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by James Joyce


A collection of fifteen short stories set in Dublin. Ireland, between 1894 and 1905; begun in 1904 and published in Dublin in 1914.


Joyce’s semi-autobiographical collection of short stories speaks of the despair and, in the author’s view, the cultural paralysis of the Irish people as they struggle with economic and cultural depression at the turn of the twentieth century.

Events in History at the Time of the Short Stories

The Short Stories in Focus

For More Information

James Augustine Joyce, who revolutionized English literature with his shocking language and literary style, was born February 2, 1882, in a Dublin suburb. The oldest son in a Catholic family of ten children, Joyce was educated largely by the Jesuits. At sixteen, the young man considered entering the priesthood but realized that celibacy was not for him. Shortly thereafter he made an abrupt about-face and rejected the church entirely, although it dominated his imagination for the rest of his life. He rebelled against his Catholic upbringing and against the domestic politics of his native land, leaving Dublin for the European continent in 1904 and never returning. Joyce’s fiction, including Dubliners, dismantles and critiques middle-class Irish Catholic society, questioning marriage, faith, and nationalism.

Events in History at the Time of the Short Stories

Ireland and England

Even though Joyce claimed to be disgusted by its cultural paralysis and its political ineptitude, Ireland, and specifically his hometown of Dublin, dominated his literary imagination throughout his life. To understand his insistence upon depicting the stagnation and hopelessness of the country— which he certainly exaggerated to some degree—it is crucial to be aware of the historical legacy of the Irish. Ireland had known many centuries of economic and cultural impoverishment, political suppression, and religious conflict from the Middle Ages until Joyce’s day, and these hardships were especially harsh for Irish Catholics. Though his fiction is set in contemporary times, the social situation of which Joyce complains had its roots deep in Irish history.

To one degree or another, the Irish had been considered subjects of the English throne since the twelfth-century reign of the English regent Henry II. At the time, a Norman named Richard Fitz Gilbert de Claire, or “Strongbow,” had set himself up as a ruler in Ireland through an opportune marriage and political savvy, but King Henry quickly nipped such political ambitions in the bud by sailing to Ireland and demanding loyalty. Henry received it. English control of Irish life reached its peak seven centuries later, with the 1800 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish Parliament and made Ireland part of Great Britain, like Scotland and Wales. As a result, Ireland was governed directly from London, though it was nominally a separate nation. Under the Act of Union, Ireland would send 100 members to the House of Commons in London, and 32 men to the House of Lords. At the time, the House of Commons (the political body of the elected members of Parliament) had 658 members—Ireland, in effect, would be governed by a Parliament in which it had less than 1/6 of the members. Combined with the prejudiced antipathy of the British toward the Irish—whom many British considered inferior—this state of affairs rankled Irish people of various religions and classes.

The troubled relationship between Ireland and England was made infinitely worse in the mid-nineteenth century by what the Irish regarded as the indifferent attitude displayed by the British during the Potato Famine of 1845. Ireland’s poor subsisted almost entirely on a diet of potatoes, and when a blight wiped out the entire national crop one year, Ireland was devastated. The famine is estimated to have killed one million Irish between 1845 and 1851, and to have driven another million to emigrate. This emigration continued, though more slowly, well into Joyce’s day; by 1901, the country claimed less than one-half the population that it had had in 1841. The response of the government in London appeared casual and ineffective in coping with the human disaster in Ireland. Behind many of the late nineteenth-century cultural revival movements that arose in Ireland in Joyce’s youth was the collective remembrance of this treatment. While he would ultimately reject nationalist movements that merely criticized the English (and the English language) without looking too closely at Irish weaknesses, the young Joyce did dabble in several nationalist groups, including Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”), which developed in later years into the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Joyce’s Dublin

Ireland in Joyce’s day was still an overwhelmingly agricultural society, with two major urban centers at Belfast and Dublin. The latter was the largest Irish city, with a growing population of 375,000, and its greatest employer the Guinness brewery. The next two most successful business enterprises in the city consisted of whiskey and biscuit production. There was, in effect, no heavy industry.

Dublin is an ancient city. Founded by the Vikings in 842, Dublin’s name in Scandinavian means “dark pool.” After London, it is commonly regarded as the second metropolis of the British Empire. But it also has a strong history as a Catholic city; in fact, medieval Christian monks from Ireland were responsible for bringing Christianity to much of Britain. With its heritage as a Viking capital, a Christian capital, and a British capital, Dublin possessed a former greatness that made its stagnation that much more intolerable to Joyce. In Dubliners as in all his fiction, he was obsessed with the details of the locale, with representing precisely the exact spread of the land, the actual names of streets and businesses, the minutia of everyday business transactions and customs. He once speculated that it would be possible for later generations to almost perfectly reconstruct turn-of-the-century Dublin from reading his works. In letters sent from Europe to his younger brother Stanislaus, Joyce, trying to give Dubliners’ individual stories an exact realism, asked such questions as:

“The Sisters”: Can a priest be buried in a habit? “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”: Can a municipal election take place in October? “A Painful Case”: Are the police at Sydney Parade of the D division?

(Joyce in Beja, p. 36)

Such scrupulous attention to detail and the use of real names and places actually alarmed Joyce’s potential publishers, who feared libel suits. To the contrary, many businesses and places from Joyce’s Dublin that survived into the present invariably use their inclusion in his fiction to their commercial advantage.


Joyce had a difficult time trying to get Dubliners published. Various editors demanded changes in style, in content, in tone. Outraged and obstinate, Joyce fired off letters in his own defense, one of which includes his justification for the unpleasant imagery and language that permeates the stories: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass” (Joyce, Letters I, 63-4).

Irish Catholics

Joyce struggled with his theological attractions to and repulsions from the Roman Catholic Church throughout his life, and his fiction readily portrays this. But Catholicism was not merely a religion in Ireland; because the privileged classes in Dublin were nonnative British Protestants, Catholicism—the traditional religion of the vast majority of the Irish—became associated with grassroots Irish cultural and political identity. There were Irish Protestants in the land too, and they clashed with their English counterparts on nonreligious issues, but for the Catholic majority in Ireland it was religion that defined their plight.

The factional strife that continues to plague Ireland to the present day has its roots in medieval politics and Renaissance religious wars in Europe. Situated so close to England, Ireland almost inevitably became drawn into the political ambitions of its aggressive neighbor. The tight hold kept on the Irish by the English monarchy constricted during the Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when, for various reasons related to conflict between the monarch and pope, England outlawed the Catholic religion. To ensure that the traditionally Catholic Irish did not side with England’s Catholic enemies of France and Spain, England began a long process of land appropriation and resettlement that resulted in the Irish Catholics losing their land and homes to new English and Scottish Protestant settlers sent there by the English crown. Through a very complicated series of legislative acts, the Irish Catholics found themselves powerless and impoverished; at various stages, they lost the right to vote, own property, hold government positions or, as late as 1849, be educated in Irish history, literature, and language.

By Joyce’s era, the Irish Catholic lot had improved somewhat—they could once again vote, own land, and run for most government offices— but the writer could not forgive the Catholic Church for what he saw as its complicity in the religious and cultural oppression suffered by its faithful. Throughout the long years of gradual political and social disenfranchisement suffered by the Irish Catholics, the church had, with a few notable exceptions (including Father Thomas Burke, who is mentioned in Joyce’s short story “Grace”), counselled acceptance of the situation and as an institution avoided entering the political arena itself. There were critics other than Joyce who wondered what the use was of a church that did nothing to lessen the spiritual or physical suffering of its congregants, instead advocating servile obedience to a Protestant regent. Nonetheless, Joyce’s criticism of the Catholic Church is certainly somewhat extreme. The Catholics who had emerged from the famine years with land or resources counted themselves lucky and were reluctant to rock the political boat. Their fathers and grandfathers had been distinctly less fortunate than they, and the smallest economic and political liberties by then allowed must have seemed immense good fortune to Joyce’s contemporaries.

Cultural “revival.”

The character Gabriel Conroy in the short story “The Dead” bristles at being labeled a “West Briton”; the term was used derisively among certain nationalist Irish to de-note someone who sided with the English politically and culturally. At the turn of the century, cultural revival movements, based mostly in Dublin, were gathering strength in their attempt to combat the lack of cultural awareness and pride among the Irish. Because for generations the powerful upper classes in Ireland had been Protestant English and Scots, Irish culture had become associated with impoverishment and defeat, and was either abandoned or neglected by the Irish. In the story when Gabriel protests, “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language” (Joyce, Dubliners, p. 169), he is telling the truth—few Irish people could speak or read Irish, for it was neither taught in schools nor used socially except in the most remote parts of the country. In 1851 only 25 percent of the population could speak Irish; by 1911 that figure had dwindled to 12 percent.

The problem of cultural decline had been addressed in scholarly articles for a century before the 1893 founding of the Gaelic League by a Protestant named Douglas Hyde. The Gaelic League sought to revive the Irish language as the national tongue, to teach and publish Gaelic literature of the past and to encourage new writers to write in Gaelic. The idea won widespread approval, and within ten years some of its goals were being met: Irish language and literature were being taught regularly (though not uniformly) in centers of learning at every level, from primary school to university. Joyce’s story “A Mother” alludes to the “language movement”—although in this story it seems to amount to little more than members of a social club fond of “saying goodbye to one another in Irish” (Dubliners, p. 123). In the long run the measures to reinstitute Gaelic as the primary language of Ireland were not very successful. English would continue to supplant the Irish tongue to a large degree, although some patriotic Irish still prize their ability to speak Gaelic and continue to do so among family and friends.

The Irish cultural revival of Joyce’s era took on other forms. The Gaelic Athletic Association, for example, founded in 1884, strove to boost the popularity of “hurling”—an Irish game approximating a hybrid between lacrosse and field hockey—while discouraging such English sports as polo and cricket. Some dismissed the efforts made by such organizations as the Gaelic Athletic Association, which may or may not have made up the game of “Irish football” to replace English football. In the critics’ eyes, these efforts amounted to so much “green spray paint” applied over English customs and rituals to make them seem authentically Irish.

The most famous manifestation of the Gaelic revival is the literary movement referred to as “the Irish literary revival.” The literature associated with this movement tends to be characterized by heavy use of Irish mythology and the frequent appearance of the peasant character, as well as by experimentation with an Irish-English linguistic blend. The movement was led by such writers as W. B. Yeats, George Russell, and Lady Gregory. Joyce, too, is often counted among their number, although he would no doubt be less than pleased to be so considered. He felt that the focus on mythology continued the Irish habit of looking to the past, rather than the future. “Ancient Ireland is dead just as ancient Egypt is dead” (Joyce in Deane, p. 40), he states, intending to replace the poets and legends of old with a new kind of writer and a new set of tales. Rather than flattering Irish culture, they would shame and goad it into revitalization.


The most overtly political of the Dubliners stories, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” describes a forlorn collection of political strategists who have gathered together on October 6, 1902, the eleventh anniversary of Charles Parnell’s death; the story was written in the summer of 1905. What happened to Parnell at the hands of the Irish irked Joyce throughout his literary career and turns up time and again in his writings in a scene of betrayal all too characteristic of Irish politicians.

Parnell, a Protestant landlord, became the leader of the Irish Home Rule movement in 1879. The “Home Rulers” struggled for greater powers of self-rule than the 1800 Act of Union permitted Ireland. Specifically, they aimed to restore an independent parliament to Ireland, one that was not merely part of a larger legislative body of Great Britain. Parnell’s vigor and determination made him a hero among Irishmen of all denominations, but the English were, understandably, not impressed with his political antics. In “Ivy Day,” Mr. Henchy reminisces fondly:

He was the only man that could keep that bag of cats [the British Parliament] in order. “Down ye dogs! Lie down, ye curs!” That’s the way he treated them.

(Dubliners, p. 118)

But it was not the English who ultimately brought down the great leader. Parnell was named as co-respondent in the divorce of William and Katherine O’Shea. Though separated, the O’Sheas were still married; in an age when divorce was difficult and even scandalous, Mrs. O’Shea had for a long time simply been living with Parnell. In 1889 Captain O’Shea finally sued for divorce, and the revelation that Parnell was an adulterer discredited him so completely that he was ousted from the leadership of the Home Rule party one year later. So heated had been the reaction in Ireland to his role in the scandal that it had ruined his career. Parnell died at age forty-five in 1891, probably due to complications from fatigue.

James Joyce wrote often about Parnell, whom he considered to have been betrayed by his fellow Irishmen and by Catholics in particular. The ultra-conservative Catholic Church, whose laws forbid divorce among its flock, became Parnell’s worst domestic enemy in the O’Shea scandal. The religious authorities punished Parnell’s Catholic allies in the Home Rule movement by refusing them church rites. The “lost leader,” whom Joyce clearly regarded as Ireland’s brightest hope for self-rule, reappears in Joyce’s later fiction, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, as well as in his social criticism. This last group includes, prominently, an Italian essay from 1912, entitled “L’Ombra di Parnell” (“The Shade of Parnell”). In the essay, Joyce sarcastically congratulates his Irish compatriots: “They did not throw him to the English wolves; they tore him to pieces themselves” (Joyce in Bolt, p. 4).

The Short Stories in Focus

The plot

Dubliners fifteen stories are broken into four groups—childhood (“The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” “Araby”), young adulthood (“Eveline,” “After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” “The Boarding House”), mature life (“A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case”), and public life (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” “Grace”); and one additional story, his most famous, “The Dead,” stands alone.


Sometimes, thinking of Ireland it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh. I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city (Joyce in Beja, p. 320).

In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, James Joyce indicated that these works were heavily autobiographical, dealing with his childhood, with people that he knew, with the very streets of Dublin that he walked every day. Although the stories are distinct and stand alone, they are intertwined to such an extent that some critics point out that Dubliners sometimes resembles a novel, with characters from one story appearing in the periphery of another.

Joyce intended that the fifteen stories of Dubliners all contribute to the general theme of paralysis—cultural, religious, and political—that he saw as characteristic of life in Ireland’s capital city. For example, the character Eveline, in the story of that name, cannot bring herself to escape her abusive father and bleak future through sailing away with her love; the boy in “Araby” falls prey to a romantic idea of an Oriental fair and is disillusioned; Maria in “Clay” is literally blindfolded and cannot put her life and habits in context. In “The Dead,” the self-important Gabriel Conroy discovers in a devastating revelation that his wife had had a youthful romance that has haunted her memory ever since. The haunting conclusion of “The Dead” captures the frozen emotional landscape in which all the characters of Dubliners live their lives:

Yes, the papers 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, on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.

(Dubliners, p. 298)

Publish or perish

In 1905 the London publisher Grant Richards received the manuscript of Joyce’s Dubliners, and agreed two months later to publish the collection. Little did Joyce know that the struggle to publish Dubliners would occupy him for the next ten years. By April, complications with the printer had arisen. According to the law of the time, printers were legally responsible for whatever literary material they printed, and even though Joyce was willing to take a few risks with risqué language and imagery, or with politically unpopular sentiments, his printer was not. After a series of negotiations with an unwilling Joyce, Richards decided he could not publish the collection after all, and Dubliners was shipped to various other publishers, with no success.

Finally, in 1909, Joyce offered Dubliners to George Roberts of the Irish publishing house Maunsel & Co. Roberts accepted the work, promising that it would be published within fifty-four weeks. He too, however, balked at issuing the stories as they were, on the grounds that certain stories were too sexually explicit, too true-to-life (as mentioned, Joyce used the names and places of real businesses in Dublin), or too politically inflammatory (Joyce suggests in “Ivy Day” that the English king Edward VII was a womanizer who drank too much). Roberts waffled for years and finally in 1912 destroyed the sheets, or ready-to-print copies, of Dubliners, and went so far as to demand that Joyce repay Maunsel & Co. for their expenses in so doing.

At long last, in 1913, Grant Richards reconsidered his earlier position and published Dubliners in 1914.

A man of style

Although Joyce was to revolutionize English literature through his adoption of a “stream of consciousness” technique, Dubliners is written in a direct, straightforward style, which some have linked to the Realist literary movement growing in America and Europe at the time. Realism offered “a slice of life” in a quasi-scientific way devoid of most cause-and-effect commentary; Joyce’s remark that Dubliners was to hold a mirror before the Irish places him in this movement, as does his attention to everyday, colloquial patterns of speech. But Joyce always strove to go beyond the mere re-counting of facts, and it is his regular use of symbols, symbols created out of everyday objects (like snow, fire, a blindfold) and familiar names (like Gabriel), that most strongly characterizes his work.


In his scathing attacks on the Catholic establishment in Dublin, Joyce was inspired by perhaps the greatest of Catholic writers, and the greatest of church critics, the Italian poet Dante. Dante’s Divine Comedy, a three-volume epic poem about heaven, hell, and purgatory, openly criticizes corrupt churchmen and the poisonous politics of Dante’s beloved city, Florence. One of Dubliners’ stories, “Grace,” is heavily influenced by the Divine Comedy, structurally and in terms of plot. Tom Kernan wakes from a nasty fall in a men’s washroom—Joyce’s version of Dante’s Inferno, or Hell; he is then cajoled into making a religious retreat with three friends, a sort of Purgatorio; and finally, ends up in church, a heavily satiric version of Heaven. In a characteristically Joycean gesture, however, the priest, Father Purdon, is a well-fed mishandler of the Bible; his sermon caters to the spiritual ease of the wealthy.


Once Dubliners was finally published, the reviews were generally positive, if lukewarm. The Times Literary Supplement suggested, for example, that “Dubliners may be recommended to the large class of readers to whom the drab makes an appeal, for it is admirably written” (Bolt, p. 39). Despite the publisher’s fears, the book did not result in lawsuits, outrage, or scandal, al-though mention was made repeatedly of the collection’s “morbidity,” “sordidness,” and “un-pleasantness” (Bolt, p. 39).

For More Information

Beja, Morris. James Joyce: A Literary Life. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1992.

Bolt, Sydney. A Preface to James Joyce. 2nd ed. Burnt Mill, Essex: Longman House, 1992.

Deane, Seamus. “Joyce the Irishman.” The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Edited by Derek Attridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Joyce, James. James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Annotated Edition. Edited by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993.

Joyce, James. Letters. Vol. 1. Edited by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Viking, 1957.

Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years. Edited by Richard Ellmann. New York: Faber, 1958.

Manganiello, Dominic. Joyce’s Politics. Routledge: London, 1980.

Parrinder, Patrick. “Dubliners.” In James Joyce: Modern Critical Views. Edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

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