“Dubliners” is a very particular short-story cycle because, unlike most other cycles, the link between its stories is not based on the recurrence of major characters. Instead, Joyce manages to unify the collection by exploring the same themes, such as the desire to escape a routine and the connection between life and death, from different perspectives. Interestingly enough, these perspectives are tainted by the perceptions that different age cohorts have of their surroundings.
The text as a whole delves into these issues from, initially, a more naive and childish point of view and progresses towards a more discouraged and somehow renouncing tone. “The Sisters” is basically the tale of how a young unnamed boy handles and mourns the death of his friend and mentor, Father Flynn. Although the age of this unnamed boy it not specified, the text abounds in evidence that might lead the reader to believe that this boy is only just discovering the twists and turns of life. With phrases like “the word paralysis… it filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (p. ), Joyce invites the reader to presume that this boy has never encountered death and is therefore intrigued by it. Then, Old Cotter, a family friend, repeatedly makes reference to how “there was something uncanny about [Father Flynn]” (p. 1) and that he “wouldn’t like children of [his] (…) to have too much to say to a man like that” (p1). Such evaluations and the fact that the boy has strange dreams about Father Flynn confessing his sins to him, give way to the reader’s suspicions that Father Flynn is actually a malevolent figure who acted as much more than a mentor.
The boy’s inability to make sense of the true nature of his relationship with Father Flynn is also a clue to realizing that this boy is so young he has not yet been exposed to the dark, more vicious side of life. Then, in “Araby”, another –or maybe the same- unnamed boy describes an intense crush he had on a friend’s sister. To impress her, the boy promises to go to the Araby Bazaar she so longed to go to and bring her a present. The boy meticulously plans his day and even reminds his uncle of his intentions so that the uncle will return home early and provide train fare.
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However, the uncle’s tardiness and the “intolerable delay” (p. 3) of the train, resulted in the boy arriving at Araby when “nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness” (p. 3). The boy, noticing the “English accents” (p. 3) of the salesmen, immediately feels disenchanted. Araby was not, after all, the fascinatingly exotic venue he had imagined it to be. By saying that he “saw [himself] as a creature driven and derided by vanity;” and that his eyes were ”burdened with anguish and anger” (p. ), the boy puts into words his feeling of utter disappointment and frustration. This particular remark, which seems somehow inflated, might lead the reader to believe that this is the boy’s first love-related frustration. The whole of “Araby”, actually, seems to be the story of a boy who, for the first time in his life, tries to do something special for someone special; and his failure to succeed hits him hard. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” is a more grown-up story which unfolds around a political conversation several canvassers hold.
In this discussion, it is revealed that the campaigners widely disapprove of the candidate they are allegedly supporting. Already, remarks such as “Tricky Dicky Tierney” (p. 4) and “how does [Tierney] expect us to work for him if he won’t stump up? ” (p. 5), remind the reader that the men who are talking are adults. Typically, one associates conviction, idealism and blind belief with the young, untouched generations. Conversely, one can associate skepticism and even cynicism with adults, who are those who have experienced frustrations and disappointments that have rendered them more pragmatic.
Furthermore, in this short story, the politicians discuss the character of Charles Parnell, already deceased. The manner in which Joyce discusses the issue of Parnell’s death is utterly different from how death is presented in “The Sisters”. Whereas in the first short story what is explored is an individual’s encounter with death, which culminates in a private mourning in the presence of a body; “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” presents the death of Parnell as a matter of public opinion and it explores its effects on the Irish society as a whole.
Therefore, it could be said that, considering this particular corpus of short stories, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” marks the beginning of the more mature and public phase to which Harry Levin makes reference. Last but not least, “The Dead”, set at the annual dance and dinner party hosted by the Morkans, presents an eventful ball in which several interesting characters are introduced. All along the evening, awkward conversations occur and, through them, it is revealed that these characters are frustrated, exhausted and have given up all hopes.
As the main character, Gabriel Conroy, enters the scene, he asks the Morkans’ housemaid, Lily, “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? “ (p. 3) to which she bitterly replies “the men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (p. 3). Later on, the always-drunk Freddy Malins arrives and Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to “see if he’s all right, and don’t let him up if he’s screwed” (p. 5) to which she sharply adds “I’m sure he’s screwed. I’m sure he is” (p. ). Afterwards, Gabriel is cross-examined by a fervent supporter of Irish culture, Miss Ivors, as to why he would rather go to Belgium or France instead of visiting his own country. Following an uneasy exchange of ideas, Gabriel finally retorts “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it! ” (p. 9). As the night ends, Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, becomes absorbed and detached. Irritated, Gabriel confronts her about her unbecoming behavior and, when she tells the story of how Michael Furey, “a boy[ she] used to know” (p. 7), died, he begins to reflect about love and life and death and finally realizes that “snow was (…) falling (…) upon all the living and the dead” (p. 30). All of these characters seem to embody the state of mind one can associate with the outcome of a long life of experience. Lily is utterly disappointed and does not believe in selfless love any more. Aunt Kate doubts that Freddy could ever be sober and, instead of hoping for the best, she only wishes to disguise the worst. Gabriel resents the culture of polarization in which he lives and grows tired of people imposing their opinions on each other.
Gabriel finally realizes that nothing can be changed and that all are equal in the end. “The Dead” illustrates the stage of adulthood in which people no longer believe in the possibility of change and openly act as if nothing had to be concealed… as if there was no tomorrow. Gabriel’s final ruminations add to the reader’s feeling that the characters are near the verge of death. To conclude, it could be said that “Dubliners” is the story of a city, a culture and the way in which those immersed in it grow up.
The cycle begins with stories with younger, more naive protagonists; and then moves forward into stories with increasingly aged characters. Furthermore, the stories themselves become more complex, intricate and lengthy. In a way, Joyce manages to tell the story of the average Dubliner as he moves across the different periods of a human life by integrating the stories of different characters. The fact that all the stories could become the story of the standard citizen, adds to the effect that the book is indeed the story of he who lives in Dublin.
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