Think of Dubliners as a pre-Internet version of Google Maps for Dublin, Ireland. For most of the last hundred years, if you wanted an interactive geographic experience of Dublin—the sights, the sounds, and especially the people—you couldn't do much better than read the fifteen linked short stories of James Joyce collection. Most editions of the collection include a couple of city maps in the opening pages, but it becomes pretty clear early on that the stories themselves create an even better map of the Irish capital because they dig deep into the thoughts of its citizens in order to draw a psychological map of a place and a time. Not even Google Maps can do that, though we're pretty sure they're working on it as we speak.
Chances are good that one of the reasons you're reading Dubliners is because the most famous Irish writer of the 20th-century, one of the most important writers associated with the movement of Modernism, James Aloysius Joyce, wrote it. Chances are also good that you're reading Dubliners because everything else that Joyce wrote after these stories tops out at more than 800 pages of sheer brilliance. You're going to want to read his two big novels, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, but you'd be in school through July if you read them in class. No, thanks.
So you've opted for Dubliners instead, as an easily digestible alternative. And you've chosen well, we might add. Even the story of the book itself is fascinating. When Joyce wrote it, publishers practically fled his presence, they were so scared. They thought the book was a little too edgy and that the strict British government would sue them for printing obscene material. After going to all the trouble of accepting the stories and typing them up, one publisher even burned the proofs of the work, after what can only be described as a change of heart.
Then, once Dubliners finally did show up in stores, it was no Twilight. No long lines of screaming kids in costumes waiting to read the sequel or see the movie. No big cash payouts to its newly famous author. Joyce didn't make a lot of money from the ten-year saga, and high school students definitely weren't reading the stuff for at least another sixty years. Bottom line? It was way ahead of its time, way too realistic, and way to frustrating for readers who wanted a really clear plot with a twist ending.
Joyce had something different in mind. Dubliners' portrait of the city as an early 20th-century metropolis isn't quite the advertisement you'll find in those terrible travel magazines that always seem to be in doctor's offices. The characters of these stories aren't the smiling redheads with adorable accents you might expect when you think of the luck of the Irish.
In this Dublin, almost everyone's unlucky: they are beaten, berated, betrayed, and deserted by their loved ones; they drink away their salaries and their good sense; in some cases, they simply die; and as if this weren't enough, they even lose vast sums in poker. If Lonely Planet guides give you up-to-the-minute updates on Dublin for the fanny-pack-and-camera crowd, Dubliners is the Not For Tourists black book in an edition that hasn't needed revising since it first came out in 1914.
If this is starting to sound bleak, we're not going to lie: there's not a single happy ending to be found among the fifteen stories. But that's exactly why these stories are so good. They portray moments of extreme personal crisis and intense personal reflection with such realistic power that we can't help but see ourselves in these Dubliners, as scary as that sounds. We've all been disappointed, wounded, cheated, startled, rejected, and scorned, which means that it's hard not to think Joyce's writing is timeless, that it says something to us about the places of our minds and hearts that are as damp and cold and uninviting as his Dublin.
The German writer Franz Kafka wrote that fiction should be "an axe for the frozen sea within us," and Dubliners depicts the frozen sea so clearly we can't help but grab for whatever axes are within reach. Shall we start hacking away?
Why Should I Care?
Buckle up, because Shmoop's about to make a very big, very bold guarantee: at one point in your life, you're going to find yourself somewhere new. A new school, a new town, hey, maybe even a new country. And someone who's been there before is going to tell you that the best way to get your feet under you is to get off your rear and get out on the streets. Get to know the people and their stories, and you'll get to know the city.
You might feel like it's too much pressure and you're nervous until you see a few things that are the same everywhere: our living conditions affect who we are and how we behave, and the characters that surround us mold us strangely and (sometimes) beautifully. Some of the characters in the stories in Dubliners are more like us than others, but that's not the point. The point is that even the really different and really odd folks have become what they are because of where they live. That's true for us, too.
Reading Dubliners, you'll take a tour of a city in the eyes of its citizens. The geography of the city, the morality, the history, the traditions, the slang, the dress code—they make people who they are in the same way that our schools, friends, backgrounds, and interests change us and mold us in subtle ways.
So what does that mean for us, then? Does it mean we're stuck, that we're simply byproducts of the neighborhood, or does it offer a way for us to change and escape? Well, that's for you to decide, but we think these stories have a few answers to offer.