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The Identity and Anxiety of Colonial Dublin in Joyce’s Dubliners, by James Shapiro

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The Identity and Anxiety of Colonial Dublin in Joyce’s Dubliners

by James Shapiro

(Editor’s Note: James Shapiro is a philosophy student at Boston University. He studied in Dublin during the Fall Semester 2010.)

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears…” This line from ‘The Sisters,’ the first story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, establishes from the outset a central theme of the collection. The young narrator is fixated on the condition of the dying Father Flynn, whose paralysis foreshadows the tales of social, moral, and mental paralysis that will follow. This last variety—paralysis of the mind—is the one on which I shall focus in this study. Joyce is thought of along with the likes of Eliot and Faulkner as a pillar of modernist literature. Perhaps nothing is more modern than the exploration of anxiety, neuroses and feelings of displacement. Through the course of this essay, I will demonstrate that these themes are central to Dubliners. I will also argue that anxiety and self-consciousness are particularly modern maladies, intensified by mechanized technology. I will attempt to connect that idea to Dubliners, and finally argue also that Joyce considered the “mental paralysis” and social disconnect of Irish society a consequence of English colonialism. I will further argue that the city of Dublin as a whole is a representation both of the encroachment of modern technology and of English oppression, serving as a constant reminder to the characters of their powerlessness, which is often underlined by the emasculation of male characters.

Self-Consciousness and Social Disconnect

The social interactions of the characters that inhabit Joyce’s Dublin are often marred by crippling self-consciousness and excessive concern by each individual for how he or she is perceived by others. “A shade of mockery relieved the servility of his manner,” instructs the narration of ‘Two Gallants,’ referring to Lenehan. “To save himself he had the habit of leaving his flattery open to the interpretation of raillery. But Corley had not a subtle mind” (Dubliners, 46). Lenehan’s responses to his friend are not genuine reactions, but very deliberate and calculated reactions designed to produce a certain desired effect—“When he was quite sure that the narrative had ended he laughed noiselessly for fully half a minute” (43). In ‘The Dead,’ the character of Gabriel has a similar concern for how he is perceived by others. When a playful remark to the servant girl Lily is greeted with bitterness, he immediately questions himself, wishing he hadn’t said it, and he becomes extremely anxious about the toast he will give later in the evening:

He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up the wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure (179).

To return to ‘Two Gallants’: when Lenehan encounters a few of his friends on the street, he is relieved to have his lonely and bitter thoughts interrupted by some companionship, but the narration reveals his boredom and frustration at the banal trivialities of which they speak. Joyce does not give us the dialogue of this exchange word for word, but instead only recounts the conversation in summary, signifying its lack of importance or meaning:

His friends asked him had he seen Corley and what was the latest. He replied that he had spent the day with Corley. His friends talked very little. They looked vacantly after some figures in the crowd and sometimes made a critical remark. One said that he had seen Mac an hour before in Westmoreland Street. At this Lenehan said that he had been with Mac the night before in Egan’s. The young man who had seen Mac in Westmoreland Street asked was it true that Mac had won a bit over a billiard match. Lenehan did not know: he said that Holohan had stood them drinks in Egan’s (52).

Another sign of self-consciousness and existential anxiety in the collection is that characters repeatedly compare themselves to an ideal, questioning the value of their own lives and longing for the seemingly unattainable. Lenehan laments the path he is taking in life, wondering “would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own? … He might yet be able to settle down in some snug corner and live happily if he could only come across some good simple-minded girl with a little of the ready” (52). He imagines jealously Corley’s “adventure” with the girl:

In his imagination he beheld the pair of lovers walking along some dark road; he heard Corley’s voice in deep energetic gallantries and saw again the leer of the young woman’s mouth. This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit (51).

Lenehan idealizes this interaction which in reality is, at the very least, a somewhat seedy affair. The exact nature of Corley’s relationship with the “slavey” is ambiguous, but we do know that he extracts money and gifts from her in some way. Lenehan is not alone in his sexual frustration and longing for companionship (or better companionship). In ‘A Little Cloud,’ Little Chandler wonders why he married his plain wife, fantasizing about an exotic, fiery beauty instead. This comes in response to his friend Ignatius Gallaher’s boasting of sexual conquests and an uninhibited life in London and on the Continent. Gallaher’s success and his confident air awaken a fierce jealousy and shame in Chandler similar to that of Lenehan:

He felt acutely the contrast between his own life and his friend’s, and it seemed to him unjust. Gallaher was his inferior in birth and education. He was sure that he could do something better than his friend had ever done, or could ever do, something higher than mere tawdry journalism if he only got the chance. What was it that stood in his way? His unfortunate timidity! He wished to vindicate himself in some way, to assert his manhood. He saw behind Gallaher’s refusal of his invitation. Gallaher was only patronising him just as he was patronising Ireland by his visit (75-76).

Anxiety, Emasculation and the Feminine Image of Colonial Ireland

The recurring theme of anxiety and “mental paralysis” seems to be heavily related to English colonialism and oppression as well as the general social malaise and disconnect that Joyce saw in the Ireland of his day. All of these ideas are most strongly seen in the aforementioned ‘Two Gallants.’ In this story Joyce uses the iconic symbol of the harp for Ireland in a multifaceted metaphor that portrays the nation as being adrift; twisting in the wind and not really knowing where it’s going; not in control of its own destiny:

Not far from the porch of the club a harpist stood in the roadway, playing to a little ring of listeners. He plucked at the wires heedlessly, glancing quickly from time to time at the face of each new-comer and from time to time, wearily also, at the sky. His harp too, heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees, seemed weary alike of the eyes of strangers and of her master’s hands (48).

The fact that the harp is personified as a woman is telling. It is not uncommon for countries to be feminized in nationalistic discourse, but in the case of Ireland, it has been done so consistently that the metaphors have reached cliché status, and they have been criticized as such by many artists and commentators (i.e. Michael Hartnett in ‘I am Language’). Whereas the United States is often personified as Uncle Sam, Britain as John Bull, and Germany referred to as “the Fatherland,” the image used for Ireland seems invariably to be the old woman. The ambivalent harpist can therefore be seen as symbolic of England’s rule over Ireland, controlling the nation with no real regard for it, simply plucking away at the strings without any great concern for the harp or the music that’s being produced. Soon after this passage, Lenehan’s movements are described as being controlled by the harp’s music. Lenehan’s path in life, like his path around Dublin, really leads nowhere—he’s just going around in circles to pass the time. The fact that his movements are controlled by “the air which the harpist played” (50) suggests that he was in some ways living out his life the only way that he could—his path was determined both by the forces of English colonialism and of general Irish social malaise. In the context of this metaphor, England’s exploitation of Ireland becomes a defilement of her chastity and her womanhood. Like the harpist’s mishandling of his instrument, Corley’s treatment of the “slavey” could be read allegorically as England’s treatment of Ireland. He degrades her and uses her for his own personal gain.

The story ‘Counterparts’ also deals with metaphors relating to gender roles. Farrington, the main character of this story, struggles with feelings of powerlessness and emasculation. Though his name is not explicitly Catholic, nor even explicitly Irish, it is more so than the names Alleyne, Bodley, and certainly Shelley, the names of his superiors in the solicitors’ office. Terrence Brown, in the notes to the Penguin Classics edition, asserts that Farrington is representative of all Irishmen: “…the first syllable of Farrington’s name is pronounced like the Irish word fear, a man. Farrington is referred to as ‘the man’ in the text” (Dubliners, 275). He is abused and humiliated by his Anglo boss, which could again be seen as a representation of English colonialism. After absorbing a tirade of insults from Mr. Alleyne early on in the story, Farrington runs out for a glass of porter, as if he would die without it. “He was now safe in the dark snug of O’Neill’s shop,” instructs the narrator (84), underlining the emasculated nature of Farrington’s character, as the “snug,” a small enclosed private space in pubs, is most strongly associated with women, who would take their drinks in it because at the time it was considered unladylike to be seen drinking. The English colonization and exploitation metaphor is present again in the ending, though now turned on its head. In the end, after having blown all his money on alcohol and not even managed to get drunk, Farrington comes home. He has lost his “reputation as a strongman,” and is frustrated about not talking to a girl in the pub. He takes out his anger on his son, whom Brown points out is, like his mother, “clearly Catholic,” (275) as evidenced by Charlie’s instruction that his mother was “out at the chapel” (93). He beats Charlie not only to vent his frustrations, but seemingly in an attempt to reassert his manhood by dominating another person.

In ‘A Little Cloud,’ Little Chandler is ascribed particularly feminine characteristics—“His hands were white and small, his frame was fragile, his voice was quiet and his manners were refined” (65). He is contrasted with his friend Ignatius Gallaher, a garrulous and charismatic “man’s man,”—a man of action who has gone out and seized success for himself. It is no coincidence that he left Dublin to find it, not unlike Joyce’s own exile. Little Chandler, however, is timid and rather pathetic. Joyce uses him to mock poets who played on the Brits’ stereotypical view of the Irish as mystical Celts. Little Chandler imagines the English critics praising him for possessing the “Celtic note,” and even considers making his name more Irish by including his mother’s maiden name, Malone. He essentially wants to become a caricature of an Irishman in order to appease the British. This idea reflects how very deep the psychology of colonialism had permeated the Irish mind of this period. “Every step brought him closer to London,” says the narration, “farther from his own sober inartistic life. A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind. He was not so old—thirty-two” (68). As Brown instructs, he actually is going towards London both figuratively and literally because he is walking southeast. “East is the direction associated with escape from Dublin’s oppressive life in many of the stories in the book,” writes Brown (270). Little Chandler’s desire to turn his life around is almost a mirror image of Lenehan’s. In fact Little Chandler is only one year older than Lenehan, who is said to be turning thirty-one in November (and ‘A Little Cloud’ takes place in “late autumn”). At the end of ‘Two Gallants,’ we are left to presume that Lenehan does not turn his life around, but rather continues walking around in circles. Little Chandler’s fantasies of a new woman and a new life as a poet are dashed as he is brought back to reality by his crying son, and the guilt that he feels over those fantasies as he watches his wife soothe the child brings tears to his eyes.

Industrial Modernity and the Symbolic Oppression of Colonial Dublin

Lenehan, Dublin, and Ireland as a whole were “twisting in the wind,” as I put it previously, because in a very real sense Dubliners of the period were living lives not truly their own. Declan Kiberd, in his highly acclaimed work Inventing Ireland, asserts that in Dubliners “Joyce… described an Ireland filled with echoes and shadows, a place of copied and derived gestures, whose denizens were turned outward to serve a distant source of authority in London” (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 330). Without question, the most culturally and psychologically significant sense in which the Irish “copied and derived” from the English is in the use of the English language. This was a point of deep-rooted anxiety not only for Joyce, but for Ireland as a whole. There was a serious concern around the turn of the twentieth century about the loss of the Irish language and of Gaelic culture. Out of this sentiment organizations like the Conradh na Gaeilge and the GAA were born, and they would play a large part in the movement for independence. While Joyce never attempted to write in Irish, his constant struggle with writing in the language of his peoples’ oppressors is evident in much of his work as well as in his private writings. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus laments this fact in his head as he talks to the Dean of Studies of his College, who is an Englishman:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How     different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or writes these words without unrest of spirits his language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language (A Portrait, 205).

Declan Kiberd comments that

it is obvious from A Portrait that [Joyce was not] fully happy with the English-speaking Ireland of the present. Though the old peasant might struggle to recall a few phrases of Irish for the Gaelic Leaguer’s notebook, the truth (as Joyce saw it) was that English did not provide a comprehensive medium for Irish people either. That is part of the tragicomedy of non-communication pondered by Stephen Dedalus… (Kiberd, 331-2)

The mechanized technology which followed from the industrial revolution was also a foreign and inherited product of England. Even the spatial form of the city of Dublin is itself an echo of London in many ways. In ‘Two Gallants,’ Corley goes out of his way as the two were passing “along the railings of Trinity College… skip[ping] out into the road” to look at the clock (47). As Brown instructs in the notes, Trinity was heavily identified in this period with Anglo-Protestant elitism, Anglicization and Unionist politics (257). Later on, Lenehan looks at a clock near the Royal College of Surgeons. Both mentions of clocks are associated with places that are highly symbolic of British rule. In the context of this story, England governs even the Dubliners’ personal experience of time. As is a central theme of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the mechanical clock (in that case specifically Big Ben), is a symbol of modern industrial capitalism. Through the industrial revolution and development of factories in England and much of the Western world, time became commodified and forever on associated with work—thus the passage of time on a small scale, and not just in terms of a fear of death, was turned into something inspiring anxiety. Ireland, isolated and subjected to England as it was, did not experience nearly the same level of industrial growth, and thus the encroachment of English technology and architecture was particularly distressing. One powerful symbol of anxiety with respect to modernity is found in ‘A Painful Case,’ a story in which the main character James Duffy’s brief love interest—his one short-lived escape from a life of loneliness—is killed by a train (and the real tragedy lies in Mr. Duffy’s convincing himself to be almost happy about her death).

The fact that railings are emphasized in the descriptions of Trinity and the Duke’s Lawn in ‘Two Gallants’ indicates the separation of the average Catholic Dubliner from education and the intelligentsia, a distance which, for all intents and purposes, isolated him or her from the rest of the world. Later in the story, Lenehan runs his hand along the railings of the Duke’s Lawn—which, Brown tells us, was “a grassed area in front of Leinster House on Merrion Square,” (264)—as he passes by. At this time a statue of Queen Victoria – first unveiled by King Edward VII in 1904 – stood in front of Leinster House, which was then the headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society, an intellectual society for the improvement of the arts in Dublin. This complex also contained the National Library and museum, again highlighting the poor man’s exclusion from all things intellectual and worldly, which here are literally out of Lenehan’s reach. The railings might as well be prison bars, reminding him that he will never leave Dublin and never improve his station. In his article ‘Colonial Spaces in Joyce’s Dublin,’ David Spurr writes that “architectural elements such as railings and parapets add to the feeling of confinement” (Spurr, 25). Dubliners of this period faced a constant symbolic defeat in walking their own streets, forced to pass by the icons of their own oppression on a daily basis.

Spurr’s comment refers specifically to a passage from ‘The Dead,’ when Gabriel and Gretta finally emerge from Gabriel’s aunt’s house onto Usher’s Island Quay in the wee hours of the morning:

The morning was still dark. A dull yellow light brooded over the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending. It was snowy underfoot; and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings. The lamps were still burning redly in the murky air and, across the river, the palace of the Four Courts stood out menacingly against the heavy sky (214).

One might be surprised at this characterization of the Four Courts building; a courthouse is conventionally thought of as a symbol of justice and progress, a symbol that would only be threatening to a criminal. Yet here the Four Courts building is described as “menacing” because it represents British power. Spurr asserts that “the paragraph resonates with [Gabriel’s] subjective experience” (Spurr, 25), arguing that the heaviness of the landscape and sky which Gabriel perceives is a response to the exchange he had at the party with Miss Ivors, who calls him a “West Briton,” for, as Spurr writes, “his indifference to the Nationalist cause and to the Irish cultural revival, which for her involves learning the Irish language and taking trips to the West of Ireland, home of an ostensibly more primitive and indigenous Irish people” (Spurr, 25). Gabriel is very troubled at this accusation, and he blurts out as if uncontrollably, “O, to tell you the truth, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” (190). The presence of this exchange in the story is evidence enough for the type of fragmented identity crisis—torn between Irish and English or something in between—that I am proposing is part of the themes of anxiety and mental paralysis in Dubliners.

I believe that I have demonstrated that the themes of anxiety and mental paralysis are central to Dubliners, and that Joyce’s representation of them reflected a feature peculiar to the modern industrializing world, a leap forward in the representation of the mind in literature. I also believe that I have shown that English rule and mistreatment of Ireland was one of, if not the main, cause of the anxiety, self-consciousness, social disconnect, malaise, and mental paralysis in the picture of the Irish people that Joyce paints in these stories. Furthermore, it has also been shown that Joyce played on the constant feminine personification of Ireland. I do not argue that he thought that it was the only cause. I believe that Joyce put much of the blame on his own people, particularly those involved in the Catholic Church. But that is a topic for another discussion.

Works Cited (in order of appearance)

Joyce, James; Brown, Terence (ed.). Dubliners. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Vintage International, 1993.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: the Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Vintage Books, 1996.

David Spurr.
Vol. 37, No. 1/2, Dublin and the Dubliners (Fall, 1999 – Winter, 2000), pp. 23-42

Published by: University of Tulsa

Stable URL:

Additional Bibliography

Ellman, Richard. James Joyce: the First Revision of the 1959 Classic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Luke Gibbons

Vol. 1, (2005), pp. 71-86

Published by: Field Day Publications

Stable URL:

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin Classics, 1998.

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