Analysis of James Joyce’s Stories

In August, 1904, James Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) wrote to his friend C. P. Curran: “I am writing a series of epicleti. . . . I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” This note announces, in effect, a transformation of the short story as a form. The note’s pretentious jargon reveals the attitude of the young Joyce’s artistic demeanor. In addition, it calls attention to some of the main technical and thematic characteristics of a volume that had to wait a further ten years for a publisher to consider it acceptable.


There is still some scholarly debate over the term “epicleti,” whose etymology remains obscure. It is clear, however, that Joyce’s use of the term shows him to be in pursuit of an aesthetic method. This self-conscious search for a method reveals Joyce as a preeminently twentieth century modernist author. As with his eminent contemporaries and advocates T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to write was to articulate a theory of writing. Moreover, the search was successfully concluded, as the closing chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man records. It culminated in the “epiphany,” which means “showing forth” and which describes not only Joyce’s method but also his objectives in using one.

Joyce used the term“epiphany” to describe some of his own early artistic efforts in prose. These sketches sometimes resemble prose poems, calibrating moments of intense perception and emotional heightening. At other times, they take the form of life studies of banal moments in everyday life. The overall intention is one of unmasking hidden states, whether of the exalted or humdrum variety. In both instances, the pieces are marked by a fastidious language, which clearly anticipates the “style of scrupulous meanness” in which Joyce said Dubliners is written.


Artistic theory is not the only novelty of Dubliners. Joyce’s note to Curran also draws attention to his subject matter. From a strictly historical point of view, Joyce’s characterization of his birthplace is to some extent misleading. The stories of Dubliners tend to overlook those factors that distinguished the city in Joyce’s time. The impact and significance of the establishment in Dublin of Ireland’s national theater, the Abbey, for example, which opened in 1904, may be lost on non-Irish readers of Joyce’s stories. In general, Joyce is at pains to belittle the various attempts at cultural self-renewal, which were a marked feature of Dublin life in the early years of the twentieth century, as the satire of the story “A Mother” shows—although in “The Dead” this satirical attitude is significantly modified. Joyce also fails to provide a cross section of the city’s social composition, there being no stories featuring the upper echelon. The city was not quite the paraplegic of Joyce’s diagnostic imagination.

The stories’ emphasis is on what Joyce asserts to be typical of his city. This democratic vision of his brings to the reader’s notice a range of marginalized citizens. These include children, the alienated, the helpless and hopeless, and particularly women—Dubliners has a feminist undercurrent, all the more noteworthy because of its time. These citizens, often known merely by a single name, represent the social, cultural, and moral cost of living in a city that was less a capital than one of the British Empire’s provincial administrative centers. The fact that their humdrum and unpromising lives should be subjected to the artistic and intellectual powers that Joyce possessed is significant on a number of counts. From the standpoint of literary history, Dubliners combines the two prevailing literary modes of Joyce’s day. In a refinement of an approach pioneered by the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert, Joyce subjects material that had hitherto been the artistic property of the naturalists to the aesthetic commitments of the Symbolists. One way of describing the function of the epiphany is to note its author’s organization of commonplaces in such a manner that they ultimately yield possibilities of meaning greater than their culturally preconditioned, or factual, appearances admit.

From the point of view of Irish literary history, the stories of Dubliners eloquently, though untypically, participate in the overall effort of the Irish Literary Revival to address national realities. The careful delineation of lost lives, which characterizes most of Dubliners, is a unique contribution to the spirit of the critique, which informs much of the stories’ Irish cultural context. It is not surprising to learn that they were considered too controversial to publish with impunity, or that, by virtue of being so, they confirmed their author’s belief that they constituted “a chapter in the moral history of my country.”

A further notable feature of the book is that, unlike many collections of short stories, particularly those of that period, Dubliners is a collection of stories that, however limited in range, is disparate while at the same time functioning as a coherent whole. Its coherence is not merely a matter of Joycean cunning, whereby the collection’s opening story is entitled “The Sisters” and centers on a death, while the final story is called “The Dead” and takes place at a party hosted by sisters. The history of the book’s composition, to which must be added a recognition of the complications brought about by publishers’ lack of commitment, precludes any such facile observation, since “The Dead” was conceived and written after Joyce’s initial version of Dubliners had been completed and submitted for publication. Two other stories were added to the original dozen, “Two Gallants” and “A Little Cloud.” Rather more subtly, the collection achieves coherence by numerous overlapping means. These include the integrity of its style, its thematic consistency, the largely uniform character of its dramatis personae, and its use of a major device in the overall scheme of Joyce’s aesthetic, repetition and variation.

In addition, Joyce himself had an integrated vision of the work’s coherence, one whereby the whole would be seen to be greater than the sum of the parts. This view holds good particularly when applied to the twelve stories of the initial Dubliners, where it describes a mode of symmetrical organization as well as a principle of thematic development, so that a case can readily be made for the work as a whole comprising a “moral history.” According to Joyce, Dubliners may be divided into four consecutive sections. The first of these consists of the three opening stories, “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.” These are followed by a sequence of stories dealing with adolescence, “The Boarding House,” “After the Race,” and “Eveline.” Three stories of mature life come next, “Clay,” “Counterparts,” and “A Painful Case.” Finally the volume closes with a trio of stories devoted to public life, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace.”

Although the symmetry of this quartet of trios is disrupted by the introduction of further stories, two of the new additions, both written in 1906, enlarge rather than negate their respective categories. The range of the stories of adolescence is considerably broadened by the addition of “Two Gallants.” Similarly, the motifs of entrapment and disillusion, typical of the stories of mature life, are further adumbrated in the history of Chandler, the protagonist of “A Little Cloud.” In “The Dead,” written in 1907, Joyce’s artistry as a writer of short fiction is seen to best advantage. In addition, this story crystallizes and elevates to a higher plane of intellection and feeling many of the themes of Dubliners, the result being what is generally acknowledged to be one of the finest short stories in the English language.

The titles of the stories of Dubliners offer a clue to the nature of their contents. Such titles as “An Encounter,” “A Painful Case,” “Counterparts,” “A Mother,” and “The Dead”—to take some of the most obvious cases in point—seem deliberately to offer little or nothing to the reader, neither a sense of expectation nor a sense of anything particularly distinctive within the material, even though Joyce insisted to his publishers that presenting his fellow citizens to the world at large had undoubted novelty value. Yet the very anonymity of many of the titles points with precision to both their character and their method. The stories’ protagonists are for the most part colorless, unpromising, defeated, and lacking in interiority. For the most part, they are unaware of these facts about their personalities and conditions, and the stories evolve somewhat remorselessly to a point where these hapless characters are on the threshold of recognizing, or deliberately overlooking, their morally abject lives. The fact, therefore, that the stories’ titles frequently evoke generic types or states is a pointer to one of their prominent attributes. The stories that do not conform to this general rule have titles that are extremely localized and opaque in a different sense. Few readers will know automatically that the ivy day referred to in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” refers to the custom of commemorating the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, or that “Araby,” in addition to its generic connotations, refers to an actual bazaar that was held in Dublin in mid-May, 1894. This obscure fact makes the story’s protagonist the same age as Joyce was when the bazaar was held.

The sense of comparative anonymity and insignificance suggested by the titles is replicated in the case of the protagonists, a large number of whom are either anonymous or known by a single name, as though they had not yet succeeded in attaining the measure of identity required to merit being fully named. The very title Dubliners is clearly generic, and Joyce, approaching his material from such a standpoint, reveals his interest in the typical, the representative, and the norm. In this sense, Joyce shows his deep sense of the short-story form, with its traditional emphasis on the delineation of representative characters in representative contexts. Such an interest is amplified with great deftness and versatility in the language of the stories, which frequently draws on official, generic codes of utterance. Gabriel’s speech on hospitality in “The Dead” is an important example of one such code, particularly when contrasted with the highly wrought meditation that closes the story. The sermon that concludes “Grace” is another, despite being rendered in the narrative mode known as free indirect style for satirical purposes. A third example is the mimicry of the newspaper report of police evidence in “A Painful Case.” The collection as a whole is saturated by formal and informal exploitation of the characters’ various modes of utterance from which a sense of their cultural orientation and impoverishment may be extrapolated.

As with all Joyce’s works, the latently satirical manipulation of cliché is a crucial feature of Dubliners. In addition, by virtue of the author’s uncanny ear not merely for the demotic but for the quality of consciousness that such utterances reveal, the stories possess a convincing patina of objectivity, as though it is the restless but unobtrusive activity of their language that produces their effects, rather than anything as unrefined as the author’s direction and intentions. Thus, the doctrine of the artist’s impersonality, which has numerous important implications for modernist aesthetics and which Joyce, possibly following the example of Gustave Flaubert, invokes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is utilized in Dubliners to telling effect.

It is in the matter of the stories’ presumed objectivity that Dubliners fell afoul of the publishing industry of the day. Joyce freely availed himself of the civic furniture of his native city, including by name actual business premises—pubs and hotels, notably— as well as churches and other well-known amenities and distinctive features of the social life of his birthplace. By so doing, he not only went further in his pursuit of documentary verisimilitude than the vast majority of even naturalistic writers of Joyce’s generation but also revealed a conception of language—or of what happens to language once it is written—which, in its mature development in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, provided a complex, integrated code of cultural semiotics. Joyce’s use of placenames, the names of businesses, and most notoriously the names of English royalty, shows his understanding that a name is a word, not a supposedly photographic facsimile of the entity it denotes. Dubliners is replete with names chosen with a sensitivity to their artistic and cultural resonance as well as to their geographical precision. For example, the NorthWall, Eveline’s terminus in the story that bears her name, is both correct in a documentary sense and thematically appropriate. A subtler instance is Mr. Duffy’s residence at Chapelizod, a short distance outside Dublin. Not only does the choice of residence underline Duffy’s standoffish nature, but also the name of where he lives is a corruption of Chapel Iseult. This name invokes the legend of the lovers Tristan and Iseult, of whose tragic love Duffy’s affair is a banal but nevertheless heartfelt shadow. Use of the legend is an anticipation of the method in Ulysses, where the heroic stuff of epic forms an ironic but by no means belittling counterpoint to the trial of twentieth century human beings.

Neither of Joyce’s English and Irish publishers was very interested in the longterm consequences or subtle immediacies of Joyce’s art. Both feared that his use of actual names would lead them into serious legal difficulties, which would be compounded by what was considered a use of blasphemous language and an impersonation of the thoughts of Edward, Prince of Wales, in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” Joyce’s favorite story in the collection. Joyce, against his better judgment, toned down the impersonation and made a number of other minor adjustments, while basically upholding his right of documentary representation in the service of artistic integrity and objectivity.

The most conclusive evidence for the stories’ objectivity, however, is provided by their use of the epiphany. Much critical ink has been consumed in attempting to explicate this device. Undoubtedly it is a key concept not only in the appreciation of the art of Joyce’s short stories but also in the comprehension of the form’s development under the influence of Dubliners. At the same time, the reader who does not possess a firm grasp of the concept may still read Dubliners with satisfaction, insight, and sympathy. The epiphany makes its presence felt, typically, at the conclusion of a Dubliners story. It is here that the reader is likely to experience a certain amount of distancing from the action, which cannot be accounted for merely by the foreignness of the characters and their locale. These, in themselves, do not inhibit either the forward movement of the narrative or that movement’s potential for significance. At the point when that potential might well be expected to be realized, however, it may strike the reader as being deferred or repressed.


This discovery is intended to alert the reader that the narrative technique of a Dubliners story only superficially conforms to the introduction-development-denouement model of story organization. Early critics of the work, indeed, complained that for the most part, through their lack of dramatic issue or intriguing theme, the stories were no more than sketches, not seeing that what Joyce was interested in was as much manner as matter, and that only a minimalist approach of the kind he used would grace with art the marginal conditions of his characters and articulate, in a mode that did not violate the impoverished spirit of his paralyzed raw material, its worthiness and the value of bringing it to the reader’s attention. Concern for the reader’s attention is therefore critical, since so much of what Joyce was writing about had already been effectively written off socially, culturally, politically, and spiritually. The comprehensive nature of this silencing is spelled out in the collection’s opening story, “The Sisters.”

The strain placed on the reader’s attention by the typical conclusion of the stories is Joyce’s method of expressing his concern that the material’s impact not be diminished by meeting the preconditioned expectations of how its conflicts might be resolved. Rather than have the story reach a conclusion, with its connotations of finality and mastery, Joyce ends the story, breaks off the action before all its implications and ramifications have been extrapolated. He thereby extends to the reader an invitation, which may also be a duty, to draw out the inferences of this act of narrative termination. The development of inferences is the means whereby the story achieves the statement of itself, an achievement that describes the epiphany in action.

In order to participate in the activity of revelation that the term “epiphany” connotes, the reader will note that not only does a Dubliners story conventionally, if loosely, observe the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, but also that unity is achieved by the tissue of correspondences, insinuations, nuances, echoes, and general interplay that exists among the various phases of a given story’s action and the language. The introduction of the train at the end of “A Painful Case” is an obvious example of Joyce’s cunning and tacit strategies. One of the outcomes of these effects is to offset any purely deterministic sense of plot. The compulsiveness and irreversibility of action, on a sense of which plot tends to be based, is offset, modified, or at the very least has its crudely dramatic character diminished by Joyce’s effects. As a result, the reader is placed in a position of assembling what the story’s fabric of data signifies. It is the reader, typically, rather than the protagonist, who recognizes the epiphanic moment, the moment at which the tendencies of the action become undeniably clear. At this moment, the reader attains the point of maximum perspective. It is a moment of closure but of reinvestment, of withdrawal and of sympathy, of estrangement and acceptance. Its result is to make the reader morally complicit with the material, since were it not for the epiphany’s appeal to the reader the material’s significance, or rather its ability to signify, would be moot. The empowered reader becomes the type of citizen whom the representative protagonist of a Dubliners story cannot be. The stories represent a mastery over material and circumstances with which the reader is called upon to identify, but which the characters cannot embody.

Although it is possible to consider the stories of Dubliners from many different artistic, cultural, and moral perspectives, the theme of independence or the lack of it is the one that seems most central to Joyce’s concerns. His preoccupation with the paralyzed condition of his native city may be described as an awareness of how little the spirit of independence moved there. The numerous implications of this lack are addressed in story after story. The typical trajectory of the story is the optimistic going out, the counterpart of which is the disillusioned return. In even such a simple story as “An Encounter,” the youngster’s naïve dream of adventure and access to the adult world is both realized and made unrecognizable and unacceptable by the form it takes. Encounters with worldly others, such as the flirtatious couples at the bazaar at the end of “Araby,” or Frank in “Eveline,” the sophisticated foreigners in “After the Race,” or Ignatius Gallaher in “A Little Cloud,” all leave the protagonists reduced and defeated. The world is a more complex and demanding environment than their dreams of fulfillment might have led them to believe. The self withdraws, pained that the world is not a reflection of its needs. As in “Two Gallants,” when the world can be manipulated to serve the ego, the process is crude, exploitative, and morally despicable.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room

Some of the most far-reaching implications of the independence theme may be seen in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” There, the heirs of a dramatically successful political movement for a constitutional form of Irish independence are depicted as bemused, opportunistic, devoted to rhetoric rather than action, stagnant in thought and deed. Their conspicuous lack of will is matched by their inconsistency of thought. Yet, while satire is a pronounced feature of the story, Joyce also makes clear that the characters cannot be merely scorned. The poem that affects them is certainly not a fine piece of writing, as the story’s closing comment would have readers believe. On the contrary, it is a heartfelt performance, genuine in its feeling and authentic in its response. The negative elements of these characters’ lives and the bleak outlook for the productive commissioning of their human potential become, in Joyce’s view, as compelling a set of realities as the triumph of the will or worldly fulfillment.

The Dead

This view receives its most comprehensive expression in “The Dead,” making the story, for that reason alone, the crowning achievement of Dubliners. From the playful malapropism of its opening sentence to its resonant closing periods, this story provides, in scale, thematic variety, psychological interest, and narrative tempo, a complete and enriched survey of Joyce’s artistic and moral commitments at the close of the first phase of his writing career. Whereas previously, the collection’s stories were representations of a quality, or poverty, of consciousness to which the characters were unable to relate, in “The Dead” Gabriel achieves an awareness of his particular consciousness. The moment of recognition, the epiphany, in which Gabriel realizes what his wife’s story of lost love says about his own emotional adequacy, is not an experience whose meaning the reader infers. It is a meaning whose articulation by Gabriel the reader overhears. Unlike many of the other stories, however, “The Dead” does not end on this note of recognition. Gabriel, for all that “The Dead” has shown him having difficulty in being self-possessed and autonomous, acknowledges the force and significance of Gretta’s revelation. He relates to those limitations in himself, which the story of Michael Furey underlines. In doing so, he attains a degree of sympathy, honesty, and freely chosen solidarity with the finite, mortal nature of human reality, his mind enlarging as its sense of defeat becomes a central and constraining fact of life. The balance achieved in “The Dead” between subjective need and objective fact, between romance and reality, between self-deception and self-awareness gives the story its poise and potency and makes it a persuasive recapitulation of the other Dubliners stories’ concerns.

It is by the conclusive means of “The Dead” that Joyce’s Dubliners identifies itself with the critique of humanism, which was a fundamental component of the revolution in the arts at the beginning of the twentieth century. The invisibility of the author’s personality, the tonal and stylistic restraint with which the stories are told, and the aesthetic subtlety of the epiphany add up to rather more than simply a revolution in short fiction. They also, by their nature, draw attention to the force of the negative as a reality in the lives of the characters, a reality that Joyce, by refusing to overlook it, helped place on the agenda of twentieth century consciousness.

Major Works
Play: Exiles, pb. 1918.
Novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1914-1915, serial (1916, book); Ulysses, 1922; Finnegans Wake, 1939; Stephen Hero, 1944 (edited by Theodore Spencer).
Nonfiction: Letters of James Joyce, 1957-1966 (3 volumes); The Critical Writings of James Joyce, 1959; Selected Letters of James Joyce, 1975 (Richard Ellmann, editor); The James Joyce Archives, 1977-1979 (64 volumes); On Ibsen, 1999; Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, 2000.
Poetry: Chamber Music, 1907; Pomes Penyeach, 1927; “Ecce Puer,” 1932; Collected Poems, 1936.

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