An Extensive Insight on Joyce’s Use of the Theme of “Unlived Life” in Dubliners Breathe in. Breathe out. Respiration is essential to living, but does not necessarily define being alive, living life to its fullest potential, pursuing lifelong dreams, and conquering challenges to satisfy the overwhelming feeling of desire. This concept of an “unlived life” is emphasized in Dubliners, where James Joyce exemplifies how the unfulfilled lives of the characters creates a force field around Dublin, causing all citizens to be paralyzed. However, it is the characters’ personal defects which inhibit them from letting go of the past that immobilizes them in Dublin and with the past haunting them, the absence of their former companions reveal how the dead are far more alive than those who are living. Living in the same city, going to the same places, and having the exact same routine every single day tends to get monotonous rapidly, forming a perpetual lifestyle.
This kind of behavior limits the amount of variation and advancement in one’s time of existence, which is a personal defect of the citizens in Dublin. A prime example of this is the life of Little Chandler, from “A Little Cloud,” who lives his entire life in Dublin and continues to stay there, where he prefers to do activities that revolve around the home. Furthermore, Little Chandler believes that “being alive” means seeing the rest of the world, but he does not take the chance to leave Dublin. He has not “changed an atom [and is] the very same serious person” (60) as he was 8 years ago due to his constant habilitation in Dublin and it can be seen that he lacks the ability to live life to its fullest potential. Unlike his friend, Gallaher, who has “lived, he [has] seen the world” (61), Little Chandler lives without fulfilling his dreams and keeps both feet planted in the same city, where paralysis is on replay.
Similar to Little Chandler, another character lives an unfulfilled lifestyle. In “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy continues his life with the same scenery and actions, living “an adventureless tale” (89) where he executes a routine every day and lives without family and friends. He lives a truly empty and lonely life until he meets Mrs. Sinico. This chance meeting begins to alter Mr. Duffy’s day-to-day pattern and because “neither he nor she had had any such adventure before” (91), Mr. Duffy is able to temporarily break away from his consistent lifestyle. This so-called “escape” from his routine was fleeting and comes to an abrupt halt when Mrs. Sinico misinterprets the context of their relationship. In response, Mr. Duffy, paralyzed with fear, decides to break all connections with her and is thrown back into his old way of life. As years pass by, Mr. Duffy still goes “into the city by tram” every morning and “every evening [walks] home from the city” (92).
Falling back into his routine, he does not attempt to chase after another companion, accepting his fate of living alone; he does not challenge himself to do something different, therefore he is simply living for survival. Regardless of Little Chandler’s inability to follow his dreams and the details that Mr. Duffy tries to alter, no matter what they do, they will always end up in the same place: Dublin. Despite Dublin being the center of paralysis, the city itself is not what keeps the citizens there. It is suggested that they are unable to fulfill their lives because they are haunted by the past. Often times, the recollection of history keeps people from moving forward, preventing them from really living. All the memories, events, and emotions pull them away from moving forward, as seen in “Eveline.”
Eveline’s consistent thoughts of her previous life haunt her to the point where all her efforts to run away were abandoned and she reasons that “in her home…she [has] those whom she [has] known all her life” (26) and does not wish to turn around and leave them behind. While reminiscing about her home, she feels nostalgic and an emotional jail cell prevents her from committing to leave her established lifestyle behind. Eveline’s past overcasts her future because she is positive that her past will come back for her if she tries to escape, so she convinces herself to stay. Unable to rid herself of the nostalgia of her past, Eveline does not challenge herself to give into temptation and deserts her desires and aspirations in trade for the constant, familiar life she is accustomed to. This desire for nostalgia is prominent for many characters, but in “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy does not let the time long ago haunt him; instead, the near past gnaws at his soul. Gabriel is a very pompous man who likes to emphasize his greatness to others, however, his hubris is merely a facade.
Upon asking a question, Gabriel “colour[s] as if…he [has] made a mistake” (153) and then attempts to make amends by giving the victim money, forming excuses about it being “Christmas-time!” (154). Even when the one he was talking to did not take offense, he lives with the burden of doing something wrong. After small errors are made, Gabriel instantly feel a weight of guilt on his shoulders and he cannot let go of his foolishness. Additionally, his feelings of guilt and embarrassment toward the past makes him emotionally paralyzed in the present, where excuses to right his wrongs continuously fumble out of his mouth. The events that come to pass in Dublin prove that the characters are incapable of doing something more with their lives because they hold onto the past with a firm grip and refuse to let go because they will miss the nostalgia and are too mentally focused on pleasing others to think about changing aspects of their lives.
The memories of the past are not forgotten, especially of those who are no longer existing. The people who have passed away do not get to live their lives anymore, but even in the grave they are more alive than those who are still breathing and through the act and art of storytelling, the dead are kept alive. For instance, when Mr. Duffy from “A Painful Case” discovers that Mrs. Sinico has passed away, he chooses to hide in the shadows of her controversial death and eventually disregards himself as a part of society. He returns to the park “where they had walked four years before” (96) and relives his memories with her, consuming himself with thoughts of the deceased, not thinking of his own life or his future, but the life of someone else and her inability to wake up and see another day.
Remembering the time that they spent together, he begins to blend his past into the present, where he feels Mrs. Sinico “near him in the darkness” (96) and hears the train engine “reiterating the syllable of her name” (97). She may be in the afterlife and cannot come back, but her memory lives in those whom she used to interact with, especially Mr. Duffy, who can feel her presence next to him and hear her name spoken in everyday noises as he lives his repetitive life. Moreover, Mrs. Sinico is physically gone and no longer is able to actually live, but her painful case of death is brought alive in the newspapers. Likewise, “The Dead” resurrects Michael Furey through a memory of Mrs. Conroy. Death can remove so many things, but it cannot take away his story, hence Michael Furey lives on because he will always be dying for Mrs. Conroy. In comparison to Michael, Gabriel is not alive since he always dwells in his mistakes, forbidding him to really see what he has in front of him: a wonderful wife.
Furthermore, he feels threatened by a man who is dead and is jealous of his wife’s previous synergy with Michael because, unlike Michael, he does not have a story of sacrifice for Mrs. Conroy. Mr. Duffy and Mr. Conroy both continue to live uneventful lives, without progress for their futures and their companions that passed away will continue to haunt them, reminding them of how pitiful their lives truly are. From the lives of many in Dublin, a majority seem to have problems with leaving the city and accomplishing their life goals. The characters in Dubliners keep both feet planted on Dublin soil because they are paralyzed due to their emotional baggage. The citizens who live in the heart of paralysis do so because they refuse to let go of the past which plagues them and ultimately makes it so that they are not alive, but are simply living. This theme of “unlived life” is prominent throughout Joyce’s work and demonstrates how the deceased are more effervescent than those who breathe in and breathe out.
Joyce, James, and Colum McCann. Dubliners. Centennial ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print. Word Count: 1461