In my Foundations of Literary Studies class, we were assigned to read James Joyce's novella "The Dead," which is featured in his collection Dubliners. I thoroughly enjoyed "The Dead," so I decided to read Dubliners over my Christmas break. I love short story collections, and Dubliners by far is one of the best I have ever read. I consider it the literary equivalent of a concept album, for each story is united by a common theme of social, psychological, and personal paralysis afflicting Dubliners of all ages. Joyce himself was terrified of the prospect of ending up like these characters--jaded and internally suffocating--and listed this fear as one of the reasons he fled Ireland. I think Joyce's strong feelings about the subject, justified or not, is exactly the reason why these stories are so powerful.
The fifteen short stories are divided up in four sections that span childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and public life. Most of the story lines are fairly commonplace--unrequited love, jealousy, and inferiority complexes. But, if you're even the slightest bit familiar with any of Joyce's work, you'll know that you don't read Joyce for plot. Joyce is a genius at creating complex characters and evocative atmosphere and absolutely gorgeous prose. And those three things are exactly what stand out so much about these short stories. Even if you've read a hundred stories about someone in a relationship with commitment issues, I dare say Joyce's "Eveline" will be the most exquisitely crafted one you'll ever read. That being said, as much as I liked the stories about children and teens, the aforementioned "Eveline" and "Araby" being my two favorites from those sections, I think the latter stories about adults and public life are the most memorable. My three favorites are "Little Cloud," a riveting tale of frustration and friendship; "A Painful Case," a heartbreaking story that relates the doomed relationship of lonely bank clerk and closet socialist Duffy and the wife of a sea captain; and "The Dead," the novella that chronicles painfully awkward intellectual Gabriel Conroy's night at his aunt's party, which leads to a startling revelation about Gabriel's own wife.
As you're reading this review,you may be thinking, "Ahem, Zella, it's all fine and good that you want to read dreary stories about sad people in Ireland, but I don't need to read a whole book full of it." I can understand that. The stories are certainly sad--a book devoted to the study of figurative paralysis isn't exactly a pick-me-up read. And because of the emphasis on character and atmosphere, the pacing is measured and the stories can seem a bit anti-climactic, if the endings aren't flat-out sorrowful or shocking. I know that type of fiction isn't for everyone. In that case, perhaps just read "The Dead," easily the most famous of the selections in Dubliners. The story is full of the superb characterization, atmosphere, and wordsmithing that is a hallmark of the other stories and is perhaps the most blatant in its portrayal of paralysis. The final paragraph is one of the most analyzed in all of literature. Regardless of whether you want to delve into the text that deeply--though it actually is fun! No, really! Don't glare at me and curse English majors under your breath--Joyce's beautiful prose, which there are not enough adjectives to adequately praise, is well on display here.
If you're looking for some meaty reading this holidays, give Dubliners a read. This selection is probably one of the more accessible of Joyce's works. If you want to sample Joyce but would prefer not to read through the whole book, at least give "The Dead" a chance.
Announcements: I am so, so, so, so sorry for not having posted a book review in three months. Things have been crazy lately, but I would like to return to posting regularly, if not weekly, in 2011. Next semester, I am taking four literature classes *gulp* and I am going to have a slightly easier work-study job, so maybe I'll be able to keep up better than this semester.
This Week in Literary History: 29 December 1916: This ties in so well with my review today, but on this date in history, James Joyce published his novel Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Though Dubliners was published in 1914, this novel is the one that brought him fame. Of course, Joyce being Joyce, he followed this success with his landmark stream-of-consciousness novels Ulysses, which was censored for years after publication, and Finnegans Wake, which is widely considered one of the most difficult novels in the English language.
Next Week: Probably a review of Stephen King's The Green Mile.