As Dubliners is made up of 15 self-contained short stories, the collection has no singular protagonist. The following is a list of notable protagonists from a selection of short stories.
The young narrator and protagonist of “Araby” is infatuated with his friend Mangan’s older sister, and wants to buy her something at the visiting bazaar. In the beginning of the story, the boy’s descriptions of his surroundings are filled with wonder and magic, such as “The space of the sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” Filled with poetic sentiments about his friend’s sister, such as “my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires,” he asks his uncle for money to visit the bazaar. His uncle promises to give him money when he returns from work, and for days the narrator can think of nothing else.
This simple goal, to buy a girl a gift at the bazaar, is complicated by his uncle’s forgetfulness, an equally simple reality of life. His uncle, distracted by everyday demands, neglects to return in time to give the boy the money, and the narrator is so frustrated and disillusioned by this that the narration is stripped of all the previous joy and wonder. On the way to the bazaar, he says, “After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river.” By the time he gets to the bazaar, he doesn’t even remember why he wanted to go in the first place. In the end, as he sees himself as “a creature driven and derided by vanity,” he understands he is at a cruel impasse between desire and restriction, between fantasy and the realities of Dublin life. His romantic fantasies, which he once considered mature and adult, he now understands were not only vain but futile in the face of his restricted circumstances.
Mrs. Mooney, “The Boarding House”
After her husband drinks and gambles the family business into ruin, Mrs. Mooney must secure a stable life for herself and her daughter Polly. She is adept at this, swiftly arranging a separation and opening a boarding house, one of the few professions open to women at the time. The boarding house is successful, and Mrs. Mooney’s resilience and good judgment allow her and Polly to recover quickly from her husband’s drunkenness and financial recklessness. In many ways, the trajectory of Mrs. Mooney’s life makes her the quintessential Dublin woman. Throughout Dubliners, alcoholic men leave their families’ lives in ruins, and the women are forced to cobble together the best livelihood they can with limited opportunity and second-class status.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Mooney must make certain compromises to arrange a secure life for herself and her daughter. A boarding house, because of the class and behavior of its patrons, is considered a somewhat disreputable business to run. Furthermore, Mrs. Mooney turns a blind eye to Polly’s promiscuity, hoping that she would eventually seduce a man who could provide a profitable marriage. When Polly begins an affair with Mr. Doran, a successful clerk, Mrs. Mooney uses shame and social pressure to effectively manipulate them into a marriage that is advantageous for Polly. Mrs. Mooney’s resourcefulness is admirable to a point, but her willingness to exploit her customers’ personal lives and daughter’s sexuality make her in the end a morally ambiguous character.
Mr. Duffy, “A Painful Case”
At the beginning of the story, all Mr. Duffy appears to want is a peaceful existence with as little fuss or interference as possible. He is an intellectual, without “companions nor friends, church nor creed,” and considers himself superior to the rest of the Irish middle class. The trajectory of his mundane, insular life is changed when he meets Mrs. Sinico, whom he finds attractive and intellectually engaging, but even their first three meetings are entirely coincidental, requiring no courage or proactivity from Mr. Duffy. Finally, Mr. Duffy intentionally arranges a fourth meeting, which suggests that he was harboring a repressed, unexpressed desire for companionship all along.
The two are intellectually and interpersonally compatible, and Mrs. Sinico’s friendship briefly transforms the hardened Mr. Duffy. Mr. Duffy appears to welcome these changes in terms of noticeable self-improvement, but the moment she touches his cheek with the palm of her hand, broaching the boundary of physical intimacy and threatening the rigid stability of his life, he breaks off the friendship without hesitation. Years later, when Mrs. Sinico has descended into drunkenness and is hit by a train, Mr. Duffy realizes that he is to blame. His rigid insularity had not only “sentenced her to death,” but also doomed them both to pain and isolation.