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Literature / Dubliners

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"Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried."
Dubliners, "The Dead"

Dubliners is a 1914 collection of short stories about various residents of Dublin written by James Joyce. It was his first published work and is much less experimental than Ulysses, although still considered a masterpiece, and one of the most famous short story collections of all time. The stories are interrelated, although no one character repeats. But the first three stories and the last one (especially the last one) can be very easily interpereted as being about early versions of Stephen Dedalus, the main character of his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The stories are largely quite plotless, being observational pieces about the people of Dublin and the multiple ways they subtly trap themselves in unhappiness. Joyce's goal was to show Dublin to itself in the hope that he would inspire people to break their self-imposed shackles. He found great difficulty in publishing it due its uncommmercial nature, all publishers asked that he give some stories happy endings, that some be removed for their upsetting material, and that references to to real people and places be removed. When he finally got it published, ten years after he started writing it, it did not sell well. Joyce referred to it as "un fiasco solenne" (an utter failure), a direct reference to the final story, where the Author Avatar worries that the speech he's written will be too high-brow for his audience.

The final story of the collection, and the most famous, "The Dead" was adapted into a critically acclaimed film by John Huston in 1987.

The collection consists of the following fifteen short stories:

  • "The Sisters"
  • "An Encounter"
  • "Araby"
  • "Eveline"
  • "After the Race"
  • "Two Gallants"
  • "The Boarding House"
  • "A Little Cloud"
  • "Counterparts"
  • "Clay"
  • "A Painful Case"
  • "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"
  • "A Mother"
  • "Grace"
  • "The Dead"


  • Abusive Parents:
    • Farrington in "Counterparts", who beats up his kid and pisses away his earnings.
    • Eveline's father becomes one after her mother's passing; at first, he was only physically abusive towards her brothers. Once they've gone, he started to hurt her as well.
    • Subverted with Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud". He screams at his baby when he won't stop crying, but shortly after feels regret and begins to cry.
  • An Aesop:
    • "Two Gallants" - when the system fails people without the opportunities of the wealthy or upper classes, they will be forced to either suffer on the streets or harm others to get by.
    • "A Little Cloud" - if you are unhappy with your situation in life, you have no one to blame but yourself, and you must take control of your life to be happy.
    • "A Painful Case" stresses the importance of being kind to people who are struggling.
    • "Araby" has the minor one of not putting people or places on pedestals, because the reality can never live up to the fantasy.
  • The Alcoholic: Farrington, who's implied to be hungover at work, causing him to make a mistake in the copying of a legal document which forces him to redo it all over again.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy:
    • "Counterparts" - Farrington humiliates himself after having too much to drink and loses spectacularly in an arm wrestling contest.
    • "After the Race" - Jimmy keeps playing cards with his friends and losing lots of money, being too drunk to bail out. One of the last lines is him knowing he'll regret everything as soon as he sobers up.
    • "Grace" - Mr Kernan is introduced having apparently fallen down the stairs drunk, which is a frequent habit of his.
  • Always Someone Better: Little Chandler feels this way in "A Little Cloud" about his successful friend Ignatius, who has lived a full life abroad—or so Chandler would like to think. It's implied that Ignatius might be a Small Name, Big Ego.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The end of "Two Gallants" shows that Corley got a coin from the woman he courted. It's unknown if that was her giving him all she had, or if she stole it from her employer.
  • Amusing Injuries: Mr Kernan of "Grace" ends up with a bit of his tongue missing after a drunken incident. His wife remarks that his tongue might actually be improved by losing a chunk of it.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Mr Alleyne despises Farrington because he's a lazy worker, frequently sneaks out to drink on the job, and once made fun of his accent.
  • As Long As It Sounds Irish: Scholars have debated for decades what "Derevaun seraun" means in "Eveline". Multiple specious interpretations have been suggested, but as far as anyone can tell, it's just nonsense words that sound like Irish. It's not out of the question that Joyce did it deliberately.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The two boys of "An Encounter" ditch school because they want to experience the real world. That they certainly do.
  • Big Fun: Farley the American from "After the Race" is described as fat but is quite lively - at one point square dancing on his yacht.
  • Broken Bird: Eveline who is broken by the death of her mother and favorite older brother, and as well by her father's abuse.
  • The Casanova: Mrs. Mooney from "The Boarding House" is a female example; she's even referred to as "The Madam."
  • Coming of Age Story:
    • "The Sisters" is about a young boy dealing with death for the first time; namely that of a priest he was friendly with.
    • "An Encounter" is about two school boys deciding to sneak out of school for a day, where they end up having an encounter with a possible child molester.
  • Cool Old Lady: Maria, the protagonist of "Clay". She's an eternally cheerful woman who is loved by everyone, and she is one of the unambiguously kindest people in the collection.
  • Creator Provincialism: You'll need to do a bit of googling while you read, there are a lot of references that are very specific to the place, and especially to the time.
  • Creepy Cleanliness: Mr. Duffy's room is dominated by order, cleanliness and symmetry, however it becomes creepier as you keep on reading. It stands for the protagonist's paralysis, as well as the sterility of his own life.
  • Despair Event Horizon: A lot of the characters either cross it or have crossed it a some point or another, but the most notable two are:
    • Mr. Duffy once he finds out his closest friend, Mrs. Sinico, died, possibly from suicide.
    • Gabriel when he comes to the realization that he saw himself as an immortal superhuman, and becomes so ashamed of himself after hearing his wife's story about Michael Furey.
  • Downer Ending: Many of the stories:
    • "A Little Cloud" - Little Chandler decides to blame his wife and child for his empty life and even yells at his baby for crying. He's filled with shame as his wife comes home and is able to comfort the child when he could not - realising he only has himself to blame.
    • "A Painful Case" - Mr Duffy learns that his former friend/lover Emily committed suicide after a two year battle with depression and alcoholism. At first disgusted by her suicide, he soon realises it was his fault for breaking off their friendship when she had no one else.
    • "Counterparts" - Farrington is on the verge of losing his job, runs out of money, pawns his watch for drink and gets humiliated in an arm wrestling contest. He returns home and, finding no dinner ready, beats his son.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: More like early installment normalcy. Read Ulysses (or Finnegans Wake if you wanna lose your marbles), then go back and read Dubliners. Weird, right? Interestingly, Ulysses was originally set to be the last story of the book, called "Ulysses in Dublin" but Joyce decided that the story of Leopold Bloom deserved its own book.
  • Ephebophile: The man in "An Encounter" is this, as he talks to the narrator about how he would love to whip any boy who even talked to a girl. By the end of the story, the narrator is beginning to panic that he's in danger of being raped:
    Lest I should betray my agitation I delayed a few moments pretending to fix my shoe properly and then, saying that I was obliged to go, I bade him good-day. I went up the slope calmly but my heart was beating quickly with fear that he would seize me by the ankles.
  • Epiphanic Prison: In a sense, all characters are trapped in an Epiphanic Prison called Dublin. The most straight-forward example is Eveline Hill, whose mental paralysis prevents her escape even when she is given the chance.
  • Fetch Quest: The protagonist of "Araby" promises to get Mangan's sister, his crush, something from the exotically-named bazaar Araby, as if he were a knight heading for the holy land in search for a sacred relic.
  • Food Porn:
    • The description of the dinner in "The Dead" makes you wish you were there.
    • To a lesser extent, "Clay" devotes some time to Maria shopping for the right cake to bring to a party. Which she then leaves on the tram.
  • French Jerk: Subverted. Both Charles and Andre from "After the Race" are Spoiled Sweet who are happy to let Jimmy and Villona hang out with them. Charles even goes to great effort to prevent a political debate erupting between Jimmy and Routh the Englishman.
  • Gold Digger:
    • Ignatius Gallaher in "A Little Cloud" means to "marry money", with some rich German or Jews.
    • "Two Gallants" concerns two young men who endeavor to make their female company pay for their expenses.
  • Guide Dang It!: The full rules of the party game in "Clay" are not explained, the reader has to infer from the title of the story that the final object in the game was a piece of clay, and infer from peoples' reactions that it's a bad omen (death).
  • Hypocrite: Mr Henchy in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" badmouths Joe Hynes behind his back as a spy for the other side, and only grudgingly withdraws his remarks when someone else protests, but when Hynes comes back, Henchy praises him as a loyal supporter of Parnell.
  • I Was Quite a Looker:
    • While Gabriel does find his wife Gretta pretty, he at one point thinks back to how much more beautiful she would have been at seventeen.
    • Maria in "Clay" takes a look at herself in the mirror, and remembers that she was prettier in her youth, but then decides that she's quite happy with how she's turned out.
  • Lower-Class Lout: "Two Gallants" deconstructs this somewhat. Corley and Lenehan are unemployed slobs who are constantly broke, but they're victims of the few opportunities available for the poor and working class in Dublin. Lenehan at one point notes internally that his best chance to improve his life is to marry a woman with money, because he has no chance of finding honest work.
  • Maiden Aunt: "The Dead" features a New Year's party thrown by two elderly aunts of Gabriel's who never married. Their niece Mary Jane lives with them, and she's on her way to becoming a Maiden Aunt herself.
  • Marked to Die: "Clay" has a rather veiled version of this. Maria plays the saucer game in Joe's house, where she's blindfolded and has to pick an object out of a saucer. She touches a "soft wet substance" and is surprised when nobody speaks. The only way the reader knows what she touched is the title of the story: clay, in the game, signifies death. This is reinforced when Maria forgets the second verse of the song she's singing, which contains a reference to the suitors that she's never had, and it's implied, will never have.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • In "Counterparts," as Farrington is beating up his kid, the boy begs for mercy not to, and even promises to say a Hail Mary. Cut to the next story, "Clay," where the main character's name is Maria (which is a form of the name Mary), who is looked up to by everyone as a motherly figure.
    • In "The Dead", Gretta's husband Gabriel and deceased former lover Michael both share names with archangels.
  • Missing Mom:
    • Eveline's died several years ago.
    • Gabriel's has also been dead for a while.
  • Neat Freak: Deconstructed with Mr. Duffy in "A Painful Case", who's so obsessively neat about his well-ordered life that he can't handle the fact that Mrs. Sinico is attracted to him, and on the first hint of this, he breaks off his friendship with her.
  • No Ending: A lot of the stories, befitting Slice of Life, just end with very little oomph.
  • Novella: The last story, The Dead, can be classified as such. It's nearly 16,000 words and easily the longest story in the collection.
  • Nouveau Riche: Jimmy's father from "After the Race" managed to make a fortune from his butcher enterprise, putting him in contrast to the already wealthy French and English people he's hanging out with.
  • Old Maid: Maria of "Clay" never married but, uniquely for this trope, she's perfectly happy and content to do so.
  • Pet the Dog: In "Ivy Day at the Committee Room", after spending a good amount of time whining about the errand boy who hasn't yet got them the stout bottles they ordered - once he does show up with the booze, the men invite him to have a drink with them.
  • Scatter Brained Senior: Poor Maria gets distracted by a talk with an old gentleman on the tram, and ends up forgetting the plum cake she went to so much trouble to buy.
  • Second Love: Gabriel is shocked when he finds out he is this for his wife, and that in his life he has never been as passionate and devoted to her as Michael Furey was.
  • Servile Snarker:
    • Lily the maid in "The Dead", who takes the time to rant about the men of today.
    • Although she's not actually a servant, Mrs Kernan of "Grace" pops in and out to serve the men tea and snark at her husband's idiocy.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "Counterparts" is about a lazy slacker who spends more time drinking than working or taking care of his family. After suffering Break the Haughty multiple times, he arrives home and beats his son when he discovers his dinner hasn't been prepared. He learns nothing from the day, but the story itself is making a point about the restrictiveness of everyday life.
  • Short Story: The work is a collection of short stories.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: It's subtly implied that Ignatius Gallaher in "A Little Cloud" is this. His talk about all the decadence and corrupt goings-on that he's seen is rather vague, and the only detailed story that he tells is one that "he knew to be true", meaning we only have his word for it. He's also implied to be a heavy drinker (he has an "unhealthy pallor") and his claim that he only hasn't got married because he intends to marry a rich woman is far from convincing; more likely, it's because no rich woman in London wants to marry a balding, impoverished emigré journalist.
  • Snow Means Death: Probably the most famous example in Western culture. The end of "The Dead" has snow covering the whole country, and Gabriel thinking about his wife's teenage lover and the impending death of his Aunt Julia.
  • Stage Mom: "A Mother" again. It's a remarkably early example, and the historical context — there really weren't many opportunities for professional women in Ireland at the time — may make this an example of an Unbuilt Trope. Of course, rather than acting or singing, she's motivating her daughter to be a pianist.
  • Technician Versus Performer:
    • Maria sings a song at the Halloween party in "Clay" and makes a mistake by singing the same verse twice, but no one corrects her, because her performance of the song was just that moving.
    • Likewise in "The Dead", where Gabriel draws a contrast; Mary Jane's piano playing is technically proficient but he can't get into it. However, Aunt Julia's performance of a song ends up moving everyone, even though at her age she is not the great soprano she once was.
  • Villain Protagonist: Farrington of "Counterparts", who is a lazy employee, disrespects his boss, sneaks out of work to drink and eventually beats his son.
  • Wacky Sound Effect: A literary example in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room". They have no corkscrew to open the bottles of stout, so Mr Henchy puts them by the fire, and the slight expansion of the gas inside the bottle makes the corks fly out with a Pok! noise. This is juxtaposed with the conversation of the men, the implication being that they're as full of hot gases as the beer bottles are.