James Joyce

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James Joyce Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In August, 1904, James Joyce wrote to his friend C. P. Curran: “I am writing a series of epicleti. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemeplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” This note announces, in effect, a transformation of the short story as a form. The note’s pretentious jargon reveals the attitude of the young Joyce’s artistic demeanor. In addition, it calls attention to some of the main technical and thematic characteristics of a volume that had to wait a further ten years for a publisher to consider it acceptable.

There is still some scholarly debate over the term “epicleti,” whose etymology remains obscure. It is clear, however, that Joyce’s use of the term shows him to be in pursuit of an aesthetic method. This self-conscious search for a method reveals Joyce as a preeminently twentieth century modernist author. As with his eminent contemporaries and advocates T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to write was to articulate a theory of writing. Moreover, the search was successfully concluded, as the closing chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man records. It culminated in the “epiphany,” which means “showing forth” and which describes not only Joyce’s method but also his objectives in using one.

Joyce used the term “epiphany” to describe some of his own early artistic efforts in prose. These sketches sometimes resemble prose poems, calibrating moments of intense perception and emotional heightening. At other times, they take the form of life studies of banal moments in everyday life. The overall intention is one of unmasking hidden states, whether of the exalted or humdrum variety. In both instances, the pieces are marked by a fastidious language, which clearly anticipates the “style of scrupulous meanness” in which Joyce said Dubliners is written.

Dubliners

Artistic theory is not the only novelty of Dubliners. Joyce’s note to Curran also draws attention to his subject matter. From a strictly historical point of view, Joyce’s characterization of his birthplace is to some extent misleading. The stories of Dubliners tend to overlook those factors that distinguished the city in Joyce’s time. The impact and significance of the establishment in Dublin of Ireland’s national theater, the Abbey, for example, which opened in 1904, may be lost on non-Irish readers of Joyce’s stories. In general, Joyce is at pains to belittle the various attempts at cultural self-renewal, which were a marked feature of Dublin life in the early years of the twentieth century, as the satire of the story “A Mother” shows—although in “The Dead” this satirical attitude is significantly modified. Joyce also fails to provide a cross section of the city’s social composition, there being no stories featuring the upper echelon. The city was not quite the paraplegic of Joyce’s diagnostic imagination.

The stories’ emphasis is on what Joyce asserts to be typical of his city. This democratic vision of his brings to the reader’s notice a range of marginalized citizens. These include children, the alienated, the helpless and hopeless, and particularly women—Dubliners has a feminist undercurrent, all the more noteworthy because of its time. These citizens, often known merely by a single name, represent the social, cultural, and moral cost of living in a city that was less a capital than one of the British Empire’s provincial administrative centers. The fact that their humdrum and unpromising lives should be subjected to the artistic and intellectual powers that Joyce possessed is significant on a number of counts. From the standpoint of literary history, Dubliners combines the two prevailing literary modes of Joyce’s day. In a refinement of an approach pioneered by the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert, Joyce subjects material that had hitherto been the artistic property of the naturalists to the aesthetic commitments of the Symbolists. One way of describing the function of the...

(The entire section is 3,867 words.)