Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Dubliners, by James Joyce

Why You Should Read Dubliners: Because it will terrify you into following your dreams before it’s too late. And because you’ll be able to say that you’ve read James Joyce without having to spend hours trying to figure out what the word bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk is supposed to mean.

Book Size: Medium and friendly. It’s divided into short stories, which makes reading quick and pleasant, right up until the last three pages of the book punch you in the gut.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

Dubliners is too cool for a plot. It may be the least modernist of James Joyce’s famous works (unless you count his kinky letters to his wife), but it’s still an experiment: an attempt to tell a story through the lives of dozens of different people who never meet and just happen to live in the same place at the same time.

So: Dubliners is a series of stories covering quick moments in many characters’ lives, and we never see any of the characters again after their single episodes are over. The book as a whole follows the outline of a life. In the first few stories, young children have their first encounters with things like death, sex, and love. As the book progresses, the characters get older: first teenagers making plans, then young married couples figuring out their futures, then parents, then middle-aged people, and, well, the last story is called “The Dead” for a reason.

Despite the fact that none of these people ever meet, a few things connect them. For one, they all seem to have very bad luck. Their love affairs go sour, their families are unhappy, and their lives don’t take the paths that they want. The characters also tend to be dreamers, full of hopes and fantasies all through their lives — which makes it even sadder that those dreams never seem to come true.

They’ve got one other thing in common, too: they all live in Dublin, and they all wish they didn’t.

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The characters hate Dublin, blame it for their problems, dream of exotic far-off lands — and then find themselves sucked in and trapped in their city all the same.

That’s the question, really: is Dublin the city where dreams go to die, or is hating Dublin just a convenient excuse when you’re too scared to fight for what you want?

 

The Characters:

The kids. Bright-eyed and full of passionate intensity, the characters in the early stories go after what they want — love, learning, adventure — with all of their hearts and souls, only to be bruised and let down by the boring, tawdry, dangerous nature of the world they live in. We don’t get to watch the kids grow up, but we can already tell these disappointments will shape the rest of their lives.

The adults. In the book’s middle section, young adults wrestle with their first big decisions: should they run away with the boy, quit the job, spend the money, leave the girl; or should they stick to the safe but unhappy paths that have been chosen for them by other people? These characters know in their hearts that fortune favors the brave, but they also know that the brave probably doesn’t include them.

The dead. In the book’s last section (leading up to the final story, “The Dead,”) we witness the consequences of the choices characters made when they were young play out when they’re old. Through a dozen crisscrossing paths, all of them eventually wind up in the same place: lonely, unsatisfied, disappointed, bitter, and deeply confused about what the hell happened.

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The Themes and Ideas:

Weird love and getting old. While these characters struggle with all sorts of hopes and dreams, the ones that lead to the biggest trainwrecks (literally!) are the dreams about love.

One thing that keeps a lot of the characters in Dubliners from ever finding love is that they tend to fall for people they don’t know well and then panic the first time those people do something they don’t expect. From the little boy in one of the first stories who gives up on his crush when he can’t buy her the present she wants, to the old man in a later story who deserts his only friend when he finds out she’s interested in sex, most of the characters prefer safe, controlled fantasies to scary, unpredictable relationships with actual human beings — and then wonder why they end up alone.

It doesn’t help that Dublin is a terrible place to fall in love — in 1914, it’s still just an overgrown small town where religion and family have more power than any one person could fight. Over and over again, characters find themselves pressured into getting married and having children before they’re ready, with people they don’t really like, and then forced into a life of drudgery for the sake of their new families — until they wake up ten years later and realize they’ve missed any chance they had at the real thing.

And then there’s just the plain fact of getting old: we get to watch the intense passion of childhood romance fade to the meh, good enough, I guess of baggage-ridden adult relationships over many stories, and the comparison is not a fun one.

In the last story, a character named Gabriel discovers his wife is still hung up on a teenage boy named Michael Furey, who, thirty years earlier, had died after he stood outside her window all night in the rain. Gabriel has this heartbreaking line when he finds out: He had never felt like that himself toward any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.

You get the sense that most of the characters in Dubliners only ever get to learn about love through other people’s stories, and you get the sense there’s nothing in the world sadder than that.

Paralysis. In the very first story in Dubliners, a little boy sees death for the first time — a priest paralyzed by a stroke finally succumbs to his illness. The little boy pictures paralysis as an evil creature attacking his friend, yet he’s both scared of it and fascinated with it: he wants to run away from it, but also wants to watch it do its evil deeds.

If there’s a villain in Dubliners (besides the characters themselves, who are their own worst enemies) it’s that evil beast, paralysis. All of the characters are paralyzed by something — their families, their religion, their poverty, their philosophy, their pride— but most of all, they’re paralyzed by their own fears; their own unwillingness to take risks for the sake of happiness.

Most of them blame this paralysis on Dublin and dream of fleeing. As children, they imagine fairy-tale countries and adventures; by the time they’re adults, they’ll settle for South America or Europe or, hell, even London. If they can just get away from Dublin, they believe, all of their problems will disappear.

In the end, though, just like the goblins in my favorite fairytale, they’re trapped by nothing but their own hands, gripping all the things they don’t dare to let go of.

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TL;DR

The very first line of Dubliners is “there was no hope for him this time,” and that’s about as accurate a summary as you’re going to get.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

 

Side Effects of Reading This Book May Include:

Chronic paralysis. Ask your doctor if paralysis stalks you like a maleficent and sinful being, filling you with fear and a longing to look upon its deadly work.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…where James Joyce went with these ideas after he finished Dubliners, try Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which he was already writing by the time Dubliners was published, and which translates many of the themes in Dubliners into a much longer story about the life of one young man. It’s a good stepping stone between the very accessible writing in Dubliners and denser, more innovative stuff like Ulysses, but still a safe distance away from the fever dream that is Finnegans Wake. Also a good lead-in to Dylan Thomas’ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, and, later, Art Spiegelman’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!.
 
…books of interconnected short stories about characters who never actually meet, try Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Like Dubliners, it’s less of a story and more of a meditation on the same idea as it appears in the lives of many different people. Also provides a bountiful harvest of story titles that would make amazing indie band names. (I have dibs on “Tell the Women We’re Going,” but “So Much Water So Close to Home” is still up for grabs).
 
…books written by people who have complicated relationships with Ireland, try Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. I may be biased here because both Frank and his brother Malachy narrate parts of my Dubliners audiobook, but the two books seem to have a lot in common in terms of theme besides their authors’ love/hate for their countries of origin. Be warned, though: the book is exactly as cheery as the name suggests.

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(header image from an illustration by Chip Zdarsky)