Joyce’s characters in Dubliners (1914) were real and highly symbolic of the paralytic background of Joyce’s Dublin. In this essay this premise will be explored by comparing the characters in two stories, Sisters and The Dead, as instances of the seriatim themes of incarceration, oppression and mortality. Joyce uses Dublin as a paralytic backdrop for his paralytic protagonists each enduring life’s journey in a city of living dead, “…his obsession for accuracy in his depiction of his native Dublin was close to being fanatical…” Joyce’s Dublin, a city that he professed to love, but ‘a city of the living dead’ is the dark milieu accentuating the paralysis of its inhabitants throughout all the stories in Dubliners, “The word paralysis was both an epigraph and an epitaph for its spiritual moribundity.”
Throughout the stories we meet a series of individuals at moments of epiphany, a brush with death that causes an awakening. As is introduced in The Sisters and concluded upon in The Dead which bookend this series of short stories about moments of epiphany brought about by paralysis; “Joyce used the term (‘paralysis’) to denote a condition of spiritual torpor caused by what he perceived to be the oppressive religiosity of Catholic culture in Ireland”. He elucidates this dominant theme of despair, resignation and loss resulting from the inevitability of spiritual death, caused by life’s experiences, culminating in physical death from his first story ‘The Sisters’; “I said softly to myself the word paralysis” . (Dub p.3) It is this ‘journey of life’ that makes his characters real. They live the lives of ordinary people often oblivious to the impact of tragedy and environment in the shaping of their lives and thinking. Significantly, spiritual death according to Joyce is defined as “people who live meaningless lives of inactivity are the real dead” . Joyce did intended is stories to deal with paralysis when he said, “I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city” (Letters I 55).
In the opening story ‘The Sisters’, a young boy begins to evaluate his relationship with a catholic priest, Fr. Flynn. He once classed the priest as a friend and mentor, “I think he said more to me than anyone else” . Afterwards he distances himself from the death of the cleric. This could imply an event in the past that instilled fear, the source of the boy’s paralysis. This event is alluded to by a distrustful Mr Cotter, a character symbolic of post-famine working class religious cynicism, who clearly suspects something of an ominous nature “there was something queer, something uncanny about him” (Dub p.7) . He and further questions the relationship between the ageing priest and the young boy, “…..let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be…..” (Dub p.4) The implication of a sinister association between the priest and the boy is endorsed as the boy hangs his head throughout the “unfinished sentences” (Dub/p.4) Subsequently the boy ‘dreams’ of the priest ‘confessing’, with moist lips, a simoniac sin for which the boy absolves. The boy further alludes to his ‘epiphany’ when he admits to feeling ‘a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death” (Dub p.5).
In ‘The Sisters’ each of the main characters are symbolic of elements of their very real environment and consequently ‘humanising’ the primary themes introduced by their milieu, incarceration, oppression and mortality, of Joyce’s Dubliners. Eliza Flynn is incarcerated by denial about her brother’s mental condition and rationalises it, “the duties of the priesthood were too much for him.” (Dub p.9). Nannie Flynn is a voiceless, oppressed, character who is an early example of such characters throughout Joyce’s writing. Rev. Fr. James Flynn, signifying mortality, his unpredictable behaviour and spiritual paralysis and death instils fear in the boy about the mortal world in which he will have to contend.
These three themes (incarceration, oppression and mortality) are suggested throughout Dubliners and are established in the final story (Novella) ‘The Dead’. The events take place on the feast of the ‘Epiphany’ and the main protagonist Gabriel Conroy immediately demonstrates his impetuosity by expressing his thoughts, “I suppose we will be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? (Dub p.140) But, to his embarrassment, his spontaneity is greeted with ‘bitterness’. This impulsiveness continues to emerge as Gabriel expresses his ‘contempt’ for Ireland. For example, expressing his desire to holiday abroad, when he delivers his speech about Irish hospitality and how people must not linger on the past and the dead but live and rejoice with the living. After he relays a story about a horse that walked in circles he notices his wife, Gretta, is somehow enchanted by a song. It is later revealed that her romantic preoccupation is not with him but with a former lover. He feels deceived and distressed and the revelation causes him to reflect on his own mortality because he did not ‘feel’ the love that his predecessor felt from Gretta and therefore he did not live life to the full. The salient reality of ‘we must all join the dead’ and may not be remembered. The events of this story demonstrate a paralytic routine, speechmaking, dining, dancing, everything in circles just like the anecdotal horse and this tedium is the source of life without experience or meaning. Gretta is perceived by Gabriel as incarcerated, Gabriel himself is oppressed by his own honesty and he is forced to face his own mortality by his wife’s revelations. He realises that he is as mortal as the snow that covers him and all the people of Ireland both dead and alive.
These two stories, as examples of all stories in Dubliners, not only outline the ‘modus operandi’ of the author, “paralysis is death” as defined in The Sisters and explicated in The Dead. As the stories progress the motifs of paralysis, epiphany, betrayal and religion are clearly established and defined and the themes of incarceration, oppression and mortality are crystallised. The characters are each representative of their environments and influences and as such are both symbolic and real.