Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Restrictive routines and the repetitive, mundane details of everyday life mark the lives of Joyce’s Dubliners and trap them in circles of frustration, restraint, and violence. Routine affects characters who face difficult predicaments, but it also affects characters who have little open conflict in their lives. The young boy of “An Encounter” yearns for a respite from the rather innocent routine of school, only to find himself sitting in a field listening to a man recycle disturbing thoughts. In “Counterparts,” Farrington, who makes a living copying documents, demonstrates the dangerous potential of repetition. Farrington’s work mirrors his social and home life, causing his anger—and abusive behavior—to worsen. Farrington, with his explosive physical reactions, illustrates more than any other character the brutal ramifications of a repetitive existence.
The most consistent consequences of following mundane routines are loneliness and unrequited love. In “Araby,” a young boy wants to go to the bazaar to buy a gift for the girl he loves, but he is late because his uncle becomes mired in the routine of his workday. In “A Painful Case” Mr. Duffy’s obsession with his predictable life costs him a golden chance at love. Eveline, in the story that shares her name, gives up her chance at love by choosing her familiar life over an unknown adventure, even though her familiar routines are tinged with sadness and abuse. The circularity of these Dubliners’ lives effectively traps them, preventing them from being receptive to new experiences and happiness.
The characters in Dubliners may be citizens of the Irish capital, but many of them long for escape and adventure in other countries. Such longings, however, are never actually realized by the stories’ protagonists. The schoolboy yearning for escape and Wild West excitement in “An Encounter” is relegated to the imagination and to the confines of Dublin, while Eveline’s hopes for a new life in Argentina dissolve on the docks of the city’s river. Little Chandler enviously fantasizes about the London press job of his old friend and his travels to liberal cities like Paris, but the shame he feels about such desires stops him from taking action to pursue similar goals. More often than offering a literal escape from a physical place, the stories tell of opportunities to escape from smaller, more personal restraints. Eveline, for example, seeks release from domestic duties through marriage. In “Two Gallants,” Lenehan wishes to escape his life of schemes, but he cannot take action to do so. Mr. Doran wishes to escape marrying Polly in “A Boarding House,” but he knows he must relent. The impulse to escape from unhappy situations defines Joyce’s Dubliners, as does the inability to actually undertake the process.
Dubliners opens with “The Sisters,” which explores death and the process of remembering the dead, and closes with “The Dead,” which invokes the quiet calm of snow that covers both the dead and the living. These stories bookend the collection and emphasize its consistent focus on the meeting point between life and death. Encounters between the newly dead and the living, such as in “The Sisters” and “A Painful Case,” explicitly explore this meeting point, showing what kind of aftershocks a death can have for the living. Mr. Duffy, for example, reevaluates his life after learning about Mrs. Sinico’s death in “A Painful Case,” while the narrator of “The Sisters” doesn’t know what to feel upon the death of the priest. In other stories, including “Eveline,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and “The Dead,” memories of the dead haunt the living and color every action. In “Ivy Day,” for example, Parnell hovers in the political talk.
The dead cast a shadow on the present, drawing attention to the mistakes and failures that people make generation after generation. Such overlap underscores Joyce’s interest in life cycles and their repetition, and also his concern about those “living dead” figures like Maria in “Clay” who move through life with little excitement or emotion except in reaction to everyday snags and delays. The monotony of Dublin life leads Dubliners to live in a suspended state between life and death, in which each person has a pulse but is incapable of profound, life-sustaining action.