Dubliners: Critical approaches

Symbolist approaches

In Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931), Edmund Wilson noted parallels between Joyce’s writing and the literary tradition of the French Symbolist poets of 1870-90. The poet and critic Arthur Symons (1865-1945) defines symbolism as;

      a form of expression … for an unseen reality apprehended by the consciousness. (1899)     

Symbolist critics find symbolic resonances in ordinary objects, everyday events and specific characters.

William York Tindall and Marvin Magalaner focus on symbolism related to Catholicism

  • Tindall suggests that Mrs Kearney from A Mother can be seen to symbolise the Irish Church: she doles out wine and biscuits and acts like a fallen priest who enjoys being in charge and making money, rather than upholding faith and charity (A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, 1959)
  • For Magalaner, Clay is particularly symbolic: the ring is symbolic of marriage, the prayer book symbolic of a solitary and celibate life, clay is symbolic of death and Maria is symbolic of both the Virgin Mary and a witch (A James Joyce Miscellany, 1957).

Structural approaches

Several studies from the early 1960s and ’70s focus on the structure, form or order of the Dubliners stories. For example, in his book on short stories, The Lonely Voice (1963), Frank O’Connor argues that Dubliners can be split up into stories which are autobiographical, then geographically realistic, then more symbolic and experimental.

Alternatively, Peter Costello in 1980 argued that the structure of Dubliners parallels a person’s passage of life, from childhood, through young love, to family life and its failures, then into mature reflections on adult social life, including politics, religion and sexual relationships.

Post-structuralist approaches

Instead of arguing that the form or order of the stories provides the key to Dubliners, post-structuralist critics suggest that structure is imposed upon the writing, rather than being integral to it – so structure cannot have a bearing on the book’s true meaning. Indeed, for post-structuralists, there is no true (or singular) meaning to be found; it is impossible (and futile) to ascribe a specific significance to - or offer a definitive interpretation of - Dubliners.

In James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (1979), Colin MacCabe argues that, if Dubliners can be said to be about anything, that thing is language. MacCabe suggests that Joyce sets up a new and complex relationship between words and the things that they represent. He argues that this new relationship is revolutionary both in the political and innovatory sense of the word.

For more post-structuralist studies of Joyce’s work, a good place to start is Post-structuralist Joyce (1984), a collection of essays edited by Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrier.

Social and political approaches

The 1980s and ’90s saw the publication of several books on the relationship between Joyce’s writing and social-political issues:

  • In Joyce’s Politics (1980), Dominic Manganiello argues that, although he did not subscribe to any particular political party or cause, Joyce can be classed as a socialist / anarchist / liberal. According to Manganiello, this left wing stance had an impact on Joyce’s writing
  • Emer Nolan’s James Joyce and Nationalism (1995) examines Joyce’s work in relation to the politics of Ireland. In her analysis of The Dead, Nolan argues that Gabriel’s ‘intensely solitary, yet shared experience’ acts as a model for the seemingly subtle difference between seeing Ireland as a ‘symbolic system (nationhood)’ and an ‘ideology (nationalism)’.

There are also studies that look at Joyce’s writing in relation to social / political issues such as feminism and race:

  • In Joyce and Feminism (1984), Bonnie Kime Scott looks at the status of women in Joyce’s time and applies different feminist approaches to Joyce’s writing. Broadly speaking, she concludes that Joyce was neither a misogynist nor a feminist
  • Vincent Cheng’s Joyce, Race and Empire (1995) considers Joyce’s writing in relation to Ireland. Cheng argues that Joyce wrote from the perspective of a colonial subject from an Ireland that was oppressed by Britain.

Biographical approaches

Instead of concentrating on particular themes or focus areas, some critics analyse Joyce’s writing in the light of his personal biography:

  • The most influential study of this type is Richard Ellmann’s 1959 biography, James Joyce
  • In My Brother’s Keeper (1969), Joyce’s brother Stanislaus offered a personal account of the ways in which Joyce’s life impacted upon his work.
  • 2012 saw a surge in biographical approaches, with the publication of:
    • James Joyce: A New Biography, by Gordon Bowker
    • A very personal, illustrated account of Joyce’s work, though a look at the life of Lucia, Joyce’s daughter: Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary and Bryan Talbot.
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