The Freedom of Paralysis - James Joyce, Dubliners.


The Dubliners is not a book that can be fully absorbed in one reading. It is true of all books that subsequent visits reveal details unseen before, but Joyce’s penmanship explores life in a subtle way as the stories touch upon some of the darker aspects of society. The theme of paralysis is ever present in this compilation of short stories which, despite their separate characters and individual plot, they highlight the fear of emotional entrapment. A very brief overview of three of the short stories will help identify how Joyce encourages the reader to consider unspoken societal issues. Furthermore, I hope that this will whet your appetite to read the book, so with that in mind no endings will be revealed.

The Dubliners is part of the Open University’s A230 Reading and Studying Literature module. Although some might enjoy the book from the outset, it is likely that most readers will unearth more emotions from the characters during subsequent visits. It is a compilation  worth putting some effort to appreciate its power and depth; one that the reader can converse with the writer over the text.

‘Eveline’
 In ‘Eveline’ we meet a young woman who dreams of escaping the constraints of her patriarchal family. Eveline’s daily life is dominated by her domestic chores. Her alcoholic father is treating her more like a maid than his daughter. Even her dying mother imprisoned her with her final words to ‘look after the family’ (Joyce, 2000, p.33). In the contemporary Catholic family setting of Dublin (quote) a woman slaved in earth to receive her reward in heaven. Her father’s complaint about the ‘Damned Italians’ (Joyce, 2000, p.33) is an allusion to the constraints placed by the Catholic Church. Eveline’s escape-route was by getting married and moving away not only from her native Dublin, but emigrating from √Čire altogether. It is a paradox that to escape the dogma of a male dominated society, she has to give her sacred vows to obey yet another man. Moreover, her new life is to be formed in a far-away country [Argentina] where even the language is foreign to her. But what will be more paralysing to her, Dublin or Buenos Aires?

‘An Encounter’
In ‘An Encounter’ we meet three young boys who try to escape the constraints of their school life. These friends enjoy games of cowboys and Indians, and carry such comic books with them. The paralytic stronghold by the Catholic Church over contemporary society is once again alluded to, when one of the boys is chided for reading such 'wretched stuff' (Joyce, 2000, p.12) instead of his Roman history. One day, they decide to play truant  but only two of them arrive at the agreed meeting point. An older man appears and starts talking about ‘sweethearts and spanking’ making the boys feel uncomfortable with his questions and the shape their conversation is taking. The old man suddenly goes into the distance, but remains visible before returning a while later. Did he become aroused from images of sexuality he painted in his head and went off to masturbate? (Joyce, 2000, p.18). The boys may have tried to escape the paralysis of the classroom, but find themselves trapped by the depravity of the society where grown-ups are meant to protect its younger members. Who and what defines morality in our society?

The Boarding House’
In this short story, the existence of morality may be questioned. Mrs Mooney decides to escape from her drunken husband, and in order to feed herself and her two children she opens up a boarding house. Her separation, however valid it might be for her own well-being and that of her children, is constrained by the moral code of the Catholic marriage vows (Joyce, 2000, p.56).

She is known as ‘The Madam’ a term which immediately alludes to the running of an immoral house rather than one with lodgers who work or study in the Dublin. Her daughter Polly, who used to work in an office, is now working at the boarding house helping with its upkeep and to entertain their guests. Her working in a house full of male lodgers, unsurprisingly leads to her falling for Mr Doran; a man with an unblemished thirteen year professional record working for the same firm.

Mrs Mooney does not intervene until the right moment appears to confront Mr Doran. (Joyce, 2000, p.60) Polly’s honour can only be protected by his marrying her. Mr Doran, who had already been reprimanded the day before by The Catholic Church for his romantic liaisons, is the target of Mrs Mooney who aims to trap him by counting on the fact that he would not wish to lose his professional and personal reputation. Mr Doran feels trapped as he may have to marry beneath his station (Joyce, 2000, p.61). The sacred union of marriage in this instance is profitable to Mrs Mooney but an entrapment to Mr Doran. Will Mr Doran allow himself to be forced into marriage for the sake of his professional reputation?

The characters in The Dubliners find themselves paralysed by moral and religious codes laid down by the Catholic Church in Rome. Many Dubliners may have never visited The Vatican or have any wish to do so, yet they have to comply with, and accept its strict societal rules. Who defines morality? Perhaps Joyce wants us to reflect on whether lessons on morality are veracious or oppressive. After all, the strange old man who approaches and talks in sexual innuendos must have gone through the same schooling system as the narrator he made feel uncomfortable. It must be borne in mind that the choices made by those characters are based on their contemporary values. Today’s life choices may have been neither so freely available, nor an easy option in the early twentieth century. Perhaps choosing what they knew best over escapism to the unknown  gave them some perceived control over their lives.

What are your views?

Is there freedom in paralysis?



Joyce, J. (2000),  Dubliners, 4th ed. London: Penguin Classics.

1 comment:

  1. "Excellent blog and absorbing article on Dubliners. It is certainly a text that requires re-reading to aid understanding! It seems to me that the characters do not gain freedom in paralysis. They seem trapped in a cycle of inaction and numbness, within the death in life. Their paralysis seems all encompassing. Perhaps however, there is freedom in their desire to overcome? Ciara."

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