James Joyce didn’t have a reputation for difficulty for readers a century ago this month, only for his publisher. Dubliners, his first foray into fiction, was released this month, but only after seven years of contending with a publisher worried about offending the Roman Catholic Church, real-life originals all too close to their print counterparts, and anyone bothered by his treatment of contemporary mores. To all of these, as he would continue to do through the rest of his life, Joyce refused to bend.
Unlike with Ulysses and, even more so, Finnegans Wake, readers do not need to know much if anything about ancient literature, obscure scraps of Latin, or the like to appreciate Dubliners. This is not to say, however, that Joyce does not make readers work, nor that the text doesn’t present its own challenges.
Young readers in what can be called post-Catholic Ireland, for instance, might have a difficult time understanding the exalted but problematic nature of the Church early in the 20th century in their country. In the anthologies where these tales have found honored places, reading them out of their original context means that readers will miss the “links of syllable and image” noted by novelist-critic Thomas Flanagan.
Moreover, though Joyce put virtually everything in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Dubliners, like the early tales of Hemingway, often focuses more on “the thing left out.” In the opening story, “The Sisters,” for example, Old Cotter says of Father Flynn that he “wouldn’t like children of mine…to have too much to say to a man like that.” But the priest’s exact vice is never spelled out.
Ostensibly, the stories in Dubliners progress from childhood to maturity. But one of the words that Joyce uses most commonly is “paralysis,” a condition leading not just to physical but also to intellectual, spiritual and emotional death. The highlight of the collection is, in fact, the sublime novella “The Dead.” There is a movement from “The Sisters” to this story, but it is a circular one. “The Sisters” is written from within the consciousness of a boy who, even if he is some years beyond the events of the tale, still tries to contend with the passing of Fr. Flynn. “The Dead,” while centering on an adult intellectual, deals with a similar dilemma: the attempt to make sense of the death of someone (in this case, the youth that his wife loved before their marriage).
Dubliners was published the same week that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Little if any notice was taken at the time of the work of Joyce, and few copies of the book were sold for a number of years. In time, however—especially with the notorious publication, eight years later, of Ulysses—the essential truth was confirmed of Joyce’s boastful prediction to his timorous publisher: “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.”
For many, though, it is far more than a “nicely polished looking glass. Novelist Colum (Let the Great World Spin) McCann speaks for them when he proclaims, “For me, James Joyce is the original energy behind all contemporary literature.”