I read this collection of 15 short stories several years ago and very much enjoyed it – now another group is reading it and I decided to go for a reread.
This is Joyce’s most accessible work but that’s not to say it holds no secrets for the second or third time reader. Even studying it turns up nuggets. It’s a series of short stories connected by the Dublin setting. The characters are all relatively middle class and lower and it’s structured in a kind of chronological order – from youth to death. The style is very simple. detailed and and realistic. When you understand what this collection of stories is really about it’s difficult to read – almost a dirge to Dublin and her residents – they’re hopeless or closing their eyes to hope, impotent, and/or dying – “paralyzed” – as the word is from the first story – or maybe dead.
Themes – The main theme may be that Dublin is trapped and paralyzed and dying but the ways that’s presented are many – religion, love, business, memory, politics, etc. I think Joyce didn’t have much use for these “Dubliners” who were “stuck in their rut” and basically unwilling or unable to get out. It’s the opposite of finding happiness in your own back yard – it’s settling for the weeds and grime of your own back yard.
I did notice the regular appearance of windows in the book and wondered what they could mean. Desire plus looking in (curiosity) or looking out (escape).
- The Sisters – After the priest Father Flynn dies, a young boy who was close to him and his family deal with it only superficially. What was wrong with Father Flynn? Why did he laugh in the confessional? He sold church favors – simony – so he was a bad man and religion had paralyzed him. Windows look in on other lives (or deaths), signs, and out of the house in mourning to a lit light post. “You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it.”
“It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds.”
“And what do you think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself?” (this poor guy doesn’t even have a window.)
- An Encounter – Two schoolboys playing truant encounter an elderly man. The boys ditch school and to go out for an adventure but don’t quite find what they expect. Instead they find an old man who talks about girlfriends and seems quite “liberal” but then when one boy leaves the man changes his mind and says boys should be whipped. Although the boys are Catholic and go to a good school, they are mistaken for Protestants who go to a lesser school. Windows look in at biscuits. “Be careful what you wish for.”
- 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. He arrives late and can’t find something he can afford. Also, he’s very hesitant – paralyzed? This girl is out of his league. Religious issues with aunt and uncle who allow him to go. Windows look out to friends playing and the house where the girl lives. “A day late and a dollar short.”
“When we returned to the street light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. ”
- Eveline – A young woman abandons her plans to leave Ireland with a sailor. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
“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.” –
- After the Race – College student Jimmy Doyle tries to fit in with his wealthy friends. Window thrown open to indicate there was life out there – let’s go. But at the end, a door opens – time to go home. “A square peg won’t fit in a round hole.” “You got to know when to hold them…”
- Two Gallants – Two con men, Lenehan and Corley, find a maid who is willing to steal from her employer. The hungry and thirsty Lenehan sees food and drink in the window of a “refreshment shop.” And after the con, Lenehan is still on the outside. “honor among thieves”
- The Boarding House – Mrs. Mooney successfully manoeuvres her daughter Polly into an upwardly mobile marriage with her lodger Mr. Doran. “Like mother like daughter.”
“All the windows of the boarding house were open and the lace curtains ballooned gently towards the street beneath the raised sashes.”
- 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. (No use crying over spilt milk?)
“He turned often from his tiresome writing to gaze out of the office window.”
- Counterparts – Farrington, a lumbering alcoholic scrivener, takes out his frustration in pubs and on his son Tom.
“He turned often from his tiresome writing to gaze out of the office window.”
“He was now safe in the dark snug of O’Neill’s shop, and filling up the little window that looked into the bar with his inflamed face, the colour of dark wine or dark meat…”
Does the son have a window? – He probably should have one.
- Clay – The old maid Maria, a laundress, celebrates Halloween with her former foster child Joe Donnelly and his family.
This woman could use a window – there’s none in the story and there’s certainly places a window would be appropriate. So it’s noted (by me) by absence when you know what windows kind of mean in this collection.
This woman is totally trapped and doesn’t know it – She never has her own place. She’s a Catholic woman who works in a Protestant mission, she’s a foster mother but never a real one. She’s a piece of clay – very moldable. She buys the cake but doesn’t have it. And she cries for the slightest (!) reason – the song points to how she had nothing.
- A Painful Case – Mr. Duffy rebuffs Mrs. Sinico, then four years later realizes he has condemned her to loneliness and death.
“He lived in an old sombre house and from his windows he could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built.”
- Ivy Day in the Committee Room – Minor politicians fail to live up to the memory of Charles Stewart Parnell.
Another story with no window – only a fire (highly symbolic) – and these guys don’t want a window – they’re in the back dark smokey room doing their political games and manipulations – no view to the people or to the future – only to a dead past – a fire which won’t get started again. I think the reader needs some knowledge of what Charles Parnell was to Ireland, and what happened after his death, to understand this story. The committee members are patriotic to Parnell and Ireland but can’t do what he did – don’t have the ideals or the skills – he’s dead and so are they.
“The Committee Room in London was where Irish politicians chose not to support Parnell as a leader in December 1890. This event destroyed Parnell’s career, and, this story suggests, the morale and hopes of the next generation as well. Yet these men, particularly Henchy, demonstrate wavering beliefs that show they too are guilty of betrayal. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” reveals how the past shapes the present, but also how those living in the present fail to correct or atone for past wrongs.” – source – Spark Notes
- 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. She’s quite ambitious, pushy and domineering.
No window because looking to the past or to the “culture” is not a way out. Still the little old woman who tries to be helpful and does look out –
“… looked out at the rain until the melancholy of the wet street effaced all the trustfulness and enthusiasm from her twisted features.”
and I’m not sure what that means – she’s gone back to being a sour-puss?
- Grace – After Mr. Kernan injures himself falling down the stairs in a bar, his friends try to reform him through Catholicism.
A man is found fallen on the stairs of a bar-room. His friend takes him home and finds a kind of squalor. The man, Mr. Kernan, is a converted Protestant, now Catholic. He’s apparently a drunkard. The Catholic friends try to help him by converting him again – making him a “good Catholic.” I suppose they think in that way he will sober up. They talk and argue with him for a good while but prove nothing – the Catholic Church is not pure. So then they take him to mass. At mass the audience is primarily businessmen (money lender, pawn broker, mayor) who are not terribly ethical. The So the priest gives them a sermon oriented toward businessmen (of this world) and telling them to take spiritual account of themselves. – end –
There is a small window in Kernan’s office but it’s half covered up so he can’t really see outside.
“… on the table before the window stood four or five china bowls which were usually half full of a black liquid.”
- 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.
There are a LOT of windows references in The Dead. There are cab windows through which winds blew made folks ill. And there is the very complex scene where Gabriel looks out the window and thinks of people outside looking in at the lighted window. (Poor or lonely people wanting in?) There’s a window at the party where Gabriel looks out and wishes he were elsewhere – one at their hotel room. There are even remembered windows.
“A ghastly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door”
I think that means the past is going to come in – and Gabriel will look out to see that Ireland is covered in snow – dead – like the statue in the park.