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Re-reading Joyce’s “Dubliners”

This highly readable collection of eleven essays on James Joyce’s Dubliners accomplishes the much-needed task of rescuing the short stories from the clichés that have saddled interpretations of them.

 

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Sean Sheehan

 

They challenge canonical readings that label them as anatomies of Dublin’s moral, psychological and political paralysis in the years leading up to the Dublin Rising of 1916.

The most quoted remark of Joyce’s in this regard comes from a letter he wrote, stating his intention to reveal “the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a   city”.

The opening story, “The Sisters”, features an old priest who suffers a stroke, with the word paralysis occurring on the first page, and themes of stagnation and debility have been assiduously traced through the pages of all the other stories. The historical background – the trauma of the Famine – provides a grim pathological frame: muteness and incomprehension at the catastrophe resulted in what Andrew Gibson, in “The strong spirit: history, politics and aesthetics in the writings of James Joyce 1898-1915”, called ‘an episode of historical psychosis’, with the stories exposing ‘the ongoing seismic tremors of the Famine.’

The two editors of Rethinking Joyce’s Dubliners are not denying any of this but they are reacting against entrenched iterations that have produced a paralysis of their own.

There is a literary stasis – one that threatens to deaden readers’ experience by corralling them within a set of fixed expectations and  pre-established judgements.

‘The Dead’, that most perfect of short stories, brings Dubliners to an end and it concludes itself with Gabriel – whose ego has been chipped away in the course of the Christmas dinner and finally shattered by his wife’s revelation – staring out of the window in their hotel bedroom and watching the snow falling over Ireland.

He is arrested by events but not reduced to paralysis, ‘generous tears fill his eyes’, and it is left open as to how he might change as a result of what has taken place.

The editors want to free up the range of readers’ imaginative responses to the stories, animating them with possibilities instead of presenting a series of still lives.

They do this with fresh readings that stress affirmative dynamics and new beginnings, reflecting Joyce’s own receptiveness to  political currents that were leading to the Easter Rising. Joyce had left Ireland in 1904 but, as Andrew Gibson demonstrates, he followed intensely what was happening from Trieste, his place of exile.

Joyce also wrote, resisting his publisher’s attempts to interfere with the arrangement of the stories, that: ‘I fight to retain them because I believe that in composing my chapter of moral history in exactly the way I have composed it I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country’.

This book is expensive to buy but a copy is well worth obtaining from your library before reading or re-reading Dubliners.

“Rethinking Joyce’s Dubliners”, edited by Claire A. Culleton and Ellen Scheible, is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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