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Q) What picture do you think that Joyce gives of growing up in Dublin in the era when the book was written?
A) While Joyce was growing up in Ireland he became disenchanted with his nation and the oppressive influence the Catholic Church had over the country. Joyce’s intention when writing the book was to write a moral history of his country and he chose Dublin as it seemed to him to be the “centre of the paralysis” that seized it.
The stories at the beginning of Dubliners are about youth and as the story progresses they concern older people and the last book is called The Dead. To answer this question I am going to use three of the short stories from Dubliners; An Encounter, Araby and Eveline. I have chosen these three stories as they are near the start of the book and thus detail young people’s lives in Dublin, a feature of the book I can, as a teenager, identify with.
This is the first of these stories and there are several elements within that hint at the dull lifestyle experienced by the young boy that the story focuses upon.
Near the start of the book it talks about how one boy’s parents “went to 8 o’clock Mass every morning”, leaving the boy behind on his own. This shows the dominant effect that religion had upon Irish family life at that time and how it took up much of peoples’ time, in this case meaning that the family was often separated. Another example of how predominant religion was at that time is when the story refers to Leo Dillon’s brother who had a vocation (calling) as a young teenage boy to be a Priest even though it went against his adventurous nature and came as a shock to those who knew him.
Their teacher, who is a Priest, also seems to suppress the dream which all the boys share and when he finds Leo Dillon’s book he calls it “rubbish”. This can be compared to how religion crushed the wild dreams of Leo Dillon’s older brother. The Priest expresses surprise at finding this book because they are not ordinary “national school” boys but they study at a religious school run by Priests. This shows more was expected of boys with this education and shows the desire shown by Priests and other adults to shield children from anything they considered to be pagan or unchristian.
You can also see from the stories that the boy and perhaps his friends want a real adventure not “mimic” adventures or pretend stories. This shows that merely imagination wasn’t enough for the boy and this can perhaps explain why so many young people left Ireland; searching for real adventures in other countries rather than trying to pretend their lives were exciting.
You can see symbolism in the story when the boy “hides his books in the long grass”. It seems like he is rejecting his education by embarking on this adventure and we are never told that he retrieves the books from the grass; a sign that he may have given it up for good.
We can also see much detail concerning Dublin in the story and this can help us vividly picture the city and the life that would have been typical for people there. Joyce describes the ashpits of Dublin which were dumps for anything whose smell the ashes might hide. This hints at how dirty Dublin would have been at that time and how unpleasant this would have made life there. It is also symbolic of decay being covered up by ashes; the rotten core has been simply covered over.
Although this was typical of many big cities at the time it would certainly have added to the negativity of Dublin life. Further description of the city can be found when Joyce is describing the boys’ adventure. He talks about the horse-drawn trams around Dublin which shows how backward life still was in Ireland at that time and how this would have affected the aspirations of people there. There is also a degree of symbolism within some of these descriptions; Joyce describes a canal/wharf where ships would depart for foreign lands and as well as the spring and summer weather (sun and blue skies etc) he also describes new shoots of green leaves. This gives the impression that the boy is beginning a new chapter in his life and that he is somehow getting a fresh start. It helps to make his adventure seem more idyllic and you begin to believe that nothing could go wrong for him.
When the two boys meet some younger children in the street who insult them, saying that they are “Swaddlers” (Protestants) we can get an impression of how sectarian parts of Dublin were at that time. Although nowadays the Protestant population in Dublin and the Republic of Ireland is much smaller than it was then and at that time this would have led to some conflict between Protestants (who were considered English or Unionist and unwelcome in Ireland) and Roman Catholics who were predominantly Nationalist (considering themselves to be true Irish citizens).
Mahoney reacts to his freedom by being eager to get into mischief; he longs to rebel as much as he can against his school life. He uses slang freely and refers to Father Butler as “Old Bunser”; this is to make him feel even more rebellious. He also chases children from a local slum and would even like to shoot down some birds with his catapult.
The two boys are fascinated by the thought of taking one of the boats they see in the canal out to sea. The idea of sailing out to a new land in search of adventure seems to them to be an even worthier cause than their own truant escapade from school. It is this fascination (felt by so many Irish people at that time) that can be seen in the great numbers of people leaving Ireland, seeking adventure in other countries.
Although the boy’s adventure seemed idyllic at the start of the story soon the first elements of disappointment (a key theme in many of the stories in this book) and boredom begin to creep into the tale. The clouds begin to obscure the sun and there are only crumbs left of the boys’ feast. They also begin to have “jaded thoughts”.
This unease is epitomised by the introduction of the old man to the story. As he approaches there is definite sinister element to his actions. The boy notices that everything he does is very “careful and planned”; it is almost as if the old man has planned this event beforehand and has thought out how he could approach the boys without looking suspicious. He also walks past them and says nothing but then retraces his steps merely to bid them good day; in reality he is trying to talk to the boys. He tries to ensure that they do not notice him by acting casually, but in doing this his actions become even more suspicious. He also does everything with great care as though he is anxious not to scare off the boys, making him even more suspect.
The old man uses different methods to try and gain a false sense of security with one boy, perhaps to separate him from the other (Mahoney). He addresses one of the boys and compares them to himself in an attempt to gain a rapport with him. He also hints at reading some of Lord Lytton’s more adult poetry and already sexuality seems to creeping into his discussion with the boys.
The old man has an upper class accent which indicates a high social class and he utters many monologues within their discussion, he is very verbal. However, the boy seems to think that the old man’s monologue is something that is being repeated or that it has been learned of by heart. He also talks to them secretively at times, like he is saying something inappropriate that he does not wish others to hear. The content of his monologue also become quite sexual and after talking about Lord Lytton’s adult poetry he starts to talk about sweethearts and how beautiful young girls are and how soft their hair is. He clearly begins to excite himself sexually and goes off to the end of the field (still within view of the boys) to “relieve” himself. He is clearly sexually fascinated with children and a paedophile but when he comes back we see an even more sinister element to his sexual fantasy and he starts to talk excitedly about corporal punishment and whipping boys, showing that he has a sadomasochistic inclination.
Imagery is used to make him more frightening and Joyce describes his “bottle-green eyes peering out from under a twitching forehead”. Ironically these green eyes are what the boy was searching for at the start of their adventure; he was looking for a sailor who had green eyes like the mythical character Odysseus. This is just another aspect of how the boy’s dream has become an inversion of his hopes and a disappointment.
By this time the boy has realised the man’s true nature and he struggles to get away calmly although he is scared. He walked up the slope calmly but his heart was beating with fear that the man should grab him by the ankles.
At the end of the story the boy talks about how he is penitent that Mahoney came to his aid because in his heart he had “always despised Mahoney a little”. This revelation is quite shocking as we were of the impression that the two were good friends. To learn that the friend who has come to his aid and whom he has embarked on this adventure with is someone that he despises adds yet another strange and abrupt twist to the tale, this time culminating in an ending, where the young boy is confirmed in his reliance on his peers rather than liberated from their values.
This is the second story that I will deal with and it follows many of the themes of the previous story, An Encounter. The start of the story has quite a gloomy description of Dublin and there is a theme of blindness or entrapment; there is the “blind alley” where the boy lives and the hour when the Christian Brother’s school “set the boys free” is also described.
The setting of the scene is also very downbeat and along with the mention of the dead Priest come the descriptions of death, decay, rust, dust, winter and bad weather. All these descriptions help present the area as a very bleak place. It also helps Joyce to build a connection in our minds between decay and the influence of religion.
The ashpits are once again mentioned in this story, a dump for anything whose smell ashes might hide. This is symbolic of the stench of decay mentioned earlier and how the dust and ashes (symbolic of death) hide the smell of the rotten material at the heart of Irish life.
The dream for the boy in this story is also an adventure but this time it is connected to a girl, Mangan’s sister. The boy sees this girl as the girl of his dreams although he doesn’t even mention her name. He refers to her in an exalted religious language – his dream of her is like a chalice (communion cup) that he carries everywhere. He says that she plays “music on the heart strings of his body”. He even prays to her when he can’t picture her as vividly in his mind as he would like and he does this by “pressing the palms of his hands together… and murmuring O’ Love, O’ Love, O’ Love” many times. However this religious comparison could also be seen as blasphemy, as the boy’s romantic dream is a substitute for religious worship. Her very presence “summons his foolish blood” or makes him act obsessively. To him she represents everything that matters to him and everything that is important in life.
However, halfway through the story the boy’s dream switches to the bazaar, although this is still connected to his fascination with the girl his fixation seems to have switched from the female to the exotic world of fantasy.
In this story religion also becomes a barrier to his dream and Mangan’s sister can’t go to the bazaar with him because of her religious duty – she has to go to the religious retreat in her convent. As in An Encounter, religion once again seems to prevent the main character from carrying out their dream.
We also get some hints that the boy in the story may be an orphan – he is brought up by his Aunt and Uncle etc. If this is true then it makes the boy all the more emotionally vulnerable to having his dreams crushed and it can also partly explain his fascination with Mangan’s sister. We sense that the girl is older than him; perhaps he subconsciously views her as a substitute mother. This also ties in with the Freudian Oedipus complex which Joyce would have read about, suggesting that a male child’s choice for a partner will be very much influenced by their mother’s personality. The boy’s missing mother results in his clinging to this new fantasy.
Sexuality also comes into this story when the boy notices the girl’s underwear (her petticoat hem) which shows he is old enough to have some sexual interest in the girl.
When it comes to the night of the bazaar the boy we start to get hints that his dream will end in disappointment. Firstly his uncle is late (as in An Encounter adults are once again getting in the way of his dream) then when his uncle gets into the house we get the impression that he may be drunk. By this point we have realised that his dream will probably end in disappointment.
By the time he reaches is the bazaar we realise that he is too late. Most of the stalls are closed by this time and most of the bazaar is in darkness. The adults have ruined his dream of enjoying the bazaar and buying his love a present. Not only that but the bazaar is not an oriental spectacle after all and there is nothing left to see. He paid money to get into bazaar and the owner of one of the few stalls left open pays little attention to him and even suspects him of being a thief.
The bazaar is foreign, but only in the sense that the stall attendants have English accent; the boy feels out of place and ill at ease in the bazaar. He doesn’t purchase anything for the girl even though he has a chance because he feels intimidated by the stall and its contents including, “the great jars that stood like eastern guards at the entrance to the stall”. The wares are out of his price range, he only has a few pennies; once again the adults have destroyed his dream by not giving him enough money to buy anything at the bazaar.
He feels de-humanized by the bazaar and at the end compares himself to a deluded “creature”. He is angry at himself and at the adults and at the stall attendants. His dream has come to nothing and he says he is “driven by vanity” which in this case means pointlessness and emptiness. His dream has been ruined and has ended in disappointment and he feels like there is no hope left. You feel a sense of hopelessness for this boy in his Dublin life – he put so much effort into this endeavour to realise his romantic imagination yet it all came to nothing.
The last story I will deal is Eveline; right from the start of this story we get a sense of the physical and mental fatigue felt by the main character. In the opening paragraph she says she “was tired”, it is no wonder she cannot summon the mental energy to leave home later in the story.
Once again the theme of ashes/cinder comes into one of Joyce’s stories, this time symbolic of a slow death rather than the new revitalised life Eveline needs; she needs to be a reborn like a phoenix from the ashes.
Even from this point we get a sense of how violent her father could possibly be. He hunted them out in the field with his blackthorn stick and they used to “keep nix” on lookout for his return. She also says he “was not so bad then”, which indicates that he has got worse.
We can also notice the immense change that has taken place in Eveline’s life with two people close to her dying and another leaving for England, she is the only one remaining and has been left to look after the children. Now she is also going to leave and perhaps this upheaval is too much for her to deal with.
There is also a recurring religious aspect in this story shown with the yellowing (yellowing also a sense of decay) Priest’s portrait; notice that he too has emigrated and left Ireland. Also her father is into church decorations; perhaps another symbol of the corruption of religion – he is a devout Catholic; but one who perhaps beats his children and his now dead wife. We should also note the symbolic importance of the broken harmonium (organ).
She is not capable of standing up for herself at work and is bullied or belittled by the other women. However she still worries about what these women would think if she went away. Eveline is also very indecisive and incapable of making a decision, she says that she has consented to go away but then doesn’t. It should be an easy decision because even though Frank loves her and there is little left for her at home; she is constantly asking questions of herself. To us it seems like there would be no question as she has such bad “home life” but it is a decision Eveline takes very seriously. She has never had a role model to look up to, her father almost definitely abuses her and her mother was never a positive role model as she too was abused by this man and never stuck up for herself. Eveline does not want to “be treated as her mother had been”.
Eveline’s name is also important. Eveline means “little Eve”, she is “little” symbolising that she has never had a strong character or been able to stick up for herself. It also may have something to do with her acting as a mother to her brothers and sisters in place of the mother they lost. She has become a mother at a young age, hence “little Eve”.
Her father’s character contrasts strongly with that of Frank’s; Frank is a sailor and Eveline’s father hates sailors. Her father hates foreigners and anything that exists outside of Ireland but Frank has travelled the world and wants Eveline to come and live with her in Buenos Aires. Her father also embraces all the stereotypical images of a man who carries out domestic abuse; he has problems with alcohol and often returns home drunk on Saturday nights. He is also frugal with money and insults Eveline regularly but at times he can be kind to her when he realises he is getting older and regrets his violent ways. Her father tries to influence her and threatens her so that, “she still felt herself in danger of her father’s violence”. Her fear influences her decision whether to leave or not, perhaps in so much as she fears Frank might turn out the same way.
Eveline is also typical of a woman who is being abused. She cannot bring herself to break the cycle of abuse and doesn’t have the courage to confront the problem. She also believes that everything will get better or that it isn’t as bad as it seems – she is an optimist. Her situation is the only way of life that she knows and so she has nothing else to compare it too. She appreciates even basic things such as “shelter and food” and she doesn’t seem to realise that people need more than these out of life.
She also puts others before herself and she is very selfless. She worries about her father, a man who beat her and is often abusive, and what will happen to him once she leaves. She also cares maternally for the two young children that have been left in her care putting them before herself. She even has ties of guilt for her mother’s death and feels herself duty bound to follow the same path as her mother rather than “breaking away”. She has perhaps even been mentally damaged by her mother’s death. Remembering her mother’s death brings on a panic attack as she recalls her mother mentally handicapped state in her final hours, perhaps with a sense of guilt.
The sentences in the story are very simple and direct. Often they simply tell us what Eveline is thinking at that time offering direct access to her mental world. For example, “Sometimes he could be very nice” says Joyce about Frank without adding a “she thought” as is normal in most novels.
We get the impression that Eveline has had a disturbed childhood; her only happy memory is one of a picnic on the Hill of Howth (a beautiful seaside location outside Dublin overlooking Dublin Bay) and having a picnic there when her mother was alive. All her other childhood memories seem to concern abuse from her father.
The last few paragraphs provide a nightmarish, surreal end to the story. She seems to be someone stranded at sea in a sinking boat, the final bell clangs, her skin is whit and cold and she has the sense that she is going to be drowned by Frank. She is also feeling herself trapped “amid the seas”, it seems like she wants to move but she cannot – she has been gripped by paralysis. Once again religion in a way seems to have played a part in ruining her dream (of moving to Buenos Aires) she prayed constantly when about to board the ship but seemed to see it as her religious duty to remain in Dublin. She is also incapable of showing any emotion or feeling anything warm (any feeling towards Frank) but she can still feel her cold grip on the iron rail and the sense of drowning and paralysis.
In a sense it is as if the inevitability of the ending of the story has been avoided – throughout the story Eveline says about how she has made up her mind and that it has all been planned but in the end it doesn’t happen and probably never could.
We can notice that each of the stories comes to a very abrupt end after a seemingly long build up. We get the impression that each story is but a brief look at the rich but restricted tapestry of Dublin life and each experience in Dubliners is important in its own way yet seemingly insignificant in the overall picture. Joyce avoids using proper names for many of the characters to help show us how irrelevant the name is when you consider the many thousands of people who are living similar lives all over Dublin.
In conclusion all three of the stories concern young people struggling with emotion in their Dublin lives. In each case their dreams seem to have been ruined by the oppression of Dublin life. Stifling devout Catholicism restricts their lives and ambitions and prevents them from fulfilling their innermost desires. Adults also seem to stand in their way with cases of brutality, abuse and heavy handedness, all leading to a lack of empathy and love and the supposed happy family of the stereotypical Irish home. In the case of the younger children the crushing effect of the religiously motivated education system also dampens their ambition and crushes their dreams.
Joyce leaves me with the impression that the only way for these three young Dubliners to find happiness in their lives is to leave Dublin. They each have learnt the lesson that dreams looked for in the city are hard to come by and any attempt they make will be thwarted. In each case all or some of the reasons mentioned above have blocked them in some way. This opinion certainly hints at Joyce’s own disillusionment and personal experience and leaves us with a very powerfully negative (yet insightful) view of Dublin and Dubliners in the early years of the 20th century.