Dubliners by James Joyce: Short Stories with Life Lessons

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Today I’ll be sharing with you an analysis of James Joyce’s Dubliners, probably my favourite short story collection, by Brian over at Babbling Books
Brian’s been a long-term reader of the blog, and I always look forward to his comments and his own blog posts. Therefore, I was clearly excited when we started discussing guest posting! Rather than coming up with his own idea, we decided that I’d nominate a book for him to read and interpret. What better book than Dubliners for this?
I do hope you enjoy reading his thoughts on Dubliners as much as I have, and that you feel inspired to check out his blog. Thanks, Brian!

James Joyce and Dubliners

Dubliners by James Joyce: the finest literary representation of Dublin? Image source.

An overview of James Joyce’s Dubliners

James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short stories centering on various characters who are inhabitants of Dublin. There appear to be certain common themes inherent in the tales. Many of the stories involve people who become disenchanted or at least discouraged in some way with their own aspirations and ideals. The endpoint of this disenchantment is often exhibited in other, sometimes older, characters who have traveled further down the path of life, who seemed to have once shown promise but are now seriously damaged or corrupted.

A good illustration of this occurs in the story “An Encounter”. Here a young narrator feels stifled in his Catholic School experience and longs for intellectual and physical exploration. He laments,

“I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”

At another point he ruminates about his intellectual adventurism and those who would suppress it.

“I liked better some American detective stories which were traversed from time to time by unkempt fierce and beautiful girls. Though there was nothing wrong in these stories and though their intention was sometimes literary they were circulated secretly at school.”

One day, he and his friend Mahony decide to play hooky and explore the far reaches in the city. Serious and genuinely dangerous pitfalls are encountered that seem emblematic of the real and intellectual perils encountered in life. The boys barely escape the clutches of a seemingly thoughtful but perverse older man who seems to shows intentions of wanting to molest them. Eventually, our protagonist comes to a realization about his friend Mahony, a boy characterized by exuberant action but also by thoughtlessness and a lack of empathy: “for in my heart I had always despised him a little.”

In the course of the story’s journey, it seems that the narrator’s idealistic views on exploring the world at large, acting with vigor as well as intellectual and social adventurism, become tarnished. This pattern of disappointment in enthusiastic aspirations is repeated over and over again in these stories.

An interpretation of Dubliners 

It appears to me that Joyce has hit upon certain hazards common to human lives the world over. He is very good at portraying a subtle demeaning of one’s morality, dreams and ambitions. The end result of a lifetime of such small failures is a degraded and pernicious older person, in this case a child molester, who still shows indications of intellectual underpinnings. Though most of Joyce’s characters do not end up as morally indigent as the child molester, many suffer such ills as excessive cynicism, emotional detachment, depression, etc.

Are there lessons here for readers of all ages? 

I do not detect a lot of optimism inherent in these stories. Joyce does not present much hope, either in avoiding decay or in finding redemption in “An Encounter” or in many of the other stories included in this collection.

If we start with the proposition that Joyce’s analysis concerning what happens to people is reflective of real life, at least for some, then the writer has hit upon a real problem for many attempting to navigate through life. In my opinion, the dangers that are highlighted here are indeed a threat to human well-being. However, Joyce is not instructing here. This collection is not a guidepost aimed at helping readers to avoid disillusionment and decay.

Even with that realization, perhaps even this dim view of the world can help a person who wishes to preserve their ideals and thus avoid such malign fates. Though the writer offers no solutions, it can be argued that the first step in avoiding danger is recognizing and understanding that danger. Perhaps a reader, young or old, can take these warnings to heart, and thus avoid some of these traps. Though Joyce does not go there, and thus may seemingly not believe in a way out, a perceptive and self aware reader might be able to devise certain life strategies aimed at avoiding the worst aspects of this personal decay. Since Joyce does not himself offer answers, I will leave the formation of solutions to the reader.

A bibliotherapeutic conclusion to Dubliners

I must not fail to mention that no matter what, some of the disenchantment and degeneration that Joyce pinpoints here are an inevitable turn in the winding path of life. The storms and squalls of existence will inevitably batter ideals, aspirations and noble views. Joyce’ s art is not a warning; rather it is a mirror upon reality. Thus what he is saying about people goes way beyond a road to self-improvement. With that said, by thinking about and analyzing what Joyce is showing us, perhaps we can employ a combination of smarts, determination and hard work that, combined with some luck, may be allow us to weather storms and preserve some of the nobler aspects of existence.

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