James Joyce was born into a middle-class, Catholic family in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin, on February 2, 1882. The family’s prosperity dwindled soon after Joyce’s birth, forcing them to move from their comfortable home to the unfashionable and impoverished area of North Dublin. Nonetheless, Joyce attended a prestigious Jesuit school and went on to study philosophy and languages at University College, Dublin. He moved to Paris after graduation in 1902 to pursue medical school, but instead he turned his attention to writing. In 1903 he returned to Dublin, where he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle, the following year. From then on, Joyce made his home in other countries. From 1905 to 1915 he and Nora lived in Rome and Trieste, Italy, and from 1915 to 1919 they lived in Zurich, Switzerland. Between World War I and World War II, they lived in Paris. They returned to Zurich in 1940, where Joyce died in 1941.
In 1907, at the age of twenty-five, Joyce published Chamber Music, a collection of poetry. Previously, he’d also written a short-story collection, Dubliners, which was published in 1914. Though Joyce had written the book years earlier, the stories contained characters and events that were alarmingly similar to real people and places, raising concerns about libel. Joyce indeed based many of the characters in Dubliners on real people, and such suggestive details, coupled with the book’s historical and geographical precision and piercing examination of relationships, flustered anxious publishers. Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man followed Dubliners in 1916, and a play, Exiles, followed in 1918. Joyce is most famous for his later experimental novels, Ulysses (1922), which maps the Dublin wanderings of its protagonist in a single day, and Finnegans Wake (1939). These two works emblematize his signature stream-of-consciousness prose style, which mirrors characters’ thoughts without the limitations of traditional narrative, a style he didn’t use in Dubliners.
Ireland permeates all of Joyce’s writing, especially Ireland during the tumultuous early twentieth century. The political scene at that time was uncertain but hopeful, as Ireland sought independence from Great Britain. The nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell, who became active in the 1870s, had reinvigorated Irish politics with his proposed Home Rule Bill, which aimed to give Ireland a greater voice in British government. Parnell, dubbed the “Uncrowned King of Ireland,” was hugely popular in Ireland, both for his anti-English views and his support of land ownership for farmers. In 1889, however, his political career collapsed when his adulterous affair with the married Kitty O’Shea was made public. Kitty’s husband had known for years about the affair, but instead of making it public, he attempted to use it to his political and financial advantage. He waited until he filed for divorce to expose the affair. Both Ireland and England were scandalized, Parnell refused to resign, and his career never recovered. Parnell died in 1891, when Joyce was nine years old.
In the last part of the nineteenth century, after Parnell’s death, Ireland underwent a dramatic cultural revival. Irish citizens struggled to define what it meant to be Irish, and a movement began to reinvigorate Irish language and culture. The movement celebrated Irish literature and encouraged people to learn the Irish language, which many people were forgoing in favor of the more modern English language. Ultimately, the cultural revival of the late nineteenth century gave the Irish a greater sense of pride in their identity.
Despite the cultural revival, the bitter publicity surrounding Parnell’s affair, and later his death, dashed all hopes of Irish independence and unity. Ireland splintered into factions of Protestants and Catholics, Conservatives and Nationalists. Such social forces form a complex context for Joyce’s writing, which repeatedly taps into political and religious matters. Since Joyce spent little of his later life in Ireland, he did not witness such debates firsthand. However, despite living on the continent, Joyce retained his artistic interest in the city and country of his birth and ably articulated the Irish experience in his writings.
Dubliners contains fifteen portraits of life in the Irish capital. Joyce focuses on children and adults who skirt the middle class, such as housemaids, office clerks, music teachers, students, shop girls, swindlers, and out-of-luck businessmen. Joyce envisioned his collection as a looking glass with which the Irish could observe and study themselves. In most of the stories, Joyce uses a detached but highly perceptive narrative voice that displays these lives to the reader in precise detail. Rather than present intricate dramas with complex plots, these stories sketch daily situations in which not much seems to happen—a boy visits a bazaar, a woman buys sweets for holiday festivities, a man reunites with an old friend over a few drinks. Though these events may not appear profound, the characters’ intensely personal and often tragic revelations certainly are. The stories in Dubliners peer into the homes, hearts, and minds of people whose lives connect and intermingle through the shared space and spirit of Dublin. A character from one story will mention the name of a character in another story, and stories often have settings that appear in other stories. Such subtle connections create a sense of shared experience and evoke a map of Dublin life that Joyce would return to again and again in his later works.