On Dubliners

DublinersI’ve always associated James Joyce with the Modernist game of the unbridgeable gap between cognition and meaning. Many others consider Joyce to be obscure and unreadable. After my friend Dada, who owns a beautifully done hardbound set of Joyce’s complete works, read me certain passages from Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, I am tempted to agree. What, for example can Joyce mean with “Eins within a space and a wearywide space it was er wohned a Mookse”?

So when I read Dubliners, I was a surprised at how – for the lack of a better term at the moment – normal the stories in it are. Dubliners is written in a straightforward manner and uses simple language.

Apart from the fact that all fifteen stories are set in one place, what unites the stories in Dubliners is the gloomy atmosphere that pervades the entire book. Most of the stories are set during the dead of the night, in dark rooms or empty streets. It is peopled with frustrated, lonely, and often resentful characters who in one way or another almost always brood over some dead person or notion or some lost past.

I particularly liked “A Painful Case,” which reminded me of Chekhov’s more entertaining “The Man in a Case.” The parody of crime reportage towards the end of the story is just wonderful. Meanwhile, the last and longest in the collection, “The Dead,” provides a masterful conclusion by reaffirming the gloomy atmosphere of the earlier shorter stories.

It still took me more than a month to finish Dubliners though. Indeed, the close attention to details that Joyce provides in each of the stories all join together to construct a vivid image of Dublin at the dawn of the 20th Century. However, Joyce’s realistic slice-of-life style often lapses into the boring.

The stories of the lives of Joyce’s dubliners got so dreary at times that it took me faster to get through half of Brothers Karamazov’s one thousand pages than read Dubliners’ thin book of less than two hundred pages. Thus ends my brief account of the book’s immediate impressions on me.

Perhaps, Dubliners’ real value lies not in the narrative contents but in the examples on how setting, atmosphere, and foreshadowing are used in writing short stories that James Joyce generously provides. ■



  1. Hmmm… your review actually encourages/challenges me to tackle Joyce for the first time. I’ll be looking out for him in the bookstore shelves. Thanks, Karlo.

  2. Joyce’s novels progress fairly linearly on the scale of general accessibility I think..

    Dubliners = Accessible to most, assigned in high school lit courses, not at all the obtuseness with which many associate Joyce

    Portrait of the Artist = Relatively accessible in terms of language, sequence etc.–requires some fortitude to get through the first section (I’m wondering how many throw the book down at the first mention of the moocow) and a working knowledge of Irish history

    Ulysses = Not accessible to most, especially for those looking for a stress-free read. I think you have to go into the book knowing that you’re not going to understand half of it and not get frustrated. Then reread, and reread….

    Finnegan’s Wake = Accessible only to a rare few, and maybe not even that! (“Accessible” here meaning that sense and purpose can be easily surmised)

    If you like Joyce and like Dubliners, I’d recommend giving Portrait a go–but brush up on your Irish history through Wikipedia first if you’re not familiar with it!

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