James Joyce, to read or not

The name of author James Joyce will undoubtedly crop up on most Ultimate Book Lists with the book cited, Ulysses.

First serialised in an American journal from March 1918 to December 1920, it was published in its entirety in 1922. Regarded as one of the most important works of Modernist literature, Ulysses is approximately 265,000 words in length,  and uses a lexicon of 30,030 words (average count for a novel is 80,000-120,000 words).

As a tribute to the significance of this book, Bloomsday is celebrated annually on June 16 in Dublin and elsewhere. The day was invented in 1954 on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel.

This book is not for the feint-hearted. To actually start and finish Ulysses for many readers, would be like taking medicine for some ailment: you know it’s good for you, it’s difficult to take, but you’ll be better for having made the effort!

I have glimpsed into Ulysses but have not made the effort to complete the task so, in no way, can venture to express an erudite opinion or even give you an idea about its structure and meaning.

Here’s the thing though, when the name James Joyce crops up in relation to Ulysses I am fearful that any other texts by him are completely overshadowed and then consequently overlooked by readers.

This is a shame.

I have read Joyce’s, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man which was written prior to the Ulysses tome and published in 1917 after having been serialized from 1914 to 1915.

This semi-autobiographical novel, tells the story of Stephen Daedalus and his ‘awakening’ as he questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions that have imbued his life.

Now while there is a lot to discuss about this book in terms of its style and themes, to do this justice would involve a much lengthier piece than warranted by my blog.

So, where to now?

You may have noticed that I’m working backwards through Joyce’s collection and so we come to his short stories, published in a book titled Dubliners–these stories are sublime and EVERYONE should read them.

Interestingly, Joyce submitted this book 18 times to a total of 15 publishers from about 1905 and was finally published in 1914 after many stops and starts.

Dubliners depicts the Irish middle class during the time that Irish nationalism was at its peak. This search for national identity put Irish history and culture right in the epicenter of various converging ideas and influences.

The stories are written and presented to show the progressive journey and gaining of wisdom from childhood, through adolescence and then maturity. Or in the abstract, the progressive gaining of knowledge from a state of harmony that leads to conflict or epiphany and then reintegration with that you may have been trying to escape.

These are the stories as presented:

The Sisters–After the priest Father Flynn dies, a young boy who was close to him and his family deal with it only superficially.

An Encounter–Two schoolboys playing truant encounter an elderly man.

Araby–A boy falls in love with the sister of his friend, but fails in his quest to buy her a worthy gift from the Araby bazaar.

Eveline–A young woman abandons her plans to leave Ireland with a sailor.

After the Race–College student Jimmy Doyle tries to fit in with his wealthy friends.

Two Gallants–Two con men, Lenehan and Corley find a maid who is willing to steal from her employer.

The Boarding House–Mrs. Mooney successfully manoeuvres her daughter Polly into an upwardly mobile marriage with her lodger Mr. Doran.

A Little Cloud–Little Chandler’s dinner with his old friend Ignatius Gallaher casts fresh light on his own failed literary dreams. The story reflects also on Chandler’s mood upon realizing his baby son has replaced him as the centre of his wife’s affections.

Counterparts–Farrington, a lumbering alcoholic scrivener takes out his frustration in pubs and on his son Tom.

Clay–The old maid Maria, a laundress, celebrates Halloween with her former foster child Joe Donnelly and his family.

A Painful Case–Mr. Duffy rebuffs Mrs. Sinico, then four years later realizes he has condemned her to loneliness and death.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room–Minor politicians fail to live up to the memory of Charles Stewart Parnell.

A Mother–Mrs. Kearney tries to win a place of pride for her daughter, Kathleen, in the Irish cultural movement, by starring her in a series of concerts, but ultimately fails.

Grace–After Mr. Kernan injures himself falling down the stairs in a bar, his friends try to reform him through Catholicism.

The Dead–Gabriel Conroy attends a party, and later, as he speaks with his wife, has an epiphany about the nature of life and death. (At 15–16,000 words this story has also been classified as a novella)

The language and style used by Joyce in his short stories describe Dublin in a natural and realistic way. He doesn’t use exaggeration in his prose to create an effect, instead he presents his characters and setting in a simple way with close attention to detail.

Let me share a few examples of this sublime prose to show how Joyce paints a powerful picture by the use of a few simple words:

From The Sisters:

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind.

From Eveline:

SHE sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her
nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

From Two Gallants:

THE grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city
and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the
streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed
with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps
shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture
below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the
warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur.

From A Mother:

After a swift struggle of tongues Mr. Holohan hobbled out in haste.
The room was silent. When the strain of the silence had become
somewhat painful...

From Grace:

A pale, oval face came forward into the light. The arch of its fair
trailing moustache was repeated in the fair eyebrows looped above
pleasantly astonished eyes. Mr. Fogarty was a modest grocer.

From The Dead:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end,
on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great
ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust
crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a
round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of
side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow
dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green
leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches
of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which
lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with
grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped
in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall
celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a
fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American
apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one
containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square
piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it
were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn
up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black,
with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with
transverse green sashes.

Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having
looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the
goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and
liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden

“Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?” he asked. “A wing or a slice
of the breast?”

I have given you a much larger snippet from this last story in Dubliners as it is my favorite. This scene particularly, is rich with imagery and nuance as Joyce presents his view that life in Dublin is flat, grey and unfulfilling — the centre of the living dead.

Without going into detail, the protagonist, Gabriel experiences an epiphany and comes to realise that the future is inextricably bound with the past. There is a unity between the living and the dead that allows for an acceptance and more importantly, an appreciation of life in Dublin and the richness it holds from its nationalism, religious conviction and its own individual language.

Have you enjoyed those snippets? Are you encouraged to read Dubliners?

I hope so.


Published by wentowrite

There are so many fab books to read, why waste time on those that are not.

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