Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Analysis of Dubliners in the context of Modernity and the Surreal

I’m going to talk a little bit about the book in general and then move to look at what I think are its two most important chapters: Eveline and The Dead in a bit more detail. Dubliners, published in 1914, is made up of 15 chapters which are in themselves separate stories. Written in a naturalistic style, the book serves as a map of middle class Dublin. It’s not a Dickensian novel with a great number of characters whose lives intersect, but each story takes place in Dublin without impacting upon the other stories. Thus, just through the structure of the novel, Joyce highlights the alienation central to bourgeois society. These characters aren’t even aware of the existence of the characters of the other chapters, nor do they particularly care a great deal about those who are a part of their story.
Joyce wrote Dubliners when Ireland was struggling to create a definitive identity – the nationalist movement was at its peak, but unity within Ireland would be required to succeed in breaking away from British control. Clearly change was needed, and radical change at that. The majority of the stories in the book highlight the cyclical nature of life in Dublin at the time. Eveline longs to break away from her life of domestic drudgery, but avoids doing so at the very last minute, Jimmy from “After the Race” spends his time get into more and more debt and making the same bad choices as he did when he was a boy, and so on.
Joyce appears to be calling for traditional Irish class-structured society to be overhauled. This is incredibly potent in “The Dead”. Gabriel is the only character in the novel to voice his frustration with the current state of things when he exclaims “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it”. He speaks out about the new educated generation who are going to be a force for change in the country. When he does this, the distinction between him and the traditionalists and him and radicals is made clear: he makes a speech about this new generation of new principles, but condemns it as a movement away from traditional values such as hospitality. However, by voicing this movement in itself he raises awareness of it to both the reader and his own audience. Importantly, Gabriel chooses this speech so that it will be appropriate for the members of the class which he understands to be beneath him. Thus, perhaps Joyce is indicating that this “new generation” is vital for the working class to see progress happen. At this point I think the reader has to ask him or herself whether this “new generation” is to be found in the book. The youngsters we meet are often unable to throw off the weight of societal expectations and the influence of their elders. For example, the first person narrator in “the sisters” has an unexplained relationship with a priest, who is evidently a very influential force for the young boy. Perhaps one could read into this the “hyper-education” which Gabriel speaks off. The boy has learnt about a great many religious doctrines as a child and questioned them – this could lead to deeper questioning as he grows older and the potential to throw off religious concerns.
The other story which I’m going to talk about in a bit of detail here is “Eveline”. On a purely structural level, this story is striking and marks a dramatic change in the progress of the book. It’s the first story with a third person narrator, the first to focus on a female protagonist, and the only story to have an eponymous protagonist. Ironically, Eveline herself is a rather selfless figure, abandoning her hopes of love and happiness abroad in order to look after her family. Unlike Gabriel, Eveline is a figure of stasis in the novel. She has the chance to escape Ireland, and in fact knows that her life will only progress if she goes there, yet she is held back by the bonds of tradition. In this way I think we can see Eveline as a synecdoche for Irish unionists, and her father as a figure for tyrannical Britain. She seeks to break away from this domineering presence who has been abusive in the past, but clings to the pleasant memories of the past and fears abandoning her former life for the sake of independence. The reader is aware that she is making a mistake – she sacrifices her freedom because she deems her father not responsible for himself and her family. Her life of endless repetition of submission serves as a warning for the people of Ireland.
Now I’m going to talk a little bit about the book in relation to the reading we’ve done over the past two weeks. A quote from Marinetti’s “The Futurist Manifesto” struck home about what Joyce appeared to be getting at: “up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility” – Joyce revolts against this (although not quite in as extreme a manner as Marinetti does) as Dubliners points out the flaws in the cyclical state of literature. Gabriel, who is arguably socially awkward and unaware of class friction and the endless movement which is part of the modern world, is also behind in his appreciation of art. In the Cubist manifesto, Apollinaire states that “real resemblance no longer has any importance”. However, Gabriel talks about painting an accurate portrait of his wife, calling it “Distant Music” as that is what she is listening to at the time. He has no interest in understanding the woman behind the surface, and so has no desire to create something abstract or surreal. Perhaps one could describe Gabriel as making a move towards surrealism as his story begins to draw to a close. Here we have him unable to combine his thoughts, or dreams, with the reality before him: he sees only the reality and only wishes to express that. When he finally talks to his wife and starts to get to know her, he gains an appreciation of the thoughts in her mind. At this point fears arise, seemingly from his unconscious, about not being the “best” man in her life. As they start to overcome him, he begins to slip into a dream-like world, in which a “vague terror” seized him and he begins to “pass boldly into that other world”. If we are to assume that he is not dying, then it makes sense that this “other world” is the state of dreaming, or a kind of voyage into his unconscious. He feels his “identity” dissolving almost before his eyes as this occurs. Here I believe for a brief time Joyce’s writing can be described as surreal. He has somewhat achieved a union between dream and reality in which nothing is known, and everything is immaterial.


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