by James Joyce
Joyce has an amazing eye for detail, and one of the surprising ways this comes out is in descriptions of his characters' clothing. The woman that Corley tries to seduce in "Two Gallants" is described only in terms of her appearance, but it's really all we need to get a good idea of her social class, her feeling about the upcoming date, and her personality:
She had her Sunday finery on. Her blue serge skirt was held at the waist by a belt of black leather. The great silver buckle of her belt seemed to depress the center of her body, catching the light stuff of her white blouse like a clip. She wore a short black jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons and a ragged black boa. The ends of her tulle collarette had been carefully disordered and a big bunch of red flowers was pinned in her bosom, stem upwards. (Two Gallants.70)
Joyce takes care to distinguish where characters live, and even notes the precise part of Dublin so that we can trace the likely social class and economic status of the person. Sometimes, the location even has something important to say about a character's personality, as with the main character of "A Painful Case":
Mr James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious. (A Painful Case.1)
That really says it all, don't you think?
Without his own father or mother, it makes sense that the narrator of "The Sisters" turns to a priest for advice and friendship. And in "Eveline," the narrator's age and the fact that her brother has moved away are a huge part of her urgent need to leave home: "Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father's violence […] and now she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry […] was nearly always down in the country" (Eveline.9). Especially in the early stories—those ones that focus on childhood—family life can tell you almost everything you need to know.
Joyce's concern for describing the life of the city of Dublin includes a careful attention to the jobs and careers that his characters choose. Did you notice how his portrayal of Mrs Mooney begins with her family occupation and continues with her own choice to change jobs? This gives us even more evidence that she is "a woman who was quite able to keep things to herself: a determined woman" (The Boarding House.1) Even though she starts out "a butcher's daughter," later she "had taken what remained of her money out of the butcher business and set up a boarding house in Hardwicke Street […] She governed her house cunningly and firmly" (The Boarding House.2).
Speech and Dialogue
Two stories in particular stand out for using speech and dialogue to create characterization—"Ivy Day in the Committee Room" and "Grace."
In the first, Crofton gets a very brief description of his clothing, but then all we know is what he says. But it's enough to understand that he's a curmudgeonly conservative. At the very end of the story, after Hynes has read his poem, "The Death of Parnell," we are told that, "Mr Crofton said that it was a very fine piece of writing" (XII). This very vague comment after a piece that moved other men to tears tells us more about Mr Crofton than anything else in "Ivy Day."
And in "Grace," well all you need to do is read that whole long conversation to know where everyone stands on the major religious issues of the day.
Thoughts and Opinions
Almost every story in Dubliners depends at some point on a character's thought or opinion for characterization. In "Grace," the narrator tells us both what Mrs Kernan thinks and what she says, so that we can see the difference between the two. When Mr Kernan agrees to go to the retreat, we are told, "Mrs Kernan thought it would be wiser to conceal her satisfaction. So she said: 'I pity the poor priest that has to listen to your tale.'" (171)