Dubliners: The artist’s task

James-Joyce DublinersStefany Anne Golberg, The Smart Set

There’s one thing certain about the Dubliners (as we approach the 100th anniversary of its publication): They’re looking to escape. They’re playing hooky from school to watch the ships along the riverside, or sneaking out of work to tip an elbow at the public house, or sitting in class dreaming about the Saturday evening bazaar. Mr. Duffy thinks that, in “certain circumstances” he could rob a bank, but the circumstances never arise. Lenehan thinks that, if only he could find a corner and some good simpleminded girl, he could live happily.

No doubt about it, thinks Little Chandler, if you want to succeed you have to go away. Farrington’s boy, seeing no escape from his father, falls upon his knees. There is, for the Dubliners, an incompleteness in everyday life. There is a train always passing them by. If only the poetry book on the shelf, the girl, the drink, the confessional, the faraway place, the foreign sailor — some any odd thing — could deliver them.

I call the series [of 15 short stories] Dubliners, to betray the soul of that … paralysis which many consider a city.

Joyce argued in a letter to a publisher who eventually declined to take on the manuscript, that Dubliners was written for the benefit of Irish civilisation, for in his stories, wrote James, the Irish people would get “one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass.” In the looking glass, Dubliners would see a people frozen in time. They would see themselves existing in the grey zone between paralysis and freedom.

Each story in Dubliners might be thought of as an epiphany. Joyce referred to them as fascinating ‘poetic moments’. Epiphanies are tiny revelations, pinpricks of light in the darkness, shifts in the dung heap of one’s notions.

Epiphany is an inspirational word; it evokes light and enlightenment, a mental clarity that could only but lead to change, if not outright salvation. Epiphanies for the Dubliners, however, emerge as rips in the fabric of daily life. The rips can be beautiful, revelatory, even delicate and evanescent. What the rips reveal, though, is sometimes so painful to behold, that the rips are mentally sewn up at once. The result is that the epiphany — and thus its beholder — is paralyzed.

Read the full essay by Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set …