James Joyce and the Making of Dubliners
From an early age, James Joyce set out on a quest to become an artist, ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ Yet the task that he set himself and the development of that artistry is one that is bound up in his own self-made image of a consummate ‘artist’, an image that is held by the difficulty of his major works such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Because of this, Joyce is seen in most quarters as a formidable technician whose work can only be understood after years of long study. Yet a great deal of Joyce’s earlier work reveals that the attainment of his artistry was a long and painful process which took years to master, finally coming to fruition in his conception and creation of the short story collection Dubliners, begun in the summer of 1904.
The years preceding the writing of Dubliners were in many ways an important time in Joyce’s career. He had left Trinity College with his language degree, and spent the days much like many of the characters of Dubliners, either drinking in many of the bars and pubs of the city or aimlessly idle, sometimes writing reviews but mainly carousing with college friends. He was in some danger of succumbing to the moral malaise and paralysis that he felt was at the heart of Dublin society. It was in this mood of self-vindication and perhaps desperation that he conceived of his first full length novel entitled Stephen Hero. This book (later abandoned) suggests that at this time, Joyce was still far from displaying the control, clarity and precision that can be found in Dubliners, namely because in choosing himself as the main character he lacked the necessary insight and objectivity of his own feelings in order to portray himself convincingly. The result is an image of a rather precious yet precocious young man, destined to succumb to the fate that so many young men of the city had fallen into – mainly drink, indolence or petty frustrations, the very same inaction that he saw everywhere around him.
In recognising this limitation in himself, he was able to re-imagine and re-focus himself in relation to the world and life of Dublin, and begin to create portraits of characters and people in the kinds of situations and forms of Dublin life that were genuinely stifling and frustrating to its citizens. In this way, Joyce could conceive of a story using the true and proper aspects of a character and give a clear and precise account of their predicament with a sharply observed psychological realism. In developing and using this technique, Joyce contributed to the idea of presenting characters and situations as they are, without authorial commentary, judgement or intrusion – he simply lets the character act as they would in real life. Having conceived of the first story, quickly entitled ‘The Sisters’, soon Joyce was creating more and each time, he refined his technique, developed his objectivity and was able to present ever more clearly the moral paralysis of Dublin’s citizens. Joyce had found that by limiting his theme to paralysis he could depict characters that were realistically at the mercy of their environment, by effectively realising and revealing the aspects and forms of life that constrained and entrapped its citizens.
In ‘The Boarding House’, Mrs Mooney awaits a discussion with a young boarder who has begun an affair with her daughter. Mr Doran is then persuaded to ask for her hand in marriage or face the consequences of Dublin’s strict Catholic society of disgrace and the loss of his job. At each turn he is shown as restricted and Joyce places these restrictions in light of the conventions and morality of Mrs Mooney, and her determination to uphold her moral duty: ‘She had all the weight of social opinion on her side, she was the outraged mother.’ Joyce allows the story to unveil the claustrophobic sense of inevitable entrapment, as Mr Doran awaits his fate: ‘His instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry. Once you are married you are done for, it said.’ Yet he cannot escape the stultifying social conventions of Dublin: ‘He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step’, until he too has to conform and Mr Doran is consigned to his unwelcome and unwanted fate.
In story after story, Joyce depicts the ordinary lives and situations of schoolboys, shop girls, and office workers, from adolescence to adulthood through to middle age. Joyce meticulously portrays characters and the relationship they have with their world, so that they are revealed by the situation they have come to represent. This was the technique of epiphany that Joyce had so patiently tried to create and realise over the preceding years and in Dubliners it comes to full light. In doing this, Joyce was able to focus and draw his gaze to characters that embodied these aspects of paralysis and sterility.
The character portrayal of ‘Eveline’ best sums up this technique as Joyce centres our attention on all the aspects of her life that should make her leave. Her home life is stifling, restrictive and her father mean and even violent. ‘Latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her’ yet she has the opportunity to start a new life in Buenos Aires with Frank. She cares for her siblings after her mother has died and her job is poorly paid and offers nothing to her, yet it is Evelines own sense of this restricted world that binds her to it: ‘now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.’ The fear of leaving this insufficient and restricted life won’t allow her to see beyond the duties and conventions of her life, and ‘the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could.’ Eveline is terrified to the point of inaction: ‘She gripped with both hands at the iron railing, No! No! No! It was impossible’, and she is left on the North wall quay unable to take the risk of a new life.
The ground work and realistic details of many of these stories were actually provided by Joyce’s younger brother Stanislaus from the school boys who play truant and go in search of the pigeon house in ‘An Encounter’, to the wasters and layabouts found in ‘Two Gallants’ to the put upon office workers of Farrington and Chandler in ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Little Cloud.’ Each are furnished with small details of information and snippets of conversation, the exact and precise details that Joyce found to be central to his technique of allowing each character to show forth their paralysis and the ‘sinful and maleficent being’ in each story.
All of these characters share in their own way the same petty frustrations, resentments and disillusions of each other and they perfectly sum up for Joyce in his exact definitions the same dispiriting quality of life found in all urban modern cities. Joyce uses a tone of cold distance to portray these characters, as he documents their blighted lives and their environment. Mr Farrington in ‘Counterparts’ is just such a man, a clerk in a law firm whose days are filled with the tedium of copying contracts in long hand while his employer Mr Alleyne derides him for his ineptitude. Farrington’s mood throughout the story hovers on the brink of violence: “his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot.’ His only escape is drink and a night out on the town: ‘The dark damp night was coming and he longed to spend it in the bars.’ None of this quenches his anger and the resentment he feels, as his friends cadge drink off him, his money dwindles, and when he loses an arm wrestling contest his humiliation is complete. ‘A very sullen faced man stood at the corner of O’Connell Bridge, waiting for the little sandymount tram.’ A clear image of Farrington’s world of disillusion shows how Joyce mastered depicting only the necessary aspects of character in order to reveal their true inner emotion. Farrington’s world is closed and full of only things that subdue or frustrate him, until his final act of violence upon his young son appears to be his only way of expressing his frustration.
Some characters are less defined by their environment then their attitude towards it. Lenehan and Corley in “Two Gallants”, appear at first somewhat unrestricted to the numbing tedium of work and have resisted the route of marriage and family life. In Lenehan , ‘no-one knew how he achieved the stern task of living.’ Yet Joyce finds inLenehan’s relationship with Corley a nature of exploitation and sponging which defines their relationship to the city and its people. For it is Lenehan’s reliance upon Corley that Joyce highlights as bleak, aimless and ultimately dispiriting, of endless wandering with no-where to go. ‘Experience had embittered his heart against the world’ and Lenehan again is fated to his closed and restricted view of himself and Dublin society.
In each of these stories Joyce creates through the theme of paralysis many of the fates, ideas, hopes and ideals that he himself tried to overcome or succeed from. Each depiction in some way relates to a facet of Joyce that he felt could become of him had he stayed in Dublin. The wasters and scroungers that are Lenehan and Corley in ‘Two Gallants’ who drift through life at the expense of others mirrors the young Joyce when he had left Trinity College and was career-less and aimless. The would-be poet Chandler in ‘A Little Cloud’ who dreams of seeing his as-yet-unwritten poems in a publication of Celtic verse, reflects some of the qualities and hopes that Joyce held in his desire to fulfil his potential as a poet of verse.
One such story that seems to closely relate to Joyce is the story of James Duffy in ‘A Painful Case.’ Mr James Duffy lives at a detached distance from Dublin’s citizens in Chapelizod, a district on the outskirts of the city. He appears controlled, clever and self-contained, even complex and an intellectual for he reads Nietzsche and Hauptmann, yet upon meeting a Mrs Sinico one night on a visit to the theatre he appears cold and aloof, seemingly unaware of her intentions toward him. One night he harshly rebukes her advances and shuns her. On hearing of her death years later, he is forced to come to terms with his actions and behaviour as he realises he has lost his chance at happiness: ‘He had denied her life and happiness: he had sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame.’ This story sums up in many ways Joyce’s own image of his self and the kind of life that would have awaited him if he persisted with his attitudes of critical detachment and cold aloofness to life.
The story also highlights some of the reasons why he needed to advance onto greater things. Joyce had still not fully realised or accounted for the subject matter he explores, the need for compassion and empathy and the necessary developments needed to attain and fulfil these emotions. In creating a morally realistic world of characters and depicting their lives in Dublin’s socially restrained world he had shown himself capable of highly sophisticated and precise narratives, yet by limiting his theme to paralysis he had restricted himself to the depth with which he could show his characters. It was with this last thought in mind that he conceived of the last story of the collection entitled ‘The Dead.’ Joyce had commented on his stories before writing ‘The Dead’ stating: ‘I have been unnecessarily harsh, I have reproduced none of the attraction of the city, its hospitality its beauty.’
In this story, Joyce attempts to do just this by showing the goodwill and warmth of a family social occasion, a dinner and party held by two aunts. Gabriel Conroy, the central character, again resembles Joyce but a little older and more mature. He again appears clever and confident, a complex man who is well-educated, an intellectual man of letters, who is well-liked and holds a prominent position amongst the visiting guests. Each scene is evoked in such a way that insights about character are carefully balanced. There are no stark judgements, only a slow unveiling of meaning. Gabriel gives a speech yet is troubled and unsettled by seemingly minor details while his self-conscious detachment and his awkwardness amongst the party-goers hides a lack of insight and understanding of the complex emotions and feelings of those around him, most notably his wife Gretta who he longs ‘to be the master of her strange mood.’ Yet when he finally hears and realises the reasons for her mood, the playing of the song ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ that reminds her of her long-dead first love, ‘A vague terror seized Gabriel, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him.’ The prior resentful, hostile helpless emotions of previous stories are replaced by a much deeper reflective and emphatic emotion of understanding and compassion, the character no longer at the mercy of the situation: ‘His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.’ Joyce is now able to show and realise a truer and deeper reaction to life and its complexities than before: ‘The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward’ and Gabriel is able to fully understand and acknowledge the limitations and restrictions of his prior view in a new state of emotional acceptance and humility.
This difference elevates this last story above the simple yet effective sketches of previous stories and reveals Joyce’s ability to portray a much wider study of human character and emotion and their presentation than before. These more complex understandings seem to be borne out of Joyce’s own personal development and his deepening views of himself and the city of Dublin. This last story was finally completed in 1907, three years after he had begun the collection. It shows that throughout the writing of Dubliners, Joyce struggled with his self-image and his views of Dublin society and in this last story he finally found a way of reconciling his views by finding a more mature, balanced and rewarding view of both himself and the city of Dublin. This also gives a clue as to why Ulysses is a comedic celebration of life and the city of Dublin and its citizens, and how Joyce could then finally begin the task he had set himself at the outset, ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race.’