Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554
A discussion on the critical reception of Dubliners cannot be separated from the difficulties that Joyce had in publishing the book. His publisher, Grant Richards, was afraid that the content of many of the stories was obscene according to British law. Although “Eveline,” one of the more innocuous stories in the collection, was first published in serialized form a mere month befoRe Joyce left Dublin with Nora Barnacle in October of 1904, the entire collection was not published in book form for another nine years when Richards, who felt the moral climate had changed for the better, finally capitulated.
The reception was lukewarm. Naturalism was already a well-established literary genre, and many critics did not think that Joyce was offering anything new. Additionally, the Irish were not particularly well disposed to the criticisms of Irish-Catholic society that are inherent in many of the tales. Edna O’Brien sums up the reception: “The reviews were mixed, the material thought to be drab and morbid, the author accused of dealing with subjects not normally aired. One year later 379 copies had been sold, 120 of which were purchased somehow, by the impecunious James Joyce.” In other words, the initial reception was negligible.
While the moral climate and the ensuing delay in publication constitute a literary reception, albeit a rather narrow one, they certainly had an unintended effect. The nine-year delay in publication of Dubliners meant that the work virtually appeared contemporaneously with serialized bits of Joyce’s autobiographical masterpiece, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ezra Pound and others immediately touted this novel as a masterpiece in the modernist movement. Joyce’s catapult to literary icon meant that his earlier work was bound to be scrutinized and (re)interpreted in light of later masterpieces like Ulysses. Critical works on the Joyce canon treat Dubliners as the point of departure. The stories are usually addressed individually, but still as parts of an integral whole.
Early attempts to understand the stories on a level deeper than classifying them as naturalist tend to involve the aesthetic theories broached by Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce (and his autobiographical hero’s) definition of epiphany is the theme that many early critics grasp. Many of the stories culminate with epiphanies, though sometimes of a secular (not religious) nature.
In the 1950s, critics started applying the concept of symbolism to many works in the literary canon. Dubliners did not escape this interpretation. According to the symbolist interpretation, first broached by Brewster Ghiselin, individual symbols (like the sea) are related to the unified whole or overlapping themes of the tales.
British linguist and author, Anthony Burgess, later, in his 1966 study, Re Joyce, focuses critical attention back on the theme of paralysis. His essays serve as an introduction in many British editions of Dubliners.
While many studies focus on some “hot” literary theory and apply it to a work, for example Freudian theory, Marxism, or, lately, post-colonialism, others have returned to an analysis of arcane details. In 1971, Albert Solomon published “The Backgrounds of Eveline” which gives specific historical details. James MacKillop, in 1980, has tried to close the debate concerning the phrase “Derevaun Seraun.” Many of these studies are quoted in books dedicated to all the stories in Dubliners, like Donald Torchiana’s Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners.