The Rear-View Mirror: James Joyce, Dubliners (1914)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Now that most of us have so much time to read – did you pause and think about Bloomsday the other day? That’s June 16, and it’s the day that James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. The whole weighty tome is set on less than 24 hours. Every year, there are people who walk the city of Dublin on that day, novel in hand, and go from one location to the next.

But before Joyce became so deliberately obscure, he published a short story collection called Dubliners, fantastically accessible and an excellent read. I am not sure if Joyce ever wrote anything that was not set in Dublin. Here, we get to know a number of individuals, many of which are said to embody some aspect of Irishness, and it is to Joyce’s credit that they don’t become clichéed, but real, rounded characters in the space of a few pages. There is “Evelyne”, a young woman who is set to leave Dublin and Ireland and to emigrate to the US for good, and if you read the story against the grain, it is almost an escape. Will she? Won’t she? Is her lover going to be late?

There are two men walking along, one of which is the son of a police inspector and wants his sweetheart, a maid, to steal something from her master. The other man is honest and objects to his friend’s plans (“Two Gallants”). There is a boy who wants to buy a present for a girl he likes, but finds the market stall already closed (“Araby”). There is a lowly office clerk’s sad, timid pub-crawl (“A Little Cloud”). And there is a landlady’s bargain with one of her guests who might have dishonored her daughter (“The Boarding House”). Not everything is as it seems here, but it is always told in a straightforward manner. Joyce presents characters from different classes, ages and sexes and from different walks of life. Leopold Bloom, who features so large in Ulysses, should have been one of the protagonists in another short story, but that one, as we know, got out of hand somewhat.

While we are confronted with individuals who are supposed to stand for all kinds of aspects of the people of Dublin, it is the last and longest story, “The Dead“, that gives us a whole group of Dubliners at its center. During a party, where etiquette must be observed, pithy asides and suggestive allusions turn the agreeable atmosphere into a scathing game of social tag.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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