I am, still, not a fan of James Joyce.
I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a high school student. When I re-read it again recently for the Hungry Hundred Book Club I asked myself, more than once, why I’d even bothered, not having liked it the least little bit the first time around.
Enough was enough, I told myself. Lesson learned. I was never going to read more Joyce. Life’s too short to spend time trying to like stuff I don’t actually like, regardless of how ‘important’ the stuff purports to be. But then, I read more Joyce anyway! Why did I do that?!
Why I decided to read more Joyce
Yes, Joyce is often called the founder of modern literature, but since I’m not a fan of modern literature—I prefer 18th- and 19th-century literature and modern commercial fiction—surely I don’t have to care about Joyce, I told a friend. Ah, but how do you know he didn’t influence modern commercial fiction as well? she asked. How could he not have? He was the proverbial pebble in the pond, n’est-ce pas?
Well. What do I know. It’s not like I studied literature formally beyond high school. So when members of the Hungry Hundred Book Club were invited by the Singapore Irish Embassy to read and discuss Dubliners (a book of short stories) to celebrate Bloomsday, the day people show their appreciation for the life and works of James Joyce, I figured I’d give it a shot. After all, the Hungry Hundred group was created by Rachel precisely to fill in gaps in adult readers’ literary lives.
The event I was invited to was:
Bloomsday Book Club Singapore
7.15 p.m. to 9.00 p.m., Friday 14 June 2019
at the Irish Residence (1 Bukit Tunggal Rd)
to consist of an introduction to James Joyce and Dubliners by Assistant Professor Richard Barlow (NTU) followed by a group discussion
Sadly, it turns out I’m not able to attend the discussion after all. So I’ll just have to discuss the book with myself, using whatever I can learn from the Dubliners Sparknotes and the questions supplied by the organizers (see below).
Dubliners by James Joyce
I did not enjoy this short story collection. The stories are not particularly easy to understand. They rely on suggestion, implication, or knowledge of Irish culture and history. That could be a bug or a feature, depending on your perspective: subtlety and obscurantism are two sides of the same coin. The stories are depressing, as was undoubtedly intended. Congratulations on succeeding in making me feel lousy about the lives of this bunch of pathetic, ineffective, deeply flawed human beings, Joyce. Well done.
A boy reflects on the life and death of an old priest who died of stroke.
Two little boys skip school and a pedophile talks to them.
A young man goes to a bazaar to buy something for the girl he likes but arrives too late.
A woman decides not to elope.
After the Race
A guy loses his money gambling.
Two men convince a woman to steal for them.
The Boarding House
A woman manipulates a boarder into marrying her daughter.
A Little Cloud
A man starts to resent his wife and infant child after chatting with a bachelor friend.
After a lousy day, a man beats his son.
A servant woman goes to visit the family she used to work for. (I found this one particularly hard to understand without notes.)
A Painful Case
A married lady commits suicide after her male friend stops visiting her.
Ivy Day in the Committee Room
Some guys talk politics in a pub…? (I found this one particularly dull and difficult even with the notes.)
A woman insists her daughter be paid in advance for a musical performance.
A drunk is manipulated by his friends into going on a religious retreat.
A man learns that a song reminded his wife of a boy who loved her and died because of it.
General Discussion Questions for Dubliners
How is the central theme of paralysis echoed in the short stories?
There is a literally paralyzed person in the first story. The other stories are about people who are metaphorically paralyzed—stuck in their lives or opinions in one way or another and unable to change or escape, able only to observe their own lives, routines, or mistakes.
What is the story which you responded to most, emotionally?
“Eveline” and “A Painful Case” both struck me as poignant rejections of romantic opportunities much like The Remains of the Day.
Joyce’s depiction of Dublin is a far from flattering portrayal of his hometown. Do you agree with this statement?
The stories are grim, so if these Dubliners are meant to be typical, as the title of the collection perhaps implies, then I agree that Joyce’s depiction of Dublin is far from flattering.
To what extent does one’s birthplace determine one’s identity or destiny?
Identity and destiny are created by a mixture of nature, nurture, chance, and choice. It’s hard to say how much any particular person or decision owes to which of these elements, to say nothing of people or decisions in general. There is always some scope for choice, even if the only choice is one’s attitude to one’s situation.
Is individual freedom inevitably limited by the social customs of a particular place?
Again, there is always some scope for choice, but some societies limit the individual’s choices more than others, or make certain choices all but impossible.
What are the connecting factors that allow this book to be grouped as a collection of short stories?
They’re by Joyce (duh). They’re set in Dublin (duh). They’re about paralysis in some way or other, or show that change is always loss (of money or love or life). The ineffectiveness of religion seems to be a common theme, as does the absence or impossibility of love. Abuse is another theme. There are a lot of cycles and circles and repetitions that emphasize the idea of being stuck.
Specific Discussion Questions for Dubliners
Is “Araby” a conventional love story?
If conventional love stories are comic (happy) rather than tragic, then no.
At the end of “Araby,” why does the narrator say his eyes “burned with anguish and anger”?
On the surface, it’s because he’s disappointed to have arrived late at the fair through no fault of his own. According to SparkNotes, it’s because he has realized that the girl for whose sake he went to the fair will likely disappoint him as much as the fair itself.
In “Eveline,” why doesn’t Eveline run away with Frank?
She thinks she should keep the promise she made to her dead mother to take care of the other members of the family. She is unwilling to put her well-being before that of others.
In “A Painful Case,” why does James Duffy resist his passion for Emily?
He is inflexibly wedded to his routine life.
In “The Dead,” the narrator describes Gretta listening to music on the stairs as “a symbol of something”. Is Gretta a symbol of anything? And, if so, of what?
The story is about the overlap between the past and the present in Ireland and in general, so perhaps that’s what she symbolises. Or maybe she’s on the stairs between the living on earth and the dead in heaven, an angel or intermediary between life and death. Maybe she is memory or nostalgia or loss itself. Maybe she is unattainability, out-of-reachness.
In “The Dead,” once Gretta falls asleep after telling Gabriel about Michael Furey, why does Gabriel feel so alienated from her?
SparkNotes says he feels unable to control his wife and sad that his own life, unlike that of Michel Furey, has been empty of passion.
What is the literary legacy of James Joyce?
Supposedly, Joyce influenced all fiction that came after him. Is there, as a friend of mine suggested might be the case, or is there not, a link between the works of James Joyce and the works of, say, Brandon Mull, the author of bestselling children’s fantasy works such as the Five Kingdoms series?
James Joyce’s work was experimental and literary. Mull, like any artist, would naturally want to be seen as ‘creative’, but I imagine his works are intended to be more familiar and conventional than experimental or iconoclastic, crowd-pleasing rather than revolutionary. Famously, Joyce wanted reading his works, especially Finnegan’s Wake, to be a daunting and difficult experience. Fantasy books for children have to be appealing and accessible. If two writers have different goals—to offer entertaining stories that will be popularly embraced, and to impress and be studied by scholars in perpetuity—they will use different styles and methods.
But Joyce’s works are popular, you say? No they’re not. They’re famous, which is not the same thing at all. “[Ulysses] is a book more venerated than read.” Whether or not Joyce’s work was the pebble in the pond, he certainly made waves.
Joyce’s thematic focus is the dissonance of modern life. A triumphant fantasy quest either overcomes or overlooks ugliness to create an emotionally satisfying arc. Joyce wants to show humans truthfully, even though—or especially because—that requires showing not just failure but also obscene and naked depravity. For better or worse, children’s epic fantasy stories hide the sordid at all costs.
The esthetic movement known as modernism, with which Joyce is associated, is known for having shifted the focus from character and plot to style, to the language of fiction per se. It’s hard to imagine modern commercial fiction being driven by anything other than plot and character—except maybe setting, because fantasy and science-fiction settings require detailed world-building. In other words, style does not suffice in commercial fiction.
Modernist writers express distrust of reason, generalized pessimism or lack of faith in the notion of human progress, and rejection of objective truth, reality and morality. Cheerful fantasy epics in which characters face and overcome obstacles by relying (in the case of Brandon Mull’s characters, explicitly) on their reason and values do not fit in the modernist movement.
What esthetic movement do cheerful fantasy epics fit in? Perhaps they are part of a new post-post-modern cultural movement, or perhaps they recall an earlier one that never wholly died: Renaissance or Enlightenment humanism, which favors an essentially optimistic (perhaps theistic or perhaps atheistic) outlook on human activity and potential. Humanism values reason, truth, beauty, and the individual. That’s a kind of fiction I’d like to see more of, not modernist fiction.
Numerous critics over the past century have argued that Joyce’s work has had a harmful effect on modern and post-modern fiction, creating generations of writers who have eschewed storytelling, standard grammar, and coherence and thus diminishing the accessibility of fiction as an art.
To the extent that writers such as Brandon Mull have written coherent, grammatical, accessible stories, they stand outside the shadow of James Joyce. To conclude that Joyce had an “influence” on such writers, we would need to conclude that they could only have come to exist as an adverse reaction to him, which seems like an insult no matter what kind of fiction you prefer.
What specific claims do people make about Joyce’s influence or literary legacy? What is it about literature that wouldn’t be the same today without him? What is ‘Joycean’ about modern literature or modernism itself?
Here’s a hypothesis: Since Joyce destroys the conventional narrative voice using an extreme version of stream of consciousness, maybe Joycean narration was a necessary step in creating today’s popular narration styles (e.g., first-person and close third-person). That’s not something I know much about, but I imagine the shift in narrative styles was gradual and involved other writers as well. Still, surely some scholar who knows what she’s talking about can make a claim with this kind of specificity: he used such-and-such method, which didn’t exist before, and now everybody uses a version of it…
Not being or having been a graduate student of literature, I present to you a couple of claims about Joyce’s legacy I found via Google.
Rivka Galchen of the New York Times says we are all Joyce’s heirs.
Every attention paid to the quotidian seems to link back to him, as does every highly allusive and densely detailed creation, every lounging in the texture of language, every joke, every game, every difficulty and every epiphany. Even the video game Minecraft has something Joycean about it.
There you have it. Minecraft is Joycean, presumably because it is a “densely detailed creation”. Nobody’s writing was detailed before Joyce, not even the writing of, say, Dickens or Melville. Joyce also invented “difficulties”, because previously, characters in fiction never faced obstacles. He invented humor, too, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have jokes, certainly not bawdy ones. I mean, heck, the guy invented language. Nobody knew how to use it properly before he put pen to paper.
Sarcasm aside, I have no patience for these sweeping claims. Galchen’s first attempt to state the claim is in fact an analogy: Joyce built the city we live in. Analogies are not arguments! I fail to be convinced.
Robert D. Newman of Salon says mainstream contemporary fiction would not exist without Ulysses but that the ‘massive’ influence is sometimes ‘invisible’ (?). The examples Newman gives of novels or writers that continue to reflect the influence of Joyce are literary and do not include genre fiction or children’s fiction. Nobody doubts that there do exist specific works that couldn’t exist without Joyce, that explicitly or implicitly recall his works. To be famous is to be imitated. The question is whether fiction itself could exist without him, whether there exist subsequent works that reflect no influence at all, even the tenuous “Devil Wears Prada Cerulean” kind of influence.
No one would claim Joyce invented the short story, the novel, the Bildungsroman, or the epic… but he reinvented them all, according to this University College Dublin research proposal. Of course, that’s exactly what an entire academic sub-department devoted to one local (yet universal!) author would say about him, isn’t it? Asking a Dubliner—a Dubliner in academia, no less!—whether Joyce was an important author is like asking a Holocaust survivor who spent time in Auschwitz whether World War II was an important historical event.
Thus here’s my problem: How is it possible to measure the impact of a man if all the people who consider such questions believe his impact was immeasurable? When you ask the question Is Joyce important, you’re either going to get an impassioned and highly unimpartial affirmative, or a shrug of absolute and uninformed indifference. It’s hard to credit either of those responses, n’est-ce pas?
When and Why I Read Dubliners
The Irish Embassy in Singapore invited local readers to participate in Bloomsday by reading James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners and coming for a discussion on 14 June 2019. I saw it as an opportunity to pursue the question of whether Joyce is really the founder of ALL modern fiction, as has been asserted.
Genre: literary fiction (short stories)
Date started / date finished: 30-May-19 to 05-Jun-19
Length: 150 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 2814
Originally published in: 1914
Gutenberg link: Dubliners