Monday 10 June 2013

Neglected Review #1: The Dubliners by James Joyce

During my reading binge days, I often found myself falling behind when it came to writing reviews and figured that it might be appropriate to go back and try to at least offer some brief, albeit, scattered thoughts about these literary works from my list. Do not expect a thorough or insightful analysis here because many of these "neglected reviews" will contain fragmented reflections--after all,  it has been several years since reading these texts and my memory is faulty at the best of times (I can barely remember what happened yesterday!). Nevertheless, I owe it to myself to finish what I started.

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Oh James Joyce, what am I going to do with you? Ulysses is probably one of the most baffling and excruciating novels that I could not bring myself to finish. I read the first  page of Finnegans Wake only to laugh in disbelief at how elitist and obscure the prose was--I remember thinking: "F-- this, life's too short to force myself into reading this nonsense." Then I decided to give Mr. Joyce another chance with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and thought it was absolutely fantastic (you can read the review here). Now we come to Dubliners, a collection of short stories written over the period of 1904-1907 and then finally published in 1914. Although he tends to have a huge ego that can be annoying (ok, we get it, you are the Milton of early modernism and smarter than the rest of us), it is difficult to dispute his writing talent and influence during this period. When he shows restraint, focuses on everyday experiences and avoids his usual ostentatious style, I can actually tolerate and even come to highly enjoy his work: The Dubliners falls under this category.

Joyce was interested in writing a "moral history" of his native Ireland and believed the country was in a state of paralysis--the majority of the stories found in this collection deal with this thematic concept in different ways. He explores childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life in relation to this pervasive sense of paralysis in which the many characters eventually experience an epiphany that radically changes their perspective on life. For Joyce, the "epiphany" is a complex issue that crops up a lot in his work and often reflects a manifestation of the divine.  

Overall, the stories are consistent in quality; of course, some are better than others but most of them are worth reading. They are not intimidating or impenetrable like his 'epics' and for those new to Joyce, one can garner a sense of Joyce's style and artistic vision. The stand-out ones include: "An Encounter," "A Painful Case," "Two Gallants", "Clay" and of course, "The Dead" which is probably one of the greatest short stories written in the English language. There is plenty of dazzling prose to absorb here, rich in underlying meanings with profound social and cultural commentary.

Even if you can't be bothered to read anything from this collection, at least do yourself a favor and seek out "The Dead" because it really is one of those masterful literary works that contains some of the best use of imagery I have ever encountered. Not to mention, Gabriel's monologue at the end of the story is so achingly beautiful, haunting and unforgettable.


  1. I have a fair amount of Joyce in my bookshelf but I'm yet to actually read any. I think I'm worried that it'll just be a jumble of words on a page and I won't be able to make heads or tails of the writing. Which should I start with when I finally get over that, do you think? Dubliners or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

  2. I felt the same way upon first approaching Joyce. He can be really intimidating but I found that "Dubliners" was the best entry point into his work because as I mentioned, the stories are accessible and you really get a sense of his style of writing.

    He basically takes different story elements and ideas from this collection and magnifies it ten-fold in Portrait but the literary aesthetics employed in the novel are radically different in comparison to the short stories since it focuses more on the subjective view of the protagonist as he grows up over the years.

    Don't worry, if I can achieve a marginal grasp of his writing, you shouldn't have a problem. You're a smart cookie. :)