Short Fiction * James Joyce * Social Paralysis * 1914
Goddammit, James Joyce. You ruined novels for everyone, you know that? You took the form and blew it apart with your fucked up genius and now nobody can ever do that again. If it wasn’t for the human desire to enjoy stories, the novel would be as dead as poetry after TS Eliot basically killed that form. Modernism marked the endpoint for all art, is what I’m saying. Anyway, Dubliners isn’t a novel but is merely Joyce warming up and incidentally writing some of the best short fiction of all time. I will say right up front that I am ill-equipped to discuss these stories in any depth, despite my background in Modernist literature. This is not because I was unable to follow the stories, they’re all pretty straightforward, especially for James Joyce. No, it’s because each one of these things is deep and layered and it would take approximately 100,000 words to do them any justice and I don’t have that kind of time. Instead, I’ll provide a brief overview of the collection up top and then go over some of the ten-year-old notes I scribbled in the margins during grad school. Not because said notes elucidate anything of value, but more as a means to deride my academic ability.
But first, let’s take a quick look at Dubliners as a collection of stories. If you know nothing about it, this book is a collection of 15 short stories that take place in – wait for it – Dublin. All of these stories are about regular people doing mundane things in a large, anonymous city. There is a current of specious disaffection running throughout the stories, however insofar as the narratives are concerned they are not connected. These stores are extremely Modern in their themes and characterization, and every single character in these stories is in some way grappling with a society that has grown beyond their reckoning. In a vague sense, most of these stories are about people trying in vain to find some kind of connection with those around them and failing. While that may sound exceedingly depressing, and it certainly can be, Dubliners is also about small moments of beauty in all that grey. Not only does Joyce find those fleeting moments, he writes some stunning sentences about them. The dude’s craft is unparalleled.
“When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown somber. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.”
Give me a break. Just skimming through the book a good third of my notes are just marking out passages like that and writing “wow” in the margin. That wasn’t me being impressed as a student, that was me being impressed as a writer. Let me tell you, the one thing that annoyed me the most about grad school was how little people seemed to care about the actual craft of writing. Everyone was worrying about how this all relates to Foucault or some shit and ignoring how evocative and effortlessly atmospheric that passage is. Nevermind that if Joyce wasn’t so good at creating mood and atmosphere, Dubliners would be a pointless exercise. The reason any of the symbolism or layered meaning works is because Joyce is able to recreate the world of Dublin around the turn of the 20th century so completely and efficiently. Without the sheer quality of the language, everything else is meaningless.
If you came here for some kind of astute observation on a James Joyce story, I’m sorry, but you’ve fucked up. There are few authors whose work critics have covered as completely, and I’m not so completely besotted with the man’s work that I feel the need to add to the critical chorus in any serious fashion. That said, this is literature, and the responses to literature are only limited by the number of people reading it. Even then, an individual’s relationship with a work can change as the person changes, which is why I advocate for revisiting books every now and again. Now, my copy of Dubliners is from when I was in grad school nearly ten years ago and there are many, many notes in the margins. This is very unusual, since I usually do not mark my books up. This isn’t common amongst academics, by the way, pretty much everyone I knew in school covered any and all available space with notes. I’m just a terrible student. Always have been. I would always be immediately embarrassed when someone in my cohort would ask to borrow my notes since they were largely a mess of doodles and random phrases that may or may not have anything to do with the seminar. My notes in Dubliners were an attempt to curtail my habit of writing instinctually about literature. That attempt failed, allow me to share why.
This edition of Dubliners has an extensive introduction written by a Joyce scholar. One piece of genuine advice I would give to the literature student is to read and understand these introductions as they provide helpful context to older works. I take my own advice, however I have little patience for academic writing.
“So the author and publisher entered on a protracted correspondence in which a compromise was sought – in vain – between artistic integrity and commercial pusillanimity.”
To which I responded: “Yes, yes, you’re very smart.”
A few pages later: “So he wrote to Grant Richards, as that pusillanimous soul hesitated….”
“Just say ‘cowardly!!!’” Yes, I included the single quotation marks.
And then: “… how much time characters spend on their feet or on brief journeys by cab or tram so that peregrination becomes almost a principle of composition.”
“Enough of you.”
I agree with myself, by the way. This is the kind of exclusionary language that drives people away from critical analysis. It’s also the kind of writing that bogs down thought and creates barriers between your analysis and my understanding, even if I know what the word means. It’s frustrating, because skimming through the rest of the introduction, I find myself agreeing with a lot of his points and all in all is a valuable resource for understanding Dubliners. But dude, just say ‘cowardly’ next time.
Okay, I think the point of this exercise is to highlight some of Joyce’s writing, because a good deal of my notes are me just geeking out over the writing.
“All the branches of the tall trees which lined the mall were gay with little light green leaves and the sunlight slanted through them on to the water. The granite stone of the bridge was beginning to be warm and I began to pat it with my hands in time to an air in my head. I was very happy.”
My erudite response: “That’s some idyllic shit right there.”
Indeed. The thing is, though, that’s absolutely some idyllic shit right there. Particularly the detail of a kid patting the warm stone in time to a song in his head, a thing we’ve all done and conveys the exact mood of the scene. The proclamation that he was very happy is almost extraneous.
The final sentence of “Araby,” a story about a boy trying in vain to woo some girl he knows:
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
Ahem. “What the Fuck? What does that even… Jooooyce!”
Look, it’s a very abrupt ending. Thing is, it’s Modernism and often times the “endings” are abrupt and are seemingly unrelated to what preceded it. I was simply not terribly interested in digging deeper to understand why the ending is the way it is. Turns out I’m still not. Also, this kid is a teenager and has therefore never seen himself as a creature driven and derided by anything. Please.
I make a lot of pop culture references in the margins, and most of them I scrawled in Dubliners are fairly dated (pretty sure I saw an Office Space reference in there). Some things are timeless, though.
“Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does possession of money.”
“Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”
Hell yeah. Now, at the end of this story, “After the Race,” I attempted to take things a little more seriously. Let me see if I can read my own handwriting.
“Ah, they’re all pals. But I guess we’re starting to see the themes of paralysis and alienation taking place between these stories. These characters all seem to lack the ability to push themselves to improve their own lives in any meaningful way. All the (beautiful) descriptions of Dublin bolster this sense of serene inaction.
What’s interesting here is the focus on the new technology of speed – the racing car. A plaything of wealthy youth, it’s only another apparatus in a life of actual inaction, though the artificial speed of the machine masks the individual paralysis of the driver.”
Yeah that’s all right. That’s pretty good actually. Hmm. Sometimes I wonder if I know what I’m doing after all.
“…that emphatically takes the biscuit.”
“I’m saying that all day every day.”
Nope, I’m still a dork. Still, that’s pretty good. Need to bring that one back.
“A wistful sadness pervades these poems.”
“Sounds like half of every English department in the country.”
“A spasm of rage gripped his throat for a few moments and then passed, leaving after it a sharp sensation of thirst. The man recognized the sensation and felt that he must have a good night’s drinking.”
“Oh, the IRISH.”
Some of these notes get playfully racist, because a common stereotype is that Irish people are drunk a lot, you see. The story “Counterparts” is about a mean, abusive drunk. It’s a night in the life of an asshole, which Joyce writes about with insight and deftness, without excusing his horrid behavior.
“He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk. He began to feel thirsty again and he longed to be back again in the hot reeking public-house. He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him.”
“Paralysis. Impotence. Modernity!”
That’s an effective paragraph, even if Joyce straight up tells rather than showing and uses all the semi-colons in the world. You can get away with that kind of thing when you’re an all-time master.
“It was hard to know what to buy and all she could think of was cake.”
“Yeah, that is troublesome when that happens.”
Moving along, and I pretty much entirely skipped “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” because it’s a topical story about Irish politics about which I knew nothing. Here’s another delightful sentence from a different story:
“She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life.”
“Stop being amazing!”
Right? It gets old after a while, Joyce. Trying being average for once, maybe. But then the only other note on this story, “A Mother,” is me noting “I can’t believe how little I care about this,” so maybe this one’s not exactly golden.
“I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put the little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it’s not just, Mary Jane, and it’s not right.”
“Psst. Catholics be crazy. And the pope be King Crazy.”
Sounds about right. Also, I’m clearly over it at this point. These notes are all from “The Dead,” the final story.
“Here comes Lame-o’s lame speech.”
“Joyce, you’re playing everyone for chumps. You win!”
That last one sums it all up pretty well, I think.