Paralysis in Dubliners A heavy theme found throughout the entirety of Dubliners is the feeling of paralysis that is felt by the characters in the stories. Reading the stories and analyzing them individually hints at the idea of paralysis but it is also easy to overlook it. Upon reading all of the stories of Dubliners, the idea of paralysis is a common theme. This feeling of paralysis in Dublin and Ireland as a whole is a feeling that Joyce was trying to show in this collection of short stories.
This could be a feeling how he personally felt during his life in Ireland, or it can be a feeling that he viewed in other people that live there. Either way the idea of paralysis is an important theme in this collection and connects all of the stories together and gives a deep message about the mental state of Dublin. To begin examining the idea of paralysis in Joyce’s Dubliners, it is important to look at the time and place that Joyce came from.
Joyce was writing this during the time of the Irish Literary revival headed by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory (Irish 1).
This revival was started as a means to show that Ireland could be their own independent country and that they have their own culture independent of England. This was a type of rebellion against the British control of Ireland. Joyce was living in a time where British control was tearing at the hearts of the Irish and they wanted to just be themselves but they could not.
This is why he wrote about their paralytic state of mind. They were being hindered to the point that they could not move forward but remained idle making them paralyzed. The first story in Dubliners is “The Sisters” and is about a priest who died. He was friends with a young boy and Father Flynn had two sisters that told their accounts of their brother giving this story its title. In the very first paragraph of the story is the word paralysis.
“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis” (Joyce 3). This is the very first paragraph of the entire collection of short stories that forms Dubliners, and the word paralysis pops up and it is in italics. This should be a clue that Joyce was putting emphasis on this idea. As stated in the introduction that it could be easy to overlook the idea of paralysis as a theme, the story of “The Sisters” is a perfect example to demonstrate that idea. The reason for this potential confusion is that the character who died, Father Flynn, was literally paralyzed shortly before his death. So when the boy was thinking of the word paralysis he could have just been thinking about the physical connotation of the term.
Joyce however was thinking about the mental paralysis and this becomes more clear as you read the other stories of Dubliners. In the story “Araby”, there is a boy who longs for Mangan’s sister and his feelings for her are so strong that he fears that he will never be able to talk to her. However, he is eventually able to talk to her and decided he is going to buy her something from a bazaar since he cannot attend. This is how he was going to get her to like him and talk to him more often. The paralysis of this story comes up when he is at the bazaar and feels him being there is usless and decides to buy nothing. “I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was usless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real” (Joyce 26).
He has waited for this moment, to impress Mangan’s sister for so long and he finally had the chance to and he decided against it and remained in his old ways. This is paralysis, the inability to move forward and do what you want to. The boy had a chance to get what he wanted but instead froze up and remained idle. Another example of paralysis comes from the story “Eveline”. This story might have the most direct view of the paralytic mind in the book.
This story was about Eveline who was living at home supporting her father and she had a lover named frank that she could have a potential new life with if she decided to go away with him. Throughout the story she is grappling with the decision as to whether or not she should leave with Frank. She knows that her life now of cleaning, cooking, and taking care of her sometimes mean father is not necessarily bad but it is hard. She believes it is the right thing to do, to be a dutiful obedient daughter for her father who need her help. After much deliberation throughout the story, Eveline eventually decides to go away with Frank. This brings a great amount of joy to her because she realizes how much happiness will come from her new life. Her mind is set and she is going to go away with Frank; that is until she actually has to act on her decision. When the moment came for her to actually board the ship with Frank she completely froze up and stood still as if all of that decision making meant nothing.
The last two sentences of “Eveline”, describes the paralytic mind of Eveline perfectly, “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (Joyce 32). The last sentence describes paralysis perfectly and this could be attributed to almost any of the characters in Dubliners. She was so paralized that she could not show any emotion. This was the biggest decision of her life and she could not act on it. She remained stuck in her old ways, perhaps scared of what could happen, scared of change. This is the idea that Joyce is trying to show that people in Dublin are stuck with no means of escape. Another example of paralysis can be seen in “The Dead”. There are a lot of characters in this story that can be used to represent the theme of paralysis, but the one that shows it best is Gabriel.
He specifically states that he hates his country and is sick of it (Joyce 165). It seems that someone who is that sick of his country, would decide to leave the country and seek happiness elsewhere, but he decides not to and remains idle, numb, and paralyzed in Ireland. He wants to leave but cannot act on it, which is a very common theme throughout this story. Joyce also included an anecdote in “The Dead”, about a horse that runs a mill by walking in circles and pulling it, and one day his master took him out for a ride and he say a statue of King Billy and started walking around it in circles just like he does in the mill (Joyce 180). This story shows how even the horse is stuck in his old ways and cannot change when he has the chance to.
These stories in Dubliners all hint at the idea at paralysis, but if you look at the entire collection as a whole you can see that this is a theme that was intended to be there. Joyce even mentioned this in a letter he wrote before Dubliners was published explaining why he choose Dublin, “I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis” (Rice 405).
Joyce wanted paralysis to be the theme and he showed it perfectly. All of his characters had the want and drive to change their life and move forward, however when they actually had the chance to do so they decided not to. This is the paralytic mind of the people of Dublin. They are stuck in their old ways and they cannot change from them because they are too scared of change. The entire collection of Dubliners, can almost be seen as not a collection of short stories but as a novel itself because it has a one universal theme for all of its characters regardless of age, and that one theme is paralysis.
“Irish Literary Renaissance.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011. Web. Apr. 27, 2011. . Joyce, James. Dubliners: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Margot Norris. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006 Rice, Thomas Jackson. “Paradigm lost: ‘Grace’ and the arrangement of Dubliners.” Studies in Short Fiction 32.3 (1995): 405. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.
Student essay used with permission of Jonathan Lampe.