Engaging with the text

Working with a literary text, whether it be a novel, play or poem, requires more than simply reading it and knowing ‘what happens’ or what it is ‘about’. If you are to write good essays and be successful in examinations, it is important that you should engage with the text as deeply as possible, and consider its themes, characters and structure in detail.

Reading and working with Dubliners

  • Put yourself into the environment of the city at the turn of the century: try to identify with different characters in the stories and consider whether you feel sympathy for them
  • Think about the structure of the collection: how Joyce depicted different ages and stages of life and ambition, and the environment in which he chose to place them
  • Make notes as you read: this is the best way of keeping your reading alert and active – note down such things as the relationships between people in each narrative, perhaps in a diagrammatic form, and the settings of various stories
  • Make links with other books, films or TV programmes with similar locations and themes
  • Set aside time for reading: identify blocks of time when you can read without interruption.

Get to know the text

  • Read the collection at least twice: this is essential if you are to develop a well-informed response to it
  • Follow up advice on reading given by your teacher or in study guides
  • BUT don’t rely on story synopses 
    • They tell you nothing about language and style
    • They don’t identify themes and motifs in the text
    • However detailed, they are intended as reminders not substitutes
  • Read the text in different ways; once you have a firm grasp of the overall shape of the collection, you may wish to: 
    • Re-read a particular story
    • Concentrate on a theme or motif
    • Trace the development of the depiction of Dublin culture.

Know the complete text

This requires a separate section because examiners often report that students know the start of a text well, but not the latter sections. So:

  • Do not ignore the impact of significant characters or episodes in later stories
  • Remember that themes, motifs and images may be developed and modified as the collection of tales builds up
  • Remember that characters are gradually revealed and that the reader’s attitude towards them may also change in the course of a short narrative.

Keep a record of your reading

  • Make notes under headings, with page references to particularly useful passages
  • For major topics, you may find it helpful to have separate pages: one for each story, for example, or for ideas about the themes of the collection: 
    • But don’t let your notes become too segregated and take care to comment on links and narrative approaches
    • Use specimen essay questions to give you ideas for headings for your notes.
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