By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: James Joyce
Narration by: Jim Norton
“Dubliners” is a book published in 1914 and written by James Joyce in his late twenties. It is a book of related short stories which mark the thematic beginnings of a great writer. Each story is a vignette of life in Dublin just before the nationalist uprising that leads to Irish Home Rule. The nationalist movement is important in Ireland’s history but “Dubliners” is an international history. It is a history of human relationship in a changing world.
The first three stories are about young boys struggling with masculine identity. It is retrospectively shocking to see that Joyce knows that Catholic Church’ priests are as human as the general population. Some succumb to the sin of pedophilia and Joyce’s first story alludes to the unthinkable in his story of a Priest’s funeral. In the next story, pedophilia’s insidious face is shown in a male secular stranger’s attempt to seduce a young boy.
In the third story, Joyce shows his predilection for heterosexual life with the shyness of a young boy that wishes to impress a young girl. How many boys have taken similar journeys to manhood?
Joyce turns to young adulthood in his next stories. He exposes the trapped feeling young adults have in wanting to escape their childhood but feel tied to the coat tails of home.
Women ask themselves should they go with this man or that man to break from their parent’s lives. In this story, there is no escape for poor uneducated women to be independent and on their own. They either find a husband or become a domestic, a sales clerk, or house cleaner; often living in or near their hometown. How many poor women today feel trapped in similar ways? How many poor uneducated young men wile away their hours on the street corner, sipping a pint or talking with friends about how they can get some money?
Another story is of a young man who reports to an arrogant and demeaning supervisor. It explains a cascading consequence of a bad experience at work; i.e. a bad day at work is disconnected from family life in the industrial age. A bad day at work is distantly understood by a family left at home. It reminds one of industrialization’s isolation; the effect of depersonalization inherent in the progression from an agricultural to an industrialized economy. A similar dissociation is occurring today with the advent of the internet. Face to face conversation is being replaced by the tap of computer keys and the click of a mouse.
A final young-adult story is of a poor woman who is seduced by a casual acquaintance. The acquaintance convinces the young woman she could steal from a family for which she works. She is victimized twice; i.e. once by the caddish acquaintance and presumptively, a second time, by her conscience. All the while, the scallywag laughs; i.e. he laughs with his male friend about the woman’s gullibility and easy seduction. How many girls have fallen into this trap and suffered feelings of diminished self-worth? It reminds one of the internet where bullying has become a thing.
As each tale passes, Joyce’s characters advance in age. A mother is driven to start a boarding house because of a drunken husband that squanders the family’s savings. She has a daughter who is nearing the age of marriage. With vigilance, the mother surveys her tenants and allows love to grow but prudently assesses eligible bachelors that stay at the house. As the course of time takes its turn, the daughter becomes pregnant and the bachelor is compelled to become a husband at the vigilant mother’s insistence. Despite progress for women in the modern age, there are mothers who view their daughters as eligible marriage partners rather than potential titans of private or public organizations.
Joyce lightly touches on the role of religion in Ireland. The light touch is reminiscent of both religious and secular interventions in the daily life of addictive personalities. A husband in his middle years is blindly drunk. He falls and bites the end of his tongue off. The police are called and he is escorted home by a friend who confides with the drunk’s wife that he, and some friends, will arrange for an intervention. This is a catholic neighborhood that reveres the Jesuit faction of the Catholic Church. Three friends congregate at the alcoholic’s house and convince him to accompany them in a future session of a Jesuit discussion of the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The alcoholic husband is subtlety induced to participate in his own recovery; i.e. an essential characteristic of addiction intervention today.
The longest story is titled “The Dead”, the last of Joyce’s Irish tales. It is a story that acknowledges the changing face of Ireland. A well-educated Irishman and his wife return to Ireland for a “friends and family” celebration. This “swell” is slightly pompous because of his education and position as a professor. Through the course of the party and after, when he is alone with his wife, he finds that he is not the husband or man he thought he was. He finds, before they were married, that his wife’s first lover killed himself. Rather than be outraged by this revelation, the husband realizes he is not, and never was, in control of all that life brings.
When first married, his judgment is that he is the lord and master of his wife; he is in control. After re-assessing their lives together, he begins to understand that many of life’s circumstances are beyond one’s control.
The best one can do is ride the tide of change. Industrialization, like technology, impacts who we are, how we relate to each other, and where civilization is going. An individual’s choice is not a matter of being in control as much as living in the present, being compassionate, and doing good rather than evil.