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.


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 epiphany is to note its author’s organization of commonplaces in such a manner that they ultimately yield possibilities of meaning greater than their culturally preconditioned, or factual, appearances admit.

From the point of view of Irish literary history, the stories of Dubliners eloquently, though untypically, participate in the overall effort of the Irish Literary Revival to address national realities. The careful delineation of lost lives, which characterizes most of Dubliners, is a unique contribution to the spirit of the critique, which informs much of the stories’ Irish cultural context. It is not surprising to learn that they were considered too controversial to publish with impunity, or that, by virtue of being so, they confirmed their author’s belief that they constituted “a chapter in the moral history of my country.”

A further notable feature of the book is that, unlike many collections of short stories, particularly those of that period, Dubliners is a collection of stories that, however limited in range, is disparate while at the same time functioning as a coherent whole. Its coherence is not merely a matter of Joycean cunning, whereby the collection’s opening story is entitled “The Sisters” and centers on a death, while the final story is called “The Dead” and takes place at a party hosted by sisters. The history of the book’s composition, to which must be added a recognition of the complications brought about by publishers’ lack of commitment, precludes any such facile observation, since “The Dead” was conceived and written after Joyce’s initial version of Dubliners had been completed and submitted for publication. Two other stories were added to the original dozen, “Two Gallants” and “A Little Cloud.” Rather more subtly, the collection achieves coherence by numerous overlapping means. These include the integrity of its style, its thematic consistency, the largely uniform character of its dramatis personae, and its use of a major device in the overall scheme of Joyce’s aesthetic, repetition and variation.

In addition, Joyce himself had an integrated vision of the work’s coherence, one whereby the whole would be seen to be greater than the sum of the parts. This view holds good particularly when applied to the twelve stories of the initial Dubliners, where it describes a mode of symmetrical organization as well as a principle of thematic development, so that a case can readily be made for the work as a whole comprising a “moral history.” According to Joyce, Dubliners may be divided into four consecutive sections. The first of these consists of the three opening stories, “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.” These are followed by a sequence of stories dealing with adolescence, “The Boarding House,” “After the Race,” and “Eveline.” Three stories of mature life come next, “Clay,” “Counterparts,” and “A Painful Case.” Finally the volume closes with a trio of stories devoted to public life, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace.”

While the symmetry of this quartet of trios is disrupted by the introduction of further stories, two of the new additions, both written in 1906, enlarge rather than negate their respective categories. The range of the stories of adolescence is considerably broadened by the addition of “Two Gallants.” Similarly, the motifs of entrapment and disillusion, typical of the stories of mature life, are further adumbrated in the history of Chandler, the protagonist of “A Little Cloud.” In “The Dead,” written in 1907, Joyce’s artistry as a writer of short fiction is seen to best advantage. In addition, this story crystallizes and elevates to a higher plane of intellection and feeling many of the themes of Dubliners, the result being what is generally acknowledged to be one of the finest short stories in the English language.

The titles of the stories of Dubliners offer a clue to the nature of their contents. Such titles as “An Encounter,” “A Painful Case,” “Counterparts,” “A Mother,” and “The Dead”—to take some of the most obvious cases in point—seem deliberately to offer little or nothing to the reader, neither a sense of expectation nor a sense of anything particularly distinctive within the material, even though Joyce insisted to his publishers that presenting his fellow citizens to the world at large had undoubted novelty value. Yet the very anonymity of many of the titles points with precision to both their character and their method. The stories’ protagonists are for the most part colorless, unpromising, defeated, and lacking in interiority. For the most part, they are unaware of these facts about their personalities and conditions, and the stories evolve somewhat remorselessly to a point where these hapless characters are on the threshold of recognizing, or deliberately overlooking, their morally abject lives. The fact, therefore, that the stories’ titles frequently evoke generic types or states is a pointer to one of their prominent attributes. The stories that do not conform to this general rule have titles that are extremely localized and opaque in a different sense. Few readers will know automatically that the ivy day referred to in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” refers...

(The entire section is 3867 words.)