#1 Stunna James Joyce thinkin’ deep thoughts
James Joyce’s Dubliners was one of those books I read in college, shelved under “got it,” and moved on without a second thought. I just re-read (and then re-re-read) the collection again: there’s much, much more to this book than I remembered. Dubliners has always been overshadowed by Joyce’s later works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. A closer reading of these fifteen short stories–which effectively unite as a work of complex structure–reveals that many of the themes of the later masterpieces, as well as Joyce’s rhetorical technique, are prefigured in Dubliners. On the surface, the stories seem straightforward–at least in a modernist/realist sense–slice of life urban literature, stripped of romance. Indeed, Dubliners seems to take all of its characters at an ironic distance, treating the protagonists to a series of negative epiphanies. Joyce explores the literally vulgar language of commerce, rife with trite clichés and placeholders, to show how what is not said in customary discourse jars against what custom does permit. The greatest aspect of psychological realism (whatever that means) in Dubliners results from the conflation of voices at play in the stories. The characters imagine their identities in language, a language culled from equal parts Romantic poetry and Bible verses and street signs and post office directories. The intense self-consciousness revealed by the characters calls for a strange mix of empathy and loathing and ironic distancing and even embarrassment on the part of the reader. I think that this style, combined with the anti-epiphanies figured in each story, is something so thoroughly normal, even expected by the contemporary reader, that it becomes easy to overlook just how groundbreaking and prescient these stories were at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you’ve read these, take the time to re-read them. If you haven’t given Joyce a shot, this is the right place to start.
If you don’t have time to read all fifteen in the collection but still want the rhetorical gist, read: “The Sisters,” “Araby,” “An Encounter,” “Eveline,” “Two Gallants,” “A Little Cloud,” “A Painful Case,” and, of course, “The Dead.” Or, if you’re really pressed for time: “The Sisters” and “The Dead.” Have at it.