Dubliners comprises fifteen short stories, most of which have only minimal plots. This is in keeping with the short story as a distinct literary form. Unlike novels, short stories tend to privilege precise and economical narration. As such, they typically dispense with intricate plots and involve only a few characters and scenes. The short stories that make up Dubliners are no different. Following from the collection’s title, most of the stories present portraits of individual Dubliners (e.g., “Eveline,” “A Little Cloud”), or else they describe particular scenes or situations (e.g., “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “Grace”). None of the stories, with the possible exception of “The Dead,” feature extended or complex plotting devices.
Although the stories in Dubliners are relatively plotless in themselves, Joyce did arrange these stories very carefully, allowing the collection to develop complex patterns and an intriguing sense of progression. One of the patterns that Joyce himself pointed to is the progression from childhood to adolescence to maturity. The first three stories—“The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby”—all feature boy protagonists. The fourth story, “Eveline,” initiates a shift from childhood to adolescence. The story begins with Eveline as a child, but quickly moves forward to the present moment, when she is an adolescent with adult-like responsibilities: “That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up; her mother was dead. . . . Everything changes” (29). The next three stories—“After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” and “The Boarding House”—also follow adolescent protagonists and the various challenges with class, money, and sexuality that complicate their coming-of-age.
With “A Little Cloud,” Dubliners moves firmly into the realm of adulthood. Both this story and the following one, “Counterparts,” feature men who find themselves profoundly unsatisfied with family and work life. All of the remaining stories in the collection, from “Clay” to “The Dead,” follow various adult characters and explore distinctly adult problems, from parenthood to substance abuse to politics.
A related yet distinct pattern unfolds in the movement from private to public life. All of the early stories, from “The Sisters” through “A Painful Case,” revolve around the private lives of individual protagonists. Though many of the scenes in these stories take place in public spaces—streets, alleys, pubs, offices, and so on—the stories’ significance resides in what they reveal about their characters’ private thoughts and domestic lives. Thus, although “A Little Cloud” follows Little Chandler from his office to a pub, where he spends the evening with an expatriate journalist, it is the portrayal of Little Chandler’s melancholy thoughts and his miserable family life that indicate just how paralyzed he feels. It is not until “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” where a group of men sit around expressing their indeterminate political opinions, that Dubliners moves fully into society. The stories “A Mother” and “Grace” further this progress: in the first story, Mrs. Kearney concerns herself with her daughter’s entrance into polite society, and in the second, a circle of friends comes together to help Mr. Kernan conquer his alcoholism. “The Dead” reverses the progression by retreating from the public domain (a party) to the private (a hotel room).