You may have noticed that what’s pictured here is The Essential James Joyce, not a Dubliners edition. The collection contains Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and excerpts from the ‘difficult’ Joyce books. I’ve only read Dubliners so far; it’s one of the books I read while I was away over the summer. Two months have passed since I returned, so my memory of it has faded spectacularly. But what I do remember about reading it is that I was strongly reminded of the Oscar Wilde story ‘The Happy Prince’, which I loved when I was a child. (Full text here.) That story begins:
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
A swallow nests at the base of the statue but is soon disturbed by the Prince’s tears. The Prince is unhappy because ‘they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead, yet I cannot choose but weep.’ Feeling sorry for the Prince, the swallow agrees to stay three winter nights taking the jewels and gold from the Prince’s statue to the poorest people in the city: the seamstress with a sick child, the playwright with no fire in his garret, a match-girl freezing in the square.
It wasn’t the sentimentality of Wilde’s story that Dubliners brought to mind, but the immediacy and interrelatedness of its vignettes, and the fossicking for drama in lots of everyday lives. Joyce’s stories alight severally on scenes from early-20th-century Dublin and feature places, characters and situations based on assiduous observations and sometimes his personal experiences. If we consider Dubliners a realist survey of its titular city, locating from amongst its thousands of minute happenings a sample of representative scenes, we can infer the significance (at least to Joyce) of the decay of political idealism (‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’), the negotiation of class through marriage (‘The Boarding House’), Protestant-Catholic push-and-pulling (‘Grace’) and dilettanteism in the Gaelic language movement (‘A Mother’). But a more domestic horizon is also figured; Joyce’s characters include an intellectual bachelor whose one love affair returns to affect him (‘A Painful Case’) and a young woman on the brink of leaving Ireland to live with her fiancé in Buenos Aires (‘Eveline’).
It’s interesting, though, to remember how controversial this book was when it was finished in 1905. Obviously, there’s nothing here to shock a modern audience. In fact, I found Dubliners curiously unlively. The detail of the stories is evocative: street and family names reoccur with verisimilitudinous frequency. But the detachment and disillusionment evident in the telling of these stories is alienating. They resolve the intricacies of Dublin into but a cold picture; carousing and conviviality are portrayed without warmth, just as relationships are made and abandoned without hope or affection. Dubliners is no surprising product of an expatriate son of Ireland, and it’s certainly not a cheerful companion. Unlike the Happy Prince, who was discarded by the mayor and his henchmen because of the shabbiness he acquires after giving his treasures to the city’s downtrodden, Joyce writes with a flat disenchantment, bestowing little gleam upon his Dubliners.