Home > 1910, 20th Century, EU Book Tour, Irish Literature, Joyce James, Short Stories > Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce?

Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce?

Dubliners by James Joyce. 1914.

I’m well aware that my post title will raise eyebrows or bring frowns on faces. I’ll explain later. I’m not going to introduce Dubliners here, I don’t see the point of poorly rephrasing what is already written on Wikipedia. So check here if you need explanations. This is my first James Joyce, a writer I’ve never read because I thought he was daunting. After several recommendations from readers I finally decided to try Dubliners. What can I say? I was stupid not to have read it before. It’s beautifully written and of course Joyce is a great author. So thanks for the recommendation.

Dubliners is a vivid picture of Dublin before the independence. He caught me with Araby, Eveline, A Painful Case and particularly with The Dead. I loved his style (“Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance.”), his quick thoughts about humanity (“Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money”), his descriptions of faces (“His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets.” Or “He wore a round hat of hard black felt. His face, shining with raindrops, had the appearance of damp yellow cheese save where two rosy spots indicated the cheekbones.”). I really enjoyed his wit and his gift at describing characters:

She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.

Sometimes I found French way of speaking with English words. “What age are you?” which is exactly what French pupils learning English would tend to say instead of How old are you? (Literal translation of the French Quel âge as-tu?) Same comment for “how goes it?” (Comment ça va?)

But he lost me sometimes.

He lost me in the language but that was predictable. So I asked for help and downloaded a French translation and went back and forth the original and the French. There were many expressions (“that emphatically takes the biscuit” or “He’s gone to the dogs.”) or sometimes acronyms (a.p. for appointment, g.p. for I don’t know what except that I don’t think they were drinking a doctor, so I assume, being in Dublin, that it was beer). The problem was that he lost the kindle’s dictionary too with words such as barmbracks or peloothered, which was less predictable. Hence the French translation. Then I got angry at the translator for unnecessary changes. Why does Maria from Clay became Ursule in French? And why a man of 66 became a man of 70? But all in all, it helped me with the original.

He lost me in Two Gallants, I never quite understood what the two guys wanted from the girl, even after reading it in French. Prostitution? Sorry for being slow…

He lost me in a sea of boredom in Grace. – Yes, holiday by the coast, can’t help sea metaphores – All that stuff about religion. Perhaps he wanted to show how boring religion was to him.

He totally lost me in Ivy Day in the Committee Room as it is rife with political issues. I knew about Parnell but my mind went blank when I read about all the details about politics, King Edward’s visit to Ireland and so on.

He lost me in the internal cracks and divisions about nationalism and independence, like here:

O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile. “Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.

I assumed the Daily Express was a pro-London paper and I guessed that West Briton is an insult. That’s the point: I guessed and I can’t tell if I guessed right.

He lost me in the streets and the public transports of Dublin, a city I’ve never visited although I’d love to. I felt I was missing something there, Joyce obviously loves his city and his people. I’m sure it’s pretty evocative for a native but I felt left aside from private jokes. And that’s the persisting feeling about it. Although I was blown away by The Dead, I felt I was intruding in a book written for Irish people about their lives, their customs, their history and their identity. I felt Joyce wanted to show them who they are, from childhood to old age and that they should stand for themselves.

Hence my post title.

But I’ll let Joyce have the last word with his observation of changes in the Irish society:

A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.

For another review, read Sarah’s here.

Max’s review is available here

  1. August 6, 2011 at 2:41 am

    It’s been a few years since I read this, but I remember that Araby was one of my favourites too. It sounds as though the translator took some liberties.


    • August 6, 2011 at 7:20 am

      In Araby he really has a wonderful way to describe young and pure love . The Dead is definitely a masterpiece.


  2. August 6, 2011 at 6:21 am

    I don’t really know what to say, as this book is almost sacred to me, it is one of my top 10 favourite books,picking it apart, would hurt almost me, if you know what I mean. I didn’t have any problems or felt “left out”.


    • August 6, 2011 at 7:29 am

      Don’t misunderstand me.
      It’s extremely well written, I loved some of the stories and enjoyed most of the others. The only one I really didn’t like is Grace.
      But it is openly full of innuendos I didn’t catch and yes, I felt I was watching through a glass and missing what he really wanted to tell. It’s not the first time I read a book with references I didn’t understand. But maybe because this one is so good I was frustrated not to have it all. I expected Irish references and read about Irish history on Wikipedia before starting the book but it wasn’t enough.
      I can’t speak for Sarah but I think my review echoes hers.


  3. August 10, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks for the link. I see that your experience of Dubliners closely mirrors mine.

    Peloothered is a wonderful word isn’t it? I think I mentally translated those kinds of words in context, which is fine providing you don’t try to use them in conversation. There is always the possibility of having got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

    Two Gallants was hard. The gist is that the men need the girl to steal for them (if I remember correctly) but it certainly misleads you into thinking that prostitution is their aim. Is this too about the plight of Ireland? It was a particularly Irish story, with all that walking and all those street names…

    I think every review I have seen of this book cites The Dead as favourite. Including mine.


    • August 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm

      I was luckier than you with those words: I had a translation!!
      In Two Gallants, the translator chose to translate “leech” by “souteneur” (pimp). I first read it in English and I thought that Lenehan was just a sponger. Then the end puzzled me. I wondered if it was prostitution. Then I read the French version, thinking my English wasn’t good enough and I was still puzzled. Except that the translator was sort of pro “prostitution explanation” (good for my English, though 🙂 )
      The Dead is wonderful. I thought I was there, with them in this room. And I fell for Gabriel, I was so sad for him.


  4. leroyhunter
    August 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Hi Emma, glad to see you get to this one, I was looking forward to your review. A thoughtful and thought-provoking one.

    Specifically on “Two Gallants”, I don’t believe prostitution is the implication. The point is that the supposed “gallants” are in fact the opposite of that: Lenehan is a sycophant and a sponger, as you guessed, and Corley is a bully who, in the end, somehow (we can only guess using what threats or persuasions) convinces the “slavey” he has taken up with to steal from her employers for his benefit – first cigars, finally the gold coin he reveals at the end. Both characters were apparently based on real people Joyce knew, in fact for Corley he didn’t even change the name. The real Corley, hearing he was “in a story” but obviously no way inclined to read it, was delighted by the fact.

    There’s no doubt that Joyce can be demanding to read, and is steeped in the history and geography of Ireland and Dublin in particular. I think there’s a certain ambiguity to a lot of the stories that belies their reputation as being “simple” when compared to his other works. He took a long time to write them, then endured agonies trying to get them published: his first contract with the Dublin publisher for the book collapsed due to objections to “Two Gallants”, and it was 9 years before Dubliners was finally published in the form we see now. Incidentally, Joyce had an idea for a story of a Jewish Dubliner (Alfred Hunter) that he proposed to include in the collection, and which would be called “Ulysses”.

    Joyce intended to show his frustrations with his native city in the stories, but also his love for the people and their talk and his pity for the plights he describes. Here are some of his thoughts on the book: “Sometimes thinking of Ireland it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh. I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city for I have never felt at ease in any city since I left it except Paris. I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality…I have not been just to its beauty”.


    • August 16, 2011 at 7:59 pm

      Hi. I was hoping you’d drop by and read this one. Thanks a lot for your comment. I really think the translator took some liberties with the text. For Two Gallants, fortunately, thanks to Twilight, I knew what leech meant.

      Fascinating quote by Joyce: I think he was too hard with himself. He perfectly managed to communicate his love for Ireland and Dubliners. Yes some characters aren’t really nice but the fact that he doesn’t describe only fantastic people makes the picture more honest, more believable. He avoided what Wharton couldn’t avoid about France in her French Ways and their Meanings. And as a reader, I was glad not to read clichés ie, nature and lakes, rain, sheep, beer and St Patrick’s Day and a prais so lyric it could have been phony.


      • leroyhunter
        August 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

        Of course, in the way of these things, Joyce’s “version” has now become a touristy cliche in its own right. But the original works are secure, and worth revisting. The kind of “misty celtic vistas” thing you mention was more Yeats’ style, and Joyce loathed Yeats when he was starting out as a writer. I think a kind of mutual respect grew up over time, and Yeats indeed provided the eternally improvident Joyce with financial support in London briefly. I remember reading at least one account of a tremendously awkward encounter between the two, as almost all such meetings involving Joyce tended to be.

        So….next up, Ulysses??


        • August 18, 2011 at 10:20 pm

          I’m not sure Joyce is widely read as he is tagged as difficult. I didn’t know any of the stories before reading them.
          Do you think Gabriel in The Dead looks like Joyce ? He prefers to go on holiday in France instead of visiting Ireland as his colleague suggests.
          Is Joyce your favourite writer?
          Ulysses, er, no, I’m not ready yet. I’ve just read an excerpt in another book and I couldn’t understand the phrase. Sure, if I start this one, it will be in French and I’ll pay attention to the translation I choose.


  5. leroyhunter
    August 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    PS – in case you didn’t track down a satisfactory explanation:
    A barmbrack is a fruit cake, usually eaten in buttered slices with tea.
    “peloothered” is a slangy way of saying “polluted”, which is itself slang for being outrageously drunk, eg “Tom had X pints last night and was absolutely polluted”.
    Yes, the Express is an English paper (and a Tory one to boot) and hence anathema to a nationalist. What would Joyce make of Irish culture today, which is more dominated by English media then ever?


    • August 16, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      Thanks for the explanations. Sarah had noticed “peloothered” too.
      The independance of media is a problem everywhere. Here, very few people read newspapers (especially compared to England or America, I don’t know how it is in Ireland) and newspaper can’t rely on subscriptions to survive. In addition to that, what would he say of the American culture and way of life invading our societies?


      • leroyhunter
        August 18, 2011 at 11:38 am

        I get the impression Joyce ignored America and its culture entirely, so it’s impossible to say: his feelings about England were driven by different imperatives. He was famously involved in the first cinema venture in Ireland, so maybe he’d have loved Hollywood and all that jazz. Multi-nationals and consumerism? Probably not so much.


  6. Seany
    August 19, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    I was curious about what you said on Joyce’s love for Dub: “Joyce obviously loves his city and his people.” If I can quote the TLS peice on him: “At the time of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, someone asked James Joyce, then living in Zurich, if he looked forward to Ireland’s emergence as an independent country. “So that I might declare myself its first enemy?” was the response.”

    I always thought he couldn’t stand the place which might explain why he never returned, made sure his daughter got British citizenship, didn’t bother obtaining Irish citizenship even after Home Rule – and made no arrangements to be buried there when he died.


    Last words to the man himself: “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”


    • August 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting.
      I’m not a great reader of bios – obviously.
      I don’t know what to tell you: that’s what I felt when I read Dubliners. Really, it doesn’t sound written by a man who despised his country. Or perhaps he despised the elites and didn’t want to mix into politics. The ruling class of that time might have expected him to take positions on subjects if he had come home. I thought he liked the common people he describes, there’s a fondness in the descriptions.


  7. leroyhunter
    August 19, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    There is definitely a lot of Joyce in Gabriel. Let me look a couple of things up and get back on that.

    Joyce himself worked on the first French translation of Ulysses.

    Favourite? He has a special place, no doubt. For about 10 years I read one of Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist or Ulysses each year in June, so I guess there must be some reason to keep going back. Having kids put an end to that (temporarily) but I have the urge again after your post.


    • August 19, 2011 at 8:49 pm

      About Joyce / Gabriel, I wonder if his wife Gretta stands for Ireland. She’d rather go on holiday in the country, looking for her roots whereas he’d want her to go to the Continent, to move her forward to “Western” culture and anchor in this culture he thinks more sophisticated. Gabriel lives for literature and literature only. He doesn’t want to be involved in politics and thinking he could not review books in a pro-English newspaper really irritates him. The two things are different. For him, literature should be independant from politics. It’s art. Art is neutral. He doesn’t want to choose a side between the nationalists and the others. He wants to be neutral. He wants to be on the side of art.
      Gabriel loves his wife Gretta, he desires her passionately and she deceives him just at the moment he was about to show her his deep love and his passion. Even if she never cheated on him, technically, he feels betrayed and deeply wounded. Eventually, Gretta betrays him and his pure love by weeping over an old Irish song, shedding tears for her old peasant lover who died for her. Gretta is beautiful, elusive and preferring the one who gave his life for her. She’s too demanding, in a way. What do you think Gabriel did after that night? My bet is that he took a boat and left to Paris.


    • August 19, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      PS: according to my experience and that of other parents around me, you’ll have free time again when your twins are 4 or 5. Hold on!


      • leroyhunter
        August 19, 2011 at 10:44 pm

        Sometimes we play a game here where we try to imagine what we could possibly have done with all that time a few years ago….wasted it, mostly.


        • August 19, 2011 at 10:53 pm

          No need to regret. No one can imagine what it is to have young children until you have them.
          We learnt how to make the best of any opportunity to go out and enjoy some time alone. That’s why I try to do something in Paris when I’m there for work, theatre, exhibition, walk, whatever. It kills me to waste time in a hotel room when I can do something without calling a baby-sitter.


  8. leroyhunter
    August 19, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Richard Ellmann has a chapter specifically on “The Backgrounds of ‘The Dead'”. The first point is that the story of Michael Furey is directly drawn from Joyce’s wife, Nora’s, background. She told him of a sickly youth (also named Michael) who died in the circumstances Gretta describes. The idea of a prior lover riled him dreadfully.
    Ellmann: “Joyce’s conversation often returned to the word ‘betrayal’, and the entangled innocents whom he uses for his heroes are all aspects of his conception of himself.”

    Here’s the paydirt. Ellmann again: “There are several specific points at which Joyce attributes his own experiences to Gabriel. The letter which Gabriel remembers having written to Gretta..is..taken almost directly from a letter Joyce wrote to Nora in 1904. It was also Joyce, of course, who wrote book reviews, just as Gabriel does, for the Dublin ‘Daily Express’. Since the ‘Daily Express’ was pro-English, he had probably been teased for writing for it…In Gretta’s old sweetheart, in Gabriel’s letter, in the book reviews and the discussion of them, as well as in the physical image of Gabriel with hair parted in the middle and rimmed glasses, Joyce drew directly uopn his own life.”

    What do I think Gabriel did? I think he stayed, and tried to reconcile himself to Gretta and the other symbols of life in Ireland. Joyce of course did not: but I think that Gabriel is a vision of an alternative life and sensibility that Joyce could clearly conceive of, but could not embrace. I think at least part of the melancholy and regret in the story comes from that.


    • August 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      Thanks for researching, it’s very nice and really interesting.
      You’re more optimistic than me but I think you’re right about Gabriel being a vision of an alternative life.


  9. August 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Not really, I liked some of James Joyce’s stories (The Dead, A Painful Case) when I read the collection two years back but I do recall finding some of the stories dull.


    • August 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm

      Well, then you’re like me. Reading Leroy’s comments and explanations on the time Joyce took to write these stories, I think we missed some innuendos.


  10. August 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    A very nice review and a lovely discussion afterwards.

    I read this years ago and all I now remember is being hugely impressed by some of the stories, but I forget the details. I actually have it on the cards for a reread quite soon.

    The West Briton thing sounds to me like an insult linked to a perceived loyalty to the mainland (a troublesome word in itself). What’s west of Britain? Ireland. What’s a West Briton? An Irismman who thinks he’s British. I could be quite wrong though.

    I don’t think, from what I recall, that these are particularly accessible stories. They’re steeped in history and a culture few of us now reading from them are from. They’re extremely subtly written. It’s very easy from what I recall to read and find nothing much happening, and yet it is.

    Anyway, a somewhat belated comment on my part but thanks for this. I’m really looking forward to rereading this.


    • August 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm

      I’m curious to read your review when you read it.
      That’s how I interpreted West Briton as well. The society seemed deeply divised about independance and the way it infiltrates even in the tritest conversations reminded me of the Dreyfus Affair in Le Côté de Guermantes. (you’ll see that soon, perhaps)


  11. leroyhunter
    August 23, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Hi Emma…not sure what happened there, I seemed to log in under a mystery account. Strange. Delete if you like!

    Here’s the comment again anyway:
    You’re both quite right about “West Briton”…in fact the term (now simplified to West Brit) is still (although rarely) used as a term of abuse. Ironic, as the type of person likely to use it will probably be wearing a Celtic or Man U jersey and have a rolled up copy of The Sun in his back pocket.

    Emma, you’re right again about the question of independance. It’s a particularly ambiguous topic for Joyce, as despite his personal and artisitic frustrations with Ireland (often expressed in the terms Seany referenced up thread) he was a nationalist and an ardent Parnellite (following the lead of his father). The comparison with Dreyfus in Proust is spot-on.


    • August 24, 2011 at 10:17 am

      I deleted the mysterious commentor 🙂
      Thanks for the explanations.
      I recently bought a history book about La Belle Epoque. The historian makes it start in 1900 because of the beginning of the century, L’exposition Universelle and the end of the Dreyfus Affair. (though Dreyfus will be rehabilitated in 1906) It was that important in the French society.


  1. October 10, 2013 at 4:46 pm
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