James Joyce´s work is consagrated to Ireland.The city of Dublin is the location for all his
novels and short stories, and it is presented as the archetypal metropolis of western civilisation.
His four main works, Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916),
Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939), are all set in his native Dublin.
In Dubliners, for example, it is clear that Joyce intended it the very least to be a realist´s study
of his native city, a work representative of Irish experience.
Writing to William Heinemann (to whom he had first sent the manuscript in hopes of
publication) he insisted:
"The book is not a collection of tourist impressions but an attempt toLetters, II,109
represent certain aspects of the life of one of the European capitals".
To his brother Stanislaus, he wrote, reinforcing the point:
"When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of
years,that is the second city of the British Empire,that it is nearly three
times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the
world". Letters, II, III
The Dublin which in the early twentieth century lay open to the inspection of Joyce´s
realism was a city which certainly exhibited much evidence of its significance in the scheme
of things, being endowed with much splendid architecture and an urban layout that allowed its
citizens to appreciate its magnificent setting on the river Liffey between the open arms of a
great bay and beneath the rolling mountains of County Wicklow to the South.
Dublin was very much a walker´s city, aspect we can notice in Joyce´s works, as in Dubliners
and Ulysses the characters spend much time on their feet or on brief journeys by cab or tram
so that peregrination becomes almost a principle of composition.
Dubliners is a kind of geographical, religious, political and cultural persuasive portrait of
Dublin city at that time.
The new nationalism is an object of Joyce´s satiric impatience, specially in Dubliners.
Not all Irishmen and women were content to acquiesce in the provincial lethargy and colonial
subjugation which Joyce so intently documented in Dubliners. In fact, two movements
appeared in these years, the Irish Ireland movement, at its most political in the foundation of
Cumann na nGaedheal (Confederation of the Gaels) by Arthur Griffith; and the Irish Literary
Revival, headed by W.B.Yeats.
In 1906, Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus about the Irish Ireland movement as it
manifested itself in a new political power in the land:
"You ask me what I would substitute for parliamentary agitation in Ireland.
I think the Sinn Fein policy would be more effective"
He added however:
"If the Irish programme did not insist on the Irish language I suppose I could
call myself a nationalist.As it is, I am content to recognise myself an exile:
and, prophetically, repudiated one".
While there may have been something in Sinn Fein´s proteccionist economic theories and
policy of parliamentary abstention to appeal to Joyce´s nationalism, Griffith´s lack of socialist
feeling was a signal deficiency to a writer whose continental experience was of serious class
politics in Italy. Also, to the cosmopolitan Joyce , Griffith´s antisemitic xenophobia was
intolerable. In his words:
"What I object to most of all in his paper is that it is educating the people of
Ireland on the old pap of racial hatred whereas anyone can see that if the
Irish question exists, it exists for the Irish proletariat chiefly".
Irish Ireland ideologues, Literary Revival propagandists and Joyce himself, all shared one
crucial thing: a belief that Ireland´s ills had a source in English domination of the country.
In fact, Joyce the pacifist and almost lifelong exile produced what was unquestionably the
most succinct account of Ireland´s case against her powerful neighbour,in terms not even an
ultra-nationalist could have deemed insufficiently harsh:
"She enkindled its factions and took over its treasury".
J.Joyce, Critical Writings.
But unlike most other Irish nationalists, of whatever stripe and however zealous, he was no
less cogent and outspoken in his judgements on that other power in the land, the Holy Roman,
Catholic and Apostolic Church, which exercised, in Joyce´s view, an even more disabling
Irish Ireland was robustly Catholic; and the Revival writers, mostly Protestant by background
and agnostic or indifferent by inclination, while sometimes closet anti-Catholics, had to be
careful not to alienate by too obvious an anti-clericalism the majority they wished to
Joyce, inhibited neither by a patriotic nor a strategic regard for the faith of `his´
fathers, and certainly not by a timid or prudent disinclination to give offence , addressed the
religious issue with marked candour. He stated categorically:
"I do not see what good it does to fulminate against the English tiranny
while the Roman tyranny occupies the palace of the soul".
As Chris Verschuyl says, one of Joyce´s major complaints about the Irish people of his
time, as expressed throughout Dubliners, is "their pointless inaction, their apathetic disregard
for their own long-term good".
Joyce expresses this using the term "paralysis". "My intention", he
"…was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose
Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis".
Letters, II, 134
As Sydney Bolt has put it :
"It was the Irish, rather than the English, whose oppression he fled from.
The struggle for Irish independence did not, of course, leave him unmoved.
He held decided views on the major issues involved, and even after his
departure continued to follow political developments with interest in the
nationalist press.But his conception of national enslavement was deeper
and subtler than that of the patriots.He believed that the condition of slavery
had produced a "slavish mentality" in Ireland".
In "Two Gallants", one of the short stories in Dubliners, Joyce exposes the shortcomings
of the oppressed Irish Catholic way of living, and redirects some of the blame onto his
countrymen for their unwillingness to work for positive change, for a better Ireland.
Joyce establishes the characters in this story, Lenehan and Corley, as completely unforgivable
characters, their passivity is to be interpreted as wrong.
The paralysis that shows up in the other stories, more explicitly religious and political (as in
the essentially actionless discussions in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"), can be interpreted
as Joyce´s didactic statement.
Joyce speaks against the Irish inaction, he says that the people of Ireland refuse to make any
effort towards positive change for themselves.
In Dubliners, he attempts to begin the process of a move away from static "paralysis" towards
a sense of collective agency for positive change. But he is limited, he depends on the people of
Ireland, in whom he has little or no faith, to fight for the change he says they so desperately
need. He couldn´t understand the prudery and caution of publishers to print his book of stories,
Dubliners. (They were fearful of Joyce´s realism in some matters and of his many references
to living persons). He wrote to Grant Richards:
"..I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland
by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves
in my nicely polished looking-glass".
In a very interesting article, "The Grotesque Machinery of the Dubliners",
Zephyr P.Stuart talks about, among other things, the relation between the spiritual poverty of
people of Dubliners and the industrial age. He says Joyce gives images of mechanized
humans and animated machines."Machines seize human attributes and vitality in opposition to
the vacuous citizens of Ireland´s capitalist city. Joyce´s use of metaphorical language brings to
life the despair of his country".
The Irish were consumed with the Continent as a superior place of afluence and culture.
They searched an escape from the dreariness of Dublin. Z.P.Stuart thinks that with this idea of
utopia across the ocean,people lost interest in every day life and became stagnant. He says that
the belief in this myth transformed humans, reducing them to a state of mechanized paralysis
without identity. Let´s see an example:
"Sightseers had gattered in clumps to watch the cars careening homeward and
through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth and
industry".After the Race.Dubliners.
Here we can certainly appreciate the contrast between the inanimate clumps of people and the
technology coming from the Continent".
Stuart concludes by saying that therefore, Dubliners were anesthetied by their truths and
experienced a paralysis of their human possibilities.
Dubliners is, as numbers of critics have shown, a work in which detail, incident and image
combine to establish a vision of life in the capital of Ireland, which serves as a metaphor for
the spiritual condition of the Irish nation as a whole.
"It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my
stories", Joyce had written of Dubliners, sixteen years before the publication of Ulysses in
1922, and had referred to Dublin as "the centre of paralysis". In Ulysses, the paralysis remains
too, deep in the book, as Arnold Kettle says. He sees that Harry Levin
makes the point well:
"Streets intersect, shops advertise, homes have party walls and fellow-citizens
depend upon the same water supply; but there is no co-operation between
human beings.The individual stands motionless, like Odysseus becalmed in
the doldrums". James Joyce (1944),96.
Ulysses, says A.Kettle, is a triumphant piece of realism, a book about convincingly real people
in an actual city; presented with a regard for detail that "would have made a French naturalist
James Joyce, in spite of his coleagues´ insistance, never took part in the nationalist
movement. He always avoided participating.
He was, his brother wrote once, a " genius character, and possessed extraordinary moral
courage" , which expressed itself in a scornful disregard for conventional opinion.
His instinct was for the truth of life as he saw it and his moral engagement involved him in a
search for modes of artistic expression which would serve that truth, whatever the
When he wrote of forging the uncreated conscience of his race he meant what he said
And knew as well as James or Conrad or Hamlet the ramifications of the word conscience.
"I believe that in composing my chapter of moral history in exactly the way I have composed it, I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country ".
As Arnold Kettle says, Joyce, the pacifist "liberator", worked in his own way, the exile´s
way, through art.
James Joyce, the man and the writer, loved the "Emerald Island" as much as any other
Nationalist. Although he left Dublin in 1904, he returned endlessly to the city in every page he
© Copyright 1999/2000 María Rodríguez Moran