Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Prison of Routine
Restrictive routines and the repetitive, mundane details of everyday life mark the lives of Joyce’s Dubliners and trap them in circles of frustration, restraint, and violence. Routine affects characters who face difficult predicaments, but it also affects characters who have little open conflict in their lives. The young boy of “An Encounter” yearns for a respite from the rather innocent routine of school, only to find himself sitting in a field listening to a man recycle disturbing thoughts. In “Counterparts,” Farrington, who makes a living copying documents, demonstrates the dangerous potential of repetition. Farrington’s work mirrors his social and home life, causing his anger—and abusive behavior—to worsen. Farrington, with his explosive physical reactions, illustrates more than any other character the brutal ramifications of a repetitive existence. The most consistent consequences of following mundane routines are loneliness and unrequited love. In “Araby,” a young boy wants to go to the bazaar to buy a gift for the girl he loves, but he is late because his uncle becomes mired in the routine of his workday. In “A Painful Case” Mr. Duffy’s obsession with his predictable life costs him a golden chance at love. Eveline, in the story that shares her name, gives up her chance at love by choosing her familiar life over an unknown adventure, even though her familiar routines are tinged with sadness and abuse. The circularity of these Dubliners’ lives effectively traps them, preventing them from being receptive to new experiences and happiness.
The Desire for Escape
The characters in Dubliners may be citizens of the Irish capital, but many of them long for escape and adventure in other countries. Such longings, however, are never actually realized by the stories’ protagonists. The schoolboy yearning for escape and Wild West excitement in “An Encounter” is relegated to the imagination and to the confines of Dublin, while Eveline’s hopes for a new life in Argentina dissolve on the docks of the city’s river. Little Chandler enviously fantasizes about the London press job of his old friend and his travels to liberal cities like Paris, but the shame he feels about such desires stops him from taking action to pursue similar goals. More often than offering a literal escape from a physical place, the stories tell of opportunities to escape from smaller, more personal restraints. Eveline, for example, seeks release from domestic duties through marriage. In “Two Gallants,” Lenehan wishes to escape his life of schemes, but he cannot take action to do so. Mr. Doran wishes to escape marrying Polly in “A Boarding House,” but he knows he must relent. The impulse to escape from unhappy situations defines Joyce’s Dubliners, as does the inability to actually undertake the process.
The Intersection of Life and Death
Dubliners opens with “The Sisters,” which explores death and the process of remembering the dead, and closes with “The Dead,” which invokes the quiet calm of snow that covers both the dead and the living. These stories bookend the collection and emphasize its consistent focus on the meeting point between life and death. Encounters between the newly dead and the living, such as in “The Sisters” and “A Painful Case,” explicitly explore this meeting point, showing what kind of aftershocks a death can have for the living. Mr. Duffy, for example, reevaluates his life after learning about Mrs. Sinico’s death in “A Painful Case,” while the narrator of “The Sisters” doesn’t know what to feel upon the death of the priest. In other stories, including “Eveline,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and “The Dead,” memories of the dead haunt the living and color every action. In “Ivy Day,” for example, Parnell hovers in the political talk. The dead cast a shadow on the present, drawing attention to the mistakes and failures that people make generation after generation. Such overlap underscores Joyce’s interest in life cycles and their repetition, and also his concern about those “living dead” figures like Maria in “Clay” who move through life with little excitement or emotion except in reaction to everyday snags and delays. The monotony of Dublin life leads Dubliners to live in a suspended state between life and death, in which each person has a pulse but is incapable of profound, life-sustaining action.
Of all the stumbling blocks in the way of Irish progress, drunkenness is at the forefront of Dubliners. For protagonists such as Farrington in “Counterparts,” the heedless, temperamental, and abusive scrivener, alcoholism appears to be the source of all his problems. He underperforms at work to sneak out for a drink, pawns off his belongings to fund his binges, fights with other patrons at the bar, earns the scorn of his wife, and even beats his son at home. He shows no self-awareness, and though his boss is furious at Farrington’s drunken ineptitude, there seem to be no enforced consequences for his feckless lifestyle. Similarly, in “Grace,” Tom Kernan’s drunkenness causes him to squander the family’s money and regularly humiliate his wife, and the story suggests that he used to physically abuse his wife as well. In reference to Mr. Kernan’s many failures, his wife coolly comments, “There were worse husbands,” revealing that this was an all too common reality for Dublin families.
For other characters, particularly the child and female protagonists like Mrs. Kernan, drunkenness darkens their lives from the outside, as they are forced to accommodate, care for, endure abuse, and recover the pieces left by alcoholic husbands and family members. In “Eveline,” the unhappy protagonist is too paralyzed by a sense of responsibility to her abusive, drunk father to seek happiness with her love to Argentina. In “A Boarding House,” Mrs. Mooney’s husband drinks and gambles away her father’s business in just a handful of years, forcing her to get a separation and open her own boarding house. In the story, she manipulates a moderately successful customer into marrying her daughter, prompting readers to consider not only the material, but also the moral sacrifices women had to make to win stability. In this way, drunkenness illuminates the multifaceted, deeply personal pressures of poverty.
Every Dubliner is marked by a desire for more, and every Dubliner’s ambition is frustrated either by a lack of opportunity, the strength of their personal vices, or some combination thereof. In “A Boarding House,” Mrs. Mooney’s sensible desires for financial security are thwarted by her husband’s drunken recklessness and her limited opportunities as a woman. For Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud,” the only thing standing in the way of his literary aspirations is his own timidity. The content of the characters’ ambitions is naturally varied, but every dream deferred or unfulfilled is linked to the state of Ireland as a small Western island with a precarious political future. Even those who are comfortably middle or upper class, such as Jimmy Doyle in “After the Race” or Mrs. Kearney in “A Mother,” have internalized the idea that to be Irish is a kind of inherent poverty, and therefore seek validation from the United Kingdom and Continental Europe, often to their detriment.
In this way, the ambition of the Dubliners mirrors the ambitions of 20th-century Ireland, which was torn between seeking independence from the UK and desperately needing its resources. In “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” a group of political workers debate this very contradiction in relation to the King of England’s impending visit to Ireland. While Henchy argues that such a grand event would boost the economy, thereby benefitting the people of Ireland, a more purist, nationalistic stance like O’Connor’s would naturally reject any visit from the English monarchy. All Dubliners, like the nation they call home, are caught between the immediate demands of living and their long-term ambitions. Due to Ireland’s specific cultural vices, particularly drunkenness, religious stagnancy, and class stratification, Dubliners are often paralyzed by their inability to reconcile the two.
Ireland is an island, making it an excellent symbol for isolation and a lack of interest in outside cultures and ideas. Throughout Dubliners, more ambitious characters bemoan Ireland’s status as being cut off from the rest of the world. In “A Mother,” Mrs. Kearney promotes her daughter’s talent as a celebration of Irish culture, and yet she treats the process and its organizers as if they are beneath her, consistently seeking the approval of the foreign artists. In “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy believes that the concerns of the Irish middle class are too narrowed and pedestrian. He refuses to publish on the grounds of Ireland’s insularity, and yet his stunted relationship with Mrs. Sinico reveals that he, too, is fearful of anything outside his routine and comfort zone, and his lack of self-awareness gives the story its great, tragic irony.