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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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Dubliners | Themes



The Catholic Church looms over the lives of the Dubliners. In some stories, religious faith is an explicit element of the story, as is the case in "The Sisters," which centers around a young boy's friendship with a dying priest. In "Grace," a group of men take their alcoholic friend to church in an effort to get him to quit drinking, and it seems to have some benefit for them, even though their understanding of formal doctrine is somewhat lacking. In other stories, religious elements appear in more subtle ways, such as the back room of the narrator's home in "Araby," formerly occupied by another dying priest. In "Eveline" the title character resorts to prayer as she struggles with the decision to stay in Dublin or leave Ireland with her lover.

Even more subtle are the ways religious beliefs inform the morality that dictates daily life. Attitudes about sexual behavior are particularly rigid, based on the church's prohibition of premarital sex. In "The Boarding House" a young man is pressured into marrying a girl he had an affair with. People have found out about the affair, so the marriage is necessary to save the girl's reputation. In "Two Gallants" a young woman who was once involved with one of the main characters later hits bottom, and is seen about town with multiple men. Her reputation is ruined by the affair. In "A Painful Case" no one has a physical affair at all, but Mr. Duffy believes his friendship with a married woman is veering toward dangerous territory, and concern for propriety leads Mr. Duffy to break off the friendship.


The search for identity troubles every main character in Dubliners, as each of them struggles to navigate between personal desires, society's expectations, and relationships with others. The children of the first three stories struggle to find a place in a world that is absent parents, confusing, and often threatening or hostile. Young people, such as Eveline in "Eveline" or Jimmy in "After the Race," struggle to decide what their futures will be as they make decisions in the present. Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud" struggles against being defined as a clerk and family man, wishing he could live a bohemian life as a poet. Maria in "Clay" struggles with being defined by her marital status, or lack thereof.

The struggle with identity peaks in the final story with Gabriel Conroy of "The Dead." He appears comfortable with his place in the world. He has gained stature and respect as a professor and writer, but a conversation with his wife after the party calls Gabriel's concept of his identity into question. He learns his wife was deeply in love with a man who died before she met Gabriel. He realizes he and everyone he knows will one day become a "shade," a memory for someone else. He thinks about how useless the trappings of his life really are in the face of the inevitability of death, and feels the world as he knows it dissolve around him. While other characters come through their narratives with some new glimmer of knowledge about who they really are, Gabriel learns that the trappings of identity are largely an illusion.


Economic class in Dubliners is relatively static. For the most part, those who are born poor remain poor throughout their lives, and those who are born wealthy remain wealthy. Class differences also bring conflict. For example, the narrator and Mahony stretch their shillings through their day's adventure in "An Encounter," but when they meet a group of children who are even less well off, there is some hostility between them. The other children throw stones because Mahony has a cricket badge on his hat, a game generally reserved for wealthier Anglo-Irish Protestants, even though the boys' Catholic school has a team. The hostility in this exchange (it could be argued that much of the hostility is between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland in general) stems from the disparity of wealth between the two groups of boys.

A few incidents of class mobility are present in Dubliners, but neither of them works out very well. In "After the Race," Jimmy is the son of a local entrepreneur who has made a fortune by Dublin standards. Jimmy's father encourages Jimmy's friendship with a wealthy Frenchman, but the Frenchman and his other acquaintances are wealthy on a scale well beyond whatever fortune Jimmy's family has recently amassed. Jimmy loses a large amount of money in an attempt to keep up with his much richer friends in a card game. In "A Mother," Mrs. Kearney, whose family is comfortably middle class, attempts to raise the family's reputation and social standing by getting involved in an arts society and having her daughter play piano. Her attempts at climbing the social ladder fail. She embarrasses herself by demanding payment for her daughter's performances. The society committee is put off by Mrs. Kearney's demanding attitude, and her concern about money is vulgar to the upper classes.


Compared to other European capitals, Dublin is not an especially large city. Many of the same locations, such as Stephen's Green, the city's largest park, and the shopping district of Grafton Street, appear repeatedly in the stories. The rigid morality of Dublin's society, which applies to the poor as well as to the wealthy, places further constraints on everyone's behavior. The economy is similarly rigid, with few opportunities for anyone to advance out of the class into which they were born (incidentally, these were factors that led Joyce himself to abandon Dublin for the European continent). In this stifling atmosphere, plenty of other characters dream of escape. The young narrator of "An Encounter" finds escape in playtime with his friends and in American pulp stories before plotting a literal escape from his strict school routine for a day of fun in the city. Eveline makes plans to go to South America with her lover, and Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud" ponders escaping to be a writer in London like his old acquaintance.

Unable to physically escape from the city, other characters turn to different means of escape. Corley and Lenehan in "Two Gallants" escape from society's strict expectations by drinking and womanizing, yet Lenehan thinks about an escape into conventional married life. Alcohol provides an easy and readily available escape for many Dubliners. Farrington in "Counterparts" spends his workday dreaming of the moment he can escape to the pub. In "Grace" Tom Kernan's drinking has become so dangerous for him that his friends stage a kind of intervention for him, taking him off to church for a different kind of escape.


Many of the social expectations and rules in Dublin stem from the moral codes espoused by the church. Premarital or extramarital sex, for example, is frowned upon to the extent that it can be life-ruining if affairs are discovered, as evidenced in "The Boarding House." Even the possible appearance of impropriety is enough to deter some relationships, as seen in Mr. Duffy's decision to end a friendship with a married woman in "A Painful Case." But not all conformity is church-mandated. In "The Sisters" Father Flynn is part of the church, but his odd behavior casts him onto the fringes of the neighborhood. The narrator's uncle and their neighbor Mr. Cotter are suspicious of Father Flynn and his relationship with the narrator as a result, though they provide no proof that Father Flynn has actually done anything untoward.

Other characters resign themselves to lives they find tedious or exhausting because that is what they are supposed to do. As she contemplates leaving the city with her lover, Eveline considers what her coworkers and family will think of her decision to run away. Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud" sticks with his job and family because he is expected to do so. Maria in "Clay" steadfastly sticks to her daily routine because it is what is expected of an unmarried woman her age, even as she feels self-conscious for not conforming to the social convention of being married.

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