Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dubliners Double Duty (for Irish Short Story Month, and Wondrous Words Wednesday)

Who's afraid of James Joyce?  I am, or was.  I can say that now, although I'm not promising to read his novels.  I opened Dubliners with some degree of trepidation.  Was it the fact that this book, edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, from my college days, has sections devoted to scholarly criticism and notes?  James Joyce.  The author's name alone is intimidating.  More pointedly, James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, a novel of comic prose noted for its avant-garde, experimental style, which has been called one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language (according to Wikipedia).

James Joyce, courtesy of Wikipedia
Irish novelist and poet James Joyce (1882-1941) is considered to be one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century.  He's well known for his novel Ulysses (1922), a lengthy book that establishes a series of parallels between its characters and events and those in Homer's Odyssey.  In addition to three books of poetry, a play, and published letters, other works by James Joyce are his short story collection, Dubliners (1914), and his novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939).  I decided to revisit Dubliners, an older book I've had on my shelves since my college days, for Mel's third annual Irish Short Story Month, a special event on The Reading Life.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I did not retain any of my school notes on the stories in Dubliners, and it felt as if I were reading these stories for the first time, although I did feel an inkling of familiarity, and I did not think, thankfully, that these stories were too difficult to understand.

Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce, was first published in 1914, when Irish nationalism was at its peak.  I read several of the stories, in order (for the most part), starting with the opening story, The Sisters, which is a good introduction to this collection of stories, and to the work of James Joyce in a larger sense, in terms of the setting and the themes (Dublin, and religious issues, such as guilt).  Apparently, many of the characters in Dubliners reappear later in small roles in his novel, Ulysses.  The first few stories in Dubliners are narrated (in the first person) by young (child) protagonists, while subsequent stories focus on the lives of (progressively) older people, in accordance with James Joyce's tripartite division of development, from childhood to adolescence to maturity.  His stories often feature epiphanies, moments when main characters experience self-understanding or illumination.

My comments are general, as I read many stories in this collection, including The Sisters, An Encounter, Araby, and Eveline.  (I'll read more of the stories, including what has been called his best story, The Dead, which is also the last story in this collection.)  I was relieved to learn that James Joyce wrote exclusively (or almost exclusively) about Dublin, Ireland.  Since his work is focused on Dublin, I was able to remain in Dublin, rather than travel all over (there's a measure of comfort in going to a new place and staying there for a while).

Map of Dublin inside of the book

"For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.  In the particular is contained the universal."
~James Joyce

James Joyce's Irish experiences were essential to his writing and stories, which are set in Dublin.  In addition to being the setting, Dublin is also a "character" in these stories, and there are numerous descriptions of the streets of Dublin (as in the third story, Araby, which begins with a description of quiet North Richmond Street).  

Religion was a fixture in Dublin and is a strong theme in this collection of short fiction. In the first story, The Sisters, the narrator, a young boy, Jack, has just learned that his older friend, Father Flynn, has died of "paralysis".  In the second story, An Encounter, two poor boys throw rocks at the narrator and his friend, Mahony, and mistake them for Protestants (the tension between Catholics and Protestants is alluded to throughout the stories in Dubliners).  In the third story, Araby, the narrator, an unnamed boy, recalls the priest who died in the back drawing-room of the house before his family moved in.  Religion is heavily featured in these stories, which depict Irish middle class life in the early years of the 20th century. 

While reading, not surprisingly, I came across a few words to highlight for Wondrous Words Wednesday, a wonderful weekly wordie meme hosted by Kathy from BermudaOnion's Weblog.  Each of these words is from the first story in the book, The Sisters, and two of the words are related to religion.

Breviary, courtesy of Wikipedia
1. breviary: A breviary (from the Latin word brevis, meaning short or brief) is a book of the Latin liturgical rites of the Catholic Church containing the public or canonical prayers, hymns, the Psalms, readings, and notations for everyday use, especially by bishops, priests, and deacons.

"Whenever I'd bring in his soup to him there, I'd find him with his breviary fallen to the floor, lying back in his chair with his mouth open."
~The Sisters, James Joyce

The word can also refer to a collection of Christian orders of prayers and readings, from Anglican or Lutheran resources. It may be used to refer to an abridged version of any text or a brief summary of some subject, but is usually used to refer to the Catholic liturgical book.

2. simoniac: a person who practices simony, which is the buying or selling of church offices or powers. 

"But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin." ~The Sisters, James Joyce

This word stems from Simon Magus (Acts 8:18), who tried to buy the power of conferring the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles.  Simony was said to have become widespread in Europe in the 10th –11th century, as promotions to the priesthood or episcopate were bestowed by monarchs and nobles, often in exchange for oaths of loyaltyMore widely, it's any contract of this kind forbidden by divine or ecclesiastical law.

3. truculent: eager or quick to argue or fight; aggressively defiant; savage

"His face was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous nostrils and circled by a scanty white fur."
~The Sisters, James Joyce

I'm glad I looked this word up because I thought it meant thin or transparent (referring to facial skin), or something of that nature. The sentence above is the boy's description of the priest who has just died, Father James Flynn.

Have you read Dubliners, or other works by James Joyce?  As always, I welcome your comments.


  1. Great post!

    I love your choice of words!

    I have only read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce bit I plan on reading more. I think that in the year or two I may take the plunge and tackle the Everest of literature and read Ulysses.

  2. I'm not surprised you found several new words in his writing - that's part of why I'm afraid of it. I've always thought his writing would be too smart for me. You've made me think I should try a short story.

    1. Kathy, I thought this would be a good book for WWW-- and it is! I hope you will give Dubliners a try.

  3. Also afraid of this author, I may well give Dubliners a try though. Finnegans Wake sounds way too ambitious for a newcomer to his works.

    Another set of great words. I'm proud to say I knew all of them this week even if I had been using truculent incorrectly.

  4. I read "The Dead" in high school, but since then, I haven't given Joyce a try. I am really intimidated by him, and your review gives me heart that I can try him and not get in over my head. I think that you did a great job convincing everyone that his writing is not only for the snooty set!!

  5. I'm ashamed to write but I never read a James Joyce's book. Thanks yo you and your post, I think I'll begin with "The Dubliners", but... in French.

  6. Thank you Suko! I'd like to start writing short stories, and although I'm sure writing styles have changed in 100 years, perhaps I should give this collection a look. I also have one of his novels sitting on my shelves but have never dared to read it. You have inspired me. Also- love the words. I'm Catholic- I knew of Lectionary, but not Breviary. I remember "truculent" best from the movie "Jerry McGuire"- Cuba Gooding's character is described as being "truculent with the media."

  7. Well, I'm a little afraid of James Joyce too. I probably shouldn't be, but once that thought gets stuck in the brain it's hard to shake it loose.

  8. I'm afraid of James Joyce too. I read one of the stories in The Dubliners as a token Joyce effort, I didn't really enjoy it, and didn't finish the book, it wasn't as bad as I was expecting though. Three interesting words though.

  9. Great post! I enjoyed reading this.

  10. It's been a while since I've read Joyce and would not try anything close to Ulysses because of the unusual words and stream of consciousness technique. I do remember enjoying Portrait....and must pick up a few of his short stories some day.

    1. These short stories are the foundation of (at least some of) his later work. Thanks for your comments!

  11. Come to think of it, Suko. I do remember the story Araby and a grad student that was to impressed by it that he named his first son Araby.

  12. Suko-thanks so much for your 3rd year of participation-it means a lot to me-The short stories of Joyce with the possible exception of "The Dead" are not difficult works-

    I am holding Irish Short Story month open until at least April 7-this year we have a new feature-over 40 q and a sessions with Irish writers

    if you want to participate or just look around it is at

  13. Mel, I luckily had time over spring break to "tackle" Dubliners. Thanks for hosting ISSM again. It's truly a great event. I've been enjoying your interviews a lot.

  14. I'm racking my brain right now to see if I've read anything by James Joyce and I honestly can't remember! I guess I haven't, but I also know I need to be in the right mood to read Irish literature.

  15. I read Joyce in college and have always wanted to read his novels but I know I would rather read them with someone else so we can enjoy the work together (or at least commiserate, LOL). My son said he wanted to read FW but he's currently reading _Gravity's Rainbow_.

  16. Truculent is also a Latin-based word and comes from the Latin 'truculentus', which I would translate as 'gruesome' or also 'graphic'. Writing a truculent scene in a book, is writing a scene with a lot of blood and detailed descriptions of how the blood was spilled. As for 'breviary', those who are not catholic might not know it, but it is a mandatory reading for every Catholic priest, being considered part of his every day duties, along with saying Mass. Because of it, in Italian, the word has taken the meaning of a book or anyway an information source which one finds very trust-worthy and consults very often, if not daily. For instance, in Italian a fashionista could say that Vogue magazine is her 'breviary' when looking for outfits á la mode!

    1. Louisa, thanks very much for your terrific comment about the wondrous words! I like how you related the word truculent to writing, and about how breviary may be used in a more general sense.

  17. I'm writing a novel about Simon Magus, and Joyce has been one of my inspriations. if you're interested!


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