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Dubliners

James Joyce

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. Joyce brings the reader’s attention to everyday objects throughout his stories. Discuss some examples and explain the significance of Joyce’s use of them in the collection.

In Dubliners Joyce focuses on the restraints that everyday realities impose on important aspects of life, such as relationships. Unremarkable objects thus gain remarkable importance in the characters’ lives as symbols of such imposition, and in doing so they illustrate the detrimental impact of the mundane and the routine. In “A Painful Case,” for example, Joyce walks the reader through Mr. Duffy’s sparsely decorated home. Everyday objects are crucial here because so few of them are present, and the ones that Joyce notes reflect Mr. Duffy’s values. Almost everything, such as his furniture and his linens, is black or white, and extremely organized. Mr. Duffy’s relationships share similar qualities. He cannot endure the grey, in-between state of his interactions with Mrs. Sinico, nor can he tolerate the messiness of intimacy. In Mr. Duffy’s case, objects serve as a microcosm of his person and as a commentary on the loneliness that a preoccupation with detail can harbor. His concern with rectitude may ensure the straightened appearance of his home, but it undermines the possibility of love.

Typical objects also bolster the palpable realism of the stories in the collection. When Joyce describes a character sipping a drink or munching on food, as he does with Lenehan in “Two Gallants,” the character becomes real and accessible because of the specific meal he eats and is no longer a distant, abstract figure on the page. Lenehan eats not just dinner, but a dinner of peas and ginger beer. While many of the objects might be unfamiliar to modern or non-Irish readers, they nevertheless create an authenticity that encourages the reader to observe characters closely. Joyce makes the reader privy to all aspects of his characters’ lives: both the uneventful necessities and the lofty thoughts, and the connection between the two.

2. In the first three stories of Dubliners, Joyce uses first-person narration, though for the rest of the collection he uses third-person. What purpose do the two narrative approaches serve?

With the first-person narration of “The Sisters,” Joyce immediately pulls the reader into the collection. The intimate storytelling of this and the following two stories creates a sense of shared experience: the narrator speaks to the reader as a fellow Dubliner. The transition to the third person in “Eveline” does not necessarily create a detached feeling, but with the rest of the collection the reader becomes a voyeur, watching the ebb and flow of Dublin life as Joyce does. At the same time, Joyce manages to include the same sort of intimacy of the first-person narration in the third-person narration. When he describes a scene, he allows the prose to mimic the thoughts of the protagonist. Being a Dubliner, Joyce suggests, is feeling like both a part of a community as well as an outsider to it. In turn, the narrative arc of the collection, starting with “The Sisters” and ending with “The Dead,” invites the reader into Dublin as someone who feels the snow connecting his or her life to others, like Gabriel does, for example, but in remote and cold ways.

The two forms of narration in Dubliners also mark a division between stories with young protagonists and stories with adult protagonists. Having the children narrate in first-person, however, produces articulate and eloquent stories, not simplistic, childish action. Other than the fact that these narrators use “I,” the language of the earlier stories is almost the same as that of the later stories. Such similarity hints at an equalizing of childhood and adulthood—a person is a Dubliner at all ages. But it also suggests that in adulthood, people lose the affirmative power of directing their own stories. The hope and desire of the Dubliner youth fits with a self-aware “I,” whereas the often downtrodden, resigned adults of the later stories, worn out from the hardships of Dublin life, struggle to find their individual voices.

3. Discuss the role of story titles in the collection. How does a given title interact with its story and with the titles of other stories? What is the significance of the collection’s title?

Joyce chooses titles that often seem unrelated at the beginnings of stories but deeply symbolic by their conclusions. As such, he requires his readers to make interpretations. With the title of “Two Gallants,” for example, the reader expects a story about two gentlemen, but gradually realizes that the protagonists are nothing of the sort. The irony of the title underscores the fact that the story implicitly critiques the lives of Lenehan and Corley, and also suggests the false images that people assign to themselves. Lenehan and Corley probably think themselves to be two gallants, but Joyce shows them to be otherwise. Joyce’s choice of titles also serves to create dialogue between the stories. The titles of the opening and closing stories of the collection, for example, could be interchangeable. “The Sisters” fits the content of that story, but it could also appropriately describe the final story, which also involves two aged siblings. Likewise, “The Dead” could serve as the title for the first story, which begins with the anticipation of a death.

Such connections generate a sense of unity in the collection, as well as a circle. By creating titles that intermingle thematically with each other as “The Sisters” and “The Dead” do, Joyce constructs a narrative loop that recalls the circular routines of the lives portrayed in the stories. As such, the title for the collection is significant. These stories depict as well asenact the Dublin life that all of them share. Such circularity defines Joyce’s characters, and the title of the collection fixes them to that cycle with the suggestion that life in Dublin, at least for these figures, can be no other way.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Of the fifteen stories in Dubliners, Joyce focuses on women as protagonists in only four stories, but women appear throughout the collection in various small roles, often in relation to male protagonists. What is the symbolic role of these latter women? Consider particular stories as well as the collection as a whole.

2. As the title implies, Dubliners examines the lives of people in Ireland’s capital, and Joyce provides ample geographical details. Since not all readers are familiar with Dublin, such details can be unfamiliar. What purpose, then, do these elements serve?

3. Consider the number of deaths, both literal and metaphorical, that occur or are referred to in Dubliners. Which stories connect through the presence of death, and why is this connection significant?

4. Do any stories contain moments in which Joyce’s authorial voice and point-of-view seem to speak through the narrators? Use the text to show how this occurs and what Joyce expresses.

5. Some stories include a full version of a text cited internally by a character. For example, in “A Painful Case” the reader can examine the article about Mrs. Sinico’s death that Mr. Duffy finds, and in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” the reader can review Hynes’s poem about Parnell. What sort of relationship between reader and story do such forms create? What might be Joyce’s aim in cultivating this relationship?

More Help

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Double Meaning in The Boarding House

by Nethraprasad, February 09, 2013

"She knew he had a good screw for one thing and she suspected he had a bit of stuff put by."
I think this contains a double meaning which shows clever use of language by James Joyce.

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6 out of 19 people found this helpful

The Dead

by kikoy777, July 18, 2013

Good analysis to a very complex piece or writing!

The Boy

by Jumiry, August 23, 2013

The anonymity of the boy is suggestive of the overall theme of the story, the insignificance of the individual in the larger society. The boy is unnamed because as the story demonstrates in any number of ways, he is unimportant. He lives with relatives who are not his parents which suggests a problem; it is likely the parents have made the crossing and are not yet established to bring the child over, though another possibility is that they have died as a result of the harshness of Irish life. Other suggestions of insignificance include the i... Read more

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