I was too frightened to read anything by James Joyce after unsuccessfully attempting the first page of Ulysses years ago, but in a fit of bravery I added Dubliners to my Classics Club challenge. The first sentence filled me with hope that I could manage this time as that sentence was short and the intention clear. As I read on I found that I was delighted by the book.
Dubliners is a collection of short stories. While each story alone has only a very slight plot, capturing a character during a particular moment in an ordinary day, together the collection created a full picture of a community. The first stories in the collection are told by children and as the stories continue the age of the main characters age too.
The collection began with The Sisters, which told of a young boy learning of the death of a priest. Although the boy and the priest were friends the boy was careful not to let his family see his emotions on learning of the priest’s death. The boy took his emotional cues from his community, with no one about him showing any surprise or grief at the news.
An Encounter is the story of two schoolboys who wagged school to roam around Dublin. During their day out they met a man who hinted at nasty conversations and actions, although the boys couldn’t be certain that the man was actually trying to take advantage of them. I felt much uneasier than the boys seemed to, although happily for them they soon sensed that the man was a creep and left for home.
A young man fell in love with his friend’s sister in Araby. He planned to go to a bazaar to buy her a present but couldn’t get there before it closed in a reminder that life can be full of disappointments such as this.
Eveline told of a young woman who had the opportunity to leave Ireland with her lover, a sailor, but she changed her mind at the last minute. I was left wondering how things turned out for her and what might have been had she found the courage to leave.
After the Race was the story of a young man who had fallen in with a rich, glamourous, international crowd. The young man’s father was a butcher who would have been proud of his son had he known he was drinking and gambling with the likes of these people on a private yacht, despite the hangover coming his son’s way, or the huge amount of money he lost playing cards.
In Two Gallants, a pair of young men hoped that a young woman who one of them was having an affair with, would assist them to steal from her employer.
I saw the funny side of The Boarding House, which depicts a woman maneuvering a young male boarder in her home to marry her daughter. This was the first story in the collection to be told from a female character’s point of view.
A Little Cloud is the story of a man who realises his dreams were lost. The man had wanted to be a poet but was stuck in a drudgy job and worse, disappointed to learn he had been replaced in his wife’s affections by his baby son.
Counterparts is the story of a man whose drinking was a problem for himself, his career, his finances and for his suffering family.
In Clay, an old nurse visits her former charge, who is now a grown-up man with a family of his own. During a Halloween party game the woman chose an object which symbolised her upcoming death. I was struck in this story by the genuine kindness the family showed to their elderly visitor.
A Painful Case told the story of a man who turned down a woman’s romantic overtures only to learn some years later that his actions had led to her dying a sad and lonely death.
I was grateful for the notes in the edition of Dubliners that I read, because I would not have realised the significance of the politics discussed on Ivy Day in the Committee Room without them.
A Mother follows a another woman who is doing her best for her daughter, this time by attempting to gain her daughter a starring position playing piano in a series of concerts.
Grace tells the story of a man whose friends tried to get him to take religion seriously after he fell down the stairs and injured himself.
The last story, The Dead, is the longest story in the collection. The main character’s wife reveals to her husband at a New Year’s Eve party that she once loved a young man who died. Prior to his wife’s revelation the man had been the life of the party, carving the goose, flattering his aunts and arguing with an antagonistic woman whose opinions were at odds to his own. The Dead is an extraordinarily moving story and was probably my favourite of the collection.
I feel as if I would like to read the short stories in Dubliners again and again. I also feel inspired to write my own version that tells the stories of the people in the community where I grew up. Mine would include stories about the old women who gathered weekly to cackle over afternoon tea at each other’s homes, farmers who worked hard, raised families and brought their daughters up to know they could do anything, eccentric fishermen, lonely local children who looked forward all year to the arrival of playmates in summer, a handful of mad artists, a school teacher who took drugs and fell into a chest freezer, one or two blow-ins who resented anyone whose family had been in the area for generations and in summer, the horde of upper-class holiday makers who sun-bathed together, played golf together and drank together at the golf club without ever noticing a local. No doubt what I would like to do and what I will do will be reminiscent of the main character in A Little Cloud, but who knows? If I ever manage this, I’ll credit James Joyce with inspiring me.
Dubliners was book twenty four in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.