Dubliners: Essay Q&A
1. The theme of isolation permeates Dubliners. Indeed, in all of the fifteen stories, readers never view a happy couple, or a happy family. How does Joyce treat isolation in Dubliners?
At the beginning of the twentieth century, chances for marriage in Ireland were slim. Bachelors and spinsters abounded. Indeed, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy in "The Dead," are the only married couple at the Morkin sisters Christmas party. While Mr. Duffy in "A Painful Case," and Maria in ""Clay," who both live alone, certainly illustrate the emptiness of isolation, two married characters also seem upon consideration to be just as isolated. The main characters of the stories "A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts" seem to have nothing in common. Little Chandler, docile to a fault, is a would-be poet and family man who drinks only diluted spirits, and very rarely at that, while Farrington in "Counterparts," is a full-blown alcoholic who is so broke he has to pawn his watch for drink money. So, on the surface these two characters have nothing in common except jobs they despise. However, their profound sense of isolation and their intense desire to escape unites them.
Both are stuck in repetitive boring jobs that offer no chance for advancement. Little Chandler had a chance to do something "but shyness had always held him back." He is too afraid to fly, so to speak, so he remains trapped in Dublin, isolated in harsh personal feelings. Farrington on the other hand hangs on to his similarly boring, repetitive job barely by the skin of his teeth. Both men long for escape and freedom: Chandler normally to poetry books and dreams of making it big in London and Farrington to the warmth and comfort of pub and friends.
It is to the bar that each man runs to find comfort and cast aside their overwhelming isolation. However, Chandler's meeting with Gallagher ends with him feeling even more isolated, frustrated and ashamed while predictably, Farrington's visit to the pub ends in the same manner with him emasculated by a disapproving woman and the loss of an arm-wrestling contest. They both return home feeling empty and angry. Finally, in addition to isolation, both men experience another commonality. Both men finish their evening out drinking with friends by returning home where they take their anger out on their children as a way of punishing themselves for their own failings.
2. While Joyce goes to great lengths to illustrate how Dubliners are paralyzed and trapped, an alternating theme of escape permeates the book. How does Joyce integrate the wistful desire to escape in Dubliners?
James Joyce lived most of his life abroad, in Paris in particular. He believed thoroughly that the only way an Irish writer could find success was to leave his native land. Many of his characters in Dubliners also exhibit this belief in one form or another. For instance, in "The Boarding House," Mr. Doran longs to "ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never again hear of his trouble" (53). In "An Encounter," the nameless child narrator and Mahony dream of the American Wild West as a means of providing escape from their boring lives in Dublin. On the day they play hooky from school, they eat their lunch by the Liffey River watching the ships below and dreaming of running away to sea. However, according to Joyce, Dubliners must resort to ways of spiritual or mental escape because, according to Joyce, there is very little chance of physical escape. For instance, Eveline dreams of escaping with her fiance Frank to Buenos Aires and when she is provided with the chance to do just that-all she has to do is get on a boat to flee her miserable Dublin life-she finds she cannot move. It isn't as if she made a decision to stay, she simply cannot psychologically fathom leaving and thus simply cannot move physically. So, then are the alternative methods of escape?
Farrington in "Counterpoints," attempts to escape into alcohol, but even that in time provides him no respite: "he felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk." Similarly, Doyle in "After the Race," and Mrs. Sinico in "A Painful Case," and Kernan in "Grace," attempt to escape down that same destructive road. Chandler in "Little Chandler" escapes into reading poetry and dreams of being a high-brow poet far superior to his successful London friend Gallagher, but he cannot even pick up a pen. Similarly, Maria in "Clay" escapes into religion as does the wife in "Counterpoints."
3. Many of the characters in the Dubliners drink, and drinking is presented as a natural act indulged in without much thought. Discuss how this practice functions in the book.
Joyce utilizes the practice of drinking to help support one of his primary themes, paralysis, and to enhance his characters as incapable and crippled. Hardly a story occurs without reference to not only drinking but to drunkenness. Indeed, the figure of the intoxicated man is so prominent that he becomes a model of physical and emotional incapacity. The drunken men are usually Catholics, an exception being Mrs. Sinico in "A Painful Case."
In "Grace," Tom Kernan takes a literal fall down the lavatory stairs because he is drunk: "two gentlemen attempt to lift him up, but he was quite helpless" (126). Incapable and crippled, he cannot stand on his own two feet. He lands in the basement, which symbolizes physical and moral decline. He cannot go lower. The drunken man is certainly paralyzed but so too are the men who attempt to help him, or pretend to help, actually. The people in the bar send for a policeman instead of a doctor and the friends that show up at his house are well-meaning idiots who look to a religious retreat instead of a medical facility for help after Kernan's "little accident." They never say the word drunk and cannot even admit why they come to see him.
Mrs. Kernan is also very upset about her husband's life and worries about the well-being of her children, but she brings drinks up to the bedroom where the men are engaged in a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When Mr. M'Coy joins the well-meaning circle, he brings whiskey as his contribution: "the light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude" (143). Deep in denial, the men skirt around the fact that Kernan is dying from alcoholism and plan to bring him to a religious retreat because they are socially forbidden from addressing the real problem. Sadly, the only help Kernan will receive is a lecture on how Jesus acts as a spiritual accountant. In short, while attention is paid to Kernan's physical and mental distress, the cause is entirely evaded and the paralytic status quo is preserved. Kernan himself has also bitten his tongue-lost his voice-literally and metaphorically: "I an't an.y ongue is hurt" (129). He will never admit the cause of his problem.
4. As a young man Joyce felt trapped in Ireland and left for the European continent to become a writer. He didn't marry the mother of his children, Nora Barnacle, until late in life because for him marriage was a trap set by the Catholic Church. How does he present the idea of entrapment in Dubliners?
Ireland in 1904 suffered from stagnation, its population drained by famine and forced immigration and its hope for independence dashed by the death of its beloved Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Joyce believed Ireland was trapped in a mire created by a stagnant economy, the Catholic Church, family necessity and class differences. For instance, in "Eveline," the young girl has a chance to save herself from a life of poverty but cannot move, as though hypnotized, when her chance to flee arrives. She is trapped by her poverty that makes her family dependent upon her economically and social conventions that insure she will care for her family even though her father is abusive and keeps all her money. She will live out her life in poverty, as her mother did, making thankless sacrifices for all until she too loses her mind: "that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in craziness (28). Mr. Doran, in "The Boarding House," has been tricked into marriage by Mrs. Mooney: the instinct of the celibate warned him to hold back" (52). He does not love Polly but he knows he must marry her even though she is of a lower class and her family will "look down on her" because her father was a drunk and her mother's boarding house "was beginning to get a certain fame." In addition, the priest to whom he has confessed tells him he has to marry the girl or he will lose his job: "his employer would be sure to hear of it" (51). Little Chandler, in "A Little Cloud," has lost his chance to go to the Continent and try his hand at writing like his friend Gallagher because his wife Ann, his screaming baby, his unrewarding job, and the prudish ideas he has swallowed keep him trapped in Dublin.
5. Mortality is another major theme in the Dubliners collection. Indeed the book begins and ends with stories concerned with death. Discuss Joyce's insights into mortality.
The first story in Dubliners, "The Sisters," deals with the young narrator's first experience with death, and the collection ends with "The Dead," the title of which speaks for itself. The series starts out in childhood, moves on to adolescence, very young adulthood, then more seasoned adulthood, and finally to the mature adult's awareness of encroaching death: "his soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead" (224).
A cursory examination reveals mortality as a theme in "Clay," and "A Painful Case." During the popular Irish Halloween game which is supposed to foretell the future, Maria picks out something wet and slippery, clay, from the variety of objects on the table. Clearly, this symbolizes death for the old woman. At the end of "A Painful Case," Mr. Duffy feels the ghost of the dead Mrs. Sinico with him and then leaving him before realizing he will be alone until he dies. So, although the issue of mortality is clear in other Dubliners stories, it is shines most brightly of all in "The Dead."
The story opens with a party but ends in the graveyard with the snow falling "on the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones (192). From the beginning, death imagery abounds. Even the first word, "Lily," is the flower used in Ireland for mourning the dead. Throughout the story, Gabriel realizes that his aunts are getting old and that soon they will die: "soon perhaps he would be sitting room, dressed in black (191). And ghosts permeate the party conversation: Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish hero who died a martyr, and the highly-regarded tenors of old, and those forgotten, who have met death. Mount Mallery's monks who lie in their coffins at night contemplating their deaths may as well be dead.
Michael Furey is the most pronounced shade of all. Gabriel's wife Gretta has been carrying the dead boy around in her heart for years unbeknownst to her husband: "It's a terrible thing to die so young as that" (188). Finally, Gabriel's epiphany centers on his own acceptance of encroaching death: "one by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world in full glory of some passion than fade and wither dismally with age" (191).