© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

The barren city described with such scrupulous meanness in Dubliners is clearly a reflection not only of life in turn-of-the-century Ireland, but also of a quite general early modernist vision of urban decay. As such, Joyce’s Dublin has much in common with the sepulchral city of Conrad and the unreal Baudelarian city of Eliot.[1] But whereas Eliot’s London seems plagued by a lack of any structure that can give meaning to life, Joyce’s Dublin, like the world of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, is plagued by a paralyzing overabundance of structure. Dubliners can be read as a sort of plural Bildungsroman in which the characters in the various stories attempt to explore their own creative self-constitution, only to find that in general the options open to them have already been strictly prescribed by the pre-existing discourses and institutions which hold Dublin in an inescapable death-grip. Self-constitution in Dubliners is thus not creative at all, and the various characters find themselves doomed to repeat the past selves that already haunt the city’s crowded yet desolate streets. Or, as Declan Kiberd puts it, all of the Dubliners stories can be taken as explorations of the ways in which the Irish quest for freedom is doomed as long as it “couches itself in the forms and languages of the enemy” and continues to “insist on confining its definitions to the categories designed by the colonizer” (Inventing 330). Joyce’s depiction of the paralysis of Dublin thus makes the important point that the breakdown in authority in the modern world does not necessarily correspond to a breakdown in traditional structures of power. Rather, those structures simply go on operating under their own momentum, even without the legitimating authority of some transcendent originating center. The people of Dublin no longer really believe in the political, religious, and social discourses that entrap them, but that entrapment remains just as firm nevertheless.

Joyce introduces this motif in the very first story of Dubliners with the depiction in “The Sisters” of a young boy-narrator who is faced by a decided lack of effective authority figures with whom to identify in his attempts at self-constitution. The anonymous narrator lives with his aunt and uncle, presaging the general state of affairs in Dubliners, in which parents (especially fathers) are consistently absent, feckless, brutal, or otherwise ineffective as models for their children. In the unexplained absence of his parents, the boy in “The Sisters” turns to the priest Father Flynn as an exemplar. Flynn takes the boy under his wing and attempts to educate him in the arcana of the Church, while the boy begins to develop visions of transcending the numbing tedium of Dublin through a career in the priesthood, a career that might take him to foreign and exotic climes. But turning to the Church to escape the oppression of Dublin is like going to the desert to escape thirst. Father Flynn himself demonstrates the futility of this escape as he babbles and drools in the throes of a fatal ailment of a suspicious and possibly venereal nature. He is a figure of the modern breakdown of authority who quite literally breaks down.

Yet this failure of authority leaves the boy anything but free to constitute himself in unrestricted ways. The fallen Father Flynn and his broken chalice may represent the failure of Catholicism to maintain its authority as a discourse of truth—the chalice, after all, “contained nothing” (17). Yet the Church maintains its power nevertheless, ordering the daily lives of Dubliners as much as ever, even though they now have no real hope that their obedience to the Church will lead to salvation. The characters in “The Sisters”—and in all of the Dubliners stories—seem unable to perform any act whatsoever that has not already been strictly defined for them by the Church or some other institution or convention.

After Flynn dies, the boy and his aunt go to view the body. Then the visitors are offered sherry and crackers by Flynn’s sisters in an obvious re-enactment of the Eucharist—a fact to which the participants, conditioned to mechanical enactment of Church-defined rituals, are totally blind (15). Then the women sit about and speak in funereal clichés (“Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world”), so thoroughly entrapped in pre-existing discourses that they can find nothing new to say. And, of course, the adult participants in this conversation remain totally oblivious to the obvious way in which the madness of Father Flynn, “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself,” suggests a madness at the heart of Catholicism itself. This madness “made them think there was something gone wrong with him” (18), but (despite the intimations of simony in the text) never for one moment does anyone make the interpretive leap to conclude that perhaps there was something gone wrong with the institution he served and the society it so dominated.

The second Dubliners story, “An Encounter,” also features an anonymous boy-narrator. This boy may or may not be the same as the one in “The Sisters,” but it hardly matters, since all boys in Dublin would be exposed to the same oppressive limitations on their attempts at self-constitution. In this story, the boy and his friend Mahony at least make an attempt to escape the restrictive society around them. The two boys plan a day of “miching” from school in which they will act out fantasies deriving from adventure stories of the American West and other “chronicles of disorder” that they have been reading. But conditions in Dublin are far different from those described in the idealized world of popular fiction, and the boys’ romantic visions soon run up against a rather sordid reality. Instead of swashbuckling pirates and swaggering cowboys, they meet a “queer old josser” who introduces them to the shadowy world of sexual perversion.

The radical disjunction between the adventure envisioned by the boys and the reality they meet demonstrates the difficulty of constituting oneself in new and creative ways while trapped within the stultifying environment of Dublin. And the sadomasochistic nature of the preoccupations of the old josser strongly emphasizes the dynamic of domination and submission that so thoroughly informs Dublin society. The old man is virtually transported into ecstasy at the thought of whipping young boys:

“He said that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping. … And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery” (27).

Per his usual practice, Joyce is careful to link this scene of sadomasochistic oppression to religion, with the repeated mention of “this world” (implying another world elsewhere) and of whipping as an “elaborate mystery.”

In “Araby” a third anonymous boy-narrator relates his own initiation into adolescent sexuality, a sexuality that will (this being Dublin) lead not to liberation but to an even greater sense of oppression. The boy lives in a house formerly occupied by a now-deceased priest, perhaps Father Flynn, perhaps not—there are plenty of priests in Dublin. Echoes of the dead priest remain in the house, including books that he once owned (several literary works of marginal quality) and a rusty bicycle-pump found under some bushes near the “central apple-tree” in the “wild garden” of the back yard (29). This Edenic imagery, invaded by the foreign image of the rusty pump, signals that “Araby,” like “An Encounter,” will be another of Joyce’s many narratives of a fall from primal innocence, narratives that will culminate in the emphasis on the myth of the Fall in Finnegans Wake.

As the story proceeds, the narrator contracts a youthful fascination with “Mangan’s sister” and begins to develop romantic visions of himself as a knight in shining armor who will win her hand with his heroics. These exotic images are further reinforced by the coming of Araby, an Orientalist bazaar that promises relief from the tedium of life in Dublin with the hints of forbidden sexuality embodied in its “Eastern enchantment” (32). Such displays were common throughout the Western world at the beginning of the twentieth century, when a burgeoning consumer capitalism sought images that were useful in marketing products, often finding “Eastern” motifs quite useful in this regard. William Leach, in a study of the rise of consumer capitalism in the U.S., concludes that “perhaps the most popular of all merchandising themes in the years before World War I was the oriental theme, fashion from the bottom up, as it were, not, as with much of Paris couture, from the top down” (Land 104). Fashion based on Oriental (especially Middle Eastern) themes had, according to Leach, a hint of something “luxurious,” but also “impermissible,” certainly exotic and perhaps a bit risqué, imbued with implied sexual energies.[2]

Mangan’s sister, unfortunately, cannot attend the bazaar, and as is usually the case in Joyce’s Dublin the limiting factor is religion—she must attend a retreat at her convent that week. So the narrator, seeing an opportunity, promises to try to bring her something from the bazaar, apparently envisioning himself as a sort of crusading knight going off to bring back plunder from the East to please his fair maiden. After difficulties with an uncle the drunkenness of whom illustrates a prime reason why Dubliners are so easily dominated by forces that they do not respect or believe in, the boy does indeed attend the bazaar. But he arrives late, finds most of the stalls closed, and anyhow must spend most of his money just to get in. Inside he finds the same banality that informs Dublin at large, turning away in shame from a booth whose denizens display the English accents that are a telltale signal of imperialistic oppression throughout Joyce’s work. The boy buys nothing for Mangan’s sister, and the grand visions engendered by his budding sexuality suddenly turn on him, overwhelming him in the darkened hall with a sense of the hopelessness of such fantasies in a Dublin so thoroughly inscribed within the quotidian: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (35)

Importantly, it is not (as is often suggested) sexuality itself that causes the boy’s shame. Rather, it is the realization that his recent attempts at heroic self-envisionment were doomed to failure. The roles available to Dubliners are already predetermined by the structure of English/Catholic domination of Dublin society, with its impotent array of drunken uncles who are powerless to resist that domination. None of these roles include that of a Grail Knight.

If the adolescent boy narrator is unable to convert his newfound sexual energies into an heroic selfhood amidst the constraints of life of Dublin, matters are even worse for the city’s women. After all, unlike Mangan’s sister, the boy at least attends the bazaar, however disappointing it might be. Similarly, in “Eveline” the intensely limited nature of the roles available to women in Dublin is emphasized through the depiction of the title character, a young woman who lives alone with her violent, drunken father, who totally dominates her life. Like so many characters in Dubliners, Eveline develops fantasies of escape, fantasies that are in her case spurred by attending a light opera, The Bohemian Girl. The boys of the earlier stories identify with and hope to emulate certain heroic models, but the girl Eveline has no such models available. In The Bohemian Girl, it is not the girl who is heroic, but Thaddeus, the noble exile who saves her.[3] So Eveline likewise waits for a male savior, in particular the somewhat questionable Frank, a sailor who has recently come ashore in Dublin.

Eveline’s visions of transcendent escape parallel those of the boys in the earlier stories quite directly. She will escape to exotic Buenos Ayres, where she will find true love and happiness. But, importantly, she is unable to develop an heroic image of herself, depending instead on Frank to supply the heroism required to effect her salvation:

“Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her” (40).

As a young woman in Dublin, Eveline cannot act; she can only react. In the end, she turns away from Frank and remains with her father, but of course it makes little difference. Thoroughly trapped as an object within male fantasies and unable to establish any vision of her own selfhood outside those fantasies, Eveline will be equally dominated whether she stays or goes. So she remains within the dominion of her father, despite her loss of any belief that he merits such loyalty, just as Joyce’s Dubliners all remain inscribed within discourses of power that have no real justification.

 In “After the Race” Jimmy Doyle attempts to construct a positive self-image through association with exotic foreign comrades such as the Frenchman Ségouin, the Hungarian Villona, the French-Canadian Rivière, the Englishman Routh, and the American Farley. Doyle has access to such circles because he is wealthier and better-educated than most Dubliners, but he is merely taken advantage of by his worldly acquaintances, who induce him to invest the greater part of his fortune in their racing car and then top off that exploitation by cleaning him out in a card game at the end of the story. As such, the story stands as a fairly straightforward depiction of the ongoing economic exploitation of Ireland by foreign powers. But its more important point has to do with the way in which the “gratefully oppressed” (42) Irish seem to encourage their own oppression. Thus, Jimmy pathetically welcomes his own exploitation just for the chance of association with such exalted comrades, an association that gives him an opportunity to enhance his own self-image in a way that is unavailable via indigenous Irish models.

If the Irish men find it difficult to locate native ideal images to whom they can look up for use in their own constitution, there is one group upon whom they can look down, thus enhancing their senses of self through feelings of superiority. That group, of course, is Irish women, the one group Irish men can dominate, as indicated in “Eveline.” This motif becomes even more clear in “Two Gallants,” where the cad Corley develops fantasies of power and dominance through his ability to manipulate the slavey, while Lenehan experiences a similar, though vicarious, satisfaction through watching Corley at work. Moreover, Ireland itself is consistently figured as feminine in Dubliners, so that when Corley uses his domination of the slavey to extract payment his action mirrors the way in which the masculine England extracts payment from the feminine Ireland. Indeed, as with the boy in “Araby” and with Jimmy Doyle, the payment to Corley emphasizes the specifically economic nature of the oppression suffered by the Irish people in general.

This economic theme is given a new twist in “The Boarding House,” where the institution of marriage is depicted as a purely economic arrangement. Joyce felt that marriage was a principal means through which the Church exerted its hegemony over the lives of the Irish people, and marriage comes under particular attack in the book as a stultifying habit that has lost its spiritual basis. As Foucault notes in his description of the rise of marriage in social importance during the time of the Roman Empire, the relationship of a man to his wife came to be regarded as a model of respectful relationship with the Other:

“In the conjugal bond that so strongly marks the existence of each person, the spouse, as privileged partner, must be treated as a being identical to oneself and as an element with whom one forms a substantial identity. . . . The woman as spouse is valorized . . . as the other par excellence” (Foucault, Care 163-4).

For Foucault this respectful treatment of one’s wife is part of the technologies of the self through which one develops a suitable selfhood of one’s own. And though the rise of Christianity initiated numerous changes in the role of marriage, the spousal relation remained the epitome of mutual intersubjective relation in Western society. The degraded condition of marriage in Dubliners, where conjugal partners show an almost total lack of mutual affection, respect, or communication, thus stands not only as an image of the degraded form of religious institutions in general, but as a sign of the way in which self-constitution through mutual intersubjective relation almost invariably fails in Dublin. The Dublin citizenry is so accustomed to a society structured around domination and submission that they can only interact with one another on a similar basis.

Mrs. Mooney in “The Boarding House” has suffered an extremely negative experience with marriage. The drunken, violent Mr. Mooney is so bad that his wife and daughter are forced to live apart from him, though—as Catholics—the Mooneys cannot of course divorce, and indeed Mrs. Mooney is only able to effect a separation from her husband with the approval of a priest. But, inscribed within traditional discourses like most Dubliners, Mrs. Mooney unquestioningly accepts marriage as a desirable institution. Despite her own bad experience, one of Mrs. Mooney’s principal goals in life is to marry off her daughter Polly.

When Polly becomes involved in a romantic liaison with Bob Doran, this marriage plot finds its likely object—especially since Doran is employed and makes a good salary. Doran is a boarder who lives in the house run by Mrs. Mooney. He is a practicing Catholic but has no real faith in Catholicism. A former free-thinker, Doran adopts Catholicism for the purely practical reason that it allows him to acquire and maintain a job in a firm headed by a Catholic, emphasizing the economic nature of the Church’s power over Ireland. And it is also largely to keep this job that Doran knows he will have to submit to Mrs. Mooney’s demand that he marry her “dishonored” daughter, thus avoiding a scandal. The Church makes its own direct contribution in forcing Doran into marriage as well. In line with Foucault’s suggestion in the first volume of The History of Sexuality that the nineteenth-century Church employed confession as a prime means of manipulating the sexual behavior of its constituents, Doran confesses his dalliance with Polly and is pushed toward marrying her as an act of contrition:

“The recollection of his confession of the night before was a cause of acute pain to him; the priest had drawn out every ridiculous detail of the affair and in the end had so magnified his sin that he was almost thankful at being afforded a loophole of reparation” (65).

Despite this sense that marriage will relieve him of the burden of his “sins,” Doran nevertheless feels that he is losing his freedom as an individual: “Once you are married you are done for,” his instinct tells him (66). But it is Polly who is constrained even more thoroughly by the institution of marriage than is her future husband. Anticipating the link between religion and venality in “Grace,” “The Boarding House” shows marriage itself as a form of prostitution, with Mrs. Mooney playing the role of procuress in the marketing of her own daughter. Indeed, the young men residing in the boarding house refer to Mrs. Mooney as “The Madam,” and Mrs. Mooney views her daughter’s relationship with Doran in highly economic terms, with marriage being viewed as a direct alternative to a monetary settlement:

“Some mothers would be content to patch up such an affair for a sum of money; she had known cases of it. But she would not do so. For her only one reparation could make up for the loss of her daughter’s honour: marriage” (65).

Polly herself, a clear descendent of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, is so thoroughly inscribed within the conventions of Dublin society that she is unable to see that she is being marketed like a prostitute. Like Eveline Hill’s, Polly’s alternatives are subjugation to a domineering parent and subjugation to a husband who will probably feel so trapped in the marriage that he treats her badly. Either way she is positioned as an object within the desires of others, having little hope of independently constituting herself as a subject in her own right. In fact, her alternatives are so strictly determined by others that she has difficulty even imagining the future. As Mrs. Mooney confronts Doran downstairs, Polly waits upstairs and attempts to fantasize about her future life. Unfortunately, she finds that her mind simply goes blank until at last her mother calls to her and hands her over to her new proprietor at the end of the story. The trapped Mrs. Mooney engineers the entrapment of both Polly and Bob Doran, illustrating the vicious circle through which the Dubliners themselves encourage their own oppression by turning on one another.

Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud” feels oppressed by life in general and by his wife in particular. His friend Ignatius Gallaher refers to being married as putting one’s head in a sack (81), a model of marriage as a trap that echoes the more literal trap into which Bob Doran falls in “The Boarding House.” And Gallaher himself echoes the depiction in the previous story of marriage as a purely economic arrangement by suggesting that if he ever marries it will be not for love, but for money: “If it ever occurs, you may bet your bottom dollar there’ll be no mooning and spooning about it. I mean to marry money. She’ll have a good fat account at the bank or she won’t do for me” (81).

Gallaher’s attitude suggests that perhaps he has not escaped the mentality of Dublin, even though he has moved away and become (according to Little Chandler) “a brilliant figure on the London Press” (71). As a result, Gallaher serves as an equivocal model for Little Chandler’s own fantasies of power and capability. While he envies Gallaher’s escape from Ireland and apparent freedom, Little Chandler finds his friend somewhat disappointing as an exemplar, especially in the way that Gallaher’s vulgarity conflicts with Little Chandler’s own aestheticist notions.

Indeed, it is in the realm of poetry that Little Chandler finds the greatest potential for inspiring his own creative self-constitution beyond the banality of Dublin. Little Chandler is a great reader of poetry, but in keeping with the sterile nature of marital relations in Dublin, he finds that he is unable to share the poetry he loves with his wife. He also fancies himself as a budding poet who will someday express something great. Unfortunately, he has no idea what that something might be. Instead, his fantasies focus entirely on stylistic and formal matters as he visualizes his future fame:

“The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions. He began to invent sentences and phrases from the notices which his book would get. Mr Chandler has the gift of easy and graceful verse. . . . A wistful sadness pervades these poems. . . . The Celtic note” (74).[4]

Later, when Little Chandler sits with his infant son, he attempts to escape the feeling of entrapment in his domestic situation by continuing his fantasies of becoming a poet and by reading lines from his hero, Lord Byron.

But Little Chandler’s escapist view of literature is ineffective: it is not engaged with the reality of his condition but is sealed off in a private aesthetic world—just as Little Chandler keeps his love of poetry private and sealed off from his wife. He is brought back to earth by the crying of his child, to which he reacts angrily, causing the child to sob more violently. At this point, the boy’s mother returns and takes him into her arms, accusing Little Chandler of inadequacy as a father, an indictment which he himself appears to endorse with a blush and guilty tears of his own.

Little Chandler’s attempt to take out his own frustrations on his son foreshadow Farrington’s treatment of his own son in “Counterparts.” In this story the copyist Farrington is humiliated at work by his boss Mr. Alleyne, ignored by the cool woman in Mulligan’s Pub, then defeated at arm wrestling by the acrobat Weathers. He then goes home, his self-image damaged by all these indignities, and takes out his frustrations by beating his son, who is small and weak enough to let Farrington be dominant for once.

As is usually the case in Joyce’s work, Farrington’s story has very specific political implications. In particular, all three of Farrington’s central tormentors are linked to England—Mr. Alleyne has a “North of Ireland” accent, with its hints of Protestantism and British sympathies; the woman has a “London” accent; and Weathers is a member of a visiting troupe of British acrobats. Indeed, the arm wrestling match with Weathers is specifically couched as a contest between England and Ireland, with the Irishman Farrington called on “to uphold the national honour” (95). Ireland, of course, loses, and Farrington’s resultant abuse of his son becomes a powerful commentary on the way in which Ireland has reacted to British domination by turning on her own, as in the case of Parnell, that Irish hero who was betrayed by the constituency he sought to serve.

In “Clay” we are presented with a heroine, Maria, who is not married, but whose life is still sterile and empty. Maria comforts herself with illusions of her own independence and capability, convincing herself that it is only by choice that she is not wed or living with loving friends. But Maria’s highly mediated interpretation of the world and its events seems consistently at odds with reality, and she winds up a pathetic figure, the butt of cruel jokes that she is too deluded even to understand. Maria at least makes an attempt at creative self-constitution, but like Little Chandler’s forays into literature, her attempts are divorced from reality and thus unable to achieve any significant improvement in the conditions of her life.

James Duffy, in “A Painful Case,” is a sort of companion figure to Maria in that he, too, comforts himself with delusory images of his own autonomy and independence of any need for intersubjective succor. He lives alone out in the Dublin suburb of Chapelizod “because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen” (107), and the interactions he uses in his own efforts at self-constitution are not with other people, but with his own possessions, which he carefully selects to reflect his personality:

“He himself had bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table on which lay a double desk” (107).

Duffy, like Little Chandler, involves himself in literary pursuits, such as translating Hauptmann’s Michael Kramer. And like Little Chandler he fantasizes about his life as it might be viewed as a biographer:

“He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense” (109).

However, unlike Little Chandler, Duffy has no plans to publish his own writings, since he feels that he is too superior to lower himself to the standards of the mob to whom such writings would be marketed. He sees himself as a noble, solitary hero amidst the common rabble of Dublin, and fantasizes about committing some transgression such as robbing a bank to show his disdain for the rules of ordinary society.

But Duffy, a reader of Nietzsche, is more a bitter Nietzschean slave ruled by ressentiment than a defiant Nietzschean hero. And despite his protestations of independence, when he meets Emily Sinico he finds that her apparent admiration for him greatly buoys his self-image. He expounds to his new friend on a variety of topics, building his confidence as he goes: “Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelic stature” (111). But Duffy’s narcissistic fascination with his own voice demonstrates the way in which he is unable to relate to others, including Emily Sinico: “as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness” (111).

Indeed, “A Painful Case” is one of the more powerful dramatizations of the failure of intersubjective relationship in all of Dubliners. Emily Sinico is married, but like most married Dubliners, she has little communication with her spouse, so she turns to Duffy, though on an intellectual basis, at least at first. But Duffy, terrified and disgusted by the intense intersubjective union implied by sex, turns her away when he begins to suspect that she desires a sexual relationship with him. As Duffy cynically summarizes the state of intersubjectivity in Dublin,

“Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse” (112).

The rejected Emily Sinico becomes a lonely and pathetic figure who eventually commits suicide. Reading of her death, Duffy is revolted that he could have once befriended someone who could display such weakness. If his relationship with her had once exalted him, now he feels that it degrades him. Then he begins to experience guilt and to feel that he had “sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame” (117). But many factors contributed to Emily’s death, and Duffy’s estimation of his own role seems highly inflated, in keeping with his usual megalomaniacal fantasies. In the end he returns to his solitary and empty life, a perfect mirror of the Dublin to which he thinks himself so superior.

At one point, Duffy’s fantasies of rebellion had led him to a participation in politics as a member of the Irish Socialist Party, where “he had felt himself a unique figure amidst a score of sober workmen lit by an inefficient oil-lamp” (110-1). This brief but unsatisfactory political experience leads him to believe that “[n]o social revolution . . . would be likely to strike Dublin for some centuries” (111). The decayed condition of Dublin’s political parties mirrors the way in which all of the city’s traditional structures of authority have become sterile, even while maintaining their ability to control the lives of the local citizenry. In “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” we are introduced to a number of characters, most of whom are canvassers working in the interests of Richard Tierney, a candidate for election to the municipal council of Dublin. These characters run the gamut of political opinion, but none of them shows the slightest hint of ideological dedication to their candidate. Instead, they are working strictly for payment in money and (of course) liquor. As Mat O’Connor grumbles when they have difficulty getting Tierney to come across with their wages, “How does he expect us to work for him if he won’t stump up?” (123).

The canvassers in “Ivy Day” in fact have so little faith in Tierney that they suspect that they might not be paid at all. Meanwhile, the setting of the story on Ivy Day, the anniversary of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell sets up a sharp contrast between the degraded condition of contemporary politics, represented by “Tricky Dicky” Tierney and his cronies, and the past glories of Parnell. The talk of the men gathered in the committee room gradually turns to Parnell as the story proceeds. It becomes clear, however, that even Parnell has lost his efficacy as an image of Irish nobility and independence. “We all respect him now that he’s dead and gone,” says O’Connor (132), and dead and gone he is. His name no longer carries its former force, and when the loyal Parnellite Hynes recites his poem “The Death of Parnell” it becomes clear that Parnell has now been safely circumscribed within such sentimental fictions. The conservative Orangeman Crofton can agree that Hynes’ poem is “a very fine piece of writing” because Parnell no longer poses any real political threat (135). Joyce’s Dubliners are sadly lacking in the kind of heroes who can inspire them to move beyond the stereotypical roles assigned to them by their stagnant society.

Hynes’ poem is one of many instances in Dubliners of the sterility of art as a resource for creative self-constitution within the context of Dublin life. In “A Mother” we see a suggestion that art in Dublin, like marriage and religion, has become just another form of prostitution. When Kathleen Kearney is engaged to play piano in a concert, the poor house leads her concerned mother to demand payment in advance. The resulting debate between Mrs. Kearney and the organizers of the concert makes it clear that Kathleen is playing not for the love of music, but strictly for cash—a commodity that is the main interest of the concert organizers as well. Moreover, the concert is being held to raise funds for the “Eire Abu Society,” a group organized in support of the Irish revival, so that the artistic simony of Mrs. Kearney and the lack of attendance at the concert show the lack of dedication of Dubliners to such movements.

Mrs. Kearney, like so many characters in Dubliners, reinforces her own self-constitution largely through visions of her superiority over her fellow citizens, as when she mocks to herself the flat accents of the members of the concert committee. When she was young she felt herself too good to marry any of the young men who courted her, then she eventually married Mr. Kearney to quiet talk about her independence. Mr. Kearney is a weak and ineffectual figure whom Mrs. Kearney clearly dominates, just as she dominates and exploits her daughter. His wife takes him along for support at the concert because “she appreciated his abstract value as a male” (141). But he turns out to be utterly of no use in the ensuing squabble, a scene which illustrates the way in which Dubliners consistently work against, rather than with one another in seeking to achieve their goals.

The simoniacal condition of art and patriotism in “A Mother” leads back to the theme that began the book, and the degraded form of religious authority in Dublin is particularly emphasized in the next story, “Grace.” Tom Kernan, the story’s central figure, is a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism upon his marriage to a Catholic woman, but who appears (like Bob Doran) to have no particular devotion to his new religion and doubts the efficacy of Catholic ritual, that “magic-lantern business” (171). He is fond of “giving side-thrusts at Catholicism” (157), but social pressures induce him to live his life nominally as a Catholic. Mrs. Kernan herself regards religion as a mechanical adherence to routine that gives order to life, if not meaning:

“Religion for her was a habit . . . Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost” (157-8).

This same practical attitude toward religion informs the behavior of the other characters in “Grace” as well. As Kernan lies in bed recuperating from a fall taken under the influence of alcohol, that ubiquitous Irish curse, several friends visit him in an attempt to encourage his reformation through religion. But even while on this devout mission, the visitors spend most of their time drinking and undercutting Church authority. As they down stout and whiskey, they discuss various priests who give unconventional sermons or who espouse unorthodox theology. And when Kernan suggests that Protestants and Catholics hold the same fundamental beliefs, the men agree, though Martin Cunningham reminds them that “our religion is the religion, the old, original faith” (166). Kernan quickly agrees, but the implication seems clear—Catholicism is accepted as the only valid religion not because of its superior spiritual authority, but simply out of long habit.

This suggestion is reinforced soon afterward when the talk turns to popes, those ultimate figures of human religious authority. Kernan mentions that some popes have apparently not been “up to the knocker” (168). Cunningham admits that some popes have been “bad lots,” but then mentions the “astonishing” fact that, by definition, the pope is infallible in religious matters, so that “not one of them ever preached ex cathedra a word of false doctrine.”

In short, the pope’s word is to be accepted as binding even if the pope himself is a disreputable and untrustworthy figure, mirroring the way in which Catholicism holds its power over Ireland irregardless of its own legitimacy as a spiritual model. This point is then made even more clear when Cunningham relates (somewhat inaccurately) the debate in the Vatican Council at which the doctrine of papal infallibility was officially confirmed. According to Cunningham two stalwarts held out against the doctrine, the Irishman John MacHale and the German Cardinal Dowling. But the pope, in a masterpiece of circular logic, ends the debate by simply declaring papal infallibility a Church doctrine, which must be correct because he is the pope and therefore infallible. Dowling, representing a country with a tradition of resistance to papal authority, leaves the Church in defiance. But MacHale, representing a country with a tradition of blind obedience to the Church regardless of true belief, immediately surrenders despite his personal disagreement: “he submitted the moment the Pope spoke” (170).

This suggestion that the Church in Ireland has become a locus not of spiritual values, but of mere political and secular power, is dramatized most vividly at the close of the story. The men convince Kernan to attend a Church meeting as part of their attempt to reform him. At the meeting, they are addressed by one Father Purdon, whom Joyce subtly names after Dublin’s most notorious street of prostitution. And the name is highly appropriate. True to the theme of simony that runs so strongly throughout Dubliners, Purdon is a sort of priestly prostitute who hooks his clientele of businessmen by telling them what they want to hear, reassuring them that God understands that they must deal with their worldly affairs in addition to religious ones. Purdon characterizes himself as a “spiritual accountant,” anticipating that heavenly cash register to be later envisioned by Stephen Dedalus in Portrait (174). It is okay to live in the world of secular affairs, says Purdon, as long as one sets one’s accounts right with God—an activity that no doubt entails the giving of considerable contributions to the Church.

Despite its degraded condition, the Church still maintains its power over the everyday lives of Dubliners, as demonstrated by the fact that Tom Kernan is forced to convert to Catholicism in order to marry the woman of his choice. But the institution of marriage is even more oppressive to Mrs. Kernan (who, significantly, is given no other name in the story.) Seduced by a conventional narrative of romantic love, the future Mrs. Kernan found Tom a gallant figure during their courtship and entertained blissful visions of their married life to come. But the new bride very quickly begins to feel stifled, finding the marriage first “irksome” and then “unbearable” (156). She manages to survive by devoting her life to her children when they come along, and she remains a loyal wife despite her own feelings of entrapment in the relationship. Like most Dubliners, she is unable to transcend strictly stereotypical narratives of the way life is supposed to be; she even maintains her romantic illusions about marriage, and “she still hurried to the chapel door whenever a wedding was reported” to view the bridal pair (156).

The kind of romantic fantasies informing Mrs. Kernan’s view of marriage become especially prominent in “The Dead,” where the culminating exchange between Gabriel and Gretta Conroy is prepared by similar fantasies. Both spouses spend the time leading to this final scene immersed in romantic visions, but (in keeping with the usual failure of conjugal communication in Dubliners) each partner is lost in a separate narrative that is not shared by the other. Gabriel entertains romanticized memories of his past with Gretta, while Gretta remembers her distant encounter with the long-dead Michael Furey. But neither of these fantasies has very much to do with reality—Gretta is not so entirely circumscribed within his fantasies as Gabriel would like to believe, and Gretta’s belief that Michael Furey died of love for her is just as suspect as James Duffy’s belief that Emily Sinico died for him.

At the same time, “The Dead”contains significantly more wordplay and verbal energy than do the earlier Dubliners stories. From the very first sentence—”Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”—the language of the story is infused with irony. Lily, after all, is still on her feet and so has not literally been run off them. It also contains substantially more humor, much of it at the expense of the somewhat puffed-up Gabriel, who in this sense is something of a forerunner to Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Still, even the story’s most comical moment—as in the tale of the “never-to-be-forgotten Johnny”—can make serious points. Johnny is an Irish horse who walks in circles around a statue of King Billy (the British King William III, famous for his victory over the Irish in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690), much as the Dubliners of the book in general tend to circle endlessly without getting anywhere, caught in the gravitational grip of British (and Catholic) power.

Clearly, the fantasies of both Gabriel and Gretta are ineffective in helping them to break out of such circles and to transcend the conditions of life in Dublin, because both fantasies are so unrealistic. As Vincent Pecora notes, “Gretta fabricates the ‘legend’ of Michael Furey, just as surely as Gabriel has fabricated his ‘secret life’ with Gretta” (241). Yet when Gabriel learns in the end of the story of Gretta’s past relationship with Michael Furey, it would seem that here is a real opportunity for communication between the two spouses and for a new engagement with reality. If nothing else, Gabriel learns that Gretta has an existence and a life apart from his and that she does not exist merely for the purposes of shoring up his own self-image.

Indeed, this ending scene has often been read in precisely this way. Brown suggests that Gabriel’s “discovery that his wife is a stranger to him is a real contact with another subjectivity” (98). Thus, Gabriel can move beyond his own solipsistic concerns and toward a genuine involvement with others. If so, he will have an opportunity to experience intersubjective relationship in a productive way that is not available in any of the earlier Dubliners stories. To Brown, Gabriel in the final scene of the story learns that “[j]ust as the idea of a separate ego or identity is an illusion, so too is the notion of an external and self-contained world. The self is in the world and the world is in the self” (100).

But a close reading of Gabriel’s supposed epiphany at the end of the story shows that his sense of fading ego arises not from an acceptance of the world but from a turning away from it, from a desire to join the romanticized world of the Michael Furey and his fellow dead:

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. … His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling” (223).

Rather than facing reality Gabriel simply exchanges his fantasy for Gretta’s more powerful one, envisioning himself in the role of sacrificial hero formerly occupied by Michael Furey.

Gabriel Conroy remains at the end of “The Dead” as thoroughly inscribed within conventional narratives as ever. And, importantly, the narrative within which he envisions himself is (for Joyce) one that has contributed powerfully to the oppressive conditions of life in Dublin. The Irish penchant for self-sacrifice is particularly related to the tradition of Christianity, and indeed Michael Furey is specifically surrounded by images associated with Christ at the end of “The Dead,” as when we are told that the snow in the churchyard where he was buried “lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns” (223-4). Gabriel’s identification of himself with Furey as a sacrificial hero thus mirrors the movement through which Christianity has imposed an ideology of sacrifice on Ireland, an ideology that contributes to the domination of Ireland by foreign forces. Pecora discusses Joyce’s skepticism toward the tradition of the self-sacrificial hero in his treatment of Gabriel, noting that “Gabriel might be one of the bloodiest impostors of all, caught within the whole structure of a heroism … derived from the life of Christ” (237).[5]

It would seem, then, that none of the characters in Dubliners offer successful examples of a creative kind of self-constitution that will allow them to escape the strictly predefined roles that Dublin society imposes upon them. But the situation may not be hopeless. Joyce does gesture toward such an example in the style of the text itself. His own fiction (unlike the fictions created by the various characters in Dubliners) is intensely engaged with reality so that it has an opportunity to impact that reality in productive ways. Moreover, the consistent use of free indirect style in the book results in a dialogic interaction among the voices of various characters and narrators that embodies the kind of mutual intersubjective exchange that the characters themselves fail to establish in their lives.[6] This dialogic fusion of voices occurs most completely in “The Dead,” and especially in the final scene where the voice of the narrator becomes virtually indistinguishable from that of Gabriel Conroy. Moreover, the lyrical style of “The Dead” represents a significant departure from the style of scrupulous meanness informing the other stories, suggesting the beginnings of an awakening from paralysis. In this sense, then, the final Dubliners story does in fact represent a potential move toward a solution to the lack of meaningful intersubjective relationship afflicting the populace of Dublin.

MacCabe discusses the way in which the complex voicing of Dubliners results in a rich mixture of discourses, no one of which occupies a privileged position. As a result, the reader is given a great deal of freedom to determine her own attitude toward the stories:

“These stories function as collections of stereotypes without any discourse that will contain or resolve them. The narrative, in its refusal of a discourse which will explain everything, resists the reduction of the various discourses to one discourse shared by author and reader” (30).

In short, Dubliners refuses to manipulate its readers into strictly defined subjective positions, allowing them to explore alternative positions precisely in the way that the characters in the book are unable to do.

Finally, it should be remembered that “The Dead” is much more complex, energetic, and even comical than the earlier stories in Dubliners. As a result, if the character of the stories get nowhere, Joyce himself, through his writing, embodies the possibility of moving beyond the meanness of Dublin and into richer, more utopian territory. That he would continue on this trajectory in his later works reinforces this phenomenon, making Dubliners a text that is ultimately much more hopeful than any of the actual stories it contains.

All of Joyce’s texts demand an extraordinary amount of effort on the part of the reader, but in the same movement they cede to the reader a remarkable portion of the power to produce meaning normally associated with the role of the author. Despite his sometime-reputation as the great master of modernist fiction, Joyce himself eschews authorial mastery, constructing texts that are open to widely differing interpretations. The process of reading a Joycean text, then, is a creative exploration, and one must develop one’s own position as a reader, serving as an example of the very kind of creative activity that is involved in constituting oneself as a subject in the world.


[1]See Cope for a discussion of Joyce’s place in the modern movement toward depiction of urban wastelands, especially as this movement relates to the work of Dante (1-28).

[2] For more on this phenomenon, see the first chapter of Booker and Daraiseh.

[3].See Kershner for a fuller discussion of the relevance of this opera to the story (This was Font/Pitch 2,12 – On.JoyceThis was Font/Pitch 2,12 – Off.Note:  The change to pitch (12) and font (1) must be converted manually. 63-5).

[4].Cope suggests that Little Chandler “envisions himself as an Ur-Eliot” (18). Thus, according to the argument with which I began this chapter, he is the antithesis of Joyce as a writer.

[5].The link between the Irish cult of self-sacrifice and Christ as a figure of sacrifice is quite direct. For example, note James Connolly’s pronouncement in the This was Font/Pitch 2,12 – On.Irish WorkerThis was Font/Pitch 2,12 – Off.Note:  The change to pitch (12) and font (1) must be converted manually. of February 5, 1916: “Without the slightest trace of irreverence but in all due humility and awe, we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said ‘without the shedding of blood there is no redemption’” (quoted in MacCabe 169).

[6].Riquelme discusses the free indirect style of This was Font/Pitch 2,12 – On.DublinersThis was Font/Pitch 2,12 – Off.Note:  The change to pitch (12) and font (1) must be converted manually. at some length, noting that character and narrator voices interact in varying ways in the different stories (92-129).