James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories focusing on Dublin life. In all 15 stories the theme of paralysis is at the centre.
During the twentieth century, Dublin itself was trapped in paralysis because Ireland was under British rule and the strict orders of the Catholic Church. Irish people could not break free and had no opportunity to lead independent live with free will.
James Joyce himself lived in the city during this time and experienced first hand the restrictions faced by many Dubliners. This may explain Joyce’s own exile from the country. Joyce told his brother that Dublin “is suffering from hemiplegia of the will” by which he meant that the people of Dublin were paralysed from acting or living decisively or with any free will. He moved to Paris but returned to Dublin were he met his future wife. They moved away from Ireland and lived in several places, such as Italy. Joyce died in Zurich in 1941.
The characters in Joyce’s stories are trapped some way or another, whether it’s by family, religion, work or just routine. At some point in each story there is a moment of self-realisation by characters who feel, being trapped in the paralysed world of Dublin and acknowledge their limitations. Despite these epiphanies the characters fail to act on them or change their ways, and instead passively accept their situations. We see the death of all hope, dreams and optimism. However, there is a slight hint of hope at the end of ‘The Dead,’ where Gabriel determines to “set out on his journey westward.” Although this suggests a new beginning, the west is traditionally associated with death and therefore perhaps this story’s outcome is just as bleak as the others.
Joyce deals with many stages in life throughout Dubliners. His stories focus on children, teenagers, young people and fully grown adults also. He shows us how paralysis can occur even in childhood and adolescence and how teenagers seek escape from their paralysed city. He shows us how entrapment in maturity and a life of routine can lead to death. The stories are structured in such ways that Joyce shows that paralysis is at the heart of all the Irish people, regardless of age.
Dubliners also focuses on the themes of prison of routine, the desire of escape, the intermingling of life and death, epiphanies and religion.
Symbolism is also used by Joyce to convey a sense of entrapment and paralysis. In ‘A Painful Case’ Joyce uses colour to show the simple and arguably dull life lead by routine; plain colours suck as black and white and maybe the odd grey. Windows constantly come up in the stories and may be the point of self realisation for some, for example in ‘Eveline’, we see Eveline turn to the window as she reflects on her own situation.
Dusk, darkness and night time are all symbolic in several stories. Ironically the lights go out in the story ‘Araby’ just as the narrator has his epiphany. In ‘A Painful Case’ Mr Duffy is walking in the night time when he also has his moment of self realisation. The darkness of Dublin’s atmosphere suggests the bleak out-look for its inhabitants.
The different forms of paralysis in Joyce’s stories still exist today and therefore an early twentieth century collection still has relevance today, for example, alcoholism and difficult fathers, which links to Joyce himself, as his father had a drinking problem, work demands, routine and the inability to communicate ones feelings.
In ‘An Encounter’ the three boys would play wild games and pretend to be Indians. These games were not allowed in school and also the comic books were strictly forbidden. However these boys did want to read them and become free and wild like the Indians. They plan to skip school; an institution which they view as a prison. They suffer paralysis in school as they are locked – up and trapped in the monotony of daily routine. They arrange to meet the following day but Leo doesn’t show up, which could suggest that he is stuck or trapped in his daily routine and when he does get the chance of adventure it scares him. The two boys make their way to the docks and on the way two lower class boys throw stones at them, calling them “swaddlers” thinking they were protestant, which links into the theme of religion and Joyce’s life in Dublin. At this time there was tension between the two religions.
They get to the boats, which they see as a way of escape out of Ireland, and travel across the water to go to the pigeon house. By the time they arrive they are too tired and too late to go to the pigeon house. Their day out has been a failure, as has been their attempt to escape. They went into a field to lie down on a slope where they meet a man who keeps walking past them, back and forth, repeatedly, again reinforcing the monotony of routine. He talks to them about his childhood, books and then “sweethearts.” The boys find the man weird in appearance and personality and Mahony describes him as “a queer old tosser.”
He has yellow teeth, a gaped smile, and monotonously repeats what he says. He starts to talk about whipping boys and how he would like to be the person to whip them. Although the narrator fears the man, he feels he cannot move; he is stuck in paralysis and cannot leave or look at the man. When they finally get a chance they leave, but they perhaps realise that school and routine isn’t that bad after all as it’s a lot safer. Their attempt to escape school and enjoy their freedom leads to a discomforting encounter with an old man. The creepy man serves as an embodiment of routine and suggests that repetition exists even within new experiences. The man walks in circles and repeats himself therefore while the boys seek escape, they merely suffer monotony. The title suggests that this awkward and anxious meeting is not uncommon of Dublin life nor of childhood.
Mr Duffy in ‘A Painful Case’ also suffers paralysis and a life of routine. His daily routine is very predictable and monotonous. Mr Duffy is an unadventurous bank employee who lives a very organised life. He keeps his house very tidy and plain, with black and white walls and few things in his room. His room is described empty as the “lofty walls of his uncarpeted room were free from pictures.” He always eats in the same restaurants and travels to work on the same route every day, already showing he is stuck in routine. One night at a concert he has a conversation with a lady, Mrs Sinico. They see each other at subsequent concerts and eventually Mr Duffy arranges to meet up with her. Although Mrs Sinico is married to a captain who is constantly away from home Mr Duffy is slightly uncomfortable about their friendship. However, they continue to meet. They talk about books, politics and music and become closer with every meeting. Mr Duffy’s hard character gradually becomes softer. But during one of their meetings Mrs Sinico takes Mr Duffy’s hand and places it on the cheek. This unnerves Mr Duffy and he feels she has misinterpreted his friendship for something more. In response to this he stops visiting her and they agree to end their relationship. However Mrs Sinico’s emotional state suggests she does not want to end it.
Four years later, Mr Duffy reads in a newspaper about the death of Mrs Sinico who was hit by a train the previous evening. It said she did not die of her injuries but from shock or heart failure. The article tells of how she had become an alcoholic, having become increasingly detached from her husband over the past few years. Mr Duffy is first angered but then is saddened by her death. He feels disgusted by her death and his connections with her, assuming she committed suicide. ‘Mr Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder.’
He goes for a walk, it is dark outside and as the night continues he begins to feel remorse for ending their relationship and losing the love that was offered. On seeing a pair of lovers, he realises that he gave up the only love he had ever experienced and he feels utterly alone. Here we see his epiphany. He realises that his concern to have an ordered life shut her out. But instead of acting on his realisation, he accepts his loneliness. Therefore, despite Mr Duffy’s self-realisation that he is trapped in routine, and the guilt he feels over Mrs Sinico, he is paralysed and cannot change and therefore, the story ends as it begun, with Mr Duffy alone.
Characters in these all stories are trapped in a world they seem to detest but none of them can carry through their dreams of escape, love and adventure because they are stuck in paralysis. Unlike his protagonists however, James Joyce did manage to escape from the bleak city of Dublin, living most of his adult life in Italy and Switzerland.