce hints that Gabriel might now be poised to live with great compassion and self-awareness, recognizing his connection with all the living and the dead.


*Galway. City in western Ireland’s Connacht province and girlhood home of Gretta Conroy in “The Dead.” While the actual setting of “The Dead” never moves outside Dublin, the west of Ireland—Galway in particular—plays a crucial role in the narrative. Gretta’s husband, Gabriel, experiences a crisis of identity at the end of the story that is precipitated by Gretta’s disclosure of events from her girlhood in Galway. This revelation sharply focuses an east-west tension in the story, with Dublin (in the east) representing Gabriel’s once-secure sense of self and Galway (in the west) drawing him toward a new identity, one less certain and stable. Thus, in the final story of Dubliners, Joyce suggests an alternative to Dublin, a place Gabriel might go, if only in imagination, to restore his sense of self.

Historical Background

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As he portrays it in his work, Joyce’s Dublin was composed mostly of lower-to middle-class residents oppressed by financial hardships, foreign political dominance, fractiousness among rival Irish nationalist groups, and the overwhelming influence of the Irish Catholic Church. Combined, in Joyce’s eyes, these forces and travails left the ordinary Dubliner with few options for self-expression or freedom of the soul; hence, Joyce’s theme of “paralysis” was established.

In the late 1800s, Ireland was still reeling from the agricultural disasters of mid-century and the massive Irish immigration (mainly to the United States) that followed. Several references in the stories suggest that well-paying employment was scarce and that even working class Dubliners struggled under subsistence wages. Consistently throughout the stories, characters agonize over a crown or even a shilling; this underscores the prevailing financial difficulties among most citizens.

Politically, Ireland was ruled by the British monarchy, and the attitude among the Irish towards the occupying British ranged from one of skepticism and distrust to open hostility. In addition to its aversion to Catholicism, the British government disdained the Irish for their general lack of education (especially in the countryside), their superstitious ways, and the often squalid living conditions necessitated by the country’s weak economy. That the British profited from its presence in Ireland—even while regarding its people with contempt—only served to further infuriate the Irish at the British presence.

During the 1880s, the possibility for Ireland’s sovereignty was strengthened by the efforts of political leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Owing to his influence, political savvy and uncompromising support of home rule, Ireland’s independence seemed more viable under Parnell’s leadership than ever before. However, the disclosure of a romantic scandal in 1889 sullied Parnell’s reputation, allowing his opponents and groups of zealous Catholics (Parnell was Protestant), working in concert, to discredit him and weaken his power base. This turnaround in fate and the betrayal of even his closest allies broke Parnell, leading to his political defeat and—ultimately—his death in 1891.

Turn-of-the-century Dublin, as portrayed in Joyce’s collection, is still haunted by Parnell’s ghost and the promise of Irish independence that died with him. Gradually, many Irish realized they had themselves to blame for allowing Parnell’s dream of independence to vanish, and the themes of failed promise and betrayal are common in the works of many Irish writers of the period, Joyce’s especially.

Finally, an overwhelming force in the Ireland of Joyce’s period was that of the Irish Catholic Church, since a vast majority of the Irish were Catholics. According to his biographer, Richard Ellmann, Joyce believed that the “real sovereign of Ireland [was] the Pope” (Ellmann, James Joyce, 256). Although Joyce left the Church, Ellmann adds, he “continued to denounce all his life the deviousness of Papal policy,” finding the Church and the papacy “deaf” to Irish cries for help (Ellmann, James Joyce, 257). Clearly, Joyce believed the Church reacted inadequately in failing to help unburden the Irish of the hostile British presence, nor did it sufficiently attempt to lift Ireland out of its literal and figurative poverty. He believed Church doctrine encouraged docility and subservience on the part of the Irish, this attitude only further enhancing Ireland’s political exploitation and lack of independence.

In preparation for Dubliners, Joyce kept a notebook of revelations, or “epiphanies,” which are central to understanding the stories. While the word most commonly describes a religious revelation, Joyce’s understanding of the epiphany is the recognition of the essential essence of a moment, an exchange, an experience. It is the sudden “revelation of the whatness of a thing,” Joyce maintained, and in Dubliners, the epiphany marks a character’s realization about him or herself—even if the psychic realization is a painful one. (Ellmann, James Joyce, 83).

Joyce composed the Dubliners stories with great ease, basing groups of stories on his experiences in childhood, adolescence, and mature life. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus in 1905, Joyce stated Dublin’s importance as a world capital and indicated his desire to present it to the world (Ellmann, James Joyce, 208). Though he lived abroad while writing about his homeland, Joyce did not allow his portrayal of Dublin to be cosmetized by a sense of homesickness. In a speech he characterized Ireland as a country “weakened by centuries of useless struggle and broken treaties,” where “individual initiative is paralyzed[.]” (Ellmann, James Joyce, 258).

Not surprisingly, publishers backed away from his unblinking portrait of Dublin’s citizenry; it took Joyce an exhausting nine years to see Dubliners published. “I seriously believe,” Joyce wrote to would-be publisher Grant Richards in 1905, “that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass” (Ellmann, Selected Letters, 90). Although Richards appreciated the collection and even signed a contract, his printer objected to the profanity and tawdry scenes included in therein. When these were brought to Richards’ attention, he asked Joyce to remove them, but the stubborn Joyce refused and Richards cancelled his commitment. Dubliners travelled from publisher to publisher, each one disturbed at the stories’ pessimism, sordid scenes, profanity and sexual subtleties. The image Joyce reflected was far from complimentary, but he remained convinced that it was accurate and therapeutic. Dubliners portrays the soul of that city, chronicling the decay of its morals and the weakening of its spiritual life by focussing on the psychic and emotional paralysis of its inhabitants.

When finally published in 1914, sales of Dubliners were disappointing. While intellectuals such as W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound appreciated Dubliners, most critics’ objections were similar to those of the many unwilling publishers: they found the stories depressing, showing only an unseemly side of Dublin. Further, they had difficulty finding the “point” in the collection, failing to realize that to read Dubliners (indeed, all of Joyce’s work) one must read for symbolical meaning.

As Joyce’s subsequent literary works became more well-known, critics began to develop the skills of symbolic reading required to appreciate the Dubliners stories.


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The title of the volume immediately draws our attention to the importance of the setting—both place and time unites these diverse stories. Joyce creates a panorama of Dublin by presenting a series of portraits of Dubliners in the grip of a moral paralysis he believed to be the city's overwhelming attribute. As he indicates in a 1906 letter to the publisher Grant Richards, "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. . . . I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness and with the conviction that he is a very bold man who dares to alter in the presentment, still more to deform whatever he has seen and heard." Dubliners, then, emerged from the author's dissatisfaction with the city of his birth, and his hope for the book was that it might show the indifferent public a necessarily unflattering portrait of itself.

Joyce's early years in Dublin, the years during which he wrote much of Dubliners, coincided with a pregnant pause in the political movement toward the Home Rule of which Irish nationalists dreamed. The downfall in 1889-90 of the Irish Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the wake of a public scandal (he was named as corespondent in a successful divorce suit and subsequently married the divorced woman, Parnell's long-time mistress, Katherine O Shea) appeared to have foiled once again the cause of Home Rule. A series of bills had been introduced beginning in the mid 1880s, culminating in the one that was passed finally, but not implemented, in 1914. At the time of the scandal, there appeared at least some possibility that a bill would be passed.

For many nationalists, the political vacuum would be filled in part by a rediscovery and celebration of Irish culture; the Irish Literary Renaissance associated with such figures as W. B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and J. M. Synge gathered momentum at this point. There remained, however, much bitterness and frustration in the wake of the apparent failure of the nationalist cause. That cause would be powerfully and violently re-ignited by the Dublin rising of Easter, 1916, but prior to that date, a sense of futility regarding nationalist aspirations is often in evidence in Irish writing. W. B. Yeats's "September 1913" (addressed, like Joyce's stories, to the public of Dublin, it was printed in The Irish Times) contemptuously compares Dublin's middle-classes with the great nationalist heroes of a Romantic Ireland that is dead and gone. Another poem, "To a Shade," addresses one of those heroes, the ghost of Parnell, bidding him not to walk the streets of the city that is unworthy of his presence. Joyce's disparaging portrait of Dublin as a city gripped by paralysis may also be viewed in light of the volume's broader historical moment. The paralyzed capital, and the nation that Stephen Dedalus, the central character in Joyce's Portrait, perceived as a series of entrapping nets would be, in Yeats's famous words, changed utterly by the political events of the coming years.

Literary Qualities

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Discussions of Joyce's earlier fiction, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, frequently center on those moments in which characters achieve an "epiphany" or sudden revelation. The term, which Joyce used to describe some of his earliest prose fragments, means, literally, a showing forth. In the Christian calendar, the feast of the Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem to worship the new-born Christ. For Joyce, the word has a broader meaning, standing for a moment of insight, when a truth is suddenly revealed. Most of the stories in Dubliners do feature discernible epiphanies: the young boy in "Araby" clearly has a poignant moment of insight about his world as the bazaar lights dim, for instance, and Gabriel Conroy undergoes a terrible self-examination in the final moments of "The Dead." In other cases, such as that of Maria in "Clay," the insight eludes the character and falls instead to the reader. Either way, another instance of Dublin's paralysis stands revealed.

Joyce told Grant Richards that he had written Dubliners, in a famous phrase, in a style of "scrupulous meanness," his intent being to hold up to Dublin a relentlessly true image of itself. While the stories are remarkably pared down in style, their "scrupulous meanness" should not blind us to one of their most distinctive features: the manner in which they bring a distinctly Irish English to the page. One cannot read a line such as this one of Lily's in "The Dead," "The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you," without hearing its Irish lilt. Joyce's influence on Irish writing in English during the twentieth century has been considerable, and it is not without reason that there have been so many recordings of these stories.

Social Sensitivity

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In a 1905 letter to Grant Richards, Joyce related his surprise that "no artist has given Dublin to the world," despite its antiquity, its size, and its status as the second city of the British Empire. Dubliners, an attempt to fill this void, certainly casts a critical eye over its subject, but that Joyce wanted so badly to "give Dublin to the world" indicates that his aim goes well beyond merely excoriating the city of his youth. That Joyce's attitude toward the city is a complex one is hardly surprising. He did, after all, feel compelled to leave the city for good, only to devote a life-long self-imposed exile to writing about the place in the most painstaking detail. Dubliners, then, is a powerfully ambivalent volume, characterized at least as much by Joyce's frustration with the shortcomings of the city and its inhabitants as his sympathy for and powerful attachment to them both. The volume is not uniformly generous toward all of the Dubliners contained therein: he certainly does ridicule the pretensions of Mrs. Kearney in "A Mother," for instance, and the vain politicians of "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," among others; however, the sympathetic notes struck in stories such as "Araby," "Clay," and "The Dead" overwhelm the satirical ones heard elsewhere in the volume and are more indicative of the direction Joyce's work will take in the future, particularly in his great human comedy, Ulysses. Dubliners suggests how profoundly individuals can be shaped and influenced, both for good and ill, by the places they inhabit. The stories themselves are full of characters who are in various ways stifled within Dublin's social, political and religious institutions. However, those same institutions left an equally deep mark on the author, a Dubliner who left, but carried the city always in his imagination.

For Further Reference

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Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. 1959. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. This standard biography of Joyce draws upon a staggering amount of research and delivers a wonderfully detailed account of Joyce's life.

Gifford, Don. Joyce Annotated: Notes for Dubliners & A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. An invaluable companion to both of these works, Gifford's notes clarify many of Joyce's local references and allusions.

Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin, 1996. This edition includes extensive and often very helpful notes and commentary.

Tindall, William York. A Reader's Guide to James Joyce. New York: Noonday, 1959. This is an older but still useful study of all of Joyce's fiction that includes brief discussions of each of the Dubliners stories.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Quotations from Dubliners are taken from the following edition:
Joyce, James. Dubliners. (1916) Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: The Viking Press, 1982.

Other Sources:
Brandabur, Edward. “The Sisters.” Dubliners. eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: The Viking Press, 1982. 333-343.

Ellmann, Richard. “The Backgrounds of ‘The Dead.’” Dubliners. eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: The Viking Press, 1982. 388-403.

_____. James Joyce. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

_____. ed. Selected Letters of James Joyce. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years. New York: The Viking Press, 1958.

Litz, A. Walton. “Two Gallants.” Dubliners. eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: The Viking Press, 1982. 368-387.

Stone, Harry. “‘Araby’ and the Writings of James Joyce.” Dubliners. eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: The Viking Press, 1982. 344-367.


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Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A brilliantly researched biography that traces the stories to their biographical roots.

Hart, Clive, ed. James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” New York: Viking Press, 1969. A collection of essays by outstanding scholars, full of useful facts and insights.

Kenner, Hugh. Dublin’s Joyce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956. Wide-ranging and inventive readings of Joyce’s works and sources.

Peake, C. H. James Joyce: The Citizen and the Artist. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1977. Comprehensive readings of Joyce as a writer who elucidates his time.

Wachtel, Albert. The Cracked Lookingglass: James Joyce and the Nightmare of History. London: Associated University Presses, 1992. Analyses of the texts as “fictional histories” in which cause and chance prove equally illuminating.

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