Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dubliners by James Joyce: A review

DublinersDubliners by James Joyce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't really do short stories as a general rule. Never been a great fan of the genre. But I was recently reminded that 2014 marks the centennial of the publication of what many consider to be the greatest collection of short stories in the English language, Dubliners. Having never read it, I decided there was no time like the present and grabbed it off our bookshelves where it had languished for years. Some members of the family had read it and praised it highly. I was still a bit skeptical.

A few years ago, I set myself the task of reading Ulysses. It was a long, hard slog, but I made it all the way through to the last glorious chapter, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, and that made it all worthwhile. Well, Dubliners proved to be a much easier, more accessible read, nothing really difficult about it at all. The only thing that caused me to stumble a bit was some of the now archaic language used. It made the stories sometimes seem a bit stilted, but I was always able to understand the meaning.

It is ironic, almost beyond belief really, that a series of British and Irish publishers and printers deemed this book offensive and immoral. It was completed in 1905 and Joyce struggled for almost ten years to find someone who would be willing to publish it. Reading these stories today, they seem so mild. It's very hard to understand what anyone could have considered offensive or immoral about them. But those obviously were very different times.

As I started reading the stories, I found them anachronistic and had difficulty relating to the characters, but the more I read the more I realized that even though these characters lived in the world of a hundred years ago, human nature hasn't changed. The strengths and weaknesses of the Dubliners of the early twentieth century are really not demonstrably different from those of Americans in 2014.

The stories are deceptively simple tales of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Dublin. I recognized some of the characters here who reappeared later in Ulysses. I think that book might have been a bit more understandable if I had read Dubliners first. Ulysses, too, of course, is the story of everyday life. One day - June 16 - in the life of Leopold and Molly Bloom and their compatriots. James Joyce seems to have been fascinated with that subject and with portraying life as it was lived and showing his characters with all their warts.

The Catholic Church and, in particular, its priests play an important role in many of the stories here. Of course, that Church played a major role for both good and ill in the Ireland of the time, and, indeed, still does today. That much has not changed.

There are allusions in some of the stories to the desire for independence and the movement to keep the Irish language alive and vibrant, ideas which would continue to burn brightly and result in a conflagration in the years to come.

The characters are real and their stories are humorous, sometimes brutal, sometimes bawdy, often tragic. Joyce said that his purpose was to write a moral history of Ireland, and I'm certainly not in a position to say that he didn't succeed. It is an unflinching portrayal of a city and a people that he obviously loved.

The stories begin with the death of a priest and death hovers near throughout all of the following stories. Then there is the final story, "The Dead," which some critics will tell you is the best short story written in English. I would certainly agree that the language is amazing and beautiful, as in this last paragraph which describes Gabriel watching the snow at night.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right, snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon the part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
 

Such a simple scene told in simple words, but one must admit, the man could write.


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2 comments:

  1. Great review, and I am tempted to reread The Dubliners. Not a cheery Summer read, but maybe toward the end of Summer, for me

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    1. Yes, it's not exactly a laugh a minute - although there is humor there, as there is in everyday life.

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