James Joyce and the Short Story

Many critics today credit Dubliners with being among the most accomplished collections of short stories ever, and certainly in the English language. Before James Joyce wrote Dubliners, short stories experienced a resurgence in the nineteenth century as the number of periodicals that printed short-form writing increased. This resurgence occurred almost simultaneously in Germany, France, Russia, and the United States. In the English-speaking world, perhaps the most important moment in the development of the modern short story was Edgar Allen Poe’s review of his fellow American Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. In this review, published in 1842, Poe asserted that the success of a short story relies on a unity of effect. To this end, “In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” Whether the story is realistic, seeking to present the world objectively, or impressionistic, seeking to present a character’s subjective perception of the world, Poe believed that an accomplished short story leaves the reader with “a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

According to novelist and story writer William Boyd, the modern short story reached perfection in the work of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. What Boyd finds so remarkable about Chekhov’s stories is their stark, sometimes painful realism. Not only do Chekhov’s stories offer the unity of effect promoted by Poe, but they also produce a clear reflection of real life in all its imperfection. For this reason, Boyd argues, “Chekhov represents the end of the first phase of the modern short story. From his death onward, his influence is massive and ineluctable: the short story becomes thereafter in the 20th century almost exclusively Chekhovian.”

This is where Joyce enters the history of the short story. Like many twentieth-century short-story writers, Joyce is decidedly Chekhovian. Like Chekhov, Joyce developed a rigorous realism. Also like Chekhov, Joyce dispensed with traditional plotting and left his readers to pass judgment on his characters. However, Joyce also put his own touches on the Chekhovian model. For one thing, Joyce invested his realist stories with symbolic significance, uniquely combining the directness of prose and the suggestiveness of poetry. To the author’s mind, this unique combination gave his stories a transformative potential. This is why Joyce often referred his stories as “epicleti.” Joyce took this term from the Catholic mass, where epiklesis refers to an invocation to the Holy Ghost to transform wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. As Joyce explained in a letter to his brother, “there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the mass and what I am trying to do [in Dubliners] . . . to give people a kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.”

In addition to developing short stories that functioned on both “real” and “symbolic” levels, Joyce also achieved something new in terms of how he shaped his stories into a collection. Perhaps no short story collection before or since has achieved such a unified effect as Dubliners. Most collections like Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, mentioned above, merely gather standalone stories that otherwise appeared individually in magazines and other publications. Other famous collections created a sense of unity through a frame story. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for example, features a motley crew of individuals who go on a pilgrimage together and hold a storytelling competition along the way. Despite the way Chaucer’s pilgrims respond to one another in their stories, The Canterbury Tales does not establish a unity of time and place the same way Dubliners does. In addition to the craft of his stories, then, Joyce’s main legacy in the history of the short story has been to find a way to stitch individual stories together in ways that produce a complex yet complete vision.