Dubliners – the run before the jump

James Joyce has been nationally accepted as a significant literary figure for his works Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), but when we are placed in front of his earlier works – in this case, Dubliners (1914) – there’s controversy as to how we should view them. Should Dubliners fall under the title ‘Literature’, or was it in fact just the run before Joyce’s jump into ‘real literature’. Joyce has become renowned for his ‘unreadable’ works – Ulysses being the most famous.

It’s therefore not surprising that many critics of Dubliners comment on how Joyce does not seem to use the same techniques as he does in his later works. John Thornton [1] commented on the idea that the techniques we see in his later works display a ‘more experimental Joyce’ in comparison to Dubliners. Were this true, it would be difficult to place Dubliners with its brothers Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake in the literature category, as a more experienced writer surely produces a better quality piece of work. However, we do in fact see similarities between Dubliners and Ulysses.

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Although Dubliners may be presented in a realistic fashion, we can often see the use of opaque language which focuses on the mind and thoughts of the characters, as in Ulysses. Joyce uses passages which show the thought process from the characters’ points of view, examples of which are seen in ‘Eveline’ and ‘The Dead’. These similarities in language offer us the opportunity to see that Dubliners is not just the testing ground for Joyce to build Ulysses on, but offers the same quality of language, and deserves an equal claim to the title of literature.

With the idea of under-developed style in mind, critics may also turn to the fact that Dubliners is written in a rather flat fashion in comparison to the notorious ‘unreadable’ nature of Finnegan’s Wake. To an unforgiving reader, this might appear to be the result of Joyce’s ‘lack of experience’ (with Dubliners being his first work). Yet one mustn’t forget that Joyce wasn’t at this point a novice at all. By the time Dubliners was published in 1914, he had been working on the collection for many years, and said himself that he had deliberately written the collection “in a style of scrupulous meanness”, a strong contrast to Ulysses.

From this claim alone, we can see that this isn’t the result of a novice practising with toy building blocks: perhaps Joyce had already finished his run-up, and Dubliners in fact proved to be the jump into literature. Joyce wrote in a purposefully dreary style to portray the monotony of Dublin and its inhabitants. This obvious sculpting in order to put across his message sets the collection apart as literature as opposed to simple fiction, and helps to contribute to themes which resurface throughout the book. One of the most notable themes which tie the collection together is Joyce’s coveted human flaw of ‘paralysis’.

Surveillance of the human condition is prominent in the novel, and reveals things to be quite gruesome. Dubliners triggered Joyce’s tendency to highlight the fact that as humans we do not venture out of our routine, even when said routine is causing our demise. We see the theme ooze from every chapter of the collection: starting with the literal paralysis of the priest in ‘The Sisters’; weaving through trapped characters like Eveline and Mr Duffy – refusing to break their cycles; and continuing even into Gabriel’s story of a horse who could not stop circling, even when removed from the mill.

This observation from Joyce about the human condition had not quite been realised by any other author at the time, and so places Dubliners quite comfortably into the literature canon by means of quality and innovation presented in the collection. Joyce’s connection of the classes through their shared ‘paralysis’ also proves to be a different approach to characters than the typical 20th century fiction. The joining of the characters by one common flaw allows Joyce to set aside the common literary theme of class divides and focus on making all of his characters realistic.

His mixture of characters is a new one, different in style to the proletarians we see in the works of Robert Tressell or Arthur Morrison, but also not equalling the lower-middle class characters created by authors such as HG Wells. Joyce does not base his characters entirely on idealised peasants, nor stuffy higher classes, he displays people from many different classes to whom every reader is forced to relate. Everyone suffers the same problem of ‘paralysis’; from the boys skipping school to the allegedly perverted priest, and even the successful Jimmy from ‘After the Race’. Class, age, language and background play no part.

Joyce refuses to add any prejudice parallel to class, and therefore allows the reader to see themselves in every single character in this collection. This wide character base was something that hadn’t really yet been seen in literature. The relatable nature of the characters combined with the ignorance of class connections sets the collection apart from other works of literature, and creates for itself its own place in literature. The relatable problems which the characters encounter further back the idea that Dubliners falls under the ‘literature’ title, as they allow the collection not to wither with time.

This problem of refusal to move forward is something that, due to its exact nature, will allow us never to escape. The collection will always be relatable, the novelty never wearing out, but rather being constantly renewed. Rather than concerning himself with problems like poverty and class – which are quite frankly as consistent as a British summer – Joyce has chosen a concern which will prove utterly durable under the thumb of time. As literature, Dubliners will continue to influence the reader no matter which century he lives in.

In short, Dubliners should absolutely be considered literature. Although it has been overshadowed by its brothers Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, it presents many of its own reasons to stand alongside them in the same category. Joyce has successfully sculpted the collection into an excellent quality publication, which broke new ground in fiction at the time and will continue to be regarded as a relatable and readable text for many years to come. By no means a run-up before a leap into literature, Dubliners is more than worthy of Harold Bloom’s canon.