Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In most of the stories in Dubliners, a character has a desire, faces obstacles to it, then ultimately relents and suddenly stops all action. These moments of paralysis show the characters’ inability to change their lives and reverse the routines that hamper their wishes. Such immobility fixes the Dubliners in cycles of experience. The young boy in “Araby” halts in the middle of the dark bazaar, knowing that he will never escape the tedious delays of Dublin and attain love. Eveline freezes like an animal, fearing the possible new experience of life away from home. These moments evoke the theme of death in life as they show characters in a state of inaction and numbness. The opening story introduces this motif through the character of Father Flynn, whose literal paralysis traps him in a state suspended between life and death. Throughout the collection, this stifling state appears as part of daily life in Dublin, which all Dubliners ultimately acknowledge and accept.
Characters in Dubliners experience both great and small revelations in their everyday lives, moments that Joyce himself referred to as “epiphanies,” a word with connotations of religious revelation. These epiphanies do not bring new experiences and the possibility of reform, as one might expect such moments to. Rather, these epiphanies allow characters to better understand their particular circumstances, usually rife with sadness and routine, which they then return to with resignation and frustration. Sometimes epiphanies occur only on the narrative level, serving as signposts to the reader that a story’s character has missed a moment of self-reflection. For example, in “Clay,” during the Halloween game when Maria touches the clay, which signifies an early death, she thinks nothing of it, overlooking a moment that could have revealed something about herself or the people around her. “Araby,” “Eveline,” “A Little Cloud,” “A Painful Case,” and “The Dead” all conclude with epiphanies that the characters fully register, yet these epiphanies are tinged with frustration, sadness, and regret. At the end of “The Dead,” Gabriel’s revelation clarifies the connection between the dead and the living, an epiphany that resonates throughout Dubliners as a whole. The epiphany motif highlights the repeated routine of hope and passive acceptance that marks each of these portraits, as well as the general human condition.
Deception, deceit, and treachery scar nearly every relationship in the stories in Dubliners, demonstrating the unease with which people attempt to connect with each other, both platonically and romantically. In “The Boarding House,” Mrs. Mooney traps Mr. Doran into marrying her daughter Polly, and Mr. Doran dreads the union but will meet his obligation to pursue it. In “Two Gallants,” Lenehan and Corley both suspect each other of cheating and scheming, though they join forces to swindle innocent housemaids out of their livelihoods. Concerns about betrayal frame the conversations in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” particularly as Parnell’s supporters see his demise as the result of pro-British treachery. Until his affair was exposed, Parnell had been a popular and influential politician, and many Irish believe the British were responsible for his downfall. All of the men in “Ivy Day” display wavering beliefs that suggest betrayal looms in Ireland’s political present. In “The Dead,” Gabriel feels betrayed by his wife’s emotional outpouring for a former lover. This feeling evokes not only the sense of displacement and humiliation that all of these Dubliners fear but also the tendency for people to categorize many acts as “betrayal” in order to shift blame from themselves onto others.
References to priests, religious belief, and spiritual experience appear throughout the stories in Dubliners and ultimately paint an unflattering portrait of religion. In the first story, “The Sisters,” Father Flynn cannot keep a strong grip on the chalice and goes mad in a confessional box. This story marks religion’s first appearance as a haunting but incompetent and dangerous component of Dublin life. The strange man of “An Encounter” wears the same clothing as Father Flynn, connecting his lascivious behavior, however remotely, to the Catholic Church. In “Grace,” Father Purdon shares his name with Dublin’s red-light district, one of many subtle ironies in that story. In “Grace,” Tom Kernan’s fall and absent redemption highlight the pretension and inefficacy of religion—religion is just another daily ritual of repetition that advances no one. In other stories, such as “Araby,” religion acts as a metaphor for dedication that dwindles. The presence of so many religious references also suggests that religion traps Dubliners into thinking about their lives after death.