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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Dubliners | Context


The Fight for Independence

Like most Irish writers, James Joyce's work is a product of the complicated history of his country and its often hostile relationship with England. During Joyce's formative and productive years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish history was dominated by the struggle for independence from centuries of British domination. English rule in Ireland was marked by oppression: the Anglo-Irish, English settlers in Ireland, tended to be wealthy and Protestant. The Irish were Catholic, and often suffered crippling poverty as a result of exploitation by English landowners.

In the 1840s a potato blight wiped out much of the food supply available to Ireland's poor, killing a million Irish citizens who died of starvation and sending another two million away as immigrants. The 1850s saw the beginning of organized efforts in Ireland to obtain independence from English rule. In 1858 the Fenian Brotherhood began plans to secure independence. The group morphed into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the 1870s and became Sinn Féin, from Irish Gaelic, meaning "we ourselves," in 1905. Sinn Féin took the reins in the early 20th-century fight for independence, and remains a nationalist political party in Ireland today.

In 1870 the Irish Home Rule League, which pressed for an autonomous Irish government within the British Empire, was founded. Under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, the movement was almost successful. By 1885, even British Prime Minister Gladstone supported Irish home rule, but the British Parliament defeated the proposal. Parnell became embroiled in a scandal over an affair with a woman, all of which led to more years of conflict and failed negotiations.

Tensions erupted when Irish Nationalists seized several government buildings on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, in what was known as the Easter Rising. By April 29 British forces put down the rising—but not the tensions. In 1919 Sinn Féin members of Parliament declared independence from England and set up a provisional government, leading to the Anglo-Irish War, which officially ended with a treaty in 1921 that divided Ireland into two parts. Twenty-six of Ireland's 32 counties became the Irish Free State, subject to the British Commonwealth until 1949 when Ireland officially became a republic. The remaining six counties remained part of the United Kingdom and form modern Northern Ireland. Disagreements over the fate of Northern Ireland and related religious conflicts caused additional violence throughout the 20th century.

The Political Becomes Literary

Against this backdrop of Irish revolution at the turn of the 20th century emerged a group of authors whose work represented an active effort to define an Irish cultural identity wholly separate from that of the English. Ireland had produced a number of notable writers, such as Jonathan Swift in the 18th century and Oscar Wilde in the 19th century. While these earlier writers may have used their work to comment on Irish issues, they remained closely affiliated with English literary traditions. The Irish Literary Renaissance was a concerted effort to build something exclusively Irish. The most high-profile of these Irish writers was the poet William Butler Yeats, who teamed with Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory to form the first Irish national theater, the Abbey Theatre. Other notable figures in this movement include playwrights John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey. These writers drew on Irish mythology and legend to create a historical grounding for Irish nationalism and culture, comparable to the way English culture used the legends of King Arthur and Camelot to inform their own notions of heroism and national pride. The writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance also produced work that was intensely political, presenting the lives of the downtrodden peasant class and citing the virtues of political leaders.

Because he was a contemporary of these authors and because his work focuses tightly on Irish life, Joyce is often mentioned as a figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance, but he was not directly involved with this movement. Feeling constrained by the social and moral expectations of life in Dublin, Joyce had left for Europe with Nora Barnacle in 1904. He returned for a handful of visits before quitting his homeland entirely in 1912, and he appeared to feel little common ground with the other writers of the period. However, Joyce's work was instrumental in the creation of an "Irish identity." Distinct from other writers in the Irish Literary Renaissance, who often wrote about heroic exploits and Irish mythology, Joyce found keys to Irish identity in the minutiae of day-to-day life, the struggles of the working class, the middle class, the young and the old. However, Joyce's self-imposed exile from Ireland did not make him apolitical or disinterested in the events shaking his homeland. Although Joyce composed and published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners before the outbreak of full revolution in Ireland, these works provide a look at the world from which that revolution emerged.

While Joyce was not blind to the struggles in Ireland, his participation in wider European culture gave him a more open perspective. He did not believe Ireland should isolate from Europe, and he wanted to align his work with European literature as a whole. In Paris he found the common ground with other writers he had been unable to find in Dublin. He developed a friendship with poet Ezra Pound and embraced the principles of modernist literature, defined by a focus on real-life events, exploration of personal identity, and the use of nontraditional writing techniques—such as the free-flowing stream-of-consciousness form seen in Ulysses. In this context Joyce's construction of Irish identity in his early work such as Dubliners stems from his exploration of identity in a universal sense.

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