In Dubliners, Joyce primarily works within the genre of realist fiction. Realism emerged in French, Russian, and British literature of the 19th century. Although individual writers espoused their own ideas about what realism was, their work shared a broad aim: to depict the “real” world without romanticizing or idealizing it. Realist fiction achieved this by shunning elements of fantasy and the supernatural as well as by avoiding artificial storytelling conventions that had been passed down from, for example, the romances of the Middle Ages. Because nineteenth-century literary realism attempted to portray the world as it really was, it tended to represent quotidian, everyday activities rather than sweeping adventures and heroic feats. In connection to this, realist fiction also avoided focusing on the ruling class and its small world of wealth and privilege. Instead, writers associated with realism typically emphasized the issues affecting the middle class, which was expanding rapidly over the course of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century due to the rise of industrial capitalism.
The short stories in Dubliners all bear the mark of realism. Above all, Joyce’s realism can be seen in his detailed depiction of Dublin. The curious reader can accurately plot out the characters’ pathways as they move along specific streets and cross particular bridges. Most of the landmarks, buildings, and businesses mentioned by name really existed in turn-of-the-century Dublin, lending the stories a heightened sense of reality. The level of detail that Joyce uses in his recreation of Dublin also extends to his characters and their surroundings. From the close observation of the young boy’s thoughts in “The Sisters” to the exhaustive account of the feast prepared for the Epiphany in “The Dead,” the short stories clearly evoke the reality of contemporary Dublin and what life was like for its various inhabitants. Furthermore, Joyce is famous for having stated that he wished Dubliners to provide “a chapter of the moral history” of his people, and a scrupulously realistic depiction was required so that his fellow Dubliners might see themselves clearly. Indeed, as he wrote in one letter to his editor: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories.”
In addition to realism, Dubliners is also associated with a related but distinct literary movement known as naturalism. Like realism, of which it is an offshoot, naturalism also focuses on the basic elements of everyday reality. However, one thing that distinguishes naturalism is its emphasis on how social conditions and environmental factors shape a person’s life and character. Another distinguishing feature is naturalism’s tendency to depict the seedier side of life, focusing less on middle class issues and instead portraying the misery and destitution of the poorly educated lower classes. Perhaps the clearest example of naturalism in Dubliners stems from the theme of paralysis. Nearly every character in the collection suffers from some form of paralysis, and the stories depict this not as an individual but a communal condition, one that emerges from the very city in which they live. As the center of paralysis itself, Dublin determines the stasis of all Dubliners. Naturalism also appears in stories that explore difficult topics such as violence and alcoholism. The suggestion of sexual violence in “Eveline” and the shocking depiction of an alcoholic in the opening pages of “Grace” clearly indicate Joyce’s flirtation with naturalism.